Adekunle Oduye

One of the benefits of hosting this podcast for the past eight years is that I get to see how guests progress in their career. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Adekunle Oduye! He was one of our first podcast guests way back in 2014, and I recently asked him to come back on the podcast and give everyone an update!

We talked a bit about his current role at Mailchimp, and he went into the importance of design systems in his work. Adekunle also spoke on how his career has shifted over the years, the power of mentorship, and we revisit his 2014 interview to see if his motivations and goals are still on track with where he is now. It’s rare that we get a chance to do this type of self-reflection, but it’s definitely clear that Adekunle has grown and evolved by defining his career on his own terms!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Tell us who you are and what you do.

Adekunle Oduye:
Hello. My name is Adekunle Oduye. I am a UX engineer based out of Brooklyn, New York. Currently right now I am working at MailChimp building design systems.

Maurice Cherry:
Although I heard that MailChimp had expanded out into New York. How long ago you’ve been there?

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been there, it’s going to be two years. So they actually have a Brooklyn office. It’s smaller than the one in Atlanta, but it’s a pretty good amount of people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Did you get a chance to come to the office?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I went to Ponce City Market, which I think, I compare it to Chelsea Markets for people that are from New York. But yeah, it’s pretty cool. The people are pretty good. The food is pretty amazing. I, I think every time I left, I felt full and also wanting to come back.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that office space that they have in Ponce City Market, although I think the last I heard, they were about to move out of it because the company’s gotten bigger. So they’re moving to a different space, I think in another part of town.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, that’s correct. I’m not too familiar, but from what I’ve heard from the people that are down there, it seems like they have to walk down the BeltLine. I don’t know if it’s 10 minutes or whatever, but yeah, they’re going to be moving. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s probably in the near features.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How’s your year been going so far?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. My year has been pretty good. I’ve been taking the easy since last year. I think last year was hectic for everyone. But I think for me, what I was trying to do is stay busy. So I was doing a bunch of stuff, side projects, and doing some freelancing, and reading a lot, and whatnot. So, this year is just like, I’m just taking it easy and establishing some of my hobbies that I haven’t been doing in a while, so it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing I remember from our last interview is that you’re a painter. Did you take that up last year?

Adekunle Oduye:
I did one painting, but I did drawing because it’s … I think with me the painting, I feel like I’ve lost a lot of my skills because I feel like a lot of my work recently is mostly on the computer. So I’ve been doing a lot of drawing. In 2019, I did a couple of drawing classes. So I went to the museum and was drawing. Also, we had critique sessions. Yeah, I’m trying to do baby steps where I try to draw something every day and get back into it. But hopefully this summer, I’m going to have dedicated time where I just get lost in that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. What else did you learn about yourself over the past year? I feel like everyone is starting to come out of this with some new personal revelation about themselves.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think for me, there was a lot going on last year, and I was like, it was making me very anxious and worrisome. I got into a lot of stoicism. For those who don’t know, stoicism is basically ancient philosophy, and it gives you a way of living. I think one of the most common things they have talked about is that how you want to focus on things you can control. I think that was helpful because I think not only in life, but at work, there’s some stuff that bothers you whatnot, but you have to really focus on, what can you control? If you can’t control it, then you shouldn’t really worry about it, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s a really helpful tactic in general. Certainly it’s actually a piece of advice I’ve given a lot of people this year that have started working remotely is to focus on the stuff that you can control. Because you’re thrust back home and it’s not exactly the work environment and you have to adjust to that, just focus on the things you can control. You can control how you respond to things. You can control your reactions, things of that nature.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, exactly. I think that actually helped me with a lot of being more proactive rather than reactive because a lot of the stuff is like, if something happens or let’s say someone says something to you, you can’t really control that, but you can control how you response to it or how you’re going to move forward. I think that’s been my response and my mentality since last year. I think it has been very helpful because things always happen, especially with work where sometimes you can go through reorg, and people are not seeing eye to eye, but I think always look back and say, all right, what can I do better? What can I do to help people? I think that’s been very helpful, but also it keeps me grounded.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of work, what does a regular day look like for you at MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
A lot of it revolves around maintaining current designed system that’s being used in the product. So, some days I could be responding to people that have questions around like the design system, other days I could be building components. Currently right now, I’m mostly focusing on prototyping. So prototyping patterns, and seeing how we can establish these pre-built guidelines and patterns that designers and engineers can use when they’re building out features.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to talk a little bit about design systems. I feel like that’s something that personally, I’ve really only heard fairly recently. Can you talk about what a design system is, and how it’s different from say, a style guide or a brand guide or something like that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. A design system is basically a collection of components, patterns, and guidelines for a product. So, any product you see from Facebook to Google or whatever like that, they have a specific set of design systems. The whole idea is that you create these peed built Lego blocks for UI so that people can take certain pieces and start building the whole user experience or application of natural product. The difference between design system and style guy is that I would say the design system is the umbrella, and it includes the style guy and the style guy would define the more atomic levels of the design systems. So, your type holography, how your buttons are going to look, where are the colors, and whatnot. Basically from those foundation styles you go build to your components, or you build your patterns and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Now is a design system important when it comes to a product like MailChimp?

Adekunle Oduye:
Well, it’s important because as your product grows, there’s supposed to be a lot of tech debt, but also in some cases, there might not be a cohesive UI experience overall. So the whole idea of design system is to making sure that the product is scalable, it’s accessible, and is performing. One case scenario would be like if I am a product engineer and I want to build a feature, rather than building it from scratch, they could use a design system that will help them build the actual user flow much quickly and faster.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So it’s almost like a, I was going to say like a kit or a tool box or something. It makes the development a lot easier because you’re pulling from all these pre-designed elements that you can slot into place, or use to quickly prototype or make something.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. It’s not only specific to engineers, but it could be useful for designers. There’s even more in the case where they do for contractors. There are many ways you could use the actual design system. I think the best design systems are the ones that are inclusive and are be able to use by many different people.

Maurice Cherry:
Even for content strategists, that would be … I guess I could see that, if there certain tone or certain passages, like error messages or something like that, like microcopy, that kind of thing.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, pretty much. We actually have one content style guide that we have, and I think it’s super important because I look at it as like, people are not visiting your product because of the UI, they’re visiting because of the content, and whatnot. So, having a consistent way of doing content is super important.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Gotcha. I was curious about that because at the startup that I’m currently at, they’re focusing pretty heavily on design systems, but we don’t have a brand guide, or a style guide. There are certain types of things that they want to do branching out with content and other media and stuff, but we don’t have that sort of structure in place to make sure that the things we’re creating are cohesive to the rest of the brand or something. I’m glad that you mentioned that, it’s sort of an umbrella for these other things because I know when I’ve tried to explain it, they look at me like I’ve got an arm growing out of my forehead or something. So, I feel like I know I’m on the right track here, is not the same thing, but it’s similar. Okay, gotcha.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I would also add that, I always compare it to building a house, you don’t want to start making your own screws and all this other stuff. So, usually you have some case where you’re like, all right, we have all these different pieces, and you can put them together to fit or solve any problem that you want to face. It just makes your life easier. You don’t have to focus on two things at once.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember when we first talked on Revision Path, which for those listening was seven years ago, Adekunle was episode 21. At that time, you were just about to start at NASDAQ. I think it was maybe the day before your first day or something like that. Do you remember what your time was like there?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It was definitely an interesting experience. I would say that was probably my first real corporate job, so I didn’t know what to expect. I can say I definitely learned a lot. I encountered with a lot of great people and different people. I think it’s something that I use to this day because I was part of a large product design team is one of 30 of us. I’ve learned a lot. I learned a lot about front end development. I learned a lot about research. I learned about how to talk to executives. So, it was definitely a good experience there. I think I was there for three and a half years, which is the longest-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Adekunle Oduye:
… time I spent with one employer. So, it was a fulfilling experience.

Maurice Cherry:
After that, you were at Justworks for a minute. Actually we just had someone on the show, Sabrina Hall, well, she’s at Justworks now. But you were at Justworks for a minute. And then after that you were at Sloan Kettering. When you think back on those two experiences, what do you remember?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think those two experience was probably how I learned what I wanted to do. When I was at Justworks, I was really figuring out what I want to do because it was like, I think a lot of times like, company want to put you in a box. I remember when I was doing an interview, they were like, “Are you more of a designer or developer?” I was like, I wanted to get the job, so I was like, “I’m a designer,” but I was like, “I’m doing both.” I think that’s where I really learned what I wanted to do because I think even when I was there, I was probably one of the more technical product designers. It was hard to do both when you’re working on three different squads, so it was a good learning lesson.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think what I’ve taken away from there was that I want to be in a place where I was able to use both my design and development skills. Another was I really wanted to focus more on design systems. And then at Sloan Kettering, that was probably the second time I was more of a lead for a project. So I was leading the design system efforts there, which I really enjoyed starting from the ground up. I did a lot of user interviews, and was able to work with people and build it from the ground up and creating that foundation. Yeah, it was definitely hard work because people that I’ve worked in design centers tend to know there’s so many things you have to do. There was just me by myself working on it and getting some part-time help from some of the engineers. So I realized when I was there, it was understanding that you have to have a team to build something great because it’s so much work has to go into it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Another was around alignment because I think when I was there, I was working on design systems, but there was other departments that are working on design systems. I think it was harder because I don’t think we were aligned on what the design system should be. So, that was one of the takeaways I learned where it’s like making sure you’re aligned, and making sure that your design system is inclusive, and people can see it, use it, and also provide some feedback was super important. Yeah, I think those experience definitely shaped me and understand what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
It looks like your career focus has really shifted over time. You started out back when you were about to start at NASDAQ, you started out with front-end. From there as you went to other places, you shifted to UX, then to product. Now you’re, at least what it sounds like from the work of doing a MailChimp, back to front-end. Talk to me about that. What caused those shifts as you progressed in your career?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think it’s more a case of what I’m curious on. I think one of the things I promised myself when I was starting out was that I wanted to take any idea from start to finish. So, that means from the design standpoint, I want to be able to do the research and understand who our users are, also understand the business, and what would be beneficial to the business. How do they make money? And then from the UI standpoint, it was to really understand what makes good product UI, and how we can make it cohesive, and whatnot. And then midway through my career, I learned that, all right, you could design the best mock up, but if you can’t build it or if it’s hard to build, then it’s probably not going to look exactly like it would look when you’re designing it. So that’s where I started really understanding the technical side, even how the internet works and how the browser works, and what is possible, and how to make performance applications and websites.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it was a curious from the start to the end of building something out. I enjoy it. I think often times, you look at the stuff I’ve done, even you look at the actual job titles I had in the past, which stand from print designer, web designer, front-end developer, product designer, design technologist, UX engineer, front engineer. It’s a lot, but I feel like for me, it’s I’m curious in learning how to build products from start to finish. I think over each of those job titles, I’ve learned so much, and it’s helped me to really understand what I want to do and how I want to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, back also when we did your first interview, I remember you told me a piece of career advice that you give to other designers. You said to always study your craft, do you still stand by that?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s something that never ends. I double down to the case where you have to study the basics before you start to do anything that’s more complex. It reminds me of when I was in an art school, where I was like, I want to do a painting. But I think one of my teachers was like, “You have to learn how to draw first because that’s the foundation.” I think it’s the same with design and engineering, whereas with design, you have to really understand typography, color theory, spacing, line, and et cetera. With engineering, it’s more in the case of understanding design patterns, and variables, and functions, and whatnot. If you understand that core, then you pretty much could do anything. It’s similar case of programming. You understand one programming language, you could probably program anything else, you just have to figure out the syntax. I think that’s what I always communicate to people often.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any other advice that you would add to that just based off your experience over the past seven years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think one thing I mentioned before is, don’t allow people to put you in a box. Oftentimes, I hear people go like, you’re just a designer, so you only should focus on design, or you’re a developer, you only should focus on developer. But I think the people that are going to stand out and be great teammates are the ones that have experience in multiple disciplines. I’ve seen people, like designers that are very good with writing copy, and I think that’s a skill that I wish I had, but it’s something that’s great to have when you’re being part of a team. I think it just helps with overall personal growth and always pushing yourself to do something different because I think oftentimes, you can get very comfortable with, I been doing design for 20 years, I’m just going to keep on doing it.

Adekunle Oduye:
I feel my design career has helped me become a better developer, and I would say vice versa too. Yeah, I would say don’t let people put in a box and always explore different disciplines and whatnot. The second thing I would add would be to making sure that people are very proactive with how they want their career to go because I think oftentimes, people think about, I’m at this job and I’m only doing this, and I’m going to do this. But I think how I envisioned it was, I want to be able to do this and this. This was when I first started out. I wanted to always make sure that my current job or role is pushing me forward to that actual goal I had. I think going in that way, maybe right where the focus on like, all right, what I’m doing today is this helpful. If it’s not pushing you forward, then I had to talk to my manager, or I figure out, what were some ways I could build on those skills and whatnot? So, I would say those are the two additions I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I want to go into mentoring. I noticed from looking at your LinkedIn that you’ve been working with this organization called Springboard as a UX mentor. You’ve been doing that for almost three years now. Talk to me about that.

Adekunle Oduye:
Springboard is basically a bootcamp that’s run online where anyone that is interested in becoming a product designer, and I think they expand it to software engineering, but I work on the UX side of things, but anyone can take this course. It’s about say six to eight months long. You basically are learning a lot about the foundations of UX and UI, and you get paired with a mentor. So, each week you talk with your mentor about the stuff you’ve done, and if you have any questions or whatnot. Yeah, I’ve been doing it for three years and I probably had 10 plus mentees. One of my ways of teaching them is always using experiences from my past, which I feel like that’s a better way of telling a story rather than just saying like, you need to do this because X, Y, and Z. Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say it helped me to really get good at explaining my process because usually the mentees were always ask like, “Why should I do this over that?” Probably four or five years ago, I’d have been like, “Well, because that’s how I learned it.” But now I’m better at explaining why should you use one technique over the other and what makes good design. Also, I think be able to critique is a skill that I needed to improve on. Yeah, it’s been overall a good experience.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting hearing you talk about mentoring and then just juxtaposing that with our interview from so long ago on how you were just starting out. It’s great to hear your growth in that area. What do you really gain from being a mentor? What does it give you?

Adekunle Oduye:
I would say that the first thing is just giving back, paying it forward because even what you said is, from when I was seven years ago, I was pretty much into anything, I was more a designer, and I wanted to get into product and whatnot. The reason how I got to this point was like, I had a lot of people that allowed me to ask questions, and allow me to pick their brain in order for me to get better. So my idea would be to paint that forward. So I think that would be the first thing. The second thing as I mentioned is that, it’s more in the case of learning how to communicate and talk about your process. I realized that as you spend more time in this industry, you’re going to work with a lot of designers, technical folks, non-technical folks.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think one of the key things is to be able to communicate your ideas and thoughts to multiple people. I think mentorship is definitely one of them because I definitely had specific cases where people ask me questions about color theory, or design systems, or whatnot, and I always had to make sure that I was able to explain in a way where they could understand. Yeah, I think overall, it’s been pretty good. I feel like it’s something that I’m able to empower people, and hopefully they can accomplish their goals and dreams and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
I keep referencing our interview just because I’m struck as you talk just how different things have changed just, even hearing in how you carry yourself has changed. You mentioned back then you really wanted to speak at conferences, which you’ve done since then. What are some of the events that you’ve spoken at?

Adekunle Oduye:
From our conversation, the year after that was my first conference talk, which was CSS Conference, which was probably one of the most terrifying, but best things I’ve done. The reason why I say that is because I did my talk and I re-wrote my talk the night before because I was so nervous and whatnot. But I think, again, that was like, I probably would never do that again, but it’s a learning lesson and whatnot. But yeah, it’s been pretty good. I’ve been able to speak at some of the conference that I always wanted to go to. So, some of them has been clarity. I did an event part, did smashing magazine, and went to a smashing meets and whatnot. I’m around at 30 40, which is wild.

Adekunle Oduye:
I think last year I spoke at the most conferences I’d done ever because I think everything was remote, so it was pretty good stuff. But yeah, it’s something that I’m glad I did because I think, even back then when I was looking at it, I was very fearful of public speaking. I think usually a lot of people are scared of public speaking. For me, I decided to, I got to face this fear head on. So the best way to do was to get up on stage and talk about something. But yeah, it’s been a great experience. I’ve met so many great people along the way that’s helped me become a better speaker, better developer, better designer, overall good person. But yeah, I hope to continue doing that in the future. I don’t know when in-person is going to come back, but it’s going to come back probably next year or something like that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It feels like some places are even trying to bring stuff back this year. Maybe they’re waiting until the fall and the winter. I know I’ve gotten some invites to actually San Francisco Design Week. As we’re recording the San Francisco Design Week, I got invited for that. They were like, you can come in-person if you want. I’m like, that’s next month. I don’t think I’m going to be there for that, but I appreciate the invite. They’ll allow it virtually. To your point about so many events going virtual last year, I spoke a ton last year for that same reason. I could just log on here at the house and be on a panel or give a talk or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s going to really continue as we move forward because I went to a lot of new events that honestly just took advantage of the current situation to be able to put an event on, doing it online means you don’t have to worry about a venue, or insurance costs, or things of that nature. You can just set up a series of Zoom calls or whatever. I hope that continues in the future because I think that’s made these types of conferences a lot more accessible for more people.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, for sure. I think that was one thing I’ve learned when I was attending [inaudible 00:28:51] last year. They had a thing where we were doing networking, speed, dating sort of. I remember I was talking to a bunch of people. Some people were from Russia, they were like, yeah, I was always wanted to go to one, but I can never go because I couldn’t afford it. So, I agree that it … I think hopefully they have some hybrid where they can do both. But I like it. I feel like I spoke to more people in virtual conferences, or network with more people in virtual conferences than real life because-

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Adekunle Oduye:
… it actually forced me to speak to new people, which is interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I don’t know what the first in-person conference is going to be that I attend. If they have it in-person this year, I may go to Black in Design in Boston. Well, actually it’s a Cambridge, but close enough in Boston. I may go to that, if they do it in-person this year. I’ve missed that kind of in-person camaraderie. I don’t know, we are able to network with people after talks. You could talk to people in the hall and stuff like that. I’ve missed those kinds of spontaneous connections because I did a bunch of talks last year, and the one thing was, once my talk was over, that was it. I closed the laptop and I’m like, okay, now what? Wait for the honorarium to come in and print, which is not bad, but that sort of in-person networking thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s still going to take a while, but I’ve started already seeing some events. Actually funny enough last year, our design live, I think was going to have an event here in Atlanta. They were asking me about, not about speaking, I think they wanted me to help out as a media partner or something. I was like, it is very irresponsible for you to have an in-person conference in Atlanta in the middle of a pandemic. They ended up doing it online. I don’t know if they’re going to come back down here or not, but we’ll see. I just hope that more of these virtual events stick around, and that some of these events that had to go virtual at least offer that up as an option moving forward because I got to go to so many things that I otherwise would not have been able to go to. But because it was online, I could just pay my money, get a ticket, log on, boom, boom, boom. It was pretty easy.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah, I agree. I think speaking wise, I think I was doing, at one point, it was three weeks. In a month, I was having three talks. Most, it was same talk. But I would never have done that if it was after traveling, whatnot. So I think it made it easy for me to do those talks and also improve on them because usually what I do is each time I do the talk, I’ve changed a specific thing and figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I get feedback from the actual conference. Yeah, I think it was pretty good. I would like to do more in the future. I also be about the actual in-person ones because I think some of the best memories is talking with people, and just chatting, and grabbing dinner, and just meeting new people, and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, I think hopefully we go back to something that’s more like, you have hybrid model where some conferences are virtual and other conferences are more of hybrid model. So I think hopefully … But yeah, I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One thing that I usually will ask guests on the show is where they see themselves in five years. I’m curious, when you think back to when we did our interview, when you think back to that, what did you think you were going to be doing in five years?

Adekunle Oduye:
Wow. I think when I was looking back, I think I actually wanted to be some of sort of director, or product design director, or whatnot and just leading a team and whatnot. But yeah, that’s definitely not going to happen. I think things I learned that it was like, I think at one job … Yeah. I think when I was at NASDAQ, I was managing a person, and also doing icy work. I think managing is important role, but it’s probably not right for me because it’s … I like the craft of it. I think you also feel like, not manage, but I like leading. I think there’s a difference between those two. You can be a leader and not be a manager, which I was like, okay, I could do that. Even in the more technical fields, you have some ICS that are more managers, you have ICS that are more of directors and directing projects and what not. So I think it allows for more flexibility and whatnot. You said five years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Adekunle Oduye:
I mean, I wouldn’t even know because if you told me seven years ago I’ll be where I am today, I’d be like, you’re lying. Yeah, I think my goal is to definitely do more mentorship. I would like to have some mentorship program. It’s for people that would like to get into more of the design engineering, which is both basically a designer engineer, in that roam because I know there’s not a lot of resources around that. You have to be a designer or the engineer. So I’m trying to create this community that’s more of a case of these hybrid thinkers and whatnot. I think doing more teaching, mentorship, and whatnot, I think that would be my goal.

Adekunle Oduye:
But yeah, that’s hard because like I said, back in the day, I had a whole list, and even prior to that, I wanted to be an art director for a magazine publishing company, and things have changed a lot. So, I try not to make too much of a long-term goal, but hopefully I’m doing more teaching and mentorship.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that the idea of doing a design engineer hybrid community because I think we’re starting to see, at least I know, I’m starting to see a lot more of that in tech. The place where I’m at currently, for example, is largely, I think it’s mostly engineers. But a lot of the engineers are operating in a hybrid sort of thing. So they’re an engineer, but they’re also on our growth team, or they’re an engineer and they might also be doing maybe something more like DevOps or infrastructure. That’s not so much front-end type stuff. I think that’s something that you’re starting to see more of this melding of skills, particularly with startups that try to stay small and lean. They usually want to have a bunch of hybrids that can do multiple roles as opposed to a particular specialist that can come in and only does one thing, and that’s it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I think you’re right. It’s becoming more of a thing. I think 10 years ago, was the case of we only want you to do one thing, but I think organizations are starting to see the benefits of having these hybrids because they not only could do two things, but they could also collaborate with different people, and also take ideas from concept to completion in a timely fashion. So, it’s definitely going to be more in the future. Again, there’s not many resources dedicated for these individuals because I think how we communicate is like, you have to pick one over the other. I always though, it was like, you don’t have to pick one or the other, you could do both.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve been doing it for 10 years. Even if they hire me for one thing, I always end up doing the other thing. So, it’s definitely going to take off and hopefully it becomes a thing where people, not only in career, but also in school are like, I could become a design engineer and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you spend time on when you’re not working?

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. I’ve been spending a lot of time, either drawing and picking random hobbies. So actually for some reason, I bought a lock picking set and I enjoy doing that. Again, I’m not going to do it to rob anyone. Yeah, trying to do more stuff that’s doesn’t require a computer. So hopefully in the future, I could do pick up like woodworking and some other things. But yeah, I enjoy more tangible, actual building stuff because I think definitely last year told me where I was like, I need to spend less time on a computer, especially with all the Zoom meetings and whatnot. I used to do when I was younger around art painting and even doing something that was sculptures, but again, I’m trying to do a baby step, so I’m going to start with drawing and then hopefully graduate to the more complex ones.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember seeing something, I think it was a study or something, it was talking about the rise in video conferencing and how it’s increasing carbon emissions overall because of the, I guess the carbon footprint of doing video conferencing versus, say meeting up in-person or something like that, which is honestly something that I didn’t really think about at all. If anything, I was like, well, if we’re not traveling, then yes, carbon emissions would go down because you’re not in planes or trains or automobiles or something like that. But I was reading this study and it was saying that one hour of video conferencing, puts out, I think up to 1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, and it requires up to 12 liters of water. But if you turn your camera off, you reduce that footprint by 90 something percent, which is ridiculous.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. It’s amazing because I think a lot of people think like, I’m not really increasing my footprint because it’s all digital, but you have to understand there’s servers, and those servers require power. So the more you do, the more energy is on use and whatnot. Yeah, I think hopefully you figure out how to decrease that because I think, especially moving forward, there’s going to be cases where a lot of companies and whatnot are going to be more of a hybrid model and it’s going to be more video conferencing and whatnot. So hopefully, we figure out ways to optimize it overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s an interesting thing because I know I’ve heard that around like cryptocurrency because I’ve heard folks talk about how Bitcoin is actually really bad for the environment. When I first heard that, I said, well, how is a digital currency bad for the environment? Then I looked into it in terms of the data processing that’s used to mine for Bitcoin uses a lot of electricity, and any production of electricity has a carbon footprint, a water footprint, a land footprint. So, all of that can cause environmental damage overall. And then when you look at, how many gigabytes of data are we using between YouTube, and Zoom, and Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter, and TikTok. Lord knows how many other platforms and stuff. I don’t know how this veered off into environmentalism, but I just … I don’t know, it’s something that you’ve mentioned that had me think about that particular study. So maybe somebody that’s listening, they can look into that if they want to.

Adekunle Oduye:
No, I think it’s important because I think a lot of people thought, I’m not really doing much because I’m at home and I’m watching videos or doing this, but there’s always straight offs, and there’s always some sort of footprint. Even me, I had to learn about this. I was like, that doesn’t really make sense. But if you think about it, the more technology you use, the more servers we need, and also the more metals we need. So it’s just, there’s a compound effect to all this stuff we do. I think it’s good and more people are aware of it. Hopefully that awareness translates to people creating products that are quicker, faster performance and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, hopefully so. The next video meeting I have, I’m going to turn the camera off and tell them I’m saving the environment. See if that works. I think it’ll work. I’m going to try it out.

Adekunle Oduye:
You’re like, I’m trying to save the planet, so I will keep it off.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you wish you would have been told about this industry when you first started?

Adekunle Oduye:
I think the first one had been around burnout because I think earlier in my career, I was like, I’m going to work all the time. I’m going to use every framework, every tool, and whatnot. I would say I probably been burnt out a lot of times because I wanted to learn it all and use it all. So I wish someone told me, was like, don’t focus your time on learning new things, focus your time on building. Let’s say, if I wanted to learn Python, I would say early in my career, I probably would read a book and go through a bunch of video courses on it. But me now, I would be like, all right, what project am I building? Is Python the right tool for it? Somebody [inaudible 00:42:24] it was like, all these technologies and whatever like that, think of them as building tools, so like a screwdriver, a hammer and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The best way to learn how to use a hammer is that, if you’re feeling like, say building a house, and you always have to ask the question is like, am I using the right tool? Because if I’m building a house, then do I need a flame thrower? Again, a flame thrower is probably not a tool, but it’s one of the tools in your tool sets. You have to figure out which tool is best for the job. I think that would have been super helpful because I definitely burned myself out with learning random things and whatnot.

Adekunle Oduye:
The second thing is that, because I think a lot of times people look at the tech industry as, it must have been so great, and all these companies are perfect. I was like, yeah, none of these companies are perfect. All of them have their problems. They’re basically same as like humans. There’s no perfect human, is the case of has everyone has their own problems and you have to figure out which company is worth your time and effort because I think a lot of times, I see it where I hear people that are coming to school like, my dream company is working at this company. And then there’s always some news that comes out about a company and their bad practices and whatnot. So, I would always say there’s no one great company. Also, don’t put these companies on a pedestal because I think a lot of times, you say like, you work at Google or Facebook. I think a lot of times, people put those people that work there above everyone else.

Adekunle Oduye:
But I wouldn’t say that’s the case because I think there’s a lot of companies that are not as big and are not located in SF or New York that are doing some great work. So I think that’s the thing I’ve learned being in this industry for 10 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s the truth, there is no such thing as a perfect tech company. They all are culpable in some way. I think we’ve certainly seen that, Jesus, over the past five years, look at some of the really big tech companies like Facebook and Google and Twitter, and how they’ve managed to now be wrapped up into our everyday politics, and even the democracy of this country, and everything. Aside from the fact that their tools are being used as these platforms for misinformation, then you look at the hiring practices or the management practices, or … It’s so weird.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess I could give this as an example, I’m not under NDA. My last employer, for example, was very woke. It’s what you would call a woke employer. I will not name this employer, you know the name of the employer, Adekunle, the folks who are listening probably know the name of it. I will not mention the name of it, however, this place really prided itself on being very open and transparent and things of that nature. I can tell you, it could not have been further from the truth behind the scenes. I mean, lying, gaslighting, all sorts of stuff, it was a mess. I mean, it’s been reported in the news. I don’t have to name the company, you all know which company I’m talking about, but it’s a mess.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, it’s a like shell of its former self, which is really unfortunate. I want to see the company succeed, but there no perfect tech companies, we’re all humans at the end of the day.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ve heard so many things that I’ve been part of, especially last year when there was a lot of talk about the black experience in tech and how companies are like, no, we’re inclusive and whatnot. And then there’s individual saying, no, because they’ve done X, Y, and Z and blah, blah, blah. So it’s always making sure that, again, you don’t put these companies in pedestals and understand the fact. I would add this to where it’s safe, making sure that you produce your own content, and have your own side hustle, just in case, because again, I see some messed up things that changed the way I think about working at a company.

Adekunle Oduye:
The one scenario I was going to, I’m going to use, I’m not going to name the company. But I was working at this company and this person was at, she’s worked there for 10 years and whatnot, and I remember going through a rotation, they were like, here, we’re a family. Everyone loves us. We’re here for you. And then one day they basically fired her on … They told her on a Wednesday that her last day would be Friday and she was crying. She was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do and whatnot.” That was a wake-up call because I was like, I never want to be in that position where a company fires me and I have no game plan after that. Yeah, that would be another advice I’ll give people is, always have some sort of side hustle.

Adekunle Oduye:
I wouldn’t say having a million of them, but like for me, I do the mentorship, I do conquer speaking, write articles and books and whatnot. So, even if I get fired from my day job, I’ll be able to survive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Always have a plan B, absolutely. At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Adekunle Oduye:
I define success with two things. The first thing would be freedom. The idea of being able to work on what I want to work on, or work the way I want to work and whatnot, and also work with the people I want to work with. The second thing would be around happiness because I think an idea is, you have to be happy. I think there’s been a change with how people think about success because people sometimes think like, I could have all this money, but if you don’t have your health and you have no one to share with, then you’re not going to be happy. So I think I always focus on making sure that I’m free to do whatever I want to do, and I’m happy.

Adekunle Oduye:
I’ll add a third thing where is like, I am pushing myself to best level possible because I always think about, can I be better? Can I do different things and whatnot? The one thing I want to do is I want to have no regrets when I get older because I was scared of whatnot. What I was mentioning before was like, doing speaking engagements, I was terrified. I was like, I’m tired of feeling scared, let me just face this fear head on. So I would say those three things are probably how I define success.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that definition of success, what do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Adekunle Oduye:
The first thing is I’m healthy. I know we went through a pandemic and current still in one, and I would say health is probably one of the top thing because you’re able to do so many things, if you have some good health. So, that would be the first thing. I think the second thing is understanding what I want to do out of life, or how I want to do it. I think, as I mentioned before, during the time I was between those two jobs, I really figured out what I want to do, how I want to do it. I think that made it easy because now any other opportunity comes my way, I know if it’s right for me or not night for me from the moment I hear about it.

Adekunle Oduye:
There’s a lot of people that are older than me, they’re like, don’t know what they want to do and whatnot. But I think for me, that’s been something that helps me push forward. But also I know when to say no and when to say yes to certain things because it has to fall under those criteria. But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Adekunle Oduye:
The one thing I wanted to do is hopefully do a startup, start my own startup in the future. I know this is probably a cliche answer from someone that’s working in tech, but I think that’s something that I want to just try out and see if I could do it and whatnot, and see if it’s something feasible but for me. But I think that’s the thing I probably want to do within the next 10 years. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it’d be a learning lesson. But I think overall looking back at what I’ve learned in the past 10 years, the idea of taking the idea from concept to completion, I was like, well, I think I’m set up to be a CEO one day, not for a big company, but just do my own thing and providing some sort of product. So, I don’t know if it’s going to be tech related or shoot. It might be something that’s physical, but-

Maurice Cherry:
It could be lock picking.

Adekunle Oduye:
That’s my thing. I’m trying to think of, how can I turn this into a product? But yeah, hopefully something comes along my way that I’m super passionate about, and I can use my skills. Also, there’s a group of people that I can provide a service to. Yeah, hopefully-

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Adekunle Oduye:
That happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and everything and follow you online?

Adekunle Oduye:
You can follow me at adekunleoduye.com. My site is really old, but it’s going to be updated in the next couple of weeks. You’ll find me in any social media, specifically my first name and last name. So, it shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t know if I’m the only Adekunle Oduye, but I’m the only one online, so I’m going to market it. Yeah, just that find me on those channels.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Adekunle Oduye, thank you so much for coming back on Revision Path, and for giving us an update. As I said to you before we started recording, I listened back to our first interview, and the change in just how you are talking about your work, how you’re carrying yourself as a person from that interview to this interview is like night and day. I can really tell that you’ve grown up and matured in this industry. You’ve learned some things, and you’re taking that out into the work that you’re doing, and out into the world by mentoring other people and really paying it forward. So, it’s really been a pleasure for me to see your development over these past few years. I’m glad to see that you’re mentoring and helping out the next generation while still working in this industry and trying to make a difference. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Adekunle Oduye:
Yeah. Thanks again for having me. I am hopeful that anyone that’s listening to this one and also the past interview I did, motivates them, they’re like, you don’t have to be perfect, and anyone can do it. Yeah, I appreciate it. Keep on doing this.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Brandon Groce

A dear friend of mine asked me to include a creative on Revision Path that could speak to building a personal brand online, and my mind went immediately to UI/UX designer Brandon Groce. I first encountered Brandon a year ago hosting an AIGA DC design event, and was impressed by his work creating content for design brands including Disney, Hilton, and LG. Did I mention he’s also an Adobe Partner?

Our conversation started off with an update on what Brandon’s been doing over the past year, and he talked about his current and upcoming projects, including the DesignOff Tournament. We also talked about building confidence, showcasing your work, and…the metaverse? (You’ll have to listen to the end to find out!) Kudos to Brandon for being a great designer and for helping elevate the next generation of designers through his events!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
Alright, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brandon Groce:
Howdy-doody, Maurice. My name is Brandon Groce, yes, gross as in nasty, not spelt that way, but I am a designer and Adobe partner, and kind of can be summed up in terms of what I do, not necessarily what I am, but I create content for design brands and I throw on some highly edu-taining design events.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How’s the year been going for you so far?

Brandon Groce:
I’m not going to lie, I love being able to be in my house and not have any outdoor obligations, my friend. My partner asked me, he’s like, “Why don’t you like to go outside?” And I looked back to my childhood and I was like, “I think I was always in a corner with the computer, in two sheets to cover my whereabouts.” [inaudible 00:03:49] focus either playing games or learning things on the internet. Honestly, my year has been good. I absolutely love learning. It’s not the same for everybody else. Everybody has a different situation, but I’ve been very lucky to have healthy family members and be in this situation that I’m in. So it’s been good.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. What lessons did you learn over the past year? How do you think you’ve grown and improved?

Brandon Groce:
I’m a very anxious person. My parents are like Brandon, you need to wear that pro, I don’t even know Prozac is the thing, but I don’t think stress or anxiety is a negative thing. I really think it is a beautiful thing, or at least in my case, because it tells me it is literally a biological indicator of like that is just going to fuck up your day. So please fix that.

Brandon Groce:
So this year, I have learned how to effectively … or it’s going to get better as I get older, how to learn what I need to quickly to put out a fire or build a raft, or learn whatever I need to, to either avoid or somehow redirect whatever catastrophe is coming my way, specifically when it comes to my business. I’ve only been in business for two … I can’t even say two. Yes, I’m still saying one. I’ve had an audience for a while, but it’s only been, I think, a year, last month, where I’ve ventured on my own and trying to figure out with the relationships and things that I’ve had, how to kind of go from what we’re, not even taught, but how we’re built to think like employees. And I’m not saying that in the derogatory sense, but there’s certain brain patterns that I had that didn’t help me scale what I was trying to build. And I feel like I’ve finally broke some of those thought patterns, which have really helped me figure out, in addition, tiring business coach, which was part of the growth, but learning how to not be in the business, but work on the business.

Brandon Groce:
I mean, there’s a whole bunch of learning lessons, but essentially, me being able to, in a year where everybody was inside and where everything was becoming digital, or a lot of money was being allocated to digital events, digital this, digital that, AR/VR, being able to see a whole change in the market, in addition to finally, with the market change, seeing where I fit into it, as well as how to scale my business in that market change. Those are like the three things that have been highly, I guess, learning lessons when I’m continuing to learn and just been beautiful things in the past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes. And I have to say, it’s good that you’re learning that in your first year of business. There’s a lot of businesses that don’t get that until maybe year two or three after they’ve gone it alone and figured out that’s not the best way to do it. I like that part you said about being in the business, but not really working on the business. So it’s good that-

Brandon Groce:
Which is still hard because I have to be on camera [inaudible 00:07:06]

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, but hey, that’s your business, though, right? That’s Groce media. What’s a typical day like for you?

Brandon Groce:
I can tell you what I would like to have my typical day be. It’s only in bouts of stress like this last week where I just throw it all away. Typically, I wake up at 6:00. I’m very structured, man. I get thrown off if you ask me to do anything outside of my routine in the morning. I don’t care if I wake up at … like today, I woke up at 9:00. I must get on my little cycle, must be either 15 minutes or three miles. I listen to audio books, while I’m on the cycle. I must take a shower after that, make my coffee, and then I make a list for what needs to get done that day, and then I sit in my chair for … I honestly don’t like to. If I can get all my work done before like 1:00PM because I know as soon as I eat, I’m tired. So I try to get … And this is why I went on a break last week and I’m trying to get my schedule back together, because I had a really challenging three-week, almost a month sprint where I work through the weekends, I typically don’t do that.

Brandon Groce:
Yes, from 6:00-7:00, 7:00 to about 1:00, I’ll probably … that’s my work. That’s where all my everything that must be done is done within that time. And then the rest of the day is just, what other things need to be planned, for example, one of the things I need to focus on is creating SLPs for whoever I decide needs to fill these positions that we were kind of talking about earlier. But yes, I mean, morning and till 1:00PM is kind of pretty structured after that. It just depends on what I want to do or what extra, like what would I have to be doing tomorrow that I can do today, but I am pretty regimented and I try to keep in mind that I know my brain is only probably optimal for like four or five hours of really good like no distraction related work. After that, I’m like … The bunnies and the Chipmunks they’re running around my brain at that point. No way. I’m not sure that answers your question. But that’s literally my typical day and Saturdays and Sundays in working is different, is typically strategizing in reading on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s not sitting at a computer. I don’t necessarily consider it work.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, but you’ve got that structure down, which I think probably helps out from day-to-day to make sure that you stay on task.

Brandon Groce:
That’s one thing that I know I’m really good at, is habits usually. And my dad is this way too. I got it from him. And people always yell at us, they’re like, there’s like an hour in the beginning of our days that you just can’t disrupt or we even have … There’s literally a calendar. Actually, I’m going to bring my dad into this. But he has a phrase like, “I don’t eat cake on Tuesdays.” And we’re like, “Why specifically Tuesdays?” But there’s a reason and he sticks to it. I’m the same way.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, we all got to have our rules. We got to have our structure that gets us through things, I think especially since this past year, people have just had to discover and develop their own kinds of habits to get through. So it’s not a bad thing, I don’t think. What are some projects that you’re working on now?

Brandon Groce:
So with everything going digital man, do you know what virtual production is?

Maurice Cherry:
Virtual production?

Brandon Groce:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Where it is?

Brandon Groce:
What it is.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know what it is. Yes.

Brandon Groce:
All right. Have you seen these people on the internet with mocap suits? You’ve seen these … and they’ve been around for a while, but they’re starting to pop up a little bit more. For example, you have AiAngel, CodeMiko, you have these virtual influencers, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes, yes. I’ve seen those.

Brandon Groce:
All right. So I have been studying how to do … I have a beta version of this stuff made. So I have a car, I have a city. You’ve probably seen it in my live streams, but I’m just getting my character made. I hired somebody to make my character and we’re going to start building in the metaverse. With the tournament that we were talking about a little bit earlier, designoff.live. It’s basically, think esports, but for design, and I really want that event to be almost like a virtual music concert/tournament. Do you play games Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
I do.

Brandon Groce:
What games do you play?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ve got a switch. So I’m not going to lie. I’m mostly playing Animal Crossing these days because-

Brandon Groce:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s just a destresser. Wait a minute, you didn’t let me finish. You didn’t let me finish. I mean, I’m mostly playing that. I do have a PS4 and I’m between playing Fuser and Persona 5 Royal. So it varies.

Brandon Groce:
Persona 5 brought me back. You reeled me back in. Do you watch Twitch at all? Do you watch any gamers?

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve seen some gamers on Twitch. I’ve watched a few on YouTube also. I know I’ve watched some people do live streams on YouTube. I’ve seen some gaming live streams on Twitches as well.

Brandon Groce:
Got you. I think what’s really missing right now, and it’s also very challenging at the moment with, everybody’s on zoom calls, everybody’s watching live streams of some sort. The thing is, is that, and this has always been the problem even with webinars, it’s people on stage talking to audience and audience are just chatting. And yes, you can hit the clap button or the heart button or whatever, but I’ve been watching this one individual, her name is CodeMiko and she does the best. Her avatar and maybe the world that she has isn’t necessarily to my aesthetic liking, but the fact that she’s able to allow the audience … she’s a developer by trade, and so the audience can input commands or purchase certain things to mess up, or make things happen to her. Either mess up the environment or make things blow up, make her dance, mute her while she’s streaming. She’s basically gamified her live stream experience.

Brandon Groce:
And so you’re a gamer … imagine if you’re watching a live stream of one of your favorite brands, or maybe even one of your friends and you just want to mess with them. And you just drop $1 or $5 and maybe even just type this code and something funny happens on stream. It’s no longer a one-way street, it’s a two-way street. And there’s so many levels of complexity that you can make this, I mean, I really don’t even think the larger brands are even doing this right. We’re still at the point where we’re looking at these large organizations with millions, billions of dollars, and they’re still doing the side by side conferences, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brandon Groce:
With almost like zoom calls. So really what I’m looking at is how do we bring that sort of CodeMiko entertainment into design, through Design Off as a tournament, almost like, think about it as WWE is like the entertainment version of wrestling, this stuff is not saying what we’re doing on stage is fake, but it’s so dramatized, people get hype about it, and it’s entertaining, bringing that side of things over to the design world. And it also be somewhat of a learning experience as well. So the number one thing that I’m working on, is designoff.live and other design education related events. And now I’m so far down the line. I don’t remember your questions.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that was it? I mean, I was going to talk about DesignOff and you sort of mentioned what it is and everything, but I was asking, what projects are you working on? I’m really intrigued by this virtual production, so you’re going to have like a virtual avatar that represents you. It’s you, but it’s not you. Sort of like a VTuber, I guess, right?

Brandon Groce:
A VTuber essentially except it’s going to be … I wish there was like a video podcast, can you bring it up? Think VTuber, but not. VTuber is kind of like it’s the concept of what I’m talking about, but it’s niched into almost like the anime sort of sect, whereas kind of what I’m talking about. Think about, you’ve played Assassin’s Creed, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brandon Groce:
Or any type of dope 3D video game. Essentially, things have gotten so cheap, Maurice, I have a mocap suit. We’re about to dive in. My mocap suit was only 2500. I can put on this suit and I can download any character I want from a video game, from whatever, and I can become that. It cost 2500 for that suit, the character is probably between $25 and $100. And as I put on the suit, I become that. And even the scenes are like $25. So the ability to create almost triple A level quality game. And the thing is, is like games, right? You can create your own game, except what I want to do with it, is make it more so an entertainment platform, and also a tournament. So rather than making a game, we’re doing something a little bit different. We’re pulling a couple things together. But yes, essentially VTuber, however, it’s more so taking the thought of making a real triple A game, whether that be the latest Assassin’s Creed or some other high graphic game, basically utilizing Unreal Engine in its capabilities.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m very intrigued by that. I really want to see how that will come forth in the future, especially with people have virtual reality headsets and stuff like that, like how all of this will kind of work together because I do see things going certainly more into this, I hate to say the virtual world because I’m sounding like I’m a kid in the ’90s. Remember when the virtual world was like a thing in cartoons and television series? We’re going to the virtual world. That’s sort of what this feels like, but it’s actualized. You can do it. It’s in the realm now that any consumer can probably get into, it sounds like.

Brandon Groce:
Yes, man. The costs are really low. Things are going to be crazy man. At the end of this podcast, people are going to be like Brandon has his screws loose, someone get him a Home Depot set, used to call it, but yes. The way that I see things going, you were saying the virtual world, I’m making numbers up, but I really do think that there will be people that live in the virtual world. Have you seen on Netflix the Altered Carbon?

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard of it. I haven’t seen it.

Brandon Groce:
I’m not going to go too much into it because I’m horrible at explaining. Everybody’s going to be like, that sounds horrible. But it is a really good series guys. You should check it out. But there’s people they call the real world the real. And those are the people that live like in virtual reality by choice and these people that live in the real world. I really do think that that will be a choice. You’re not even a half life of your 100 years. So I really do think in the next 20, maybe 30, you have crypto coming up the ability for people to maybe not even have regular jobs, just play games for the … not even like streaming, just be able to play Pokemon Go for their income. We’re going into a lot of things, but I’m just very excited about the virtual world because like I said, in this, I guess, industry what people will call the world builder, it’s kind of the metaverse is what it’s called. And people who create within the metaverse are people that create games, but I think video games is going to be one of the ways that we enjoy life in the future, which is interesting and weird to talk about.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, the metaverse. That sounds like another ’90s cartoon. I’m not saying that to be derisive or anything, but it sounds really cool. Don’t get me wrong. That stokes the inner child in me to be like, “Oh, what is this about?” Even as you mentioned Altered Carbon and kind of, I guess, notion of being able to sort of have yourself inside of the metaverse. I don’t know, it reminds me of this anime, and you’ve probably seen it called Serial Experiments Lain.

Brandon Groce:
Serial … No, but I’m writing it down.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if it’s streaming on anything, and I know if Cat Small is listening, this will make I think the second time I’ve mentioned it on the show. I don’t know if it’s available to stream, but it’s a 13-episode series about this girl named Lame and how she gets sucked into this online internet world. I think if you like Altered Carbon, you would like that show.

Brandon Groce:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes. So to bring it back to the real world for a minute, I can’t help but notice, of course, in your photo that people can see you for the cover art that you’re holding this neon, Adobe XD logo cue, which Adobe XD appears to be your kind of main tool of choice. Talk to me about that. How did you land on Adobe XD?

Brandon Groce:
And it’s not just the Adobe XD that’s part of it, but it’s more so about the Adobe brand in particular. I’ll explain that. So Adobe XD just because … and I can’t just say just because, because my main skill or my main trade is UI/UX design and being able to … there’s a couple of reasons, right? Have a company that offers not just the … it offers the suite of not just what I have done that produced my income, as a UI/UX designer, XD, but they also have Photoshop, Illustrator, they also have After Effects, Premiere, they have everything at really one cost. And so the larger picture I see is, I have to be careful what I say here, because it’s not necessarily true. We’re moving in a space where AR and VR is going to be what UI/UX designers are as of right now.

Brandon Groce:
When COVID came through and everything started to become remote, I saw a huge uptick in the need for UI/UX designers. Why? Because everybody’s at home. And the companies who have these streaming platforms and who have digital experiences, their revenue is skyrocketing because everybody’s on their some sort of screen. And the next version of that is yes, we have screens now, but you have companies like Snapchat, even though their glasses technology looks a little bit funky at the moment. Did you see that release this week?

Maurice Cherry:
Of the new like specs?

Brandon Groce:
Specs. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Brandon Groce:
Yes. So it looks a little funky, but that is version 0.01, that’s essentially a beta version of what I think the iPhone was when it first came out. It doesn’t look sexy, but the idea is there. Being able to wear a set of spectacles where your friend could decide, hey, I want to wear this pirate hat and I’m going to press this, anytime anybody has a certain type of technical optic and looks at me, they’re going to see my digital outfit. So that’s also the metaverse. So you could decide on your app or whatever, or you. You can be like, I want to wear X, Y, and Z. You put that in your phone and if I’m looking at you with these spectacles, I can see everything that you decided to wear in the digital space, while also in the real world. I just find that being a lot more attractive to me, just because the sky’s the limit on what you can do, you’re no longer limited to 1920 by 1080, you’re not limited to what are the 320 by whatever 568, someone’s going to be like, hey was the pixel off, right in the comments, guys.

Brandon Groce:
But yes, I think that’s the next step because the sky’s the limit, the only thing that you’re really limited by is the hardware, but for screen experience, when we can just create experiences on the things that we look at, man, that’s crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes. And so tools like Adobe XD, or even like the Creative Suite really kind of play into that more.

Brandon Groce:
Yes, because you are able to use like … This is the thing. When you have things like, whether it be Figma, Sketch, whatever else is out there, you have specific tools for specific things. But when the market starts to become more complex, and you need to be able to adapt, what is their lifespan looking like? And I’m just like, that’s great. They’re a specialty tool. That has some market share. In the larger scheme of things where I think things are going, and also what I’m interested in, which is also a large factor, this is probably where my biases, because there’s still going to be screen experiences needed. There’s still people trying to get their mobile out here and their million dollar companies out here, trying to get their mobile app out.

Brandon Groce:
So yes. I just like to be on the cutting edge of things and being a part of technologies that allow flexibility and also the integration of where things are moving. So you have Adobe dimension is a 3D tool that allows designers, is also by Adobe, without really any 3D knowledge knowing how to make stuff you just need to know how to download models, change the color them and then use your brain to rearrange them in the way that you think looks best, export that, drop that in, whether that be Photoshop XD, it just makes … Adobe’s tagline really does hold up or it’s just like creative for all. They reduce the barrier to entry and reduce the complexity of what it takes to create something.

Maurice Cherry:
I know for a while in the design industry, there was this big, I don’t know, I felt like there was this big push away from Adobe tools. I feel like it was right around the time Adobe Creative Cloud became a thing with their subscription. And lot of designers I know really pushed away from it trying to find some alternative, and they doubled down on Sketch, which is still Mac-only, or they used Figma, or they’re using other tools like that. But I mean, the way that Adobe has been innovating over the past few years since they’ve started Creative Cloud, probably because a lot of subscription money, I’m not going to lie, but the way that they have innovated over the past three years has been nothing short of remarkable. And, I mean, I hate to say there’s not really any other tools out there that can touch what Adobe is doing. This is not an Adobe sponsorship, by the way, although if you all are interested, let me know.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just saying this because personally, I cut my teeth on Adobe. I learned Photoshop and Illustrator on my own. I just did an interview earlier today where I was talking about how I didn’t start out in design, I started out doing customer service stuff after I graduated from college. And I would go to Barnes and Noble and pick up .Net magazines, and those like UK computer magazines that would always come with a CD or something, or those Photoshop tips and tricks books. I go to Barnes and Noble, get those, look through them, take pictures, take them back home, I used my pirated copy of Photoshop to try to get my design chops up and stuff. Of course, now that I’m in a position where I can pay for it, I do pay for it. But I say that to say in terms of the amount of innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, Photoshop is a verb for a reason. I mean, nobody’s out here saying they’re going to Figma their photos.

Brandon Groce:
No, I don’t even think you can Figma a photo, sadly.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, where I work at now, I asked them for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription because I wanted to work on some design stuff. And they were like, “But, we have Figma”, and I’m like, “No, that’s okay. That’s all right. That’s fine.”

Brandon Groce:
I think there’s no right or wrong. I think there’s just certain … like I said, there’s a market for a reason, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Brandon Groce:
There’s particular individuals that there needs really line up with Figma. They were free. They had all this stuff for free. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Brandon Groce:
What they had was, for a lot of people, they’re like, why not? But like you said, when you find yourself in a position, and you’re like, I have the resources now to allocate to a tool that allows me to do more of my best work. That’s kind of the mindset that, when you have that mindset, you have the resources to actually put it towards something that makes you do your best work. For me, that just happens to be Adobe, because the type of work that I do requires a lot of cross threading.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s fair. Yes. And I mean, also with these Adobe tools, I mean, they’ve been industry standard for a reason. Every design job I’ve had, I’ve still had to use Dreamweaver or Photoshop or something. But I can see why these other types of tools have become more popular, because they have been brought up as the industry changes. There’s been a huge influx of UX/UI designers and product designers in the past, like seven years or so. And so there has to be tools then that can kind of work with that. I know, for a while, people are trying to use maybe Photoshop or Illustrator to do that, but needed something that was maybe a bit more, I don’t know, exact, I guess, because Illustrators are for vectors, Photoshop is for photo manipulation, and if you’re trying to do something that’s more product-based, you’d need a tool that, I guess, would allow you to simulate some of those things, which of course, is why Adobe XD comes along, but then also why you have a Sketch and a Figma, or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
The tools match what the industry is doing at the moment, so I can see that. Yes. Kind of switch gears here a little bit, I know you are located in Maryland, is that where you’re originally from?

Brandon Groce:
I think so. Guys, for those of you guys who are listening, Maurice asked me before the podcast, he’s like, “Brandon, where are you currently residing?” I was like, “First off reside is a too big word to even use in a sentence with me.” And then I was like, “I don’t even know my street address barely.” But yes, Maryland is I think where I’ve always been. I have been to Texas though. I’d lived there for a little bit. And I love the heat over there, man. Love that it doesn’t get cold. But yes, I’ve been in Maryland for the majority of my life span of 27 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What was it like?

Brandon Groce:
And this is also what is interesting because people ask me about life and I talk about the internet. I really didn’t go outside much.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing up you were the kid that was like always in the house on the computer.

Brandon Groce:
Oh, yes. Yes. Even if you look at my Facebook profile pictures and you look at the … There was one day where I was looking at some of my high school friends and their pictures versus mine. I was like, oh, hang out with people. And so the majority of my childhood was wrestling in Brazilian jujitsu, because I was a very active, like I said, I can’t really sit in the chair, I had a lot of energy. So the majority of my childhood starting at eight, up until whenever college started after high school was Brazilian jujitsu, and just teaching and training both kids and adults. I have a brown belt Brazilian jujitsu. I stopped after I moved to Texas and trained a little bit here and there on and off. Business is a lot like jujitsu, except you don’t get physical ailments from it. Unless, right now I have a pinched nerve for sitting in my chair, so I’m really lying.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re like street fighter, basically.

Brandon Groce:
I mean, you can say that, but I’m definitely the first one to run. If you were with me, I have … Maurice, let me tell you this real quick. Back to my anxiety and paranoia. I’m not sure if it runs in my family, but I am the first one. We’re about to go to the storm, it’s an actual phrase. Let me grab my pepper spray. I don’t know what it is. I was talking to somebody about this the other day. I like to be overly prepared, because I don’t know what’s going to go down. And I’m not saying I live in a bad area, and I think that’s also from jujitsu to where is a mindset kind of came where it’s the paranoid survive. And that’s kind of how I operate. Some people think that’s very, a chaotic way to live, but for me, it’s like hey, that’s the way that I operate. I try to be always overly prepared. You never know what’s going to happen and you try your best to optimize what based on the situations that you’re in, which is also probably why I don’t leave the house a lot. There’s a lot of stimuli out. I can control everything that’s artificial, which is in the computer. [crosstalk 00:32:40].

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. But, I mean, even like, still to that point, I guess you were still, I’m assuming, exposed to a lot of design and tech growing up perhaps.

Brandon Groce:
A lot of art, or a lot of books. A lot of books, a lot of puzzles. Yes, that’s all I did, man. Man, I was a hustler. I would resell things that I found at school back to kids, I would sell like art lessons in elementary school and make money so that I really use this money to, or the quarters my parents left in the couch, to purchase puzzles that I would put together, or my grandmother would always buy me these things called Zoids. Do you remember those?

Maurice Cherry:
Zoids?

Brandon Groce:
They’re essentially like Gundams, but they’re like cats, or different animals.

Maurice Cherry:
Hadn’t heard of those.

Brandon Groce:
I don’t remember what year they were, but they were like my thing. I would put them together without the instructions. And these things were like hundreds of pieces. And I would just figure it out. And honestly, my main superpower that I think is like, I’m just like, oh, that was the wrong hole, we got to figure the other hole out. I’m very good at putting things together. And that’s why I always loved art and expressing things, but I also loved creating something that worked, which is why I really struggled at the end of high school and even moving into college where it was just, what is technology plus art? And I didn’t have an internet, around the time I was 18, I was like, oh, we’re just going to be a tattoo artists somehow without getting any tattoos. That wasn’t going to fly because who’s going to hire a tattoo artist without any tattoos? I know I wouldn’t.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to start somewhere.

Brandon Groce:
Well, this is true. But I just was not … I was like, I know I mess up paper. So if somebody comes to me and was like, can I have an owl, and I just mess up one feather and somebody is not going to be happy. So like I said, I really like control and something that you can constantly tinker with. I dabbled in internships at NIH with medical illustration. I thought that was really weird. This is when I learned I really didn’t like work because, and it was probably around 18, 19 at the time. And I would go there and I would want to learn so much, because these people would show me interesting things and I would spend time trying to learn how to do it. And then they would go out on three hour lunch breaks and I would always go in and ask the question, they’re kicked back in their chair, and I’m like, what’s going on? Nobody does any work here. And I’m not saying this is what the general workforce does, but I was just very turned off by the lack of … and it wasn’t even that the other interns were like that as well, I was very turned off in that environment, that the fact that there are so many interesting things around us and nobody’s asking any questions.

Brandon Groce:
Yes, so I’m a tinkerer man. Even though I call myself a designer, I’m probably more so an inventor mindset than anything else. I really like to learn how things work, we will be in Giant man. And I’ll be like, I wonder how they package those raisins. I ask questions all the time and I really like to find how certain things are made, especially when things are in alignment with what I do.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m going to jump ahead a little bit here, because I feel like just based on what you’re telling me, I really get the sense that you’ve had to work a lot to build up your confidence in order to really, one, I think showcase work that you can do and of course, to partner with Adobe and other companies and such like that. How do you build that confidence? What advice would you give out there to somebody that’s listening that wants to build up that confidence to be like you?

Brandon Groce:
Well, I wouldn’t say try to be like me. Let’s pause right there. But I think I have a pretty good … I didn’t have this story when we first talked about this in the beginning of the podcast, but it’s one thing that I hold indefinitely in my head that changed things for me. So in school, school was very hard for me. The way that I was, and that I talked about NIH, was not who I was in early school at all. To be honest with everybody, I don’t even know how I passed elementary school, middle school, or any. I never did any work. I have no idea. They wanted me out of the classrooms. But I never paid attention in class and mainly because I struggled with the way … now thinking back, it’s a little bit clear, I didn’t understand the instructions that whomever was giving me and how to do certain things. And I was like, why is it this way and not this way? And because I didn’t understand the way that they were telling me, a lot of the times, I was basically the laughingstock. There was so many times where if I even just dare raise my hand in class, the class will just blow up in laughter, and that really hurt a lot.

Brandon Groce:
And so a lot of elementary school and in middle school, I just thought … we were talking a little bit earlier where the kids in the special help class programs. That was me. I think I started reading out loud, even in high school, man. Honestly, that mess sucked. But what really changed was, I would probably always get … I’m not even sure you can get D’s in elementary school.

Maurice Cherry:
You can.

Brandon Groce:
I probably got them. Yes. And I just remember my mom telling me, as supportive as she could, she was like, you’re different. You have ADHD. Just please try to pass. And I remember like, yes, it’s not just one time, but just looking at myself in the mirror, not understanding why didn’t get things. Thinking back about it, don’t make me feel good. But there was just one day where I was just like, for whatever reason, I just decided on the dumbest thing ever to Maurice. It was a spelling test. So I was like, I’m going to just try and spell probably like because and I spell it because. I don’t remember what it was, but I decided to stay up really late and just study 10 words probably what it was. And I got an A. I remember running home from the bus with the paper in hand to tell my mom. Damn, I can’t even tell this story. Shit hurts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I didn’t mean to-

Brandon Groce:
No, you’re good because it’s a really good story, man. And then I opened the door and I said, “Mom, I got an A.” And she hugged me and I remember I went upstairs after that and I was so pissed, Maurice, that I listened, for I don’t know how many years, to people telling me that I was slow. Regardless of the tears dropping, it was like in that moment that I realized that I had let people tell me things about me that I accepted. I got so pissed in that moment. I was like, I will never, ever, ever allow somebody to tell me what I can and cannot do. And I probably threw a castle around in my building or in my room, something like that.

Brandon Groce:
But yes, it was a spelling test. Yes, it was something minimal. But it was like that big lesson that how, me, other people, what stories that we hold in our heads and that we apply to ourselves, and that weigh us down in terms of what we actually think is possible. And I’m not religious or anything. I found recently in the Bible, Exodus 3:14. And don’t forget who asks, but they essentially ask God, what his name is, what he’s called, and he says, I am.

Brandon Groce:
I was thinking about this school period or this anger, or whatever this experience that I had that made me feel less than, and I was like, why? Why would he say I am? And I was like, he’s probably so woke, that he understands and doesn’t even give the ability to somebody else to even label whatever he is. He just is, or whatever it is. And I was like, wow. Regardless of who said that shit, that’s some powerful stuff. I am. That’s something that really sticks with me because I live … this is a little bit going into talking about the imposter thing. I just understand that I’m an entity that becomes whatever I decide I would like to become. I come with a biological technology that allows me to pick up and put down whatever it is that I desire within my capabilities of operation.

Brandon Groce:
So long story, how can somebody become more so of themselves rather than like me? It takes time. I happened to find it studying 10 fucking words for a spelling bee and realizing that I was holding people’s stories of me and I never crafted my own. So every day, I hold myself accountable to what story, what I like to tell the world about me. That’s what’s highly important. And I changed from day-to-day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s really powerful.

Brandon Groce:
I hope so. I hope it was worth the tears. It dropped in my tea.

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Brandon Groce:
I can’t drink that any longer.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to keep on that same vein, not trying to make you continue to cry, but-

Brandon Groce:
Two tears, we’re done. [inaudible 00:42:45]

Maurice Cherry:
As you have said, you’ve managed to kind of instill this confidence now within yourself where you don’t take in other people’s thoughts or stories about who you are. And to that end, you have this very unique personal brand, which you’ve taken time to craft, like I said, I’ve watched your videos, I’ve seen your photos, looked at your Instagram, etc. How can someone out there listening start to create their own personal brand? Is it more of the same process that you talked about?

Brandon Groce:
Yes, it’s really getting in tune with what it is that you produce and that you want to produce. I think it’s really important we produce things on autopilot. Like you by yourself, or me by myself, I’m more likely than not, I’m probably talking to myself, regardless of where I am, which probably makes what I do very natural. And that’s why the acting thing probably seems natural, because I do … Man, I talk to myself in the shower. My partner’s like, “Who the hell are you talking to?” And I’m like talking to Sarah, Jamil, and I’m like, “They’re in my head. They’re talking.” We have yet to be tested for schizophrenia, but there’s probably a little dose of that in there.

Brandon Groce:
But I think it’s really important to know what you enjoy and what you do naturally, that is, the way you don’t have to try too hard, but understand where your natural abilities and occurrences lie. It’s not just that because you have to also understand what people enjoy about that. But you have to find what people like and value. For example, you could be funny to yourself, but are you funny to other people? So for example, when I was young as in high school, I was picked on a lot. And it wasn’t until I started saying the dumb shit that was in my head right back at the person where other people started dying, laughing about what I said. I was like, “Oh, that’s funny.” And so this is when I started … when I realized I was like, “Oh, I do this naturally. Are there other people that are funny that I can study that could help me enhance what I do naturally?”

Brandon Groce:
So I’ve watched so much Katt Williams, man. I watch a lot of comedy to help me enhance what I’m naturally capable of and find people other … but I sound crazy, but I was about to say other avatars, other people who are built with almost somewhat of the same things that I see in me and just take what they’re doing and try to evolve my skill set from what they’re doing. I try to find who I would be in the future based on what I know about myself, and what I see in them and try to take what they have already done and apply it to what I’m doing today. I study … yes, I said Katt Williams, but I try to read as much as possible bibliographies because there’s frameworks, these people who have lived like hundreds, thousands, I don’t know how long the earth has been here. But there has been a repetition of your DNA and capabilities somewhere in the universe. Imagine if you were able to find throughout a couple of books, who you want to be or who you think you’ll be sprinkled throughout books, and just in a couple paragraphs, you can take those learnings and apply them to the frameworks that you walk about life with. The reason I read is to build the character that I’d like to see.

Brandon Groce:
I think of myself as a computer, essentially. I download software through books, or through watching people, or through whatever type of input, but it’s really important that I understand who I would like to become and find frameworks through multiple ways to craft said character. And I know that with the words that I’m using, some people will be like, that doesn’t sound good. This goes back to that first story, I told, would you rather be told who you are, or create who you want to become, or who you are, rather? And that’s just how I go about building my character?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Brandon Groce:
Honestly, probably my time with my partner and the freedom, that’s first. And then the freedom to just think about what I want to put out into the world and have time to do that and have a community and people around me who also are trying to strive for the same things and working together and building that idea. So my relationships, my free time, and my ability to, with that free time, think about what I want to put into the world and produce and what impact that has.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? When you look at yourself, say in the next five years or so, what’s the sort of work that you want to be doing?

Brandon Groce:
The impact is just possibility, man. Through this design, I’ll be able to have people understand that you can learn all day. You can be on YouTube and just learn, but just through doing and having fun, and just be tinker, just tinker and build what you want. That’s what makes you learn. And to facilitate that, just how Dean Kaymer has, that’s something I’d like to do in addition to some, not entirely sure even what to call it, but because we are going to be getting into the metaverse and being able to produce quality 3D movies almost, but just because of our virtual setup. I would also like to do some storytelling as well. We’ll see. The combination of both.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see storytelling. You got the voice for it.

Brandon Groce:
I appreciate it.

Maurice Cherry:
So just to wrap things up here, Brandon, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brandon Groce:
For sure, you guys can find me … If you just type my name into Google, you’ll find me. Brandon Groce, G-R-O-C-E. If you guys want to participate in DesignOff, you guys can go to designoff.live. The majority of my stuff, you guys can find me on Instagram, that’s probably where I’m most active, or you guys can join our amazing discord community with over 1,000 other creatives from all over the world and not just UI/UX designers and we have illustrators, 3D artists, we literally have, I think there’s more people from other countries than where I’m at. So it’s really nice to have people who are not just in one vertical, but can help each other build on top of something. So short answer, Instagram at Brandon Groce, YouTube, same thing, but if you find me on Instagram, you’ll find me everywhere else.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Brandon Groce, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I honestly want to sharing your story and being as open and candid as you were to share it. I think it’s important for people to see the path that people take to get to where they are. It’s not always this straightforward, you went to this school, then this school, and then worked at this place. People come into this industry in so many different ways and I think it’s really important to be able to see how you’ve been able to make your own place in this industry, how it’s helped you build your confidence, how you’ve not only helped to build a community, but also help to empower so many others out there to see the possibilities for themselves that they didn’t see. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Brandon Groce:
Likewise, Maurice, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Poster House

Poster House

In honor of Juneteenth, Poster House, the only museum dedicated to posters in the United States, is pleased to offer free admission to the museum on Saturday, June 19.

Head to www.posterhouse.org and book your free ticket to visit the Museum to check out Julius Klinger: Posters for a Modern Age, and Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff in the exhibit Freak Power!

Remember, it’s this Saturday, June 19th, and this is a free event you don’t want to miss!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Tiffany Middleton

What a difference a few years makes! This is definitely the case with this week’s guest, Tiffany Middleton. When I first talked to her on Revision Path, she was just starting out as a junior designer from Childersburg, Alabama working for a Texas-based sports company. Now she’s a senior art director for FanDuel and has continued honing and flexing her design skills, only this time in the Big Apple!

We started off with a quick check-in, and Tiffany spoke on her interest in mentoring and helping other Black sports designers through a community she created called Trenches. She also talked about some of her favorite projects over the past few years, the experience of working for ESPN, and spoke on the confidence she’s found from fully stepping into her identity and claiming it proudly. Tiffany is all about showcasing the power of the Black creative voice, and you know that’s definitely something we support around here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Tiffany Middleton:
Hi. So I’m Tiffany Middleton and I am currently a senior art director at FanDuel in New York City. I’ve been here for about six months and before FanDuel, I spent about four to five years at ESPN on the digital team and then on the social media team.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How’s the year kind of been going so far aside from, I guess, starting this new job?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. I guess I would go back to, I guess, 2020 of how it started and then where I’m at now. So like I said, before FanDuel, I was at ESPN and I think life for me there was like kind of getting to do your dream job and then coming to a point of wanting a change a little bit. I grew up on ESPN, it was everything for me, I’m a big sports fan. And when coronavirus happened, to bring it up, I feel like it kind of changed my perspective on not just my life, but also my career in a way where it just made me kind of take a pause and think about what I was doing and if that was the right direction for me. It’s kind of at a point in my career where I felt like I had achieved everything that I wanted to achieve at ESPN.

Tiffany Middleton:
I feel like I learned so much there. I feel like it was one of those. I compare it to [The Warriors 00:04:11] of it’s a well-oiled machine, it’s so many talented designers there. There’s always great work, but I guess I kind of like to put it in a sports perspective of taking a chance on myself and kind of [KD 00:04:25], leaving The Warriors and coming to Brooklyn. So that’s what I feel like I did. [crosstalk 00:04:29] And I feel like a lot of that happened off of coronavirus because it paused everything, it changed it. So it’s been going pretty great. It was definitely an adjustment, a different system. So it’s been relearning everything I thought I knew but from [inaudible 00:04:47] perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, did you take a break between leaving ESPN and starting at FanDuel, or did you just kind of go right into it?

Tiffany Middleton:
I pretty much had two days off and I was back into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Damn, you got to get yourself a break. Wow, two days and you just went right back into it.

Tiffany Middleton:
That’s the thing. Ever since I’ve been a kid, my goal has been to be a successful designer. So it was like, I didn’t know what a break was. Since the last time we talked in six years, I probably have only taken one vacation that’s been more than four days. I usually go on vacation [inaudible 00:05:24] my computer. It’s like I didn’t know how to take a break. So it’s like coronavirus made me kind of realize I needed to take a break in life. And then it also changed my perspective of design and how I can use that more for a spiritual, more people impact thing versus a success thing.

Tiffany Middleton:
I try to use my design in a way of helping other black people get into design and find different careers to kind of outside the box versus doing design to kind of build my own career in a way. I feel like I’m settled in my career and I feel like now I’m at a spot where I really interested in mentorship and helping other people out and then collaborating with other designers and also just spreading more awareness about design in general for black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back just a little bit to ESPN because, of course, during the pandemic last year, sports were kind of… Everything sort of took a pause, especially major sporting events. How did that really affect your day-to-day work at ESPN when everything is revolving around regular sporting events?

Tiffany Middleton:
So what I did at ESPN right before I left, I worked on the digital content team. So a lot of our work wasn’t your day-to-day sports on TV. It was more of a very secluded market and we did a lot of stories based off of sports where they were these long form digital visual storytelling pieces. So we told a lot of stories that were kind of about sports and evolved into sport has been none of our day-to-day work revolved around the sports games. So for us, I think one of the departments that probably had a biggest impact of… We were working even more because we were doing a lot of evergreen stuff before a sport stopped. So once it stopped, it’s like we started to do more work and more traffic on the site because there wasn’t these live games. So I honestly started working more when the coronavirus happened, but I was at home, but I was working more. So it was a different pace, but you start to burn out a little bit quicker than you would in an office.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. I can imagine because you’re now having to work from home and I think it’s something… Certainly when I had guests on the show last year, that was just a big thing for a lot of people to get over because your home is sort of your refuge away from work and now the two locations have merged and you have to kind of find a way to compartmentalize that.

Tiffany Middleton:
It’s no break. And then I got a puppy, so it was just like, I never had a break. I had no space and [inaudible 00:08:15]… While I was there, they started to have layoffs during coronavirus. So it’s like, I started to see the impact of it for coworkers and friends. So it started to kind of… Mentally, it became a tough situation because it’s like, “There’s no sports, are sports going to come back?” Eventually the coronavirus did affect our team. So right before I left, I had a couple of coworkers that did get laid off. So I think it was just a lot happening at once. And then you see it so close up of the effects of people. Luckily I personally wasn’t laid off, but just having people that I’ve worked with for four and five years lose their jobs, it takes a mental toll on you.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what that’s like. I mean, I was working at a startup last year going into the pandemic and I think it was maybe about two months… Actually, it was right around this time that we’re recording, right around this time. Right around Memorial Day that they laid off my entire department, just gone and it does take a toll on you because you say that part about having to learn how to take a break. I had to learn how to take a break really quickly because I went from this kind of go, go, go, rush, rush, rush all the time, traveling with work, to now just you’re at home. And granted, I’m in Atlanta and there wasn’t really that much of a lockdown period, but still, it takes a toll on you. It really does.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. And see, I was in Connecticut, so it was already feeling like a lockdown place. [crosstalk 00:09:50] coronavirus [inaudible 00:09:50], it was a complete lockdown.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Let’s fast forward to kind of what you’re doing now. You mentioned you’re a senior art director at FanDuel. What does a typical day look like for you?

Tiffany Middleton:
So my role at ESPN was more so hands-on, building websites and working with developers and kind of taking about a month or two per project, whereas at FanDuel, not only am I managing a team, so I’m responsible for everything FanDuel Fantasy and [TVG 00:10:23] products and FanDuel Racing. And then just overseeing the designers on my team, approving work and then also creating work myself and then figuring out different systems and trying to rearrange systems that they have in place currently and just figure out new processes. So I went from kind of 90% designed to 50% design and then 50% emails, people managing, processing, strategy. I’m definitely enjoying it, it’s definitely a different role. So it’s just making me see things in a different light and understanding the intricacies of having a great system.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it different going from a media company to… Well, FanDuel is what? Entertainment slash gambling sort of, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe gambling is not the right word to use there.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t know if that’s the word we want to use, but essentially, I would say more of… Because I’ve been playing fantasies, I’ll say it’s kind of like a getaway for sports of people still watch sports but I think, especially with social media and Instagram and things like that, something that I did notice at ESPN was people were less likely watching TV. [inaudible 00:11:41] I think they started to do with a lot of cord cutting where I feel like at a company like FanDuel, adding an incentive of betting or a fantasy or just being able to play with your friends and kind of watch a game with a little bit more invested into it, makes it more longevity with [inaudible 00:12:00] sports.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tiffany Middleton:
But you’re competing with everything else on social media these days. So making that switch from essentially storytelling and it’s very Print style Magazine type of foundational design to more we do a lot of marketing assets on this end. It’s a faster pace, a different type of strategy, a different audience that you’re looking at. Also at ESPN, I was kind of working on user experience and UX and UI. So going from a UX and UI back to kind of marketing design, it definitely took some adjusting to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. Going from that sort of product based work to more, I guess kind of print and web sort of almost, it’s a big shift.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I was using Figma and Sketch at ESPN for my last three years and [inaudible 00:12:53] Photoshop. So it’s like I’m having to almost go back to college. The product world is very much different than marketing, like I said, it’s a whole different thought process.

Maurice Cherry:
What does the design team at FanDuel look like?

Tiffany Middleton:
So we have a ACD above me, so he manages our whole department and so it’s him and then it’s me and my counterpart. And so I oversee half the house and my counterpart oversees the other half of the house. Like I said, I do fantasy and racing. So racing includes TVG, which is a horse racing product. And then FanDuel Racing, which is our in-house horse racing product. And then my counterpart, he does FanDuel SportsBook and then FanDuel Casino. And then under us, it’s senior and junior and regular designers. And then we have a copywriting team that we work counter with. And then we have a project managing team that we work with. So it’s a bigger team than… Well, not bigger, but a little bit more diverse as far as the copywriters, editors and designers on our team as a whole. When we’re on meetings, we’re all together versus at ESPN, a lot of our meetings were more just in the design department. I did work with a lot of writers, but not as closely as we work with our copywriters and project managers at FanDuel.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you all started to kind of go back into the office yet? Or is it still remote?

Tiffany Middleton:
We’re still remote, so I haven’t met any of my coworkers in person. I’ve only seen them on Zoom.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve been there now, like you said, for just a couple of months now.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. Well, hopefully soon once these mandates lift, I feel like there’s already this rush to get back to normal. I’m using the air quotes over here. So that’ll probably happen sooner rather than later. When it comes to working on new projects, what does the creative process look like? Because like you said, the team is pretty varied in the structure and even the type of designers that you have.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I think the biggest difference, especially from ESPN to this job is that at ESPN, a lot of the projects, it was a free range of the imagery you can use as far as the athletes. Whereas at FanDuel, we have to use a lot of stock imagery or more your foundational design stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So when we’re concepting, it’s like, you really have to rely on your design skills versus at ESPN, I felt like if you have a nice photo of LeBron and great typography, it’s a pretty solid design. Whereas here you have to really work to kind of use what you have.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s because you’re not necessarily working directly with the teams or with the photographers [crosstalk 00:15:43], you have to kind of sell the concept of sports without the actual athletes in that way.

Tiffany Middleton:
Exactly. So it is a different task.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at some of the work that you’ve done over the past five to six years, it could be stuff at FanDuel, it can be stuff at ESPN or whatever, what have been some of your favorite projects?

Tiffany Middleton:
Ooh, that is a very hard one. I think my favorite project is going to be a project I did right before LeBron’s time with the Lakers. So we hired an artist from every state where every NBA team is and did these LeBron billboards, which is a pretty cool project. It took a lot of time just finding the right artist in the right states and then collecting their work. And then we did kind of a website part to it. But just seeing the different artists come up with these different concepts that are very true to their states and very true to the teams that they were trying to get LeBron to come to, was probably my hands down favorite project. I mean, it became a big deal of in Louisiana, I think they actually put up some of the billboard.

Tiffany Middleton:
Somebody purchased the art and they put a billboard in Louisiana and then the LA one was pretty great, which the artist who did that ended up putting those on a t-shirt and I had one. So it was just one of those projects that you don’t really get a lot of chances to work on. So I was very grateful to have been assigned that project, but it also took a whole lot of work because I was excited for it to be done with, but still when I look back, I think that’s probably one of the funnest projects that I worked on throughout my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I had you back on the show, back in 2016, you were in Dallas, you were just starting out at Panini America, I remember it’s a company. I think they make trading cards, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s sports trading cards. How did you end up getting connected with ESPN and eventually making it to New York?

Tiffany Middleton:
So super funny, but Twitter. Twitter is the funniest thing. So right when we probably were chatting maybe two months before that, I actually had applied for a job at ESPN. They flew me out. I met one of the creative directors there via Twitter and he connected me with a potential job. I went to Connecticut and I end up not getting the job and I was devastated, super sad, but then a month or two later, I end up getting a job in Panini America. And probably two months after we talked, if not sooner, I got an email from the same creative director, and he reached out about a potential part-time job with ESPN, working on Snapchat, at the time Snapchat Discover was not a thing, but that’s kind of how I started. So I was working at Panini America full-time and then I started working with ESPN part-time and within a year, they offered me a part-time position in Connecticut, but I was hesitant to kind of move for a part-time position, but they made things work to where it worked out logistically for me.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I end up leaving the job in Dallas after a year, moving to Connecticut, working part-time for a couple of months. And then I end up getting an opportunity to work full-time, which I switched from the social media team to the digital content team. So it was kind of this blessing in disguise that I didn’t even know. Like I said before we talked, I had gotten denied from ESPN and I was devastated. And then within a year, I was in Connecticut, working there and it was a full circle moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). How was it adjusting to the city and everything?

Tiffany Middleton:
I moved from Dallas to Connecticut. So I’ve been in Connecticut pretty much the last five years or so. And [crosstalk 00:19:36] I met friends in Connecticut and we would spend a lot of time in New York City. And so eventually I was like, I need to move to New York because I’m going [inaudible 00:19:45] Connecticut, but it’s not a lot to do there. Especially [inaudible 00:19:49] Dallas or New York, it’s nothing to do there except for work. So I always moved to Connecticut envisioning that I will live in New York City. I just didn’t think I would be in Connecticut that long. So coming to New York has been a big adjustment, but I don’t think I’ve really experienced New York because coronavirus.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That makes sense.

Tiffany Middleton:
[crosstalk 00:20:10] living here, I’ve been here on the weekends, but I haven’t lived here when it wasn’t coronavirus, but it’s starting to pick back up. But just being here for five or six months, the amount of black creatives that I’ve been able to meet compared to living in Connecticut or even Dallas is 10 times twofold.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So many more black creatives, just different people that I would not have crossed paths with in life if I hadn’t lived in New York and especially within Brooklyn itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Now are these other black designers in the sports and entertainment industry or just black designers in general?

Tiffany Middleton:
So some, a handful are probably in sports entertainment and then some are just within the industry of just creative and fashion. But actually at ESPN, I did meet a lot of black creatives, some weren’t designers, but photographers, videographers, producers, just a wide range. So it’s like, ESPN was very much majority white, but I did meet a lot of black people that were creative, just within smaller groups.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good to know. I mean, I would imagine, like you said, with the pandemic, that does make it difficult now to really meet folks. I can’t wait to go back to New York. When I used to work for a company in New York, I didn’t like it because I would go to New York and I’d think, “Oh, work.” But before then, I loved going to New York. So I’m looking forward to going back up there when I don’t have to work. And just kind of experiencing the city, New York is fun. It’s fun. I don’t know if I could ever live there, so props to you for that, but it’s a great city, especially for, like you said, meeting other black creatives and stuff. That’s pretty cool.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it take a lot to kind of adjust to the city?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think because the last two years I’ve been back and forth… I kind [inaudible 00:22:04] neighborhood, I have friends that lives pretty close, so it’s like I got here, everything kind of just centered around me. I already kind of had people that I knew, I already had spots that I knew, but I think it’s definitely different than Connecticut because it moves very fast. There’s a lot going on. And me growing up in the South, every time my family comes up to New York, they absolutely hate it after [inaudible 00:22:29]. [inaudible 00:22:33] overload of people, overload of things, it’s just a overload. So [crosstalk 00:22:39] sometimes it can be tiring, but I also live in Brooklyn. I feel like Brooklyn is more like a neighborhood versus if you go to Manhattan, it’s more of that New York City vibe, whereas Brooklyn just… It’s chill, but you never really know what you’re going to get when you walk outside.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, certainly, I mean there’s parts of Brooklyn that are like that. Most places that I’ve been to in Manhattan… Unless you’re going further up like near Harlem or Washington Heights or something, or at least to me, it hasn’t felt as claustrophobic as if you’re down in say the Financial District or something like that. But no, Brooklyn is fun. Brooklyn’s a fun time.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s very fun. It’s very quiet. It’s also very small once you get used to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. That’s really nice. So let’s talk about Trenches. Now I remember when I had you back on the show you were talking about In The Trenches, which was this site that you had created to kind of talk about black designers and the sports and entertainment industry. Has Trenches kind of evolved from that concept?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s evolved as I’ve evolved, right? Like I said, early on in my career, very focused on just design, design, design. And I think the older I got, the more I really started to look at the spaces that I was in work wise and realizing that, “Why am I the only black designer?” And then looking into sports in general and like, “Why is there only 10 of us?” Feeling like you’re in a box that you can’t quite get out of. And so for me, Trenches kind of started to evolve around just black creatives in general. So I’m kind of still in this in-between of it’s sports, but I’m also trying to break it out more into culture and music. Because I feel like sports is very black on the field, but within the front offices, it’s usually very non-black. I’ve tried really hard to focus on black designers in the sports industry, but you just start to kind of run into the same people because it’s hard to let us in.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’ve been working with a mentee and she got a job in the sports industry and working at NFL. And I was really proud of that, but it’s like, we’re still just fighting just to get in. Last year, I ended up teaming up with some of my friends who some worked at ESPN, some worked at the NBA, they’re all black women and we did a Zoom conference where it was just black women in the sports industry. And it was just designers, editors, social media managers. And that for me kind of changed the wheel again because it was something near and dear to me. Being a black woman, seeing that many black people that were kind of experiencing the same thing I was experiencing, it made it feel more true to me. So that’s kind of where Trenches have evolved, is going from sports and design to more just our experiences as black women or black creatives in this industry.

Tiffany Middleton:
We sometimes don’t seem to exist or even when we get there, we’re dealing with issues that a lot of our counterparts aren’t dealing with, or even when I think sports is on a general, it’s so hard to get into. And a lot of times people break into it by doing these free internships. But the reality is there’s not a lot of people of color, especially black people that can kind of afford to take this free job and have their parents take care of them for a year or so without getting an income. And I think sometimes that pushes us behind and then sometimes I’ve seen where people, essentially hire people that are the same as them.

Tiffany Middleton:
So it just started to seem like a lot of different obstacles that were coming up for black people to be in the sports industry. So it’s something I’m still fighting for, but it’s evolving more into a culture thing because I feel like black people have more space to kind of own their own thing in culture and music versus in sports. It just seems like until the gatekeepers really focus on bringing in black creatives in the sports industry, it’s always going to be a tooth and nails fight.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I didn’t even think of how maybe these specific kind of niches of design would still unfortunately really have this big diversity problem. And the reason I’m saying this is because over the past few years, as I’ve done the show, I mean, there has been an influx of black designers in product and UX like crazy. And I don’t know if it’s because of bootcamps or because of other programs or stuff, but you can go in a major city and swing your bag around and hit a dozen black UX folks. It’s kind of astonishing in a way. I didn’t even think about how in something like sports and entertainment that there’s not that many black designers that are kind of making the graphics and stuff like that. Why do you think that’s the case? Is it because of the kind of old boys’ network?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s a old boys’ network and I’ll be honest, I think for me, I started to notice it with Trenches because once I started Tweeting out stuff about Black Lives Matter and black designers… The more I started Tweeting about black people, the less interaction I started to get because I have ran Trenches as if it was this well-oiled company. And I had kept it very corporate and not really personal. And last year when the George Floyd thing happened, it became more personal to me. That’s when I really, really started to realize, “Oh, they’re not interacting that much.” And I think that kind of made me switch it up because I just felt like for years there are a lot of followers that I could kind of name off the top of my head.

Tiffany Middleton:
People were very into Trenches, but when it became about humans, it was less support. It was less interaction. It was losing followers. So me being a black queer woman, I couldn’t fake the funk anymore. It wasn’t as important to me as livelihood was, I wanted to more so create a platform and a space for people like me that weren’t really included in those rooms versus people that had always kind of been entitled to that room. So I felt like Trenches was becoming something where even I wasn’t being accepted in it as I was.

Maurice Cherry:
You said something really interesting there, I want to kind of draw out a little bit where you said once you started talking about humans, humans play sports too. And I’m not saying that in a bad way as how you say it, but I know there seems to be… And this is probably gone back we’re talking decades, probably OJ and even past them. But there’s something about America and seeing black athletes, they just don’t want politics in their sports. They want sports to be this idyllic… I don’t necessarily want to say lily-white, but they want it to be this idyllic problem free environments that’s just about the game. And that’s not the case, especially when you have black people that are the majority of the players.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I mean, we could talk about this all day, but [inaudible 00:30:08] it’s a system, right? Because the real thing for me is, like I said, I grew up on ESPN, I loved it to death. I grew up on Slam Magazine, but something I didn’t realize up until recently was it was not those companies that I was in love with or that I loved, it was that the guys on the field, the women on the field, they reminded me of the people I grew up with. I was able to see people that looked like us on the big screen and that’s what I was attracted to. So I think once I got to those companies, I started to realize that the people on TV aren’t the people I’m working with. So it’s like they controlled our narrative. And I started to really realize that they control our narrative.

Tiffany Middleton:
And I think what I like about LeBron so much is that he was one of the first players that I feel like truly started to own his own narrative. I love Michael Jordan to death. I think he’s the greatest athlete ever. But if you really think about Michael Jordan, the executives at Nike owned the narrative of who he was supposed to be and who they wanted him to be and who they [inaudible 00:31:13] be. And so I think when designers are designing these graphics, they’re just essentially using these basketball players and football players that are essentially characters with the tattoos and the dreadlocks and the braids, and they’re looking cool on these graphics. But if they walked into a store at their homes and they didn’t have those big names, they might call the cops on them. And that’s why I said humans of… Once I started talking about real heart to heart stuff of things that we have to deal with as black people, nobody wanted to entertain it.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t want to be like an athlete that’s just like, “Shut up and dribble.” When I’m shutting up and Tweeting what you want to see, you’re cool with it. But when I Tweet something that’s serious, nobody wants to talk about it. Or when I Tweet about, “You guys should hire more black designers.” “Well, they’re not qualified.” Well, why aren’t they qualified? Is it that they can’t afford to be in these schools? Or is it that they have the talent, but it’s not what you’re looking for? Because for me, I’ve always thought art is [inaudible 00:32:11]. So I think there is good design and there’s bad design, but there is a lot in between, as I’ve seen a lot of black designers get passed up on roles just because their work wasn’t the way a white designers’ is. So I also realized that a lot of people were getting hired from roles where people whose work I would be Tweeting out. So I just started to feel like I was supporting more non-black designers than I was black designers.

Tiffany Middleton:
And that just sit right for me, because I feel like it took me a while to just get my foot into the industry. And I think the people that did let me into those doors, they were all people of color. They were either people of color or white men who weren’t from America. So my boss at ESPN, he is from London. So it just was something that, it just was so apparent that I couldn’t not notice it. So that’s kind of why I kind of stepped away from the sports design thing and just started to focus more on black creators.

Tiffany Middleton:
Because I would find a lot of beautiful art in Brooklyn or beautiful photographers or things like that. But their work wouldn’t be sports center, but I just felt like it still needed to be shown and talked about, especially because once I did start speaking about black lives, or I put out the Protect Black Women shirts, 90% of my sales, 90% of the interactions was all black people. It just changed the perspective of I don’t want to be a sellout and it just felt like I was at that moment without realizing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I have to say, even coming to that realization shows, I think, your growth as a person and as a designer to be able to really survey the field and see that, that sort of what’s happening and how you can help to counteract that. One of the things that I present when I talk about Revision Path, I tell people to not just be an observer of the problem, but to work to try to be the solution because it can be real easy to just look at the landscape and see that things are messed up. And that’s all you talk about is how messed up it is. But you’re not doing anything to counteract that or to be actively against that. So no, I think that what you’re doing with taking Trenches in that direction is a great thing. And I can tell you, even just from doing this show for however… 400 plus episodes, the tide is turning in some ways, but it’s interesting to see how even in industries like sports and entertainment, particularly in sports, that that’s not the case.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. It is definitely not the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So aside from Trenches, you mentioned this Protect Black Women shirt. Are there any other projects that you’re working on?

Tiffany Middleton:
That was the last one out, I do you want to relaunch it because I feel like it has more legs and I have some stuff planned for the upcoming year, but I’m trying to figure out all the logistics, so just stay tuned for it.

Maurice Cherry:
The way that the year is going now, it’s of course so different from last year. It’s like, you’re kind of trying to get your rhythm back in a way after a year of not really being able to do what you do, you kind of have to sort of ease back into it a bit. I’m trying to think of what other stuff I would want to do creatively this year. And I don’t know, I need time to think about that. So that makes sense. Now back when I had you on the show, I keep mentioning our old interview, but you told me then that your dream project would be working with Nike. Is that something that’s still on your design bucket list?

Tiffany Middleton:
That has changed completely. So I think for me, the difference between me six years ago and me now is going back to what I just said about just fully stepping into my blackness and understanding that every room I walk into, people are going to see my color first. And I don’t ever want to take a job where I feel like I might have to lose a part of my culture in the surroundings of where I’ll be. So for me, A is I visited Portland, I’d never visited before, but I went there last year, right before coronavirus and my time at ESPN was great. It changed my life, it was a great experience, but I would probably not want to live in a place where the population is less than 20% black and very not diverse. And so A, I would just not want to live in Portland.

Tiffany Middleton:
And then B, I think again, kind of going back to growing up on ESPN, especially growing up on Nike, I mean, every shoe I own is pretty much a Nike shoe except for Adidas. But realizing that all of these companies, the one thing they have in common that I gravitate a lot towards to, is black culture. And I think for me now, it’s like, I’m realizing that I have what I was looking for and I can kind of do my own thing with it. And I also feel like, not to take anything at Nike or any other company, but sometimes it just feels like it’s capitalizing on black culture, especially when it’s such a big brand. And that’s kind of changed my thoughts about it because like I said, six years ago, I’m just thinking logistical design stuff, not thinking about any culture perspective or from a person to person perspective.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now it’s like the older I get, I’m like, I would love to work at Nike. I think they do great design, but I also wouldn’t want to take a job where I feel like my mental health or my ability to be around my culture might be limited in a way or capitalizing on black culture and not really giving back to it. I think I’ve turned into this humanitarian type of person. So I would love to work with Nike. I would love to collaborate with Nike, but working at Nike, as an in-house designer, those thoughts are a little bit less now.

Maurice Cherry:
I have what I was looking for. That is such a powerful statement to say. And you’re right about how these companies… Particularly Nike, I mean leans on blackness a lot. I mean, look at their marketing. I mean, look at Kaepernick.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah, exactly. And I mean, I think they do great work, but if we’re being in real and you look in the front office, they may not have a lot of black executives. And I’m one of those people, it might be contradictory or people might disagree with this, but I want to see black people in roles that aren’t diversity and inclusion or HR roles. I want to see a black design manager. I want to see black people in those roles at Nike where they’re doing the same jobs as white counterparts, but they just happen to be black. Not that they’re roles where it’s a role made for a black person. I just feel like they can add more diversity to the office side

Maurice Cherry:
In one of your recent Tweets, you said, “The older I get, the more I simplify.” How have you simplified your life over the past few years?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh gosh. Let’s see. I think decluttered is the number one word. Not just decluttered my home, decluttered my mind, decluttered my thoughts, but I’ve decluttered my design process a lot. I think younger me is more into, “What’s the coolest design I can come up with?” Versus now it’s, “What is the most practical design I can come up with? What design can I create that isn’t going to cause any issues with legibility, any confusion?” Very being into simple. I love fashion, so I have to use Kanye as an example. Kanye from Graduation was wearing backpacks and polo outfits and lots of colors and stuff like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now [inaudible 00:40:19] Kanye seems like he wears the same thing every day, but he’s reserving his energy more so he can be more creative. And I start to realize that if I’m trying to do the best design every single design I do, I’m exhausting my energy and it’s causing me to be less creative. So now I’m being more intentional on textures, backgrounds, fonts, the foundational thing is that I can kind of switch up. So it’s kind of making this toolkit of accessories or design tools that I use and I kind of switch up and change around. So I still am able to be creative, but I’m also boxing myself in to where I’m not exhausting my creative energy.

Maurice Cherry:
Kanye also got four kids. So I would imagine that cuts down a lot on his own style. Just like, “Look, give me something simple.”

Tiffany Middleton:
I was going to say, he’s also a [inaudible 00:41:15] billionaire, so kids is… I’m sure he has people to take care of them to-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Tiffany Middleton:
[inaudible 00:41:20] creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh, let’s see. I think black culture does. I’m big into music. So I think back in my day… I’m not even that old, but I feel like back in the day, Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott, their music videos, they used to get me so excited. The conceptual stories behind it, the creativity, still feeling like true to nature, but seeing it on the big screen, those type of things get me excited. So music is continually being my inspiration for just motivated with design and then motivated on side projects or just motivated to do things that can potentially make a small change in this big world.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Tiffany Middleton:
I would say success for me is a peace of mind. Obviously a peace of mind, which seems very simple, but you know how sometimes you get the job that you love, but you never get any sleep, you’re always tired, you’re always stressed out, you are just running raggedy? So I think for me it’s like success has nothing to do with money, has nothing to do with awards and things like that. I think it’s what gives me gratification, what gives me peace, what makes me feel like I’ve done what I need to do, but it just doesn’t cause me regret or cause me a lot of problems. I just feel peace, especially with everything going on, that is what I define as success. Being able to do what I want to do when I want to do, how I can do it without having somebody control that in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the thing that I really love about kind of always having some sort of a side project or something. No matter where I work or what I do, I know I’m always going to have something on the side that’s just mine that I can do 100%, no outside input or anything like that. So I feel you on that. I actually asked this question in the last interview, I said, “What advice would you give your teenage self?” But what advice would you give 2015 Tiffany to help prep her for the future?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. Patience. Just be patient because things are going to come and they’re going to come when they’re supposed to come, not when you want them to come. And that every day may seem like a long day, but when you look back, they’re short days, but to do something every day that will impact the next day.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what would you like the next chapter of your story to be like, when you look at, let’s say the next five years, what kind of work do you want to be doing? Where do you want to be? All that sort of stuff.

Tiffany Middleton:
I think New York is my home for the next five years, at least. So I would definitely like to still be in New York, I would like to do more community events like art shows, maybe do some school programs. Just do more awareness for black designers within sports and just black designers in general. And then I’ll also probably like to hop my foot back into the product world because I really loved the thought process about that. So just more community events, probably bring Trenches outside the computer and have a outside event and maybe dabble back into product eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that would be a great idea to do, like a little summer meetup or something like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’d would be great. When I started doing live shows for Revision Path… What’s funny, when we had our interview, I wasn’t even thinking about taking this offline. I was like, “This is just going to stay a podcast.” But I started doing live shows in 2017. And the great thing about doing a live in-person event for black designers is the actual space and community that it creates. It’s not so much that you’re like, “Oh, where people in a place listen to someone,” or something like that. What it’s doing is it’s bringing folks together around a common theme that they may never have found a way to interact with each other in any other sort of way. So the fact that they’ve managed to come together in this one space that you’ve made of a meetup or something like that. We’ve done live shows where people will be hanging around an hour after we’re done, two hours after we’re done.

Maurice Cherry:
They’ve closed down the venue, people are still standing outside talking and it makes me wonder what connections have been made from those kinds of events. And if those connections would have even happened, if the event never happened. So I definitely love the idea of doing some live in-person stuff. I mean, I was starting to do a tour in 2020 before the pandemic. We did a live show out in Los Angeles, that was great. Actually we did our 300th episode in New York. That was 2019. I don’t want to get into that story, but that was a whole other thing. But if you think about doing live events, even just a small 20 person thing or something like that, socially distance, do it, it is such a good time. Not just for you as the host of it, but just for the community that you’ll be able to bring together around a common cause.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s actually something I’m kind of working on right now. So we may have to connect later, but yes, it’s something I was talking about with the team that I worked on, the Zoom conference with. And then coronavirus happened and it was just not working, but now that people are being outside again, it’s definitely something that’s in the works for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Tiffany, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’m big on Twitter. I love to Tweet, so you can follow my personal page, it’s Tiggatip. So T-I-G-G-A tip on Twitter and then also Trenches, just Trenches_ on Twitter and I’m also on Instagram and not Facebook, but Instagram and Twitter. So @Tiggatip, personal, and then Trenches for Instagram and Twitter.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Tiffany Middleton, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, coming back on the show, really. It’s been so great to hear your story of how you have leveled up since I first had you on the show. Back when I had you on back then, I remember saying how fun it was, how much of a treat it was to just talk with you and get a sense of what you’re doing. And I can hear the maturity and how much you’ve grown over the past six years just from this conversation. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Tiffany Middleton:
Thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Poster House

Poster House

If you are in NYC, head to Poster House in the Flatiron District to check out Julius Klinger: Posters for a Modern Age, an exhibition Steven Heller from PRINT Magazine calls “a trove of modern design innovation,” and Freak Power, an exhibition about Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff described as “visually striking” by The New York Times.

Head to www.posterhouse.org and book your ticket today!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

It’s time for our annual audience survey! Tell us what you think about Revision Path, and you could win a $100 Amazon.com gift card! Visit revisionpath.com/survey to give us your feedback. Survey ends on May 31.

Sabrina Hall

Summer is here, and we’re closing out the month with a conversation with designer and design educator Sabrina Hall. As a senior product design manager at Justworks, Sabrina oversees a creative team dedicated to helping improve the payroll, benefits, and other human resources tasks for a number of businesses.

We started off with Sabrina sharing starting at a new company during a pandemic, as well as some of the intricacies of her role (such as the overlap with strategy). She also talked about growing up in New York City, attending SVA, and her shift from editorial and print design into product. We also discussed teaching, as well as the importance of writing as a designer, and spoke on how she views success at this stage in her career. Thank you Sabrina for helping to usher in the next generation of designers!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Sabrina Hall:
Hi, I am Sabrina Hall. I’m a senior product design manager at Justworks here in New York City.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has 2021 been for you so far?

Sabrina Hall:
2021 has been a year of challenges and gratefulness. It’s truly been a year with so many new opportunities, but also just one filled with collective and community grief and finding a balance between that and self care for the past year. So, it’s been complicated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the last year or so?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Over the last year, a few of the lessons that have really stayed with me is community care and how it’s so important during a time like this in the pandemic, particularly I was able to really actively advocate and be a part of mutual aid funds and understanding how to give directly to the community and support that. Some of the lessons for me were also identifying where I needed to set boundaries for my own self care, with the idea of putting my oxygen mask on first and being able to then care for others, really continuing to be grateful for my space and for safety and for help, and really seeing how the pandemic impacted so many marginalized communities.

Sabrina Hall:
Then also, really just making space for deeper understanding and deeper compassion for folks’s experiences, as there’s just been so much collective grief, and so many folks that I know have really gone through a lot of loss in the past year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s so interesting how, with this past year being as honestly as traumatic as it’s, how much of a rush there is now to almost forget the last year. Not memorialize it or remember it in a way that sort of holds all the loss that we’ve held, that we’ve experienced in a sacred place, but just to “get back to normal.” I’m not comfortable with how quickly the push is to make that happen without recognizing what we’ve been through.

Sabrina Hall:
I really think the concept of getting back to normal is for me, one that I don’t identify with, because normal was already, in some ways, quite challenging and possibly problematic with just some of the systems, not possibly, but problematic with some of the systems we had in place already, particularly around healthcare, particularly around flexibility from work and working remotely. I don’t want to go back to a normal. I would like to look forward on creating new futures in new ideas of what a normal even means, and whether that’s more flexibility, whether that’s continuing to think inclusively about how we work together and the experiences there for myself.

Sabrina Hall:
I was able to get together with folks who normally I might not have been able to, because it was only in-person activities. I was able to grow a community in a way that I would not have been able to if we were in a normal time and would love to continue doing that work. I think that well, for some folks, they may find comfort in normal. Their normal really just doesn’t acknowledge or make the space for addressing a lot of the issues of why we were in this space with our work schedules, with health, and I think going back to normal is not really the way I want to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Normal, I think, as we’ve all seen and experienced through this time, is highly subjective. One person’s normal is another person’s, I don’t know, paradise in some ways, because we’ve all had to deal with some level of loss or just a curtailing of our regular activities through all of this.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, absolutely. Yes, exactly. That is quite subjective, and really understanding, how do we look to a new normal versus a past normal?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, one of the things you kind of talk about creating new futures, you kind of created your own new future. You started a new job during all of this. How has that been?

Sabrina Hall:
It’s been such an exciting time. I got a new job in the midst of the pandemic, so last year I started in August. It was quite a different process, starting remotely, getting to know the team remotely, as there not a remote based company, and understanding, how do I set boundaries as well with working at home? How do I get comfortable and have a space where I can really be productive on a day-to-day basis? Then just building partnerships and relationships remotely, which takes a different type of effort versus running into someone in sort of the, in the kitchen or different communal workspaces, where now it’s like, okay, intentionally setting up that 20 minute Zoom call to introduce myself to folks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting with the way companies are still, I think, adjusting to it. You mentioned, like with Justworks, it sort of not being a remote-first company. Is it changing now that I guess we’re sort of starting to emerge from the pandemic, even in just a small way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. There’ve been several changes. I would say that around the onboarding and hiring process, we come on as a cohort. So, everyone starts on one day to really make it a streamlined process, thinking about how we share documentation and artifacts and really distributing that in a way that’s easier and more accessible remotely. Then, also going into the future, how can we be flexible? I believe that currently, they’re looking at a way to keep partial work from home while still having folks back in the office as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s nice. That’s good to hear. What is a typical day like for you?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, a typical day ranges throughout the week. My day on a Monday, like today, is really focused on kicking off our weekly sprint with various groups. I focus on, and I’m the design, senior design manager for the benefits cluster, which is a large group that focuses on the benefits part of our product and then the growth part as well. My day begins with weekly’s and kicking off with our sprints meeting with my design team and having those one-on-ones to really identify the unblocked hours for the week and how to best set them up for success. Right now, we’re in the middle of fiscal year and planning, and attending that with some of my partners, senior product managers, group product managers, working with engineering managers.

Sabrina Hall:
My day is a combination of relationship building, mostly meetings around our next product steps, and then also connecting with the design team through feedback workshops and with my fellow managers and our director as well, looking at our goals for the design team as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me a little bit more about your team. You mentioned designers. Do you have other types of people that are working under you, like researchers or strategists or anything like that?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. Currently, we have a larger design team. I have three direct reports, one senior designer and two product designers. Currently, their skill sets are really expanding and we focus on, not only the user research, which they lead, but also the visual design and the UI work involved with that as well. So, our designers are very closely working on research, also working on the user experience and partnering with engineers along the way, too.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the best part about what you do now?

Sabrina Hall:
The best part about what I do now is partnering with the designers to continue unlocking and advocating for them to reach their highest potential. That is so important because it’s something that impacts everything, the business, the future of a product, their career growth, their ability to focus as designers, and it really is something that I enjoy and I learn so much from every week.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back when I was leading teams at … This was another place I used to work at. I mean, I just remember, first of all, there was always meetings. There were so many meetings, whether there were one-on-ones or leadership meetings, or this, that, and the other, and it never felt like I really got to work on stuff. It was more like I was working, I mean, I don’t want to say stuff, but I wasn’t working on the product. It felt like I was just more working with people. It was very much a people management kind of thing. Do you still sort of have the opportunity to work hands-on with the product in any way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, there are opportunities to. While I enjoy it, I definitely rely on the experts of our product design team. I believe that the way I work with the product now just differs from the angle of the approach. While I may not be necessarily working very closely on a user flow, I am thinking about it strategically and how best to set our product up for success, thinking of approaches to research, trying to identify inter-department connections that we have, interdependencies. So, it’s definitely still working on the product, but yes, a little differently than before.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. So, you’re sort of making sure that the team is in the right place to do the actual hands-on work on the product, but you’re shepherding the team. You’re, like you said, removing barriers and making sure that they can do the best work that they can do without any sort of obstructions or interruptions.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Gotcha. Now, before this, you were an art director at Scholastic. How is this role at Justworks different from that one?

Sabrina Hall:
My role at Scholastic was quite similar. At Scholastic, the structure of titles was very different there as a company that was focused in the print space and then expanded to digital. So, there are many overlapping part, whether it was managing our team, focusing on the lead of a product, really doing a lot more hands-on work. That was definitely one of the big differences with regards to day-to-day being in the design process. Some of the other differences have been really getting more time and space to be focused on the strategy while not having to also do the IC work.

Sabrina Hall:
But so much of it was also really focused on, what are the two sides of an experience? So, at Scholastic, it was really thinking about the students using the product and the teachers using the product while the school is making the purchase of the product, and similar to some of the work I do now, we think about the admins who are working with Justworks and the employees who use the product as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, just to kind of switch gears here a little bit, I saw when I was looking at your website, you mentioned that you were born and raised in New York City.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about kind of your early intro to design.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I was born and raised in the Bronx. My intro to design started in high school. I went to the Bronx High School of Science. I really enjoyed writing. I was convinced I was going to go to Fordham and study journalism. That was one of the first things I wanted to focus on, but I loved art, I’ve always loved art. Probably just, yeah, as far as I can remember, when I was applying to go to junior high school, I went to Eastside Middle School, I had to take off my shoe and draw it as part of an entry for that school, so I’ve always loved art. Yeah, I was like, this has got to get me in, and it was such a good experience.

Sabrina Hall:
Then, at Bronx Science, I recall enrolling in AP art, and the teacher at the time, Ms. Ash, I remember enjoying it so much. I was doing collage work and I was just enjoying every part of AP art. And she was like, “This is something you can do as a career.” I was like, “What do you mean? I don’t understand this at all.” At the time I remember also loving things like Write On, Word Up magazine, and that was the space that I was just really in. And she was like, “All these magazines that you enjoy, there is a graphic designer doing this and it is something that you can have a career from.” I was completely shook. I was like, “What do you mean? How do I do this?” That shifted everything.

Sabrina Hall:
I made portfolios, I gathered work. I was really fortunate to have parents who supported me at the time. They were not aware of graphic design as a career, and regardless, they were like, okay, if you believe you can do this, we’re supporting you, and applied to several schools and ended up going to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting that it’s magazines that were kind of an entry point. That was like that for me as well. I grew up in the deep south. Getting Vibe Magazine and YSP, I’m dating myself now, but YSB and Emerge and seeing all of this, and one, these positive representations of blackness, but then two, to know that there were black people behind it that were designing it, was really something that brought me more into the space. Although it was much later, I don’t want to say much later in my career, but certainly it wasn’t something I went to school for. Now, you did go to school for design. You went to SVA. What was your time like there?

Sabrina Hall:
My time there was an overall positive experience. I was exposed to just so many different things in the art industry, understanding the challenges within being in that space, understanding being one of few in that space, but I learned so much. I graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts with a focus in graphic design, and really understood that this was something that I enjoyed doing and could really thrive at and would be able to … At the time, really was thinking about how I can put my own mark on design and using it. So, that was one of the biggest learning experiences from it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, SVA, of course, is a well-known school. We’ve had several SVA alum here on the show. If you could sort of just, I don’t know, give an endorsement for the school in a way, in what ways did SVA sort of really prepare you for a career as a designer?

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that SVA prepared me for some of the challenges in design around it being a very homogenous industry, but also realistically, it exposed me in the same hand to folks in the industry who had certain networks were able to really identify what the industry is looking for and really empowered me to begin, just the beginning stages of understanding how I could use this as a career. I think, even throughout the process, it was very clear that this was something that I could do as a job, was really important to me with then graduating from any college.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, at first, your design career dealt with a lot of print work. When did you sort of make this transition more into digital design?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I joke sometimes, possibly aging myself here, that I feel like I’m one of the last folks who graduated with a print portfolio that sort of like flew in [inaudible 00:20:50] one of these larger pieces. What I find for myself, as I started to enter the industry, was I loved editorial, gravitated towards that space. Was doing a lot of print work and branding and corporate, but found that things were changing, and things were changing rapidly. From being in a print space, I’ve always been someone who loves learning and I’m excited by change. I realized, okay, print is changing, particularly within the editorial space.

Sabrina Hall:
Things started moving towards e-publications and understanding how to design for that, and I think at the time, in-design had an add on, I don’t know what it’s called now, that was made specifically for EPUB, and I went in and tried to learn that as much as I could and experimented there. From there, I then also started to teach myself to code, because I felt like so much was moving in that direction with regards to creating blog. There was a specific time where everything was about blogs and wanting to understand that and engage in that space.

Sabrina Hall:
I would say that probably came maybe around 2010, was when that shift started to happen, so I had always begun to like dabble in that space, but then really focused in earnest when I was at the end parts of focusing on editorial and then moving into digital spaces. So, I started building websites in WordPress, started doing my own little front-end work here and there, and then really learning to expand upon that and moving into a focused lens with product design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, with all of this sort of change in focus, I’m trying to remember, I know back then on the web, certainly there was this big shift from more, almost print-based design, I guess that’s the sort of the best way I can put it, because we were designing with tables, and then there was the shift from tables to CSS. Then even with CSS, there were shifts into pre-processors, into Flexbox, and all that stuff that sort of came later on. It felt like that change really shifted a lot more people into design. I just remember how hard it was to design around tables back in the day.

Maurice Cherry:
Largely, it was just based off a print. I mean, even some of the terms that we use for some of the tags are from print terms, like break lines and anchors and things like that. So, it’s really interesting how those shifts sort of precipitate kind of changes in the industry. Now, sort of in this time, right around then you also started your own design studio kind of alongside your full-time work. What inspired you to sort of branch out in that way?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I was in a space where I really wanted to continue learning and do a wider breadth of work. I felt like, while I was focused on editorial, I really wanted to try new things, and I started moonlighting with a few folks after hours and on the weekends, working on projects from like, okay, I’ll build out your WordPress site with a full branding to logo design, to your setting up an app. How can I just help you with the first stage of low fidelity? What I’ve found during that time was that slowly, it went from my own moonlighting schedule to then word of mouth, that I then realized, I could do this full time.

Sabrina Hall:
It was quite a process. I learned so much in making and working for myself with regards to everything from taxes, hiring folks, partnering, distributing work, and then really understanding how to pitch the work that I do, the value of what I could bring to individuals and companies, and understanding that I was really enjoying the process of solving a business problem together with a small business, or one person who was like, I’m starting my own website for a book I’m coming out with, how can you help? That was what really drew me to doing that for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
I love how with studios, you really get to have that flexibility, not just on like, who you may decide to take on, but also just the kind of work that you do, and even the level of specificity that you want to take on with the project. It’s funny that you call it moonlighting. I haven’t heard someone say that in so long, but I get what you mean, just in terms of doing stuff. Now, what? Side projects is the new moonlighting, I guess?

Sabrina Hall:
I think so. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:25:24].

Maurice Cherry:
I get what you mean. You’re kind of working on other stuff during off hours that you probably should be relaxing or whatever, but it’s such a good way when you have your studio to do that, because you can really dabble in different things, and you can decide sort of the direction you want to go into. You can really be a specialist at stuff if you want to, as opposed to maybe being more of a generalist with things. Studio stuff is great, but yeah, the part about getting really the nuts and bolts stuff down with taxes and accounting and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I tell entrepreneurs all the time or designers that want to be entrepreneurs like, get an accountant. That’s the first thing you should do is try to get somebody that’s going to handle the money so you can focus more on the creative stuff, because that other stuff just bogs you down.

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. I did not get an accountant for quite a long time. It was definitely lessons learned there and so many other things, even with regards to setting up proposals, understanding how to reply to RFPs, the competition in the market, and then just also understanding the industry where there were years that while I was working on various projects, that I made significant gains and significant losses as well and just really understanding that holistically for running a business and what it meant in my own work-life balance as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, like a few other people that we’ve had here on the show before, you’re also a teacher at City Tech, you’re an adjunct professor there. What made you decide to start teaching?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes, so I’m going to give a very explicit shout out to Douglas. I had always had an interest in teaching. It is connected for me through, for several years, I was a mentor in the AIGA mentoring program, and for several years after that, co-chaired it with one of my closest friends Anjali Menon. Throughout that time, I had always enjoyed partnering with folks who were interested in design community, equity, and really enjoy that space. I had been invited by Douglas to join for a panel event. In having those conversations, he was like, “There’s an opportunity here at City Tech. I really think this would be something that would be fantastic.”

Sabrina Hall:
I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” I had only done a couple of lectures at that point in time and hadn’t been fully situated. I was very nervous. How can I teach? In reflecting and saying on this now, I know that it was possibly ingrained, because my mom’s a teacher, my husband’s a teacher, so I’m surrounded by teachers. True to form, I was like, okay, sink or swim. This is the opportunity. Douglas had mentioned it, then a few months later, he was like, “Here’s the role?” And I was like, “Well, Douglas, I don’t know about the hours.” “Here’s the perfect hours.” “I don’t know about the day.” “Here’s the perfect day.”

Sabrina Hall:
Everything lined up, and I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” It has been such a humbling experience, a wonderful experience, and an opportunity to really, I think, disrupt the design industry from a perspective I hadn’t always considered.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Sabrina Hall:
My students teach me how compassion is important. My students remind me that kindness is important and that you can learn with this as a structure. My students teach me that the industry is very subjective in so many ways and very challenging and continues to be challenging for folks to enter into. My students teach me that sometimes, and many times I don’t know the answer, and my role is to help them figure it out and for myself to learn alongside with them. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that with, I guess the pandemic and how that may have distanced you from it, has that changed the way that you teach?

Sabrina Hall:
The pandemic really impacted the way I taught, I believe for the better. One of the things that I felt very strongly about in supporting my students throughout the pandemic is removing the requirement for cameras. City Tech has always been really great about that, but in various educational circles, I’ve been reading and seeing how some professors are making it mandatory and really just understanding what true engagement means, and that doesn’t mean someone having a camera on in Zoom. Another thing it has really identified is clarity around teaching, specifically with increased documentation, increased expectations, and then also identifying the boundaries of that as well, particularly with being home and understanding, do I need to be engaged on this email right now after having taught for three hours or can it wait till tomorrow? And resetting the time I need to reset as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say that you’re obsessed with lately?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, this is such a delightful question. Okay, I’m currently obsessed with the natural sciences. I have been in this really particular space. I had just finished rereading Emergent Strategy, and just am so intrigued by how the natural sciences and plants and birds and the biomimicry of things and how we can learn from that. I particularly I’m really into how certain trees grow together and support one another, and how that could be paralleled into team structures. I’m also really into birds right now. I’m just enjoying seeing documentaries about birds and how they build things, and just again, learning from the natural sciences is my like head space currently.

Maurice Cherry:
We had a designer, oh God, when was he on the show? We had a designer on the show last year. I think it was right around April or May, or so, but it’s episode 340 with Billy Almon. Billy is … He called himself a biology inspired storyteller and designer. I mean, a lot of the work that he does is around the natural sciences, like a lot of his design work and such. I first met Billy at Harvard. This was at the Black and Design Conference in 2019. He was on one of the panels there, and he was really talking about how, like you mentioned biomimicry, and that’s what sort of stuck out to me, is that he really sort of does a lot of what you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
He looks at how the natural sciences work in other ways and other applications, and he gave this really great example about ants and how the way that ants build their anthills and stuff, how that social structure can go forth in societies. It was super fascinating, episode 340, if anyone’s listening and want to check it out with Billy Almon, but it was a really, really great interview. It just sort of got me to thinking about that when you said natural sciences and biomimicry.

Sabrina Hall:
I just made a note of it, and I too will be listening to 340, so I will be following up and anyone else who cares to listen, happy to have that Twitter conversation in regards.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because the theme, so to go back to, I guess that conference, the whole theme was around creating more equitable futures. Now that I think about it, it’s the last conference I went to in person prior to the whole pandemic, but the conversations there were around, how can designers use all sorts of things to create more equitable futures? With Billy, it was about like using nature for design and for technology to make equitable futures, like looking at nature and seeing how nature heals and fixes itself and structures itself and think, how can we take that and just apply it to design or apply it to tech, or apply it to social issues or things of that nature. It’s really, really interesting stuff.

Sabrina Hall:
I am so intrigued. This sounds like really in alignment with what I’m interested in right now, and I definitely cannot wait to check this out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now. I love that you have, in your bio, that you are a writer. What does writing do for you as a designer? What does that sort of tap into?

Sabrina Hall:
Yes. Ooh, writing for me as a designer taps into so many different things. For me, it’s accountability in a way that I hadn’t expected, and where I find I’m able to share information and hold myself accountable for some of the processes that I’m thinking through for documenting and finding ways to explain myself and continue to practice that as a skillset overall. Also, writing has been really helpful for me with regards to understanding how to build connections and relationships. What I mean by that is something like introducing yourself to a client, writing a proposal, understanding the perspective to take there.

Sabrina Hall:
Additionally, writing has been a space also where I’ve learned so much about my own process with regards to how write out the stories for my portfolio to reflecting on growing as a designer who is introverted and what that meant for social media and understanding that I can write these things down, look at them, reflect, learn from them, and sometimes I almost think of writing as just another version of design in terms of like getting all of the information put into a space that I can then use for reference or share, or just document for my own journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Writing as another version of design. I like that. I like that. I was explaining to someone recently about, they had asked me when was the last time that I had designed something, because I mean, people know that I do this show, and then like for my actual day job, I also do some work dabbling in audio, even though I’m a creative strategist, and they just sort of asked me like, when’s the last time you designed something? I got what they meant. They meant, when was the last time you sort of, I guess, sat down in Illustrator or Photoshop and visually designed something. But I told them that a lot of what I do now, these days is more along sort of designing processes and designing systems, and I do a fair amount of writing as well. I don’t know how many designers would consider writing as an element of design, but it totally is. It absolutely is.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. Even now, this show has designed the organization of how this is put together, the outcome, the way that work has been set up in terms of the research that’s done. I think of design is now moving out of a space of just like being just that artifact of a product or something in Photoshop or Figma, but more how we can also just apply it to various things with regards to that problem-solving lens and experimenting lens as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you think we can encourage more designers, specifically more black designers or designers of color? How can we encourage them to write more?

Sabrina Hall:
What I have found that encourages me to write as a black designer is the importance and impact of my voice to everything else that is also out there. What I mean by that is, as an industry, there are always articles that tend to be very popular and are written from specifically, which tends to be the case, the majority, a cis white hetero male perspective, and that is one perspective. I have found that in many situations, I’m unable to find that material fully helpful because of the inability to just relate. By adding my own voice. It really gives a different perspective. I hold myself accountable to that perspective to say, here is my approach to it, and here are the things that I would consider.

Sabrina Hall:
I encourage other folk to share their voice in a way that they feel best identify with their goals and the outcomes that they are looking towards, and really just saying design has many folks and many perspectives and many faces.

Maurice Cherry:
I usually also try to, I mean, when I’m talking to designers and trying to impart the importance of writing, I try to show it to them in a historical sense. Like, say you go into a bookstore, like a Barnes & Noble or something, and you go to the design section, I guess there’s … I haven’t been in a bookstore in like a year or so because of the pandemic, so I don’t really remember, but I’m sure there is a arts and design section. I sound like an old person, but I’m sure that section exists, and you go there and you’re looking for books, and you’ll probably notice that most of the books there are not by or from people of color. The importance I see to writing is to put your own words out there to be a part of the historical design corporates.

Maurice Cherry:
That may not necessarily be a book. It could be an article, a series of articles. It could be, and even I’m saying writing in terms of the physical act, but it could be a podcast, it could be videos, it could be Instagram live videos, whatever, but finding another outlet to sort of transmute your thoughts from your head into a medium that other people can enjoy it. I think writing certainly is one way to do that and I think a big way to really spread your words out there more so people can know what it is that you think and what you feel, and the thoughts behind the work that you do, or even just the thoughts about this industry.

Maurice Cherry:
I see so many people writing up a storm about stuff on Twitter. I am a very sporadic Twitter user. I really kind of only use it as a highlight reel, and I try to save all the stuff that I really want to sort of get out there. Either I make it into a presentation. I’ll talk about it in the show or I’ll write about it. I feel like that way, my words can sort of live longer, because tweets are such an ephemeral thing. No matter how many prolific tweet threads you might have, is that really going to like be around in a week or a month or a year or five years.

Maurice Cherry:
Thinking about it in the historical sense of that, your words carry weight, your words are your thoughts in this other form, and it’s a way that it can sort of live on past whatever experiences you might have or anything of that nature. It can be just sort of a historical reference in many ways.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. I even found that, I forgot, probably a few years ago, I was just looking to write about black designers and found such limited material on the surface level. There was definitely material, but on the surface level of like a half-hour Google search. There was not much. What the impact of that was, was like, okay, so this is not something that is easily accessible, how can it become more accessible and part of the entire canon or design history as well? So, I absolutely hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Who are some of the design mentors or anyone that have really helped you out along your way.

Sabrina Hall:
I have been really fortunate to have some great folks along the way. When I was doing a lot of consultancy work, there was a creative director named John Herr, who really, at the time, continued to create space for me to just grow and advocated for me to lead on different projects. When I was much younger and working in an agency space, there was a professor of mine who was then also our creative director, Terry Koppel, who influenced and impacted my career trajectory. Then a lot of the non-design folk, and what I mean by that are community members with regards to folks who work within the community of design, and that can be folks in research, folks really in creating community spaces, and then a lot of my peers, I would say, have been mentors, probably not actively.

Sabrina Hall:
I don’t know if they would give themselves those titles, but a lot of my peers have pushed the way I’ve thought have provided so much advice, insights, clarity, and just space for me to ask questions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to the writing again, if you had to write a book, what would you write about?

Sabrina Hall:
I have been thinking about writing a book and maybe piecing together the concept of writing a book. A couple of topics that come to mind are that connection between the natural sciences and design organizations. I’m also very interested in sharing about the experiences, my own experiences within the design industry when there is, I feel the time and space to put that together. I’m also really interested in writing about design education as well and the design of that industry in terms of the funnel of that and how we think about entry points of design and think about design education overall.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you, I don’t know, dive into that a little more about design education? Because you are a design educator yourself, like what would you want to sort of explore there?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I believe that a lot of our design education in New York and my own experience that I’ve had, I can’t speak to other experiences, but to my own experience, has been very Eurocentric. And there has been so much erasure of the work of other folks who are not Eurocentric, without the Eurocentric lens. What that means is that a lot of work and a lot of the things that I experienced coming into the industry was, I used to really be someone who focused on Swiss design, and that was the aesthetic I went towards. And learning later on that, was that really nature or nurture, from the perspective of like, that was all I was told, yet when I brought about a different design style, that was much more colorful and focused on patterns. It was like that wasn’t graphic design at the time, that wasn’t qualified by my teachers in some cases as being like a strong enough graphic design.

Sabrina Hall:
I realized part of that education is because we’re so limited with regards to only learning about certain names and only learning about certain folks as like the most important folks within this design, and that just continues to perpetuate those norms into the industry, into how we consider what “good versus bad” work is. I put those in quotes because that, it’s just a simple binary of good versus bad, but it’s not … The nuances and the gray area. Then also really understanding how that impacts all the way up to who gets hired, who gets access to design education, why is it that design school is so expensive and that the cost for entry is so high? What happens to folks who don’t have the access, but have every interest in skillset? And just yeah, wanting to dig into that a little deeper.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that sounds fascinating. I would love to read a book about that. Certainly, it’s an interesting reflection on sort of where we’re seeing, at least what I’m seeing from black design educators, how now they’re really starting to bring in other sources to, I want to use the word decolonize, only because that’s the word that sort of has been attached to these conversations, but they’re really, I think diversifying their sources of just like, where other students can learn about design and it’s not just from, like you said, the Bauhaus or Swiss style, or German style, and a lot of these are like events, there are conferences, there’s so much stuff now.

Maurice Cherry:
Honestly, even from, before when I started this podcast, there were so many more events and opportunities and ways to learn about the history of black people in design now than there were 10 years ago. It’s amazing. I really want to see where it goes from here.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah. I think it’s an exciting time. I believe that it’s really beginning to open up just so many different perspectives with regards to also who teaches design, also, to your point, how we learn about design. So, from your podcast to events where all the black designers, to various slack groups that have come up, to just how there are these micro communities, even through social media as well, where folks are asking one another questions, having conversations about the industry and their employer. And really, I believe also, there is the business side of it. We’re hand in hand with all of the civic unrest and the specificity of the murder of George Floyd. How that, how all of a sudden, everyone’s like, oh, we’re being held accountable as companies, and everyone’s looking at your board of directors and looking at your staff, at least I am.

Sabrina Hall:
I can’t speak for everyone, but starting to look at that even closer than I was previously and understanding and seeing, okay, how are these companies defining for or working around it? Because it’s also aligning with what a lot of folks are asking for, too, for themselves in the industry, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know when, unfortunately, when his murder occurred last year, and how that one really drove people out into the streets to protest, but it was amazing how so many people were calling on companies, because companies were doing this thing, where they’re like posting the black squares and saying they stand for racial justice, and everyone else was like, uh-uh, but what about in your industry? Or like, what about this industry? You had so many people that were starting to turn it around and say, well, if you’re really committed, then why does the industry look like this?

Maurice Cherry:
Why does the industry function in this way? What are the real steps that you’re taking besides just posting a black square? I have been telling folks this year, I was like, Juneteenth is going to be crazy this year, which is on a Saturday. I know last year there were a lot of companies that were saying, yes, we’re going to make this a day off and we’re going to start to observe it. I guess maybe they’ll observe it on Friday now, so three-day weekend in June, I guess. I don’t know. I’m assuming that’s going to pick up.

Sabrina Hall:
I guess we’ll see. I think that, for myself, these are some questions I had been asking before, but probably just more so in private. I think that with these conversations happening, there’s much more room for conversations publicly, not always, but just a little bit more and really understanding and also learning what’s best for folks. There’s pros and cons for so many aspects to it, but what are the ways in which it can help folks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you look at where you’re at now, is this how you imagined yourself when you were a kid?

Sabrina Hall:
Oh, no, I don’t think so. I feel like I would not have imagined this per se. Likely, I thought of myself in some way of doing something creative, but I would not have imagined the ability to, or just the immediate, yeah, the immediate ability to lead a team, to work through teams, to run my own business. I don’t think I would’ve necessarily imagined this, but probably felt like I could try different things. I think I’ve always just had that curiosity, but yeah, I don’t think I would have imagined this to this, and I wouldn’t, yeah, I wouldn’t change it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point, like where you’re at in your career with teaching, with what you’re doing at Justworks, with your writing and everything, how do you now define success?

Sabrina Hall:
I would define success as a few things. The ability to make decisions that I feel much more confident about. I would define success as the impact of continuing to advocate for others and continuing to make space for community work. I would define success as the recognition and understanding of my time and value, and not settling as well. I define success as being able to set boundaries and be able to say no to things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s a very layered definition of success.

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in five years, like it’s 2026, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Sabrina Hall:
I would like to be working on projects that care, just continues to care about people in the future, whether that’s through AR, VR, sound design and interactions there. I think in five years, the mediums and tools that we use will continue to change and being able to be a strategic partner for those things. I could see myself going back to running my own business as it’s something that I do enjoy and/or continuing to just partnering in the education space as well, and always being able to make a bridge to continue to increase access.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Sabrina Hall:
Yeah, absolutely. You can find me at sabrinahalldesigns.com, or on Twitter @SabrinaHallNYC.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Sabrina Hall, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just sharing your story and talking about the work that you’re doing, but also really impressing upon, I think, not just me, but also to the audience, the importance of writing, the importance of really also just like checking in with yourself. Like you said, being able to set those boundaries and using that work to, of course, make yourself better and to make your community better. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sabrina Hall:
Thank you, Maurice. Thank you for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

It’s time for our annual audience survey! Tell us what you think about Revision Path, and you could win a $100 Amazon.com gift card! Visit revisionpath.com/survey to give us your feedback. Survey ends on May 31.

Brent Rollins

This week’s guest is a true creative changemaker. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen his work somewhere over the past 30 years. He’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. For our monumental 400th episode, meet the one and only Brent Rollins.

We have a wide-ranging conversation where Brent goes into some of his current projects and collaborations, and shares a bit about his creative process when starting on something new. Brent also talked about growing up in Los Angeles around the entertainment industry, how he helped co-found Ego Trip, and we have a great discussion around Black design aesthetics and defining success. Brent is someone who has been a huge inspiration to me as a designer and a creator, and having him share his story for this milestone episode is truly awesome.

Thank you all for supporting Revision Path!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brent Rollins:
My name is Brent Rollins, and the short answer is that I’m a multi disciplinary designer, the long answer would be that I’m a creative who collaborates with people, organizations that are passionate and sort of driven in their mission to kind of spread their ideas and positivity to the world and to sort of create guiding paths for people.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 been for you so far?

Brent Rollins:
You know what, man? 2021, I’m ready to go. 2020 was actually the year that I was like, “Let’s do this. Weird. I’m ready to make some stuff happen.” Well, we know how that sort of ended up. So I think it’s been… I think a lot of people, including myself have been kind of bubbling and if you’re driven and if you have ideas and you’re creative, you’ve been using this sort of sabbatical or this time or this kind of slower period to think about things and formulate things and come up with ideas and plan. Like the people that have passed unfortunately, I know a few people that have been affected by the virus and stuff. So my heart goes out to them, but for those of us who are alive, this is a moment for us to be alive and to embrace that, and to really like… This is a blessing in that sense, if we haven’t been devastatingly affected. This has been a blessing to have this moment, to think about what we want to do and what we want to accomplish into what’s a forced introspection.

Brent Rollins:
And I hope rather that people kind of use it to better themselves. So, that’s what I’m about, man, I can’t wait for this year, unlike I’m ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I have talked to a lot of people that are saying that this is going to be like the new roaring 20s in a way?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man. Is it ever? This is going to be yo, roaring 20s, baby boom, it’s going to be crazy. I think, come June, July, this is going to be wild, bro.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, No. And I think even now, there’s this sort of like, I can feel this renewed energy in the air, especially as people are starting to get the vaccine. And even as some places are starting to relax restrictions, things are starting to open up again. So, people are anxious to get back out there and experience the world, whatever that may look like.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Some people unfortunately continue to experience the world and they didn’t really care, no shots, no judgment. But for the rest of us hopefully like I said, we’re sensible enough to kind of use it to our advantage and kind of make plans and sort of think about things. And it’s really funny because at the top of 2020, I distinctly remember thinking, I can’t tell you where it was, but I can distinctly remember thinking. I was like, “Man, the world is moving really fast. This thing needs to slow down.” It was like I felt just how much stuff was going on. Because I live in New York City, and I see construction going on everywhere. And I see all this stuff happening. And it just felt like things were kind of out of control. And so it was… Like I said, it’s been a weird, mixed, I guess, [inaudible 00:07:08] and kind of blessing that this thing sort of forced everyone to slow down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you now?

Brent Rollins:
It’s funny, because I was never a very structured person, and I’ve become a little bit more regimented. And I actually really enjoy it. Or I feel like I need that. So, typical day for me right now is I’m in this kind of like new cycle. So, I’m actually implementing kind of new sort of regimens that I didn’t really do. So, I don’t know how typical it is. It’s only like maybe four months old. It seems like this has been Rollins’s day. But I typically go to sleep late, just because I’m a night owl. And I don’t get much sleep. So, I sort of wake up maybe about five or six hours later. And kind of like I want to read and sort of see what’s going on in the world and fix myself a little pot of coffee, and maybe take a little walk, get some air, get out the house, kind of just sort of take in what the environment has to offer, and start working on one of the multiple sort of projects that I got going on.

Maurice Cherry:
And what are some of those projects? I mean, as much of them as you can sort of talk about at liberty.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s really funny like… Because I was thinking about before this interview, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can’t really talk about the things that I’m working on right now.” Not because they’re secret, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. A few of the things that are maybe like projects for people, again, like people that are doing sort of very interesting, sort of passion projects, or things that have sort of a larger good, I think that’s the kind of stuff that I can maybe talk about, as far as there’s this brother Waajeed, who is a DJ based in Detroit, who is pretty well known. And Detroit as you know, has amazing music history. And so, Waajeed has got this fantastic opportunity to open. I don’t want to call it a school, but he is spearheading this project to create a… I think it’s called underground music academy. It’s sort of a place for people to sort of engage in musical creativity. And it’s on this Boulevard in Detroit, that has a lot of insane Detroit musical history. So, I’m working on the identity for that. And I’m very excited about that.

Brent Rollins:
Some of the other projects that I’m working on, are really entrepreneurial projects that have been in the works for the past year. One of them, I had to put the brakes on because of COVID, but is still moving and I’m super excited about it. And I really can’t wait to sort of show the world what that’s about. But the short story is that it’ll be a sort of a restaurant or cafe or something. And then the other project, there’s another entrepreneurial project that I kind of don’t want to talk about. But I’m also very excited about. Other than that, yeah, everything else is really working on stuff for people for short films and some album covers and things that… Or people that I’ve creative history with, people that really want to kind of put something out into the world that’s a little bit different. I’m at the point in my sort of life or career, or however you want to talk about it, or however you want to think about it, where I just want to be a little bit selective, and I’m okay.

Brent Rollins:
I need to figure out… Everything has to… You have to make a living. But I can be a little bit selective about things because I don’t want to depend on those projects for the things to make a living, I’d rather have the entrepreneurial things be the things that I use to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And that way, I have more control over the creativity, because it’s my projects. And then if I’m working with anybody, it’s going to be because I really believe in what they’re doing. There are people that have hit me up via social media. Man, people are like, “Yo, I’m doing this, would you do an album cover for me?” And I’m like, “Number one, you don’t talk to people like that.” You know what I mean? I also am like, “I’m not getting your hustle, but I’m also… I want to lend myself to projects that I feel that I understand and I feel have some sort of worth and value, and prove it to me.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how Twitter… And I guess you could say social media as a whole. But it’s amazing how Twitter has kind of almost flattened the… Like it’s flattened the hustle in a way. People will talk to you on Twitter in any kind of way. They don’t know who you are, and to that respect, I guess it’s that way with social media in general, they’ll just approach you on like some, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I get so many people that will… I wouldn’t even say that they write to the show, they tell the show, “I don’t know why you haven’t interviewed me yet.” Who are you? Person with no website and I can’t tell what kind of work that you do and you have 100 followers?

Brent Rollins:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how social media kind of flattens out in a way. People just don’t approach you with the same kind of not necessarily gravitas, but just the same sort of urgency. It’s just like, “Hey, do this for me.”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Well, I mean, people don’t… I can get into my old man, I’m going to put my old man pants on right now. It’s a little bit of number one, you should just learn if you’re going to… Like I said, if you’re going to approach people, show some respect, if you really like their work, at least be like, “Hey, I really like your work, this is what I’m trying to do,” and come with some humility and be like, “I’m doing this thing, would you be interested in it?” Yes, no, if not, I understand. I don’t really appreciate this sort of informality. I think social media enables people to be in contact, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
But it doesn’t mean that you should abandon sort of what has been traditional decorum and sort of like, just respect in terms of like how you approach people. I wouldn’t talk to any of these kind of design heroes that I have, as though they were my peers, they’re not my peers. Those are people that I look up to, and they’re deserving of that respect. And you’re right, yeah, as far as flattening, I think most of the people or a large amount of people that are using social media, it is flat, because they’re all peers. So, they can sort of approach people like that, but then there are other people that are within that space that are old like myself, that are like, “No, man, this is not how you run up on folks.” I didn’t run up on people like that. I was very-

Maurice Cherry:
Respectful?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, respectful. But whenever I’d meet people that were in a particular state, I would just approach them [inaudible 00:13:57]. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
I think that that’s… Not that I’m suggesting, “Yo, I’m better than you,” but I’m just kind of like, “Come on, man, I’m a grown man. Don’t talk to me like that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And also, it’s clearly when someone’s approaching in that way, it’s one way transactional. Like, “What can I get?”

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
“Can you do something for me?” Not like, “How do we help each other out in that kind of way?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, yeah. But you know what? I mean, if you’ve been doing anything for a moment, and you’re worth, you’re like us all, you can filter out who’s real and who’s not.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.

Brent Rollins:
And even the people that are not, maybe they haven’t found their tribe yet, but you can tell that, “Oh, you’re looking.” If you can identify the people that are like the junior use.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
Like, “Oh, yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, this person, they’re definitely on that vibe. And you know what? I’m going to put you under my wing because I can see that in you, and come along for the ride homie.” So, yeah. Oh, man, people hacked up on social media.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you’ve mentioned all these different kind of projects. First of all, I have to say I love the way you kind of just slowly was like, “Yeah, this is DJ in Detroit Waajeed.” You’re not talking about what Waajeed from slum village.

Brent Rollins:
No, no, no. Not at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Just like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s starting a school.” Doing the thing like, okay, all right. But when it comes to all these different projects that you do, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting a project?

Brent Rollins:
That is depending on the project, but I think that… I do a little research depending on what it is, one of the things that I try to tap into where… It’s really funny, because I have a great appreciation for sort of like, very learned kind of design approaches. But I think I’m really like a designer that came from an art background, I think, or more so just the act of creativity itself. And so I approach things in a way that’s more about emotion. And oftentimes, what is the feeling that I got when I encountered X? And so that’s what I’m trying to tap into in terms of like that sort of intuitive sort of feeling. I’m sure there have been moments in your life where there’s been some baby… I’m going to just use music, because it’s such a common denominator. When you… There was like maybe a club that you were just like, “Oh, man, that club was just… That was it. Because the DJ, the music was just right, and the vibe was right and the crowd, and the this and the that, and the…” All those kind of things.

Brent Rollins:
That’s a feeling. And if it’s done right, there’s a visual component to it as well. And so what I look towards is tapping into that visual trigger. That’s the thing because that’s my language. So, that’s the thing that whenever I was in any of these kind of environments, that’s what I latched on to, as my sort of like, this is my flotation device, this is what’s going to keep me up in this space. And I’m going to use this design thing or this visual thing and I’m going to sit back on my floaty and chill, while I’m observing the rest of the stuff that’s going on. That’s kind of like how I go. The creative process is about tapping into that vibe, that thing, that emotion that people get that is very subconscious. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, or certain countries, I don’t want to say third world countries, but just developing countries or something. There’s like the smell of like gasoline and burning jungle foilage. I was exposed to it as a young age.

Brent Rollins:
And then as an adult, I go back to those places and I’m like, “Oh, whoa!” It’s like automatically, it’s something that I totally forgot about, like, boom, it just triggered me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m back here. I’m ready to roll.” So, that’s what I’m trying to try to reach for, is to think about those kinds of things.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So yeah, you try to tap into a certain… You said like a visual trigger or a vibe, or a feeling and then you kind of build out from their sounds like?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s really funny man, the emotions and the memories. Like I said, people don’t necessarily… Sometimes people don’t remember them. But when they see them, they get excited. Like, I love remembering things that I’ve totally forgot. Sometimes there’s a thing that maybe happened to me as a child, or that maybe I went to, and someone else will bring it up and I’m like, “Oh, whoa! Oh, man, I totally remember.” I love that. That’s like the best feeling ever, because you’re taken back to something that you had kind of pushed in the… It’s like in the back of the storage room. It’s like if you have stuff in storage, and you kind of go through things, and you rediscover them. Like recently, I was going through my parent’s garage sort of cleaning things out. And kind of came across two boxes of old comics that I had left behind when I left Los Angeles from New York. And I hadn’t thought about those comic books in 20 plus years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
It’s not that I… I knew that I had comics, but I had got to the point where I just sort of disassociated and attached myself to those as possessions. Comic books are really important to me, the stories and the illustrations were… Some of the artists were very significant to me, and rediscovering those comic books in the back of my dad’s garage, and kind of going through it, man, I got a little teary eyed because I was like, “Oh man, a few comics.” I was just like, “Oh, man.” Because I decided to sell them because I haven’t looked at these things in so long. What’s the point of keeping these things? I just sort of resolved to sell them. I was going through some of the comments, I was like, “Man, do I really get rid of this? Oh, this is so awesome.” And it was like, yeah, I reconnected with something that I completely forgot about.

Brent Rollins:
So yeah, when I do… So, take it full circle. So, when I do design, there’s a tinge of nostalgia I guess, in some of the things because I think that’s what people are relating to, in some cases. And then other cases it’s like, “Well, I want to do something completely new.” And how do you do that? Even when you make something new, it’s rooted in something because if you do something that’s too new, you lose people. So, you want to put a little bit of something familiar in it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that sort of tinge of nostalgia, because I feel like there’s… We’ll get into the work that you’ve done with Ego Trip and Rap Pages, et cetera. But there’s a very temporal quality to your work that is kind of evocative of the 60s and the 70s in different ways. I think one, there’s this sort of like collage, mixed media kind of thing that I see you do sometimes. But then there’s also… And maybe I’m thinking of the more visual stuff that I see on television, but it’s also like a nod back to projectors. And there’s an audio element of a film reel, or noise grain that you see on film and stuff like that. And then just even the playful way that you use typography, it’s almost like you see those old school horror movie title cards or something. I get what you mean about that kind of tinge of nostalgia. But I think that’s a pretty big theme in your work though.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. The thing about using that as a device, it’s funny, because I don’t know what… I really want to talk to some younger designers now and kind of get where their head is at, because when I would resort to those options, it’s because that’s what I know is familiar to people. And the idea of design, in my world design meaning kind of visual communications, graphics, that type of design. It’s really about I want to communicate with you. What’s our shared language? What are our shared memories? What is our shared sort of commonalities? And when I pull from those kinds of things, this is very conscious. Those are things that I want to trigger you. I want you to be like, “Oh, I get it.”

Brent Rollins:
I think there’s the idea of design as ornament and sort of fireworks, where it’s like, “Yo, I’m doing something new and this is [inaudible 00:22:39].” And you’re going to get about five people that understand what you’re doing, which is cool. I’m not against that. I love that kind of stuff. But the idea of design, my foundation, or my understanding of design is rooted in the old idea of what a graphic artist was, which was communication design. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
So the idea of, I’m trying to reach you, I’m trying to talk with you. And for me, the shortcut is shared experiences. For me, the shortcut is what I’d surmise as being the things that we grew up with. And that’s how we begin to talk to each other. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. When I was doing that kind of stuff, it was based off of… It’s not the nostalgia because it looks… Sometimes that nostalgia can be about the kitsch factor or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, okay.

Brent Rollins:
I could… Man, I can go [inaudible 00:23:33].

Maurice Cherry:
I was actually careful not to use the word kitsch. So, I’m surprised you brought that up.

Brent Rollins:
Well, it’s sort of like the idea of… Well, when I say kitsch, I think… Let’s talk about the 70s for instance.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And when you see things that are about the 70s and particularly black culture, it’s always expressed in these very kind of superficial, simple… It’s like the lettering is groovy, whatever that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Hobo standard kind of… I know what you mean. Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. You think of afros as kitsch. It’s a little bit kitsch, right? People don’t look at afros as… They don’t look at afros as what it was, which was like this assertion of black identity and being sort of proud of kinky hair and all this other kind of stuff. They look at it as being a style. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
And how big it was, or how large your afro was. And sometimes there’s this sort of… There’s definitely like a silliness to some stuff from the 70s. I think that’s the sort of kitsch thing and it becomes like this kind of joke. I think about that movie, Black Dynamite, which avoided it because it was… That movie wasn’t… It took place in the 70s, but it wasn’t about afro jokes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
It was, but it wasn’t. It was really like a very loving, sort of understanding about that sort of aesthetic. But it was deeper than an afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes… [inaudible 00:25:10] my fist on the table. Yeah, it’s not about the kitsch today, kitsch isn’t about… It’s about like, “Oh, I remember that vibe.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned Los Angeles, where you’re originally from. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, what a weird place! I have a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles, because it made me who I am. So, I can’t hate on it. And there’re some really beautiful things about the city. There are some other things that I didn’t like, because I grew up around the entertainment industry. And so it was just sort of like a preoccupation that… Yes, it generates money and it generates attention. But sometimes I have to wonder why people sort of got into that world. But the world that I grew up in, was a middle class, black neighborhood called Windsor Hills, which I love to say, the Issa Rae’s character on Insecure, she’s from the neighborhood that I grew up. So-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
They got to her and when that show came out, I was just like, I just couldn’t believe that anything was shot in my neighborhood. I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re shooting there, they’re doing a scene there or some other place.” And it just blows my mind. So, I have to admit, it’s like a place that I’m very proud to come from, even though ironically, when I was growing up, I wasn’t. It was very conflicting because it was a neighborhood that in the 60s, I would say was probably… It was… I think my understanding was predominantly white, predominantly… A lot of maybe Jewish people who lived also in the neighborhood of Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, that area. And I think as black people started… I like to say or not like to say, but I kind of refer to the 60s as being like when black people actually arrived in the United States.

Brent Rollins:
That was when actual opportunities started opening up in the same way that other immigrants sort of arrived in the United States and they have to kind of scrapped their way, they’re at the bottom, but they still have this sort of legitimate way to sort of move on. In some ways, the 60s was kind of like that, finally being able to participate. And so a lot of folks who had been able to get like civil service jobs, or other types of sort of middle class jobs started buying into the neighborhood that I grew up in. And so, I think that was great to see. Some things I didn’t necessarily like, because I don’t… I had problems with sort of the kind of class segregation that was apparent and less about money, but more about social segregation. And the idea that… The idea society was something that I kind of struggled with. I grew up around people that… I want to make it very clear, I’m not knocking something like Jack and Jill or those kinds of organizations.

Brent Rollins:
I think at the time, I wasn’t part of those things and I didn’t understand them at the time. So, my limited understanding was, this was just a weird, boujee, kind of whatever, I understand it, or have a better appreciation of it now in the sense of… The way I like to think about it, is if your parents, regardless of the situation that they come from, they want something better for you. And so, that sort of situation exists because they want their children to succeed, or they want their children to have a guaranteed better life. But I didn’t understand that at the time. And so even though my father worked in or rather was trying to make his way in entertainment during that time, we ourselves were not probably as well off as maybe the people that were around me. So, that kind of gave me a different sort of perspective on things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I remember Jack and Jill growing up, but I didn’t think it was just some boujee black people. Like, seriously. But then I grew up as folks who listen to the show know. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and it’s like at the end of the day, we’re all poor black people in the country. I think when I was looking at it from sort of as like from a teenage perspective, and I don’t know if it’s this way for all of Jack and Jill, but it certainly was this way back then in Alabama. It was by sort of social class of course, but then also by skin color. Pretty much everyone in Jack and Jill was light skinned and I am not. And it’s like I would have people say, “Well, you would be so good at Jack and Jill, but you know.” So, if you were just a few shades lighter maybe and this other thing that we had, we’re like…

Maurice Cherry:
And this was in high school, I don’t know if this is even a thing or if this was just a thing endemic to our high school, but we had these high school fraternities and sororities that were based off of black fraternities and sororities. So, you had the mini Alpha Phi Alpha, we’re the African Knights, and like the mini AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alphas we’re culture Rama, and the mini Delta Sigma Theta, were delta teams. And I never understood any of it. My mother was in a sorority, my mother’s a delta, but I didn’t get it. Like, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re just sort of lording this imaginary social position over someone else for what?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t… Again, I don’t really understand the motivation for that. I could say that as I’ve grown older, I don’t want to say I’ve grown more boujee. I’m not going to say that though. I’m not going to say that I don’t like nice things. Let’s put it that way. But I don’t really quite understand that point of view. An interesting thing that… And I don’t know how this connects, really. But what comes to mind is, I got the opportunity to work with Don Cornelius.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow!

Brent Rollins:
And one of the things that he said to me was, black people don’t recognize class.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
And which sort of defies what we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
But in some ways, I understand what he’s saying because at the end of the day, in the United States, we’re all black people. We’re all structurally, socially, second class. And so, that’s our commonality. And I don’t know, I just thought it was a really interesting statement from him. I think we are people in general, I don’t know. Sort of seek to separate ourselves. But at least in the United States, there’s still this thread, that we’re all on the same boat.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think in the south, certainly there was probably just an additional… There may have just been an additional element of wanting to… I don’t know, maybe have what white people had in some way?

Brent Rollins:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s part of it. For example, like I mentioned the high school fraternities, we had both a cotillion and a beautillion. I had a beautillion that was stupid. But like you-

Brent Rollins:
Congratulations.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. But you’re like-

Brent Rollins:
Black tie.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like, “Oh, you’re a distinguished man of a certain age.” And it’s a whole thing with like, they do a cakewalk and you have to be in a suit. A tux actually, be in a tux and you do the waltz. It’s so stupid, I don’t know if any other… I hope they don’t still do that. Because when I think back on, I’m like, “This is like some midnight in the garden of good and evil kind of shit. This is weird.”

Brent Rollins:
I’m going to offer the inverse of that. I think that there’s an opportunity to create expressions that are highly developed. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think that, to your point, when it becomes about emulating the surface aspects of white culture, then that’s where it becomes problematic. But if you’re celebrating the things that are great about your culture, I think that’s a different point of view. And maybe that’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem, or be able to put a suggestion box to Jack and Jill, but maybe that’s how it transforms, or maybe there’s some other organizations or people who are less about that sort of take on things. And more about, “This is what’s beautiful about black culture.” And we should celebrate those things. And we should aspire to those things. I think that that’s the thing.

Brent Rollins:
There should be a quality and execution and decorum level that a lot of cultures have that are had been sort of codified and sort of expected like we were talking earlier about like, I go to Japan or something like that. I expect Japanese design to be kick ass. Or even like Scandinavian design. I expect it to be pretty damn good. And so that’s okay to me to be like, “Are you at that level?” No. And when you reach that level, dope, we’re going to knight you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you did it. We have a sense of that with music in terms of it doesn’t matter necessarily what genre it is. And even if you don’t like it, you might be like, “Okay, I’m not really necessarily feeling this particular take, but I can tell that it’s the person behind it, they put a lot into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah

Brent Rollins:
I think music is like one of the things that black Americans do very well, and is worldwide considered to be of excellence. And we have grown up and been exposed to something of excellence, that when it’s time for those who decide to participate into those avenues, even when they’re doing something new, they’re trying to shoot for a particular bar.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Brent Rollins:
And I think that having those kinds of standards, absolutely. I think that I see no problem in that sort of higher culture participation. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Certainly, I get what you’re saying about when you’d look at another nation’s culture for example, there’s a certain expectation there. And I think that’s because that play that particular aesthetic, similar to what you’re saying with like black people in music, it’s been distilled and exported in a way where you already have a presupposition of what it’s going to be before you even know what it is. Like if you order… I’ll give you an example. I ordered some pants from, I forget what the… It was something I saw on Instagram, that was probably my fault. But I saw some dope pants on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, they’re like some Japanese, Myketo pants. So I expect when I get them, they’re going to have a certain flattering cut or something different than maybe you wouldn’t see with American apparel or something like that. Not the brand, but just apparel in general.

Maurice Cherry:
And like for black design, I think that’s a moving target in a way, because it’s going to depend on your experiences, where you grew up, where you pull inspiration from. I just had a German American designer on the show, Julian Williams, who is currently in Amsterdam. Young kid, 25 years old, has done design work for Karl Lagerfeld, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, has this very distinct, bold graphic type of graphical design. But then he also pulls inspiration from voguing and the ballroom scene that he’s a part of. And so it’s all a part of his general design aesthetic. Is that black design? Because he’s a black designer? Yes?

Brent Rollins:
Absolutely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m saying like it’s like a moving target, because then you could look at your work, and your work is definitely very steeped in like I said, these kind of references from the 60s and the 70s, and this tinge of nostalgia. And a lot of what you have done has kind of set the… I feel like has set the visual cornerstone for an entire culture when people think of hip hop design, it comes down to a lot of the stuff that you did with Eagle Trip, a lot of the stuff you did with Complex, these very interesting graphic styles. That also is black design.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s the goal. Like I said, it’s not one… What you’re alluding to, it’s not one thing, it’s not one particular genre, but is when you enter that space, it’s going to be executed at a particular level. It’s going to be… It’s going to cover specific things. And there are sort of expectations that you get. Like jazz is totally different from R&B and is totally different from Samba, is totally different from reggae, is totally different from dancehall, but it’s all black music, right? It’s totally different from the blues, it’s all black music, they all sound different, right? But there’s this thread of expression and commonality. And when these genres develop themselves, the execution is you can’t deny it. So, that’s a goal, is to create things that even though they’re not in one particular space, or they may jump from place to place, which is what’s going to happen, you want them to leave a mark.

Maurice Cherry:
And I will say speaking about how kind of having black design being internationally recognized in a way similar to how black music is, a lot of your work has been exhibited in group exhibitions, both here in the US, as well as internationally. What does it mean to have your work kind of shown in that kind of fashion?

Brent Rollins:
When my stuff is recognized internationally, it means a lot because a lot of it was pre-internet and that means that the people that decided to talk about design or whatever, they’re seeking, they’re looking for. They’re looking for content like anybody like anything or anybody now, but they have a certain standard in mind. And there’s a filter that they have in their head. So, what I’m most proud of, I guess, is publications and people that have reached out to me. Yeah, like I said, particularly before the internet was popping. Because they were like, “Oh, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen a few of these things. I really was affected by this, or this was a music artist that really meant a lot to me. And I see that a couple of other artists that mean a lot to me were represented visually by this guy, Brent Rollins. And so let me look into it.” That’s a good feeling. And to know that people around the world who are on the same wavelength as you, and who are seeking out things, find you. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
That makes me feel good. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we’ve talked about Ego Trip, just kind of briefly touching on it. But I want to go more in depth about that. You came on as our director, you’re kind of one of the co founders of this group with some titans in the industry, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Jeff Mao, take me back to that time. What did it feel like sort of coming together and building something like Ego Trip and the work that you all were able to do?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, sure yeah. And we have to remember the one titan who is always like never wants attention, was Gabriel Alvarez. Yeah. I mean, Ego Trip was kind of like… We were like a band. And in some ways for that world, we were like a supergroup. And I got to know… I started working with Gabriel Alvarez when I was working at Rap Pages, got the gig through very awesome, incredible woman named Sheena Lester. And Rap Pages was an early sort of competitor to The Source Magazine. And-

Maurice Cherry:
Larry Flynt.

Brent Rollins:
Larry Flynt, my man. Yeah. Enough respect to that guy, rest in peace. What a person to work for. I didn’t work for him specifically, but just to know that he was in the building, what a… Very bizarre to be early 20s and working for a pornographer. But yeah, he had started this magazine, Rap Pages basically to kind of reap some attention that The Source was getting. And Sheena had taken it over, after maybe a few issues, I guess. And we wanted to build an editorial team. I was one of the later people to join, and one of my compatriots, there was Gabriel Alvarez. So, between myself, Sheena, Gabe, Blau, Dorothy, and I apologize if I can’t remember Hannibal and some other folks that… Nikki, incredible person. We kind of were a little kind of a group who kind of wanted to take on The Source. At the time, that was like the main kind of hip hop music magazine. It was the first and undeniably significant. But we sort of had our take on things or whatever.

Brent Rollins:
But we had hired freelance writers, and among them was Sacha Jenkins, and Elliott Wilson, and I’m not sure if Mel… I believe Mel may have been hired as well, as a freelance writer, but that’s how I got to know those guys. Or that’s how I made first contact with them. And after a few years of working at the magazine, Gabe had moved to New York to work with Sacha, on Ego Trip. And Sacha Jenkins, who for people that don’t know, I would say in recent years, he’s probably known for producing these documentaries called, I believe it’s called Fresh Dressed, which is about hip hop fashion. He also directed this Wu Tang documentary on Showtime. And so he’s been… And he’s also in a punk band and all this other kind of stuff. And Sacha has always been doing all these kind of great self-started initiating things and had this sort of fledgling magazine, or zin rather, called the Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And Ego Trip was… It was coming from the perspective of mainly, mostly writers of color to talk about hip hop, with a love and reverence, but also an irreverence towards the subject matter, and also had interest in other music such as punk rock, indie rock, what have you. And so, as Sacha would say, it was like Rolling Stones, but the inverse. So Rolling Stone would mostly cover rock, and maybe occasionally do hip hop. And so, Ego Trip was the flip side of that. And so that’s how I got to know those guys, and I eventually moved to New York in 1997, because of having some contact with Sacha. Sacha had sort of said, “Hey, we need to step up our magazine visually,” sort of invited me to join the team for no money, but more just out of like an outlet to do something creative.

Brent Rollins:
I looked at myself, as the Terry Gilliam to everybody else’s John Cleese, and the rest of the Monty Python crew. As far as being the visual person, I understood editorial, and I also wanted to do sort of humor. We were doing a lot of funny, goofy stuff. And so I had my take on how to express that. And eventually, that became the collage. There were… The magazine itself was instrumental to me in terms of my creative development, because it was very DIY, it was like, “Let’s just take…” We used to do precursors to memes called Ego Trip Ads. So we would find these funny images from Jet Magazine or, or Ebony or something like that. Just older magazines, like ads of black people in Burger King ads and write funny captions to them. But the captions were always like hip hop lyrics. And then we would kind of put the little slug like Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And so basically, they became ads to fill in the unused ad space in the magazine. But they were fun. They helped us sort of develop our creative voice and make the magazine more individual and sort of unique. And so, that’s how I kind of got down with them. I had myself this irreverent take on hip hop and sort of making fun of hip hop, but loving it at the same time. This was the vehicle for it. And so, once we got together, yeah, Sacha was working, I think at Vibe Magazine. Elliott was working at The Source, Jeff was writing for a lot of other music magazines and Gabe, he’s the glue and like I said, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s very much behind the scenes, he doesn’t want the attention, but he is the funniest MF around the planet, and super creative.

Brent Rollins:
And so, collectively, yeah, we kind of just became like Voltron, like superhero group and looked at the magazine as a vehicle to express just how we… Just things that we were interested in, and also to try to put it to… Like every issue, I only did like the last three issues, but it felt like making an album. And each issue got more and more personal. Like there’s running… It’s a magazine literally with like running jokes. Because if you turn the pages, you’ll see a reference to something that came earlier, and we made it this kind of like goofy puzzle. And it became semi… Everything in Ego Trip became this… It started blurring the line between music, journalism and autobiography.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How was it received at the time?

Brent Rollins:
I think you’d have to ask a lot of journalists maybe how they thought about it. I guess at the time, no one was doing what we were doing. And I don’t say that to sound like arrogant, I just mean in a sense-

Maurice Cherry:
No. Hey, talk your shit.

Brent Rollins:
But I’m not [inaudible 00:48:30]. It wasn’t usual for people to get together to be like, “Hey, we want to talk about this with this particular voice. That isn’t straight ahead. So, when we got together to do that stuff, we just had fun. We would just goof around and just make jokes and it was like one of the… Those guys were like my brothers, brothers that I never had. And so, like I said, it’s kind of like we were sort of a supergroup. Yeah, we used to do some stupid things. In my head, I’m thinking about this time we kidnapped this journalist.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait. What?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s this journalist who writes for the New York Times now named John Caramanica.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God! Okay. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
Wait, do you know…

Maurice Cherry:
I know of him because of some of his shitty reviews. But no, go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
So, I can’t remember what he was interviewing us for, maybe it was for our first book. I can’t remember probably. But we were like, “Okay, this is how we want to be legendary.” So at the time, we used to have this one office on 16th Street in Chelsea Market, and we used to have this really dope… The fourth floor, we had almost all to ourselves. We were sharing it with this graffiti brand named Bullets of Brooklyn, but they were never there. So, we kind of just had the run of the space. And then for reasons that I won’t get into, we had to vacate that space. And so we ended up moving into the basement of the building. So, we wrote our first book in the basement of this building on 16th Street in Chelsea. And so, there were pipes of bolus than you’d hear like toilet flushing, and you’d just hear all this sewage going by and stuff like that.

Brent Rollins:
And then we have this room in the back… We only have like two rooms, we have this one room that was where, if you see the cover of our book, the book of Rap List, that was the room that we shot this in. And we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to get interviewed.” I think it was probably for the New York Times, and we’re going to get interviewed and we can’t just do a normal thing, man. We’re like, “We’re Ego Trip dude, we’re [inaudible 00:50:49] this shit.” So we told them to meet or show up someplace in the Chelsea Market, which is like this kind of food court now. This glorified food court in Chelsea. And we had this really cute girl who was a friend of ours, go meet him and she was like, “Are you John Caramanica?” He’s like, “Yes.” She’s like, “Come with me.”

Brent Rollins:
We wanted him to have a story to tell. So, she leads him… I can’t remember if she… We weren’t there. So, I can’t say exactly. But I believe she probably blindfolded him at this venue, and probably walked him outside across the street and then walked into the building took him downstairs in the elevator. He shows up, he’s blindfolded, we walked in [inaudible 00:51:39].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve still a thought of the fact that he just went with this woman and got blindfolded, just went with her.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, man. It’s like, what is he going to do? Is he going to say no?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. He did it. So, it was just funny.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you say kidnapping, I’m thinking like somebody got shoved in the back of a panel van or something. He sounds like a willing participant in this case. Well, go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
I can imagine that for someone in his position, it must have been definitely strange. He thought he’s going to an office to talk to somebody, he’s being blindfolded by some attractive young lady and brought to who he doesn’t even know where he’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
This white van as far as we’re concerned. She takes him into the back room and we have the lights down low. I remember exhaustion now, Jeff and I we’re back there. So we had turntables in there. And I remember because I was in the other room. I just remember Sacha had something… He had some record on the turntable, and he kept looping it. So it was just super creepy. He was just scratching it, [inaudible 00:52:50] just back spinning it. Super creepy thing. And then we instruct Caramanica to take off his blindfold. And then the guys proceeded to talk with the flashlight under their heads.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow!.

Brent Rollins:
And then they do the interview. And finally, it’s time to leave. I do remember Jeff going like, “It’s time to go.” And I do remember Jeff now going like, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for coming by, you know what you got to do now, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So we asked our friend to… The young lady to blindfold him again. We span him around a few times, and he exited the building. And the rest is history.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow! That’s a wild story. That’s a wild story. So, Ego Trip eventually evolved from this magazine to a book, to several television shows. I mentioned prior to us recording how I remember watching those shows on VH1 as a teenager, the White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme, and Race-O-Rama and everything, and just being so… Well, maybe not so much the reality shows, but certainly, the visual elements from like Race-O-Rama and stuff like that being so enamored with… I had never seen anything like that before talking about black culture, hip hop culture, that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it done in that way. And it blew my mind. It was really… I have to say it was kind of an early design reference for me, I wanted to make stuff like that. I wanted to be able to kind of have that sort of tongue in cheek irreverence towards culture in that way, in a way that felt familiar, but also felt kind of new and fresh, unlike something that you haven’t really seen before.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I think that was again, the… For me, that was a little bit of a Terry Gilliam in terms of all the crazy animations that you would see from Monty Python. That was my inspiration in the sense of the humor of stuff. And how do you express that stuff visually. And everything that we were doing in Ego Trip was really… It’s funny, because I’d like to think that we… I don’t want to say that we originated things, but there definitely wasn’t any sort of bigger reference. And it’s funny how meme culture has years later sort of assumed some of the similarities to what we were doing. So, was it a human thing? I don’t know. But it was in terms of like pairing these references and music lyrics to things and doing so like tongue and cheek, but I don’t know, but we definitely did it early. And so yeah, for Race-O-Rama, each episode, or there was three series, I’m sorry, three episodes in the series.

Brent Rollins:
And Race-O-Rama was this kind of fun house idea. And the idea that looking at race through this sort of voyeuristic lens. And so each of the shows was blackophobia, which used sort of the visual language of horror films, and pulp alien invasion movies and stuff like that. In Race We Lost, which was pulling from the visuals of like… I mean, I love this time square CD, porno theater graphics and all that kind of stuff. And the other one was, “Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass?” Which was kind of like this we call an urban safari. So this idea of cultural sort of, not necessarily appropriation, but this sort of… Everything was about the voyeurism of race, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
So, once we started thinking about those kinds of things, it was just like, it was just super fun to kind of riff off of them, because our take on on discussing race or presenting race was about the idea of not so much making fun of it, but at least making it less about some of the typical things or things that people would immediately associate when you’re talking about race. Particularly at that time, that series was based off of… Well, that series sprang from a book that we wrote called The Big Book of Racism. And that was a book that Dana Albarella, our beloved editor, who also produced our Ego Trip’s, Book of Rap Lists, she had moved on from St. Martin’s Press to HarperCollins, which was headed by Judith Regan, who was kind of a big shot in the publishing world, particularly at that time. And so we had the opportunity to do that book called The Big Book of Racism.

Brent Rollins:
And our thing about that book was that it was about race, because that was our secondary preoccupation after hip hop, the title and the premise kind of started off as a joke. And then we actually kind of started really getting into it. The thing about that book was we wanted to talk about race in a way that people could relate to, because generally, when people talked about race, they talked about sort of the history and we’re talking about the history of race from the arrival of slaves in America, up until the civil rights era. And so… And it tended to be very academic. And our lens as far as how we related to each other and joked with each other, was always through the lens of popular culture. And so the idea of doing a look at race through the lens of popular culture, was an interesting challenge. It was a crazy challenge for us.

Brent Rollins:
And on top of that, to bring attention to things and to make fun of it, or to joke about it, in that sort of sarcastic sort of coping mechanism kind of way. And it was really hard because we wrote it during 911.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Brent Rollins:
Which really… Yeah. There was a point where we had started writing that book, The Big Book of Racism, and then 911 happened and we were just like, “Man, we don’t hate anybody, we’re critiquing things.” But it was very difficult. But we kind of decided if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be… If we’re going to fail, it’s going to be a magnificent failure. We were just like, let’s… Man, I’ve never doubted myself as much. I don’t edit and perhaps I’m speaking for the rest of the guys when we were doing that thing because we were just like, “Should we do this at a time when people needed unity?” And we’re just writing, not so much a divisive book, but a book to sort of in our minds, illustrate why people of color feel the way they do based off of the treatment that popular culture has presented. And so that was always my interest personally, was understanding how popular culture affects the perception of people. And so like I was saying, a lot of the academic books spoke to a very specific audience. And our goal was to be anti-academic.

Brent Rollins:
Chock full of information and intended to be sort of ingested sporadically wherever you want to enter it, but also for you to walk away to understand like, “Oh, damn, this country is built on race, there’s so much race in this country that people want to not acknowledge. And here’s our sort of listical way of doing it with jokes.” With comedy, but trying to make it apparent. That’s the role of an artist, is to make you see things that are right there in front of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow! During 911. Yeah. That was certainly a very interesting. I think that was definitely a pivotal point in the country as it relates to race relations. Because aside from that, you got the formation of the TSA and how that has changed. Just so many things around screening in airports and stuff like that. But it really turned the dial on how race relations were in this country.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, there was a lot of internal examination going on. And that tragedy. Tragedy sort of expose what you’re made of, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Even just the recent craziness that we, as a country have been going through the past few years, it’s ultimately I guess, a good thing because it’s being brought to light. And then you see where people are trying to reach out and where people are trying to find those commonalities, and that common ground, and where they’re not. And so that just reemerges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that you have worked with Ego Trip for a number of years, but during that time, you also were the creative director at Complex for a while. What were some of your memories from that time?

Brent Rollins:
I was creative director after Ego Trip, we had sort of kind of fizzled and disbanded.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. So there was a period where I was kind of back to sort of doing… I was always kind of working on independent projects concurrently while doing Ego Trip, when Ego Trip was in sort of in full rev, that’s where I spent the most focus on. But there were always opportunities to do album covers, or things like that during that time. But complex kind of came about because actually our former Ego Trip intern, Noah was an editor at complex and he sort of, he needed, I like to call myself a substitute teacher, because the previous art director had left, and they needed to finish a few issues. And so that’s when I kind of came in to work on the magazine. And then what was interesting about working there, was I came in and sort of helped finish the issues. And I was like, “Okay, cool, this is fun.” Got to work with some younger designers, and really start to exercise my kind of delegation, and start to teach in some ways or pass along whatever information that I could and knowledge that I could to other people, and to learn how to shape things.

Brent Rollins:
Because when you’re creative, you tend to keep it to yourself and you do things that you don’t need to do. Like you don’t need to scan, you don’t need to… If we’re talking about graphics, you don’t need to do the silhouetting. You don’t need to do that stuff. Maybe you do it sometimes out of necessity, and maybe you might get really good at it. But the bigger thing is just really putting all those pieces together. So it was a great exercise to learn how to orchestrate a symphony. And that’s kind of what I refer to myself as a creative conductor, because at a certain point, it’s less about my actual hands and more about my actual thought and how do you put all those elements together. And so Complex became from a magazine, and this is during start of the decline of print as a popular media form, and the ascension of the web as the dominant media form. And so Complex, all the business heads behind it, were very perceptive in terms of growing that business.

Brent Rollins:
And so that’s what also kept me there, was learning. I learned about media when we were doing stuff with VH1, but the opportunity to work with teams of people and to build a business really, was exciting. That was an exciting opportunity because now, I’m dealing with for the first time in my life, a generation of people whose references are different than mine. And I’m now in this position of also learning from them. So, I like to learn new things. And I get excited by new stuff. And I’m always looking for that new drug. Like, “Yo, I need to get high again, give me that design crack. Give me that culture crack.” That was an opportunity to stay plugged in and to learn new things. And also to be able to work with people. And also Ego Trip as “successful” as we were, we hit a wall in a sense, and going to Complex was an opportunity to sort of flex some different muscles and to see…

Brent Rollins:
Ego Trip was patronizing in the sense of that we had the VH1 give us money. VH1 gave us money and before that the book publishers gave us money. But we were not successful in the sense of able to generate money ourselves. So, Complex was an opportunity to sort of look behind the curtain and then kind of step behind that curtain and see how business, or how entrepreneurial minded business grows and develops and becomes like this media titan that it is today. So, that’s what kept me there, was to learn from the younger designers, to help shape them also, to pass on that information and that knowledge, and they would also show me some things or helped me… I used to say they helped me think. Because they would try different things and I’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They would create these different options… I’m a good critic, I think. As a graphic designer or a communication designer, or that kind of visual designer, you’re taking these kind of existing elements, and arranging them versus an artist necessarily who kind of create something from scratch.

Brent Rollins:
So, they would create these things from scratch in some ways, or create these options and then I can look at them and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communicating, or this is not tapping into that feeling that we were talking about before. This is not communicating this thing.” And helping to shape them. So, that was immensely satisfying. And working with celebrities is interesting and fun. And traveling around the world is great. And so, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Brent Rollins:
Success is kind of about satisfying the need to create projects that actually propel ideas and culture. And I guess that’s maybe always the idea of success for me. I think the idea of monetary success, yes, I’m not going to say that that’s not important. But I’ve come closer to this understanding of when my time is up, for me, what am I putting forth in the world, or what’s my legacy? And so I can’t do everything myself, there are things that I’m working on that are about personal vision, but as a group, we can accomplish a lot of things. Ego Trip as a group, we accomplished things that we didn’t think we would ever accomplish. Working in Complex, we accomplished things that were in that… The metrics for that world, we surpassed them. And so for me, when people tell me that they’ve been influenced by something that I did, or they show some sort of appreciation for the things that I’ve done, and even more so when these things are attached to something that has some sort of cultural importance, man, that’s a great feeling.

Brent Rollins:
I want to keep doing that. For me, that’s the metric of success. Again, know how to make money, [inaudible 01:08:48] money, love me some money. But we’re put on this world to do things. And so I’m happy and fortunate that whatever mark I’ve made in the world, I’ve been able to do. I think the thing about it is, it’s also fleeting, and it’s also like you got to keep doing things. Success is also somewhat short lived. You know what I mean? I’m happy to inspire people, but I’m also like, I want to inspire more people and I need to keep doing to continue to be relevant, not because I’m trying to be the cool of the week, but because a large enough body of people are viewing and affected by the things that I work on. Right now, that would be the marker of success to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s a very interesting answer.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess because I’ve been kind of dropping these little pins like throughout the interview like your work, and the work that you did with Ego Trip, the work you did with Complex, is really like been a cornerstone in the design style of when people think of hip hop culture, a lot of that boils down to work that you have done, whether that’s been magazines, we didn’t even touch on the album covers that you’ve done. I feel like a lot of people are inspired by your work, but they may not know that it’s from you, maybe.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah. It’s funny. The thing about [inaudible 01:10:15] is because it’s still kind of being done in the service of whoever. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who more or less are like, “Hey, Brent, I like your style.” I had to develop a style because the more you do something, the more people recognize it. And then if they like it, then they come to you. But in some cases, yeah. There’s been the suppression of Ego in the sense of, it’s not about me, it’s about I’m doing this for someone else. And so yeah, there’s been things that I’ve done that maybe people don’t see that thread, I have a good friend, Phil McMillan, who he was another designer. And he’s… Some people are really in tune with it. He’ll be like, “I saw this and I was like, yo, I think Brent did that.”

Brent Rollins:
So he sees it. And so whatever is the essence of me creatively shows up in those things and he’s in tune with that, and he can find that. And there are other people that can do that too. And so that’s a much more honest relationship, when you can work with those people, because that means you guys are on the same wavelength. And so that’s… I found that those have been the best projects for me, is when people come to me because they do know, because they are familiar with the things that I’ve done, and they’re like, “That’s the vibe that I want.” And it’s freeing because it lets me be me. I’m a designer in the sense that I’m problem solving, but I’m also an artist in the sense that I’m trying to express something emotionally and I connected with those people. And so, yeah. Ramble, ramble, ramble, ramble.

Maurice Cherry:
So, is there a dream project that you would love to do one day? I feel like you’ve done television, you’ve done magazines, you’ve done album covers, you’ve done a book. What’s next? What do you really want to do one day?

Brent Rollins:
There are many dream projects that I want to do. There’s personal projects that I’ve finally started initiating. One is really getting into furniture design.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. And so I had gone to Italy in 2019 to start that. I’m working with a friend of mine over there. And then just the nature of the project really meant that I couldn’t restart it until the warmer months. Totally happens and dashes those dreams on the Mediterranean rocks. That’ll still happen. And then I have a sort of a creative… The dream projects, yeah. I mean, it’s really more about when does Brent start putting his own voice forward more? Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
My voice has been forward in people’s projects, and mostly because I’d never… I would probably say that there’s one critique with myself, it’s like I devalue what I think I have to say. I have an idea… I actually started this project during the pandemia, I’m going to is like Black Star Wars, and let people kind of go from there. But I started some stuff in making models, telling friends who are also creative, and they got super excited about that stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I wanted the soundtrack.” And you got to have this character do this, and you got to do that. And it’ll happen. And I’m not afraid to say it. I thought about like, “Should I even talk about this?” But hall yeah. But really, just more personal projects are exciting. My father was a phenomenal creative person who passed away recently.

Brent Rollins:
And my mission I guess, is to let the world kind of see what this guy who inspired me, what he did, and with the hope that maybe he also inspires other people, so that’s also another project. Man, I got a lot of projects. God, I got a lot of things. Yeah. Like I said, 2021 let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you. Well, Brent, just to kind of wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brent Rollins:
I guess online you can look me up Brettrollins.com under my website that really needs to be updated. You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is Brentronic, B-R-E-N-T-R-O-N-I-C, and then at that point, by the end 2021, hopefully you’ll be seeing my name in a lot more places when you won’t even try.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Brent Rollins, I have to thank you. Just thank you so much for coming on the show. I guess prior to us recording about how much of a design influence you’ve been to me seeing your early work, and it’s been just such a pleasure to one just introduce you to the Revision Path audience, I have a feeling that people are going to listen to this. And they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, he did that!” They’re going to now know that you are the person behind so much iconic work out there. It’s just been a joy to talk to you, it’s been a joy to hear about the work that you’re doing. And I want to see what comes next absolutely, because I have no doubt it’s going to be hot. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Brent Rollins:
Man, thank you so much. And I know other people will say the same thing to you, man. But dude, you’re doing God’s work. Thank you so much for doing Revision Path.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.