Vida Cornelious

When you think of people who are masters of their craft, there’s no doubt that Vida Cornelious would be part of that list. Her 25+ year career in the advertising industry reads like a who’s who of agency titans — GlobalHue, DDB, Burrell Communications, Walter Isaccson…the list goes on. Now, Vida’s latest role as VP of Creative for New York Times Advertising will allow her work to reach a global audience.

After a quick end-of-year check-in, Vida spoke about her work at the Times and the launch of their first ever creative franchise called “Soul of Us.” From there, she talked about growing up in New Jersey and being surrounded by the arts, attending the venerable Hampton University, and dove deep into some of the campaigns she created over the years before landing her current role. For Vida, the importance of mastery is key to her success, and it’s definitely paid off in a big way!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Vida Cornelious:
Hi, my name is Vida Cornelious. I am the Vice President of Creative for New York Times Advertising. I oversee all the custom creative and the operations of our content studio, T Brand.

Maurice Cherry:
What has this year been like for you so far?

Vida Cornelious:
It’s funny how to answer that because as we all know, 2020 was definitely a challenge, and I would say 2021 has been a year of recovery in many ways, like coming off of that year, a year of reckoning so to speak. I just feel like there was a lot of emotions. It felt like 2021 was a time to heal, so to speak. Personally, I feel like I’ve definitely learned the meaning of resilience over the course of this year. And staying the course, staying focused has been my personal mantra in the workplace. As a leader, for one, I’ve really been trying to be as empathetic to my team as possible. I’ve really had to dig in and think about everyone is processing this whole upheaval in so many different ways, and in some cases loss. So I want to be mindful of that when I’m still trying to manage to the demands of the business. So yeah, that’s what the year has been for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you already back in the office or are you still working from home?

Vida Cornelious:
No, we’re working from home still, but we can go into the office as we choose. We haven’t officially returned, but I go in probably two days a week now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. And so do some of the other people on the team.

Maurice Cherry:
How was it adjusting to that work from home life with being over, I would imagine, a pretty large creative team?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, it was a challenge at first to really think about the ebb and flow of how to make sure people stayed motivated. I also think there were fears that people may have had on the team thinking that their currency of not being able to walk the halls and talk to people and be seen was going to somehow affect their work and the perception of their work. But I think once we all settled into a groove of what needed to get done, just putting our heads down and understanding that, hey, this collaborative work style, being on Zoom calls, we can still brainstorm. We can still utilize one another to get inspired creatively. The work didn’t suffer. We set a path and then drove full steam ahead towards it. So I would say that actually people found their own ways to be productive working from home and still maintaining a level of integrity and excellence with the work that I was personally looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
I talked to so many folks, I guess, right at the beginning of the pandemic, like spring going into the summer, and it was interesting because you’d have folks that were definitely seasoned creatives that were like, “Oh, I’m trying to adjust to how do I work from home?” Some people, for example, got a new job, moved across country, and then they may have worked in the office for two days and now you have to work from home in this new place that you just moved to. But then I also talked to graduates who had just started new jobs, and this is all they know, is working from home. This is their normal as it relates to doing a creative job is working from home and being a part of a distributed team, which I think is a really interesting shift.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, It’s interesting you say that because I don’t want to necessarily say it’s generational, but for sure like myself coming up in the industry where it was very much about brainstorming and sitting in a room and hashing out ideas, you get very accustomed to the tactile nature of working with people face to face and sharing ideas back and forth, bantering back and forth with a partner and all that kind of thing. So the working from home could feel very isolating for some and feel like there becomes a little bit more writer’s block, you feel a little bit more stuck because you want someone to bounce ideas off of or you want to be able to just have someone to dialogue with or talk through ideas. It doesn’t feel as natural if you have to do that over a Zoom call.

Vida Cornelious:
But you’re 100% right. I mean, there were people who obviously started new jobs during the pandemic where they never met anyone. So it is interesting to see you get a different perception of the value of the connection you make personally with people when you’ve had an opportunity to work with them versus just meeting them for the first time in the square on the screen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think for all of us it illustrates just how my much we have to do during the day, especially if you’re just at home working by yourself and you don’t have those moments of comradery of just talking to someone for a few minutes and then getting back to work. You realize just how much you have to be focused on getting the work done. Not saying people slack off at work, but people slack off at work. But that’s also part of the creative process in a way.

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Exactly. I used to make a joke that everybody… For folks who were smokers, it used to be a thing those people to go downstairs, have a cigarette break. If we add up those breaks, that was like an extra hour [crosstalk 00:08:39]. But now it’s funny because working from home, I’ll be honest, hey, in between a meeting or two, of course I’m going to go throw some clothes in the laundry, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Vida Cornelious:
And I’m going to clean up my kitchen or something that I neglected doing. So there do become these moments in the day where you can woosah, I guess, take the pressure off slightly for a moment and take your mind away from it and then come back. But I still find that for the most part, my experience with my team has been that people are very productive and responsive, which is great.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it also sounds like you allowed them just the grace to just acclimate themselves to the situation, you know?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, I mean, the hardest part about the pandemic for everybody was just trying to figure out, and I hate using the term new normal, but what was going to just be their way of operating. I don’t have children, but I felt for people who had kids at home who were trying to figure out how to homeschool and still be attentive at work but having very restless children at home that didn’t understand the whole scenario of not being able to go to school or see friends or having their own emotional meltdowns of sorts. And that was a lot. That was a lot for people to process and deal with and also just trying to deal with how out of work and be productive. For sure, we saw it in the real estate boom where people just literally realized, especially living in New York, raising a family in a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment just wasn’t the move anymore. [inaudible 00:10:11] ran to the suburbs. Of course, we saw that.

Vida Cornelious:
So that, I think, is also a manifestation of how the pandemic just changed all of our perception around the value of work and how that balance between work and personal has to be reevaluated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk some more about your work at the New York Times. What’s an average day like for you?

Vida Cornelious:
The day is, well as we just said, I mean, it’s definitely full of Zoom calls, I would say a pretty steady stream of them from 9:00 to probably about 6:00 PM. But for the most part, I feel like right now the majority of what I’m doing is a tremendous amount of work around new initiatives, product development, working with our newsroom on any types of brand collaborations where appropriate or alignments. But the team has really been delivering some imaginative custom content. I oversee all of our creatives, so working with the team on what those creative franchises are or brand stories and collaborations we’re doing. So I’m really excited about that.

Vida Cornelious:
I mean, an average day definitely is meeting with my direct reports, tending to operations type needs, making sure that there’s a full outline of what we’re trying to accomplish with regards to a certain number of RFPs or making sure that a program is launching or we are doing recruiting. So it varies in the course of a day what I have to turn my attention to, but I always try and make sure there’s a very nice chunk of my day committed to creative endeavors. I would say if I had to break it down, probably 65% of my time is something creatively motivated, and the other 35% of my time is operational.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of projects, there’s a project from the Times that you were a part of or oversaw called Soul of Us. Can you tell me some more about that?

Vida Cornelious:
Sure. I’ll start by saying as an overall philosophy of the creative team and T Brand, we adhere to what we call our storytelling commitment, and it’s how we really keep diverse perspectives at the forefront and pursue representative storytelling in everything that we do. There’s been a few programs that actually are great manifestations of this passion for diversity and inclusion, Soul of Us being one of them and probably the primary one. And it is a creative franchise that was created by T Brand really to expand the narrative around all aspects of the black life in America that are rarely portrayed in the media. What I mean by that is it really is a franchise that we are crafting and collaboration with brand partners to give voice to black creators to tell stories of black love and joy and success and beauty and pride and wealth and empowerment and progress. The more brands that join us, the more chapters of this story we will unfold.

Vida Cornelious:
The reason we do it is because at the time that Soul of Us was concepted, there was so much narrative around Black Lives Matter and the opposite side of that coin of like, “Why should a black life matter? All lives matter.” We saw a lot of that. Soul of Us was a way of saying, “You know what? The only way to help people understand why a black life matters is to really show them what a black life is.” And more of black life is it’s beyond the narrative that we’ve seen which is the narrative around disenfranchisement and struggle and the fight for equality. There’s so many other aspects of black life that media doesn’t really portray. So Soul of Us was an opportunity to expose some of those more nuanced, beautiful stories in a way that shows that black life really is rich and full and robust and worthy of a narrative larger than just what the media has currently shared. So that was the impetus behind that franchise.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that it’s called Soul of Us. Well, I think if someone were looking at it and not really thinking about it as us, it could also be seen as like Soul of US, like Soul of the United States. I remember reading through the press release and it was mentioned that it’s about helping brands elevate the conversation of representation in America. I know that’s during that last summer when there was so much going on in the streets and, of course, that spilled over into the board rooms and such, theoretically speaking, because nobody really was in board rooms because of the pandemic. But companies were now starting to get in on this conversation around racial equity and what does that mean for us and this individual business. Like, yes, there’s what’s happening out in the streets in terms of protesting police brutality, but our black employees, unfortunately, they suffer from that as well. They have to inherit all of that trauma and that pain, and they have to bring that to work.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it was really good that companies were starting to try to, at least in some small way, get in on the conversation even if it seems like it was just a fleeting thing. I remember seeing now how a lot of companies have faded back from that initial talk about it, but I think it was good to see it when it happened, certainly.

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Yeah, I mean, there were a few brands that misstepped, and it felt as if it was a passing fancy for them or something that was a trend to get in on at the time. The things that we really wanted to make sure, as we put this franchise out in the universe, it was to make sure we were letting brands know, “Hey, this is an opportunity for you to join us in telling these stories on a narrative. It’s not for the purpose of you being able to rectify any wrongs that has been done in the past by your brand, but rather to support what should be a part of your mission. So if your mission is, say, to put out products for the betterment of families, then let’s tell stories of why black family is important. You can support that, that’s already in your DNA.”

Vida Cornelious:
We were very specific about the type of brand partners and collaborators we were looking for as a way of helping us bring these individual chapters or narratives, if you will, to life. It wasn’t as if we were looking for inauthentic connections. We legitimate connections to the black community, to black storytelling, and we wanted brands that supported that because it’s work that they’re already doing.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the most interesting parts I noticed throughout the project is that even the typeface that was used, the halyard typeface, was done by a black designer. That was done by a black typography designer, Joshua Darden.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes. Yep. Absolutely. Every contributor we’ve used on the project and was very intentional, and that was part of it, was to elevate not just in the storytelling but elevate black voices and creators. All of our illustrators, typographers, photographers, designers, writers are all black contributors to the project. We have a hub, which is where you can see the work, and within that hub, there is a page of contributors. So it’s very clear. You can read each of those persons’ bio and have a better understanding of why we wanted to partner with them, why we work with them, the passion that they have for what they do. And that was important to us as well, to make sure that those were the voices that were elevating these stories.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the project been received so far?

Vida Cornelious:
It’s been fantastic. I mean, we have had quite a bit of press around it. Our inaugural partner in the effort is Starz, the network, and they told with us stories of black leadership. What we explored there was the journey and the pathway to how leaders are made in the black community when it starts from childhood, those moments of affirmation where you’re basically told or you’ve been taught things like, “I am somebody,” all the way through college where you maybe are a part of your first taste of being a part of a black student union or a fraternity or sorority, all the way to the boardroom, where you could find yourself being the only person of color in an organization but you have to walk into the room with the same premise that Maya Angelus taught us, which is, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000,” right? So knowing you have to bring your ancestral strength with you in order to be effective. We explored this journey of leadership in partnership with Starz because they have an amazing program called Take The Lead, which is all about creating space for black leadership and creators to emerge in the entertainment space. So it was a perfect alignment in that way for us to tell these stories together.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a favorite story from the project?

Vida Cornelious:
Yes. From this first go-round, I think one of my favorite stories was about a teacher in Philadelphia who has taught her students a mantra called Push Through, and it was really great. We used some of the actual soundbite of her doing the affirmation with her little second grade and third grade class, which they do every morning. That was a part of the pay post, so it was wonderful to be able to actually use the actual audio of her doing the affirmation.

Vida Cornelious:
But I also remember myself as a child, your own parents telling you things like, “You have to be smarter. You have to be better. You are somebody.” There were so many ways that your family would teach you these little affirmations basically to help you know that you were going into the room strong and that you had a right to be there. And whether you knew it or not, in first, second, third grade, that’s essentially what was being instilled in you. So seeing someone, a young woman doing that today for this generation of children, it just kind of warmed my heart and the writer’s heart that worked on it when we discovered her.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see the initiative going next? I know you mentioned Starz being the initial partner. Are there other companies lined up that are going to talk about other stories as well?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, we do. We have quite a few partners out there, collaborators, brand collaborators that are looking at proposals right now and how we can align with them on their efforts. I think if we’re successful, we’ll have a chapter about black progress and wealth. That gives us an opportunity to talk about things like the black elite or how people have created whole communities around going to the vineyard and what that whole lifestyle is like and the bonds that tie those individuals together. It gives us an opportunity to talk about home ownership and some of the famous neighborhoods that were inhabited by or created by black wealth, things like Striver’s Row in Harlem and how that was a bustling place of economic development and empowerment for blacks. So that could be an angle that we have. Another brand that we’re talking to would allow us to explore stories of black beauty. And last one would be about black family. Hopefully, if those brand partners come on board, that becomes three more chapters right there that we would be really happy to see come to fruition.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome. I’d have to say it’s especially awesome seeing it come through such a large imprint like the New York Times. That’s really great.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, it’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at your work, not necessarily with this project, but at the New York Times in general, what would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Vida Cornelious:
I really don’t find there’s necessarily a hard part, but I do feel as though one of the things that, I don’t know, I’m always just so fascinated by is there’s just so much richness of storytelling at the New York Times. In my world, I feel like my responsibility is to just make sure that the work that the team is doing on our side, on the business side of the house, if you will, is befitting of sitting alongside that superior journalism. We want to make sure that we are continually rising and upholding the standards that we know that the Times is so famous for and so respected for. So we want to make sure that the way we do our custom creative work and supporter brands is indeed living up to that same standard and expectation. So I would say that’s probably the hardest part because there’s so much amazing journalism and innovation that comes out of the newsroom every day. It’s just a matter of our team just keeping up with it, if you will.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I want to know more about your origin story, how Vida became Vida. Tell me about where you grew up.

Vida Cornelious:
I’m a Jersey girl. I grew up in Neptune, New Jersey, which is a town on Jersey Shore. One of five girls, no brothers. Mom and dad both professional people. My mother, she sang at the Met when I was a kid. She took opera. She’s sang in college and took opera lessons and developed her voice and sang as part of the chorus at the Met when we were kids. So I got introduced to the arts and the fine arts early in life. I had an older sister who was amazing painter and just as part of just a hobby, I guess you could say. But there was always some artistic pursuit going on in my house when I was growing up. My dad was an engineer, so he was a solid, science, math person, so I guess that gave us a certain amount of well-roundedness. It wasn’t all artsy-fartsy in the house, so to speak.

Vida Cornelious:
But growing up, it was fun. I mean, I felt like my family was very supportive heavily into seeing us be comfortable with our education, pursuing our passions. So I never felt like I wasn’t able to explore what an artistic endeavor would look like. I had no idea that it would turn into a career in advertising. I was just a kid that just loved drawing and painting and doing things that felt creative me, right? As I got older, going off to college was about having an opportunity to pursue art as a major in college. My parents weren’t so fond of me going to somewhere like Parsons or Pratt. We went up to those schools, I got in, and they saw one moment in a dorm where the kids were running around and was like co-ed, they were like, “Forget it.” It didn’t seem strict enough or whatever you want to call it. So they didn’t like that as a pursuit for me.

Vida Cornelious:
But I was able to go to Hampton because that’s where my sisters had gone. So there was a little bit of legacy there. So I went to Hampton, but I was still able to pursue art. At Hampton, I got a great background in education in… at the time, it was called commercial art or graphic design. I thought I was going to eventually come back to New York, come back to the East Coast, and go work in New York and design album covers. That was my big plan. But I had a professor who basically told me, “No, you need to pursue advertising. You have ideas like an art director.” I was like, “What is this mystery career?” I’d never even heard of being an art director. I didn’t know what that was. He explained to me, you know, “You make commercials. You make print ads. You take great trips. You go and stay in hotel for weeks at a time while you shoot a commercial.” I was like, “This sounds like a dream job.” I had no idea.

Vida Cornelious:
He was like, “Yeah, you need to go to graduate school, really work on your portfolio because right now your portfolio is strictly design. They need to see you can think about ideas. You need to be able to craft ideas.” So I pursued going to graduate school. At the time, University of Illinois was one of the better schools for an advertising degree. Now, it wasn’t advertising creative like what we now know of, say, schools like The Creative Circus or Portfolio Center or VCU Ad Center, those schools came much later. But at the time, University of Illinois had a very solid program in terms of you getting a master’s in advertising, so that’s what I did.

Vida Cornelious:
I was able to go there on a scholarship, which was great for me. I had a wonderful batch of teachers who I was kind of the guinea pig of the kid who wanted to do creative, but there wasn’t necessarily a specific creative track in the graduate program. So they kind of mashed up a few classes for me in addition to the required classes in order for me to get my master’s but still get a creative portfolio coming out of it, so it was really good. Did some internships while I was there. But I definitely feel like probably the biggest thing I learned at University of Illinois that as a black woman in this industry I would later come to find out was pivotal for me, was my scholarship required that I teach undergraduate students. I taught two days a week, and it was brutal because I had to teach myself the class before I could teach them. I had to teach myself the material and then teach the class.

Vida Cornelious:
But what it forced was me basically presenting a couple of times a week, like getting up in front of a lecture class and talking and presenting. So what later on in my career I would realize is that that the groundwork for me being able to really feel comfortable presenting. And as a creative person, that is one of the things that will make or break your career, is your ability to present your ideas and be confident in presenting your ideas and being a storyteller. I really, really value that experience for that reason more than anything you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back a bit to Hampton, because I know you mentioned you had sisters that went there, so there was some sort of form of legacy for you going there. What was it like going to Hampton during that time? Because I’m imagining this is around the early nineties when there was so much… And maybe I’m just remembering this from back then. I felt like there was a lot of, not hype, that’s not the right word, excitement, I guess, around attending HBCUs. You had the AACA sweatshirts. It felt like there was this really big push on graduate and go to a black college because it’s lit.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, you used to have all the bootleg shirts like, “Hampton, just do it,” with the swoosh. I’m sure that the licensing department at Nike would’ve been very upset to know that there was a whole string of t-shirts that you could buy in a variety of colors with their logo on it, but we had all that stuff going on. You’re absolutely right because at the time that I was at Hampton, A Different World was on television. It was literally like we would all run back to the dorm and watch A Different World, and it was almost as if the writers of that show had been on campus. It was like they were writing about our lives literally, and we were looking at it in real time.

Vida Cornelious:
We had a munchy shop where everybody went and hung out, a little campus grill. We had the step shows, we had the Greek life. I don’t want to call it a golden time, but it was definitely a fun, vibrant time to be at a HBCU. For me personally, I did pledge Delta Sigma Theta-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Vida Cornelious:
… and very proud of that. And so that also gave another layer of texture to my college experience because, of course, pledging a Greek letter organization on a HBCU campus is probably as HBCU as it gets. That is like the quintessential experience. But yeah, having sisters there, my mother went to Hampton, it was definitely a school that I was very familiar with. So I felt like I was in very familiar territory in going to school there. The school itself in terms of how it was run, everything you’ve probably heard about HBCUs is fairly true. There was curfew. You weren’t able to be out if you were a freshman after a certain time at night. There were all kinds of superstitions and things like if you walk across Ogden Circle you won’t graduate. Those are all parts of the culture and just the narrative of what made the school so great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I went to Morehouse. I mean, I was a teenager during that time sort of watching… Well, I was a kid becoming a teenager during the time when A Different World was on. And then there certainly was this big push to go to a black college because, one, at the time, my mom worked at a black college, she taught biology at a black college, and she graduated from black college, she went to Talladega University. So there was no really other choice. I applied to other places, but the huge implication was that, “You’re going to a black college.”

Vida Cornelious:
Right. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
End of story. So I know what you mean about you get on campus and you learn all these mythologies and superstitions and things like that, but I mean, it’s such a magical place. And then the fact that you were studying design there, back when we had a blog on Revision Path, I remember we did a whole thing about Hampton’s Design department and how many people they’ve graduated that went on to do great things in the industry. So Hampton has a really rich legacy of generating black designers and artists and folks like you. Really, that’s amazing.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah. I mean, I’m very proud of the fact that we got some exposure to some amazing artists at Hampton. I mean, John Biggers painted the mural in the library and all of us that were students at the time got to assist him because he was the artist in residence. And Hampton’s museum has some of the most… They have an amazing collection of black artists that’s been curated. I feel like the art program, the arts has always been something that Hampton respected. I just remember it was like people would look at the art students because we all walked around with our little plastic cases, our little art bin cases. Our classes were over in Armstrong Hall, which was sort of out of the cut, but it was where the… What do you call it? The pottery studio was, and that’s where the architecture students were. And that’s where all the open loft live drawing classes were. So it was such a mystery to all the rest of the student body because we were like the kids that were in there creating. It was a good time though. It was definitely a good time to be at a school like that.

Vida Cornelious:
I feel you 100% because I went to a summer program at Princeton, they pursued me coming there, but I don’t know, there was just something… I mean, it was Ivy League, I probably should have differently about that, but I really felt like Hampton was home in some way, so that’s where I ended up.

Maurice Cherry:
Going back to University of Illinois, you graduated in ’94, you left grad school, what was the next step? What were those early post grad years like for you?

Vida Cornelious:
When I was in grad school, I ended up having an internship at Uniworld in New York, which was a great experience, worked with some amazing people there, learned from some wonderful people. Valerie Graves, who is a legend in advertising was my boss at the time when I was an intern, so I learned a ton from her. They offered me a job after school, but I really wanted to go somewhere else because I felt like I would be forever the intern, just that psychology. I ended up getting an offer from their competitor at the time, which was Burrell Communications Group.

Vida Cornelious:
So I got very fortunate in that coming right out of graduate school I was able to land a job pretty easily. I had it in my mind that I was going to be like Angela from Who’s The Boss? I had a suit, I had the big portfolio case. I had no idea what the ad world actually looked like. My whole impression of the ad world was what I had seen on television for wearing suits and being frazzled all the time. I was offered the job at Burrell. I went to Chicago to pursue that. It was a great training ground. I worked with amazing people there. At the time, Burrell was on the top of their game. They had all the major accounts, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Sears, BellSouth, which was pretty much like the Verizon of that time. What other clients did we have? We didn’t do too much. I mean, Tom Burrell had a pretty strong feeling about things like cigarettes and malt liquor advertising to black people, so he didn’t really accept too much work like that. But it was a great experience being able to cut my teeth, if you will, at Burrell. I was able to do some pretty big commercials that still are cult classics for some people in the hip hop community.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you did the Obey Your Thirst campaign, that’s right.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, some Sprite work. That’s funny to see young people that are playing it on YouTube and consider it as a classic, and that’s your first piece of creative out of college. But there were so many fun things about just learning back then. You just felt like you were a sponge, you’re just learning so much. So that was a great experience. I was at Burrell for a good… I want to say I was at Burrell almost 10… no, maybe five or six years, I can’t remember. I think I left there in ’99 and then went to DDB.

Vida Cornelious:
DDB Chicago was a general market agency. At the time, it’s like you start in multicultural, but the bigger pond to be in was general market. Everybody wanted to get to a big general market agency. That was the stamp of approval that you were a real creative if you were able to get to a general market agency. So getting into DDB Chicago was a big stepping stone to be able to work on national accounts, accounts that were not meant to be just for the black audience but the general market audience, bigger budgets, things like that. But what came with that was a sense of loneliness and isolation. Being one of 120 or so creatives and you’re the only black, maybe one of three, is hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Vida Cornelious:
Incredibly hard when you’re not even 30 years old and you’re trying to figure out, okay, how do you navigate this? How do you know if you have people who are really in your corner or people who want to sabotage you? And even though DDB’s culture wasn’t like some other agencies at that time, it was definitely a norm to know that creative departments were incredibly competitive. People would steal each other’s work. People would shred their work at night because they didn’t want their work stolen, things like that. All of those myths were somewhat true in some places. Fortunately, I didn’t run across much of that, but I did still feel like I had to be really, really good in terms of my talent and feeling very secure in my talent in order to survive that.

Maurice Cherry:
People were shredding their at work at night?

Vida Cornelious:
Uh-huh (affirmative). Not at DDB, but other agencies. There were some other agencies where that was notorious. That was well known that the culture was very competitive in that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s cutthroat.

Vida Cornelious:
Very much.

Maurice Cherry:
Goodness. So you were at DDB for almost a decade. Aside from the cutthroatness of it, what do you remember the most from that time?

Vida Cornelious:
I mean, DDB, it taught me a ton, besides for the fact that I worked with some good people there. I worked with some people who really were interested in seeing me develop, and they were really interested in seeing my career take off. There was one real defining moment that I can always play in my brain because it was one of those type of things where someone is mentoring you and they’re kind of preparing you for a moment, but you don’t even really know it at the time.

Vida Cornelious:
I had a boss that I was like the sidekick, right? Whenever he needed somebody to prepare the bag for the presentation or get the work together, it was always like, “Vida, I need you to do that.” Right? Initially, I felt like, “Am I being asked to do this because I’m the lackey, because I’m the only girl on the team, because I’m the responsible one?” I had no idea, but ultimately what it allowed me to do was be able to always see all of the work. I had an opportunity to see all of the work, and he would ask my opinion of the work once I had put the bag together, made sure all the scripts were there, made sure all the boards were there, made sure there was no typos. It was almost like I knew the work better than he did because I was spending more time with it.

Vida Cornelious:
I would prepare the bag. I would go with him to the meeting. I would sit in the back of the room because he was doing the presenting, and I got to see firsthand how he presented, how the client responded to his presentation, how the work went over, what ideas landed, what ideas fell flat. I didn’t know it was a training at the time, but it was a training. I was getting to see it firsthand. My colleagues weren’t. My peers weren’t. So that was the trade-off for me being the person that always had to stay the latest to make sure the bag was ready for the meeting and all that kind of thing.

Vida Cornelious:
One day, that training kicked in because I was going to a meeting at McDonald’s. He happened to have the bag, but I always kept copies. I always made sure I had Xerox copies of everything that was in the bag so we had a way of making sure nothing got left behind. And so, I had my copies with me, like I always did, and we got a call that he had been in a car accident, so he wasn’t going to make it to the meeting. The whole old team, obviously, was panicking, meaning myself, the account people. I was just a sidekick. He basically was like, “Well, Vida’s there, so she can do it. She knows the work, she can present it.” I was like, “OMG. What?” I think at that point the account people were losing it too because I wasn’t seen as someone who was a stand-in for the boss. You know what I mean? But it was my shot. That was my shot, right? As they say in Hamilton, “I’m not going to lose my shot.” That was it. I didn’t know it.

Vida Cornelious:
But I went in, I had my little Xeroxes. We quickly rallied and got the Xeroxes distributed, like printed more copies and got them distributed. Yeah, I did what I saw him do, and we ended up selling the campaign. The client was very happy, told my boss that I was amazing and all that. The account team thought I was amazing. And shortly thereafter I got promoted. And it became upward trajectory from there. So those kind of moments, I think, were defining for me at DDB. It definitely changed the trajectory of my career. Being a person of color, being a black woman or a black young person in an environment like that, you’re not given that many people who want to really groom you per se. So you have to either absorb it on your own or figure out ways to just be in the right place at the right time. There’s a lot you have to do to rely on yourself. I got pretty comfortable with the idea that I may never have anyone who is going to choose me, right? So I need to just make sure that whenever I am chosen, I’m ready. I think that’s the philosophy I took on from there.

Vida Cornelious:
Then I got paired with a really, really great partner. We worked together for a long time, a young guy named Skip Tramontana. The two of us did a gazillion TV spots together and slept on the floor of our office and banged out ideas and had the quintessential young creative experience at DDB. But the two of us kind of rose up in the ranks together because we were a good team. We understood our clients. We understood how to sell work. And that was a really fun experience. And then we went our separate ways because he took a different job and I ended up getting promoted again and started managing more people and having more responsibility, and my career just went forward from there.

Vida Cornelious:
Most of my time spent at DDB towards the end of my time there, I was doing a lot of new business, a lot of big new business pitches, working across the agency as a whole. Probably one of the things I was most proud of there was working on a project for Budweiser because it was so outside of the norm of what they were trying to do. They were trying to reach young adults, multicultural, millennial adults. So it gave us an opportunity to really do something very different for them, which turned out to be highly successful. Working on beer was nothing that I was aspiring to do, but at the time at DDB, the beer accounts were like the Holy Grail. So being able to work on something there, pitch it, win it, successfully launch it was a big feather in the cap for this little black girl from the 35th floor.

Maurice Cherry:
By the time you left DDB, you got 15 years in the game working at two well-known agencies doing a lot of really big accounts. And then from there you worked at several other agencies and companies. You did a stint at GlobalHue. You did a stint at Walton Isaacson. You were at the Walt Disney Company even for a while. And of course, now you’re at the New York Times. When you look back at those past experiences after leaving DDB, what would you say are the most valuable things that you learned about yourself?

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, I think each of those positions or moves, if you will, taught me something different. I mean, for sure when I went to GlobalHue, it was right after the Obama election, and I was hellbent on like, “Black agencies are going to take the world by storm, and I want to lead the charge.” I was fired up. I was fired up to do something to really prove that black agencies were not subpar, and going to GlobalHue was almost like a perfect storm of events that allowed us to win the Jeep account while I was there. That was the first time a black agency was helming a massive general market account and one that was a truly beloved brand, American brand, Jeep. We really, really dug our heels in and flip turned it around. I had some incredible wins on that business, helped grow that business.

Vida Cornelious:
But I learned there that you don’t always get the credit that you’re due, no matter how hard you work on something. That was the hard lesson there. Even though I made some incredible friends not just in the agency itself, but in the client space and vendor space, there were so many people that were rallying around us to just see us win because we were trying to do great things and great work, but in the end sometimes the world at large, the industry at large doesn’t give you the credit that you deserve. When I moved over to Walton Isaacson, it was, again, an opportunity to try and build something, to try and bring a point of view. But again, you have to learn that sometimes if your name is not on the door, it’s not your dream to really try and bring to reality. You have to sometimes understand that your aims or your ambitions as a creative person and what you see is not necessarily in line with the person whose name is on the door, so you have to be okay with that and find a way to be diplomatic about how you do exercise your leadership and authority.

Vida Cornelious:
And then in going to places like Disney, that was an opportunity for me to learn about a brand from the inside out. That was an opportunity to pivot away from agency life where you’re in a more service role, in service to your clients that is, to be in on the brand side of the table where you’re literally setting the aims and mission that you need brought to life by your agency partner, right? Being on that side of the table gave me a more deep purview into what makes for sustainable creative ideas, what makes for building loyalty amongst an audience, and also building loyalty amongst the people that work in an environment with you. If there’s one thing I’ll say about the culture of Disney is that I love the fact that it is one where they’re very loyal to their employees in terms of people love the brand. People who work there love the brand, and they’re loyal to it. That was something that really helped me see the value of how much more passionate people are when they believe in what you’re doing. It made me see that you can’t fake the funk sometimes, right? You have to believe in what you’re doing too, and if you don’t, move on. And also being at Disney, it gave me an opportunity to really see the value of storytelling because Disney as an entity is really about storytelling.

Vida Cornelious:
Coming to New York Times is telling a different type of story, right? Is getting to see the stories of truth, of life, of journalistic integrity, and being able to bring that philosophy to the work that we do with brands. But for myself, it’s always about learning. It’s always about expanding my own capability and getting back to that notion of mastery, being able to master something. Your voice, your creative process, your ability to ideate, all those things are, in my opinion, very important being a creative person and how you formulate your own way of working.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the advertising industry like for you at this stage of your career? It sounds like you’ve done it all, pretty much, except run your own agency.

Vida Cornelious:
Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve managed to start as an intern, and you’ve worked your way up to being Vice President of Creative at the New York Times. When you look out at the landscape of the ad industry now, what do you see?

Vida Cornelious:
I’ll be honest, what I miss is, and it’ll sound old school, I’m sure, to anyone that’s listening, but there was a certain kind of beauty and real magic in finding an idea that a client would want to stay with for a while and replicate and build their brand around. Now we live in a space where it’s a lot more immediate. We’re living in a space that’s social, it’s faster, it’s a much quicker connection that that needs to be made because of people’s attention span or just what we’ve become accustomed to, how much time we really spend absorbing something. To that end, it feels a little bit at times like advertising is chasing the horse, is chasing something, whether it’s a new platform or how to capture an audience with a very short attention span or battling for our attention on a variety of devices.

Vida Cornelious:
Sometimes I miss the notion that you can build a brand through an idea, you can build an idea over time. Because a lot of times, time is not something that people are willing to give you anymore. But what I do look at in terms of how advertising is different in this landscape is I love fact that video and connecting through video and photography and storytelling formats that are visually-driven are something that is very appealing to me personally. I love film. I always have loved film and video, so anytime we can create things in that kind of format, whether it’s short form, whether it’s documentary style, I still find that probably to be the most appealing and satisfying for myself personally.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you excited about at the moment?

Vida Cornelious:
I’m excited about seeing more diverse voices actually be brought to the forefront. I mean, even though it’s not directly related to advertising, I love the fact that there’s so many more black storytellers writing shows, TV shows, episodic, television, film, that more voices are coming to the forefront. Because it does have a trickle-down effect. That representative storytelling is real. When we can see that there are audiences that are craving more than just the narratives that have been previously being fed to them, it gives us an opportunity on the advertising space to really find legitimate connections to audiences and bring new ways of telling stories to brands. I think that’s really important. So I’m loving seeing all the different types of creators that are out there whether it’s people on TikTok who are making a name for themselves on TikTok in some way, shape, or form, all the way up to creators like Rolonda Watts and Issa Rae’s and now James Samuel. I love the new movie that has just come out, the spaghetti western, and seeing people of color in a variety of types of storytelling formats, and those voices coming forward.

Maurice Cherry:
I still need to see that movie. You’re talking about The Harder They Fall, right? It just came out fairly recently.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I need to see that. So funny you mentioned TikTok. I don’t want to say obsessed with TikTok, because that sounds a bit too much, but I am really enjoying TikTok. I’ve actually even found some guests for the show on TikTok, just I’m randomly going through my For You page, and I’m like, “Oh, who is this? Oh, it’s a black person that painted the world’s largest mural. Let me talk to them and get them on the show,” or something like that. But it’s been really interesting seeing how people have come up on these new mediums. I mean, before TikTok, it was what? It was YouTube. It was podcasting. It was blogging. That part kind of blows my mind a little bit. A lot of people now who maybe are thought leaders or really progressive journalists now, I remember when they started out on BlogSpot. And they worked their way up now to book deals and television shows and podcasts and all this sort of stuff. It’s amazing to see.

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, and they have these… I mean, I know it’s not a new thing anymore, but the influencer houses where they’re influencers coming together, living together, creating their own collective.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Vida Cornelious:
[crosstalk 00:52:48] create content. I know there’s one in Atlanta that is all young black creators. I’m missing the name right now, but-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, the Collab Crib.

Vida Cornelious:
The Collab Crib, yes. Yes. I mean, I think that kind of stuff is really inventive for young people finding a way to basically monetize what they know about culture and the stories that they want to tell. So it is fascinating to see how these platforms have enabled so many young people to kind of find themselves, find their way, find their audiences.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of Collab Crib, New York Times plug, for folks that are listening, go to Hulu. The New York Times presented a whole documentary on the Collab Crib called Who Gets to Be an Influencer. Definitely go check it out.

Vida Cornelious:
Correct. They sure did.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone that’s out there listening, they are hearing the Vida Cornelious story and they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh, wow. I mean, it’s like, let’s see, what things should they do? No. Real talk, I would say some of the things I wish I had known then that I know now is that the ability to really listen and not get so deep into what you think something should be that you can’t or another point of view or a critique or a criticism is something I wish I had learned very, very early on. It took me banging my head against the wall a few times in the very early stages of my career before I fully understood that and the value of that. So I would definitely say that’s important.

Vida Cornelious:
The other thing that I would also say is important is your integrity, your character is all you have. Don’t ever let anyone force you to sacrifice that or put you in a position where you feel like you need to sacrifice that. Because at some point in your career and life, it will come back to haunt. I’ve seen it happen to other people. It hasn’t happened to me, but I have seen it happen to other people where they literally have to eat those words. They’ve treated someone a certain way, and then they find out later on in life that that person is in a position to either hire them or they’re the client now or whatever. And I’ve literally seen that. So always know that being kind, being gracious is important, that that’s more powerful than being someone who wants to lead by fear or bring fear into an equation, that never works.

Vida Cornelious:
I would definitely say to someone, “Try and understand and appreciate your worth early on. What makes you different? What makes you someone that has something to say, that has a voice?” I mean, at one point when I was Chief Creative Officer GlobalHue, I would interview people, maybe this isn’t appropriate to ask now, but I would interview people by saying, “When you come to the interview, wear at least one piece of clothing or an item that has some meaning to you. I’d love to know the story of it.” One of the reasons I asked people that was because I wanted to, number one, get a sense of who they were outside of the work that they do, the things that were in their portfolio. But I also wanted to know what had meaning to them.

Vida Cornelious:
I’ll never forget, a guy came in the middle of winter wearing a white linen suit. I said, “Wow.” I said, “Well, why did you choose to wear that?” And he said, “Well, this is the suit that I got married in. Besides for the fact that my wife was my best friend, I mean, this suit reminds me so much of how happy and how joyous I felt on that day, and how complete I felt on that day. And whenever I need that feeling, I remember this suit. I remember this day.” And so that just told me a lot about him and who he was. So I really liked doing that because it gave me a way of having a better understanding of people’s unique value and what’s important to them and the things that are never going to show up in their resume but can become very value as part of their experience in the work environment and in the place of work.

Vida Cornelious:
So I guess a short story for someone listening to this would be, be true to yourself. Be kind, be generous. Know that the people that you’re working alongside right now could be people that you need to reach up to or reach back for in the future. And those are probably the things that I think have sustained me.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have influenced you? I know you mentioned a couple of coworkers, you mentioned this professor at Hampton. Were there other people that have really influenced and mentored you throughout your career?

Vida Cornelious:
I would say I never had any direct mentors, anything that was a formal, per se, mentor relationship, but I definitely had people who I felt like invested a lot in me or poured in me. Rather it was family friends, personal friends, people who had nothing to do with advertising at all. Probably one person that I can definitely speak to or speak about is someone named Bob Sayles. He was a very, very good friend at Burrell, and he was our Head of Print Production. But besides for him just being an amazing person at work, I mean, he was just the most generous, gracious person. He had the most full life. He could make a friend anywhere he went. He was just that person. I mean, he had that hearty, big laugh that you can hear ringing in your ears well after he’s left the room.

Vida Cornelious:
I just learned so much from him about people and about what makes people feel important to you, how to connect with people, not just when you work with them but in just understanding them and really being able to look inside and see the truth that people have and what value they can bring to a situation. To me, he taught me more about human nature, I think, because of his personality and the way he was and the type of person that he was and the amount of time that we spent together as friends, and that became something that I actually use as part of my creative process. When I’m not fully clear on who is this audience I’m speaking to, or who is this person I’m trying to write this ad for or connect with, in some way, shape, or form, I have to figure out what is the truth that connects that person to whatever it is I’m trying to promote to them, right? I have to figure out what is the truth that they would believe.

Vida Cornelious:
So I kind of lean back on my time with him as a way of doing my research and digging around to better understand what motivates people, what makes them tick, and how that makes them feel seen. He was excellent at making people feel seen.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you think your life would’ve gone if you didn’t go into advertising?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh, if I hadn’t gone into advertising, probably when I was at that summer program at Princeton, I would’ve solidly moved into being some type of lawyer. Because I was definitely interested in writing. I was definitely interested in… not necessarily justice like criminal justice or anything like that, but just the pursuit of fairness in some way, shape, or form. I was always intrigued by that. So I probably would’ve ended up being a lawyer. Many, many years, now we’re going to fast forward 30-something years, I mean now, I picked up a love of flowers and floral arranging when I lived in Chicago and had a little side hustle business of doing flowers, which ended up, long story short, landing me doing flowers for Obama for one of his presidential election dinners like [inaudible 01:00:24] dinners. That bug right there, I never shook it.

Vida Cornelious:
I mean now in hindsight, plan B… I mean, if I fast forward, my plan B going forward after advertising, I would love to just own an amazing flower shop somewhere when it’s not about earning money but it’s just about being able to get up and go somewhere every day that you just really, really love. But yeah, if I hadn’t found advertising, I’d probably be a lawyer. Now that I’ve found advertising, been there, and I could say I’ve done that, I would love to probably pursue something a lot gentler on the soul like being a florist.

Maurice Cherry:
I could see it. Oh God, what was the show? I was watching Project Runway, and they just had a designer on there, this guy, Lewis Miller, that does these huge gorilla flower installations in New York City. Have you heard of this?

Vida Cornelious:
Oh yeah, yeah, uh-huh (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
He’ll take a phone booth or something and just into this explosion of flowers and stuff. That could be pretty cool. What do you want your legacy to be? Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Vida Cornelious:
Ooh, in the next five years… Honestly, I really would love to do more… Hopefully, I will continue to be with the Times. I’m going to say that, put that in the universe. But I would love to continue pursuing how can we do more film. I’d love to get into things like documentaries, more episodic film franchises, really expanding on the notion of how a brand can show up and be relevant in culture and be of service to culture. So finding innovative ways to do that. But I also think that it’s really important from a legacy standpoint to just continue to pave away for young people, particularly young black people, and making them feel like they deserve to be in these spaces, that when they come in these spaces that they’re prepared, they know how they want to show up as their best self, their whole self, not feeling like they have to be something that they’re not in order to fit into these environments, but know that their voices need to be here and need to be heard. But also how to be effective in doing that.

Vida Cornelious:
So if I’m able to leave a legacy of being able to help another young person be the next Vida or be the next other ad person who’s climbed up in the ranks here and there, then I’m happy to do that. I feel like it’s important for me to teach at this point and pave the way for others. I’m very proud of a mentee that I had at the New York Times who, although he chose not to stay at the Times, is doing very, very well in his new role. It makes me super proud to know that all the conversations that we had, all the plans that we laid, he put it in motion and it worked. So my goal is to just leave a legacy of the literal each one, teach one, if I can.

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

Vida Cornelious:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m always available on LinkedIn. That’s the fastest and easiest method. I do have a website, vidacornelious.com. I can’t say it’s updated at the moment. I hate to say that, but I’ve been doing so much work as of late, I haven’t had a chance to update it in a little while, but I will. But those are, yeah, for sure, two spaces that you can find me. If you just want to peek in on my dog, my French bulldog, which I love a lot, his name is Leo, you’re more than welcome to find me on Instagram as well. But I don’t do too much work talk on there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What’s the dog Instagram?

Vida Cornelious:
He’s just on my page, vida.c. But my dog’s name is Leo. Yeah, he’s very cute, and he’s going to be featured in one of our upcoming articles on departures, which is one of the big projects I do with our special projects team.

Maurice Cherry:
All right.

Vida Cornelious:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Vida Cornelious, thank you so much for coming on the show. One, just for sharing the rich career that you’ve had in the advertising industry. I think certainly for people that are listening to this, I always try to get people that are at all stages of their career, whether they’re just starting out or whether they’re captains of industry like you are. So it was great to just hear about your journey as a black woman in this industry, but also to hear about how you’re really about making sure that you pave the way for the next generation. I mean, it’s one of those things where certainly we walk the road to make sure that the next gen has a much easier path. So I certainly think that with the work that you’ve done and that you’re continuing to do that you’re helping to make that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Vida Cornelious:
Thank you. Thank you for having me. I love what you’re doing, I think it’s so important, so I’m happy to be an installment in what I would say is your legacy, observing all of our stories.

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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.

Chris Burnett

I think my conversation with this week’s guest — artist, musician, and designer Chris Burnett — is probably the most chill interview I’ve done this year. Don’t be fooled though — Chris is a creative dynamo, and someone you should definitely keep your eyes out for in the future.

We start off with a quick talk about the creative scene in Los Angeles, and from there he talks about being an artist at heart and how his current editorial design projects have been keeping him active. Chris also talked about growing up as a skate kid, attending Cal Arts, and scoring lucrative gigs including a stint with Nike, as well as designing for Odd Future. Chris calls himself a creative superhero, and if you trust your heart and spirit, so can you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Burnett:
Hi, my name is Chris Burnett. I’m an artist, designer, musician, pretty much all around creative soul. It’s hard to peg me down.

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

Chris Burnett:
This year and probably for most people, it’s been a very much transition year, buckling down on the things that I really want to be focusing on and being more selective with my time and my energy and my creative focus. So, it’s been good to narrow down the path of where I’m headed. It also coincides with me turning 30 in two weeks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s the beginning of a new decade, a new chapter. So, things have been shifting, but in a good way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. What would you say you’ve learned about yourself since last year?

Chris Burnett:
I’ve learned that I’m an artist at heart. That’s ultimately what I really want to do with my life and my creativity. I’ve been doing graphic design at this point for maybe eight years professionally. As much as I enjoy working with clients and collaborating on projects, there’s this burning desire in me to just be the artist that I want to be, have gallery shows, release albums, have more maybe design collaborations with companies and do things like that. So, yeah, things are in the works, things are in the works. It feels good to head towards the ultimate dream.

Maurice Cherry:
Is L.A. a good city for that kind of creative collaboration? I feel like it is.

Chris Burnett:
Well, yeah, I mean, L.A. is such an interesting creative scene, because you get people who come here from all over the world to pursue what they want to pursue. So, I’m constantly meeting people from all different walks of life, different types of creatives, whether that be musicians, other designers, other artists. So, it is pretty good for that. Although a lot of my work does come from people just reaching out to me by email and the collaboration happens more in a digital space, but I’m opening myself up more to relationships that I’m developing in the city. So, I have people that I can actually meet with in person and maybe visit their studios and see what they’re doing. So, yeah, if you wanted to find it in L.A., you could, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We just had a fine artist on the show a few weeks ago in L.A. His name is Gabe Gault. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar.

Chris Burnett:
I haven’t heard of him.

Maurice Cherry:
He painted the world’s largest mural in Toledo, Ohio. I think it’s like an ongoing project, but he does a lot of fine art work. I don’t know if you’re familiar with football, but his dad is Willie Gault-

Chris Burnett:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… who played for the Rams. Don’t get me talking about sports. I don’t know that much, but I do know that. It’s funny because I interviewed him and he kept throwing out like, “Yeah, my dad does sports. He’s in NFL and won a few Super Bowls.” I was like, “Okay.” It didn’t click to me after the interview to be like, “Wait a minute, who is his dad? Oh, it makes sense, because they have the same last name.” Yeah, I can imagine that L.A. is a really great place for that creative collaboration. We’ve been seeing so much Black creativity come out of L.A., I think largely, due to Issa Rae and Kendrick Lamar and folks like that. We’ve seen a lot of what feels like specifically Black L.A. creativity.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’m loving every bit of it. I was just watching Insecure yesterday. I think I caught up on the latest episode, but just to see that creativity coming out of the neighborhoods that I grew up in feels like finally we’re getting the recognition that is well-deserved.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, talk to me about Colibri Studios. That’s a studio that you began last year. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, I started Colibri Studios in the middle of last year. It was right when everything went into lockdown, actually, which seems like it would be the least opportune moment to do it, but there’s an interesting story to how I went about it. I was in New York. I was visiting a friend of mine, and I’ve been working on a necklace design. I found this charm that I really liked to go in the end of the necklace, and it had a hummingbird in it. It was the first time I was designing a chain and I was really excited about it.

Chris Burnett:
The hummingbird has special significance to me, because of the way that the animal moves throughout its life. It’s not really in your face. It’s secretive. But when you do see a hummingbird, it’s like this moment for you to be present with it and admire it. That’s how I feel about myself. I’m not really in the public eye per se. I’m not too show-offy. But when I do come around people, I make my presence felt. Honestly, I always see them, which is the weirdest thing. I’ll just be walking down the street and one will fly right in front of me. I’m like, “All right, there’s some weird connection here.” So yeah, I was designing this necklace.

Chris Burnett:
I get back from New York and the necklace is ready to be picked up. I get it and I’m so happy with the design that I thought, “That’s the logo. That’s the logo for the studio.” This was before I even really conceived of starting a studio. But once I had the necklace done, that was the moment where it was like, “Okay, this is a step in a new direction that you need to take.”

Chris Burnett:
It became more clear to me over time that I wanted to create a studio that really just was an umbrella for all of my creative endeavors, whether that be music, fine art, design. I found an office space in West Hollywood. I woke up one morning. It was on Craigslist, found the space. The first one I clicked on was the one that I’m actually in now. It all came together step by step. So, there wasn’t really a big plan that I was conscious of. It was more these little moments that led to the establishment of the studio. So, that’s what it is right now at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you mentioned it being this umbrella. I went on your website. You’re doing art direction, you’re doing graphic design, you’re doing collage and mixed media work. Again, you mentioned music being part of that as well. What made you decide to do such a broad range of services, as opposed to just graphic design?

Chris Burnett:
Well, I’ve always had this desire to really just be into one thing, but that’s just not how my life works. There’s so many creative outlets, and I’ve never felt limited to stick to just one. So, anything that I pursue, I want to do it to the best of my ability. If I can provide those services for other people, whether that’s producing music for people or working on an ad campaign for someone or just creating my own artwork that will eventually show in a gallery, I just wanted it to feel like it was a part of one family. So, that’s why I wanted to include all these different artistic mediums in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Well, it really depends on the context of the project. So, if we can start with a typical design project, I’ll get an email from a random person. I’m always amazed by how people find me because I’m not on Instagram or social media. I’m hidden, right? So, I’ll just get an email out of the blue. Someone’s saying, “Hey, we think you might be great for this project we’re working on.” We move forward with a brief, which is them giving me a document of what they’re looking for and maybe the end deliverables and the goals that they want to hit. And then I get to work.

Chris Burnett:
The process of me actually getting to work is not really standardized in the sense that I don’t have a list of things that I do every time I start a project. It’s really based on feeling and it’s more intuitive, because it allows me to be a bit more spontaneous with the end product. If I had the same process every time, I feel like it might be too stale for me and I might come up with the same thing too much. So, I allow for space in between projects for me to just sit and think about new directions or think about things I want to explore and then try to align those new things with what a client might be asking. Typically, it works out.

Chris Burnett:
For the most part, a client will ask for what I’m already good at. They don’t really ask for things that are completely outside of my wheelhouse. That allows me to use the skills that I already have, but then push it in a little bit of a new direction. Sometimes that creates a back and forth where there’s notes and there’s feedback, of course. And then sometimes I hit it right on the head and people are happy with what I create first try. So, it really depends on the project that I’m being asked to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I would also imagine, because like you said, you’re not on social media and folks have to go to your website and look through your work. By the time they’ve done that, hopefully, that’s a pretty good metric for you to see that this is someone that you would possibly want to work with. I’m pretty sure you have, but I don’t know. Have you ever gotten the client that has just been completely not a fit?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yes. It’s funny, because me and one of my designer buddies, we always have this joke that what we show on our website is typically the type of work that we want to receive, which is why we put it there. But there definitely will be times where someone will hit me up and just be like, “Hey, I need you to design just a simple logo.” It’s not that I can’t design a logo, but that’s not really where my skillset lies and my strengths are.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can do it, but then the process becomes a little muddied when it’s not something that I’m too passionate about. They’re maybe expecting the crazy, colorful collage type stuff, but it’s a logo. So, I can’t really do that for a logo. Yeah, there have been moments where it doesn’t work, but I’m learning which projects to say yes and no to now that I’ve been doing this for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are some of the projects that you’re working on now?

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of the things that I’ve been doing now is a lot of editorial illustration, which I’ve found that that really suits my strengths really well. It’s mostly image making, which is my favorite thing in the world to do is just create a compelling image to look at. So, when you pair that with an article for, say, The New York Times or the Guardian, that’s where I get to really flex my abilities. Over the past year, I’d probably gotten the most editorial illustration work than I ever have.

Chris Burnett:
There’s also a lot of merch design, merchandise design for artists in the music industry. That’s always ongoing. There’s always artists who need things to sell on the road or sell on their website. I help with a lot of that stuff. Some of its like under wraps because people don’t want to release info about music projects that they might be doing. But yeah, most stuff in the music industry and editorial illustration, I’d say, are my two big ones.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you prefer to work with?

Chris Burnett:
I’m always open to new types of clients, people that I haven’t worked with before just to be able to stretch myself and see, “What industries can I adapt my creativity towards?” But I think I do love working in the music industry. It’s fun to work with artists that you admire. It’s fun to work with artists that you’re playing their music in your car when you’re driving around and you get to work on something that’s for their project. It’s fun to be a part of things like that. I love editorial. I don’t know what it is about it. It’s just the pairing of an image with an article is like a dream project. It’s like they’re little, tiny dream projects, because they’re really quick and the turnaround time is super-fast, usually within a week or a couple days.

Chris Burnett:
It’s typically within those industries like editorial that there’s a little more room for creative freedom, because they’re trying to see how you would interpret the article and how that article maybe is reflected in your style and your own sensibility. So, that’s why I like it a lot, because there’s not too many notes. There’s not too much canceling of ideas. It’s very open ended, which I love.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I don’t know why for some reason, I would imagine working with musicians might be temperamental, but I guess like you said, if it’s an artist that you really like, it probably makes it a bit of an easier match.

Chris Burnett:
Well, that’s a good point. I mean, they’re definitely artists I’ve worked with in the past who are artists. An artist comes in mind a lot. There’s a certain temperament like you said that goes along with it. But I think the reason that I enjoy it and the reason I think I’m able to do it is because I am also an artist, so I understand that sensibility. It allows me to be as flexible as I need to be when working with them. It also informs my own practice of how I go about my music or my art as well. So, it’s fun. It’s a double-edged sword for sure, but I do like it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say to the audience, I don’t know if Chris is being a little humble now, but his music is really good. It’s really good.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
With your permission, I’d like to link to your SoundCloud because I was doing research for the interview and I just put the music on. I was like, “This is good. This is good.” I was like, “I can hear this on Insecure. I can hear this on Insecure. It’s pretty good.”

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. I would love for that to happen, but this is their final season. I’m so sad. Yeah, but thank you. I really appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I guess to that end, talking about Black art and things like that, we started to see over the past few years that with this influx in Black television shows and movies and stuff, we’re really starting to see a much wider range of artists, not just musical artists, but visual artists and stuff portrayed through these works. We had Gabe Gault who I mentioned before on the show, and he’s mentioned that his work has been in a television show. We had Dawn Okoro, who’s an artist in Austin. Her work has been on a BT show.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m wondering, because we hear so much about this Black creative renaissance and you hear about it through these visual artists, does that exposure help you in any way? I don’t know. Has your work been out there in that way where you feel like you’ve got an exposure because it’s been amplified through, say, a musical artist or something like that?

Chris Burnett:
Not necessarily. I guess this is a little hard to explain and this is the whole point of the studio, which is funny, is that because I think the hummingbird is such a secretive animal and it’s very hidden, because it’s so small and it moves really fast, I’ve settled into the idea that my work doesn’t necessarily exist in a public space as much as it could and I’m okay with that. I think when the time comes, some more visibility might help. But in the meantime, I still get to work with the people I love working with. Whether I’m publicly associated with them or not is not really what I’m focusing on. It’s just, “How do we make the best possible thing for this person? Or if it’s for me, how do I make the best possible thing for myself and share it?”

Chris Burnett:
I mean, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had moments where my work was recognized and especially recognized for the culture. There was an article in The New York Times Magazine, I think this was last year, I’m not too sure, but by Isabel Wilkerson. She just wrote a book called Caste that explores the idea of racism, but not through a racist ideology. It’s through a caste system, which is a whole another way of looking at it. I did these two collage pieces for the article in The Times. It was heavily centered around Black imagery and police brutality. That was the first time that I actually incorporated imagery into my work.

Chris Burnett:
It was a very enlightening moment, because I did the collages by hand. I was cutting out images of MLK hanging out with Mahatma Gandhi. I was cutting out images of African American men on the floor with police pointing guns at their heads. It was the first time that I started to have my work speak in a way that was relevant to what was actually happening. That was really eye-opening for me and that led me down a whole new trajectory with my art. But in those instances, I really enjoy when I can speak to what’s happening in the now and speak to the culture.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve just always been really curious about that, because I want to make sure… I mean, I’m saying this like I’m the singular person that can make this happen, but I want to see that Black artists, visual artists, graphic artists, particularly with their work being featured in entertainment get just as much shine as the show that the artists featured on or the actor that might be in front of the art and the piece. I don’t know. Something like that, it’s making me think of… Are you familiar with Brent Rollins? Does that name sound familiar?

Chris Burnett:
No. Who’s Brent Rollins?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God. So, Brent Rollins, so he was on episode 400, but Brent Rollins is like… I forget the moniker that I saw when I was researching, but it was like your favorite hip-hop artist’s favorite designer or something like. He designed the logo for Boys in the Hood when he was, I think, 19. He designed the logo for Poetic Justice when he was 20. He was rolling in that crew with Ice Cube and John Singleton back in the day. He did a bunch of work in the ’90s and 2000s Ego Trip. God, I can’t remember the name of the magazine. It’s escaping me but it’s episode 400 if people are listening. Go back and listen to it.

Chris Burnett:
Hell yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There were these shows on VH1. One was called Race-O-Rama. One was called… I think it was White rapper showcase or something or a reality show or something like that. He had his hand in all these really interesting things around hip hop culture, but it was through his design and eye. So, a lot of stuff that you see in Vibe Magazine and stuff for the ’90s and 2000s was heavily influenced by him and his work. He is such a cool ass, behind-the-scenes dude.

Maurice Cherry:
Him and I were talking. He was like, “Yeah, man, I did this and did this. I exhibited here and there.” I was like, “Do you understand, I grew up on your work, watching your stuff, looking at your stuff at Vibe magazine, be like I want to design like that?”, and was just being so humble about it. I knew who he was because I ended up doing the research on it, but I don’t think the average hip hop fan knows who Brent Rollins is. That’s not to say that diminishes Brent’s work in any way, but why is he not as recognized as artists from that time?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, well, I think there’s a couple of levels to it. I think, on a larger scale, typically, designers are in the background, because the work is what speaks to the public, right? So, if I’m designing a logo for a company, my face isn’t going to be the face of the company, but the logo will, right? So, there’s never really been a need for the designer to be in the public eye as much as maybe the person who runs the company, or say, if you’re working for an artist, the artist is the one who is getting all the focus. So, the designer falls to the background.

Chris Burnett:
I think we’re starting to see a shift in that, especially in Black culture, with people like Virgil Abloh, who became almost like designer of the year for every year for a long time at this point. But he came from Kanye’s group, and he started to create the idea that designer can be the public figure also and not just be the one that sits in the background. So, I think that tide is starting to shift and we’re starting to see it. It also happens in music too. Back then, producers were always just behind the boards and you never really knew who was producing the music, but now, the producers are just as big as some of the artists. So, we’re seeing that shift take place and I think that’s really cool. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me, but it’s all right. I don’t mind being in the shadows.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s true. I do hope to see that day where the designers and the visual artists get that same level of recognition or at least name recognition, where folks know. They look at something. You’re like, “Oh, that’s a Chris Burnett,” if they see a collage or something like that, that thing.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, I’m definitely developing a visual language and a style that feels really specific to me. So, there are certain recognizable aspects of my work. As I’ve ventured more into music, I’m definitely going to be presenting myself and my person out there. So, maybe the moment where the tide turns and this all becomes more public is right around the corner.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, tell me what it was like growing up in L.A.

Chris Burnett:
Growing up in L.A., yeah, I grew up in South Central, specifically Manchester and Vermont for anyone who knows that area. It wasn’t really the best neighborhood at the time. There was a lot of gang violence, a lot of drugs. Police relations with the community were not great. Growing up, there definitely had an impact on me, although my parents were very, very careful in what they allowed me and my older brother to do. We weren’t really allowed to go outside after certain time. I didn’t really have many friends in the neighborhood, because that was the way that I could get caught up in some of the wrong stuff.

Chris Burnett:
So, a lot of my time was spent creating indoors, whether that was drawing or painting or my parents would put me in art classes at a pretty young age just to keep me occupied and doing something that I enjoyed versus running around my neighborhood, getting into trouble, like a lot of the kids who were there probably did. It wasn’t until I went to high school that I was taking the bus to high school to public transport. That was the first time I got a little taste of freedom. I started skateboarding at the same time. So, I would take the bus to skate parks and start to explore a little bit. That was when I really started to understand the neighborhood a little bit better.

Chris Burnett:
It wasn’t as dangerous as it was when I was a little kid, but yeah, it definitely influenced my practice and my behavior in terms of I like the area I grew up in, because to me, it feels real. It feels very honest. Where I live now is actually a completely different environment. At this point, I’m not sure that I want to stay there as much, because every time I go home to visit my folks, it’s like, “Oh, I actually really liked this neighborhood.”

Chris Burnett:
Maybe I was scared of it when I was a kid, but now I’m an adult and I know how to move. Certain things become illuminated when you’re in different stages of your life. So, back then, it was a little intimidating, but now it’s more enticing, especially they just built the big stadium in Inglewood. That’s 10 minutes from where I grew up. So, there are things that are happening in that area that wouldn’t necessarily happen. Resources are coming back down there, which I think is great. So, I might move down. Who knows? We’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
L.A. is so big.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
I was there actually, for the first time last year. We were set to do a live tour throughout 2020 last year. We started off in L.A. and did our first live show out there.

Chris Burnett:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I live in Atlanta, which is pretty spread out, but L.A. is gargantuan in terms of scale. I was in the Korea Town neighborhood initially and then we did the live show. We did that down in Leimert Park, but I didn’t really get to see L.A. I saw a couple of neighborhoods.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, there’s always the pockets that people go to, but there’s a lot of hidden treasures in this city. It takes time. It takes time of living here or just having the time to explore. You got to have a car. You got to drive everywhere. But yeah, it’s massive. It’s massive, massive, massive, massive.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you grew up studying art. You were taking art classes and everything. Eventually, you went to college. You went to CalArts. What was that experience like?

Chris Burnett:
CalArts, for me, was extremely transformative. At this point, I was coming out of high school. I took a graphic design course in high school. So, that’s how I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So, I applied to a couple different art schools in California. I didn’t really want to leave the state. The minute I stepped on the CalArts Campus for a tour is the minute that I knew that was the place I needed to be. I didn’t really even do that much research, I’ll be honest, but the feeling I got when I arrived there, it felt like I definitely made the right decision.

Chris Burnett:
The thing that I loved about that school was that there were so many disciplines in one roof. There was acting, there was costume design, there was character animation, there’s graphic design, there’s fine arts, there was music, there was set design. There was all kinds of creative people who come from all over the world to study and perfect their craft. So, that period of time really opened my eyes to all the things that maybe I didn’t get to experience growing up, especially because my parents were really careful about what I was exposed to. Once I got to CalArts, it was like, “Oh, I’m an individual now. I’m going to do it or what. I can explore. I can see what life really has to offer.”

Chris Burnett:
It was in a bubble of CalArts, but still, within that bubble, there were so many different pockets to explore. A lot of the friends I have now are people from that school. A lot of the people that I try to keep in touch with creatively are people from that school. It was just a really transformative time. I think it really allowed me to grow up. I’ve always been the youngest one in my friend circles. I have funny stories.

Chris Burnett:
When I got to CalArts, I still maybe looked like a 13-year-old or 14-year-old. It was very strange. People would walk up to me and say, “Do you go here? Are you lost?” I’m like, “No, man, I’m headed to the movie class right now.” It was really interesting. It was that time for me to grow up and grow into myself. I wouldn’t trade those four years for the world. Even though I picked up some student debt from it, we all have a little bit of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that where you met Bijan?

Chris Burnett:
That’s where I met Bijan, yeah. So, Bijan was my classmate all four years. What happens at CalArts in the design program is that you share a studio. In the graphic design program, you share a studio with your entire year level. So, there were about 19 to maybe 21 of us in our first year, which was pretty large for an incoming class. Bijan was in that class with me. We actually met the day we had a portfolio review. We didn’t know each other. We were just both coming from our high schools and trying to show our work to get accepted. He was literally standing in line right in front of me. Lo and behold, we both got accepted and ended up in the same class.

Chris Burnett:
Bijan was and still is one of my best friends. He became this creative rival, but in the best way possible, where if he was doing something, I would see what he’s doing and be like, “Oh, that’s really good. Okay, now I got to do something that’s really good.” And then he would see what I was doing and it would level him up and then he would level me up. We ping pong off each other like that until we graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s good to have that creative tension in a way, I guess.

Chris Burnett:
For sure. I’m really competitive. So, whether it’s in sports or in making a cool poster, I feel that edge or that desire to want to be the best and bring the best out of myself and others. So, we really thrived on that with each other.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. For folks that are listening, who are like, “Who is Bijan?” Bijan Berahimi founded… Actually, YouTube co-founded FISK together. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
A studio called FISK, like the HBCU but not the HBCU.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, not the college. Everybody knows. So, this came about in our first year. It’s actually a collaboration between a bunch of our classmates. We wanted to create a website where we could showcase student work and just have a digital space for us to talk about design as students. A lot of us contributed to the website. We had a thing called Things We’ve Stolen, which was posters that we stole from the walls of CalArts. We would feature them on the website. There’s a large poster culture at that school. We would interview other designers who were working professionally and ask them questions about the transition from student life to professional life.

Chris Burnett:
We would have zines, where we asked students in the program to submit artwork, and then we would throw a party for the zine release. It was a myriad of things when we were in school. After we all graduated, we settled into our own pockets and practices. Bijan decided to resurrect FISK in Portland, and that’s when it became the studio. I wasn’t a part of inauguration of the studio per se, but the initial idea was a very collaborative thing. It still is to this day. He runs it out of Portland and has a couple employees and they’re doing great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Speaking of Portland, after you graduated, you did eventually head to Portland, because you had an opportunity with Nike, which we’ll get to, but you had another opportunity that happened to you senior year where you got to work with a pretty well-known music group. Can you talk about that?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it’s actually a crazy story about how that happens. So, my third year of college, we had a project that was to design a magazine of a subculture, any subculture of our choice. I decided at that point, I wanted to focus on Odd Future because they had just started to gain a little traction. I think they were doing most of their stuff independently. It was something that I really resonated with, because of that DIY spirit and because they were from where I was from. It was just cool to see kids like me doing cool stuff. So, I decided to make my magazine about Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I designed the whole thing, printed the whole thing. I gave it to my brother, who was friends with Travis, who used to go by Taco, just so they could see it and be aware of me. I don’t know if Travis ever got the magazine. I have no idea where the magazine was. I would love to see it because it’s been so long. But I did that in hopes that that would be my connection point with them. So, they can know that I’m over here doing my thing. They’re over there doing their thing. Nothing really came of that. So, by the time fourth year came around, I was setting my sights on other jobs and other opportunities.

Chris Burnett:
Randomly, on a trip to Joshua Tree with Bijan, I get an email in the car from a guy who’s running an agency that’s handling all of Odd Future’s merchandising and branding and things like that. He goes, “Hey, Chris, I saw your work. Would you love to come work for Odd Future?” I was like, “What, a year later, what?” It was so random and I was not expecting it, but immediately, I said yes. So, that was midway through the end of my time at CalArts. I started interning there. So, I would have class. After class, I would get in my car and drive all the way back down to L.A. to work with them for a couple of hours, come back to school, do my schoolwork.

Chris Burnett:
That was a balance that I struck at the end of my fourth year until I graduated and then I just started working for them full time. That was a crazy experience for me. It was one of those dream moments where these are artists that I really respect and admire. They’re doing really cool things musically, visually. Just the fact that I got to be a part of it for that span in my life was pretty amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dope story. I mean, when you think of Odd Future and of course, Tyler the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt and-

Chris Burnett:
Jasper Dolphin.

Maurice Cherry:
Jasper Dolphin.

Chris Burnett:
Hodgy Beats, Left Brain, yeah, all the OGs.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of their whole persona, it’s so hard to pin down. I feel like you could just say, “Oh, Black Skater,” or whatever, but it’s so much more than that. I think particularly Tyler, I remember Tyler had this show on Vice a few years ago called Nuts and Bolts.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I love that show.

Maurice Cherry:
He was doing all these different design things. He’s like, “Oh, I’m designing apparel, I’m designing a shoe or something like that. I’m designing furniture.” He was doing all this interesting design stuff. This was going on, I think, right around the time there was also this reality show on YouTube that I’ve mentioned on the show before called Lace Up, which is basically, a sneaker design reality show contest thing. Because you know, there’s a PENSOLE Academy in Portland.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, yeah, definitely familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, by the way, but he runs that school. He did this reality show on YouTube, where he was bringing in designers to design shoes and stuff. I remember, I would watch that and I would watch Nuts and Bolts and be like, “Why is nobody talking about these design shows?” I mean, their style is so hard for me to pinpoint. I think most people know Odd Future because of their donut logo. But what stuff were you doing? How did that creative process look like?

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, that was definitely wild for sure. I mean, by the time I started helping with a lot of the merchandise and the clothing, there was definitely a visual aesthetic that was already established. That was primarily Tyler’s ideas and the group’s ideas. When I hopped on board, there was definitely a lane to work within. There was definitely visuals that I could reference, things that I knew they liked, things that I knew they didn’t like to stay away from. So, a lot of the times, what would happen is I’d be in the office with… There was me. There’s another designer named Aaron Martinez, shout out to Aaron.

Chris Burnett:
There’s another designer named Phil, who handled mostly the Golf Wang stuff, which was separate from the Odd Future stuff at the time. So, they were the two creative directors, for me, at least. They would pinpoint where I should take things and what directions I should go in. But a lot of the time, the guys, the group of artists and the music makers and the whole clique would just show up at the office. We would have these meetings where they would just pitch ideas to us. I remember Jasper one time saying, “I want a dolphin on the Empire State Building smoking a blunt.” I just graduated with a design degree. I was like, “How am I going to do this weird photo manipulated illustration and pull this off and then put it on a T-shirt? This is wild. It’s so weird.” But I ended up doing it.

Chris Burnett:
It actually became one of my favorite pieces, even those one of the strangest things in the world. Yeah, they would just come in. We would print everything out, have these just big jam sessions of getting everyone’s thoughts and ideas and opinions. If they liked what we did, they would rock with it. If not, they would exit immediately and say, “Do this differently,” or “Do a different thing over here and maybe change the color of this and tweak this a little bit.” So, it was a super, super collaborative process and really wild to just hang out with them, because this was really at the peak of their stardom as a group. Super interesting, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an Odd Future name? Did they give you a name or something?

Chris Burnett:
No, this is another thing that contributes to me being in the shadows. I didn’t really try to infiltrate into the group like that. I knew that they were already so tight knit and close friends. I’ve never really been the type to try to eat off of someone else’s success. So, I purposefully was like, “It’s cool. I enjoy working with you guys. I enjoy creating these things for you, but I’m just going to take my place in the backseat and watch you guys do your thing.” It was so fun for me just to do that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine how some of those design sessions might have went. Just the ideas and the crazy shit that they come up with I imagine is… I mean, I think for any really strong visual designer, that’s a dream to have a client or to have someone that has that creative capacity to just do whatever.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, it was definitely really freeing, especially to come from CalArts, which was a similar environment in terms of the freedom of creativity that we had in school and to have that as my first full time gig, I couldn’t ask for anything better. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after working with them, you got an opportunity to work with Nike, which then eventually had you go to Portland. If you could sum up your time at Nike in one phrase, what would it be?

Chris Burnett:
Oh, man. One phrase, working at Nike, you put me on the spot. I would say high level hierarchy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Chris Burnett:
I mean, I might have to explain that a little bit. When I say high level, I guess I mean, the quality of work that was being produced and the scale of work, the amount of people that would see it, the amount of reach that it had, that’s what I mean by high level. When I say hierarchy, there’s such a system in play. It’s such a large corporate company like that, that sometimes creativity and new ideas are not necessarily accepted, because it doesn’t fall within the framework of what has been successful for them as a company. So, I’ve always understood that before I started working there, so I wasn’t going in thinking that it would be another Odd Future.

Chris Burnett:
I went in knowing that, okay, this is going to be a big place where there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of things that I can’t control. There’s a lot of things that I don’t have any impact over. So, it was a humbling experience to be able to contribute my ideas to such a large and fast moving company, but then it also, for me, told me that that environment wasn’t necessarily the one that I wanted to be in for a long time in terms of work in the design world. But it was definitely a great learning experience to get my feet wet. Being a professional was cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’ve had a few designers on the show before that have worked at Nike and I don’t know if they all liked it. In a way, it’s good, because it’s like, “Oh, this is Nike.” Like you said, there is this high level reach, but each person we’ve had on has said, it’s not a great place to work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, there’s certain aspects of it that are really difficult to stomach if you’re not capable of grinding it out. I think one of the bigger things that I had to do when I was there was just work a lot. When we needed to get a project done, we were up very late working on it on campus until it was done. It really instilled a good work ethic for me, but as far as being a sane human being, it did not contribute to that at all. So, yeah, that was a really difficult part of it, especially coming in as a young designer, who had new ideas and maybe I wanted to bring new innovations to the way they were thinking about design. It’s not that they didn’t want to listen. It’s that they already understood what works for them.

Chris Burnett:
So, for a group of young designers to come in and just shake everything up and try all these new things, it’s not really something they were looking for at the time. Now that Virgil cracked open the door with his initial The Ten collaboration, the shoes, where he was messing with the swoosh and change the game, putting it in different locations where they would never do that, it’s really opened the door for them to expand their creativity to a whole new level, which we’ve been seeing lately. But when I was there, it was still very much you play by the book, because this is the recipe that has worked for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, if they know that it’s going to work all these different times, we’re not really looking for any variations on that. They just need you to do the same thing.

Chris Burnett:
Right. At the end of the day, if we’re being honest, they’re a company, they’re a business, and they need to make money. So, if they’re experimenting too much and it messes with their stock price or some of the shareholders get upset, it’s going to trickle down. That’s what I mean by hierarchy is that there’s so many layers to it, that it’s really impossible as one designer to go in there and really have your voice heard, but to each their own.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But I mean, like you say, because of the crucible that that design environment is, like you say, it’s strengthened your work ethic and I’m sure probably has helped you out in some way now as a designer, just having that experience working there.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, for sure. So, there were two stints that I did at Nike. The first one was in brand design for sportswear and that was my first experience there. Honestly, all of my co-workers were amazing people. I had a great time working with them. It was, like I said, grinding out a lot, just working hard on campaigns. We were doing the overarching branding system that would then be sent out to all the different categories around the world. They would apply what we designed to whatever product was being released. So, that was really cool to see that.

Chris Burnett:
And then the second stint was for the Olympics, for Rio ’16. That was wow. If I thought the first stint was crazy, the second one was… I don’t even know how I lasted, but it definitely helped put a work ethic into my brain. So, if I need to work on something, I will get it done. There’s no excuses. They always said at Nike, there’s no finish line. That’s one of the taglines. The reason I say that is work just keeps on going and innovation keeps on happening. Things don’t really stop. Even though we’re running, we’re putting our all in, things just keep moving and keep going and keep evolving. It’s a tough environment to be in if you’re not used to that type of pace of work. But if you’re down for it, it can really instill a good work ethic in you.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s how I was when I worked at AT&T. AT&T was one of these places, you walk in and they have this huge banner over their big marble reception desk that says, “Shaping human capital,” or something. You’d go and there would be this never-ending firehose of work. I think when we go in, we were always six months behind on something. Salespeople just kept selling and the work just kept coming in. So, you’re never caught up. We had, I think, roughly about 36 designers that were working there in teams of 12. They had this floor to ceiling LED board. So, everything that you design had a point value to it.

Chris Burnett:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
As a designer, I think when I started, you have to hit 36 points at the end of the week and then eventually up to the 40. But everything you design had a point value. So, if you design a banner, that’s point nine points. If you design a three-page website, that’s five points. If you design a 10-pager, that’s nine points. So, you could hit your total pretty easily if you just design four websites in a week or something like that. I mean, this was 2006. You would pull the order from the system.

Maurice Cherry:
They have this system called Ice Blue. I don’t work there anymore. So, even if all this stuff is proprietary, I don’t care, but they have this thing called Ice Blue and you pull your rec. So, you have to go to a file cabinet, fish out the envelopes, this is my paper, fish out the envelopes that had all the assets in it. It was usually printed out Word files, scraps that the salespeople got from the company of their logo drawn on a napkin or something. You have to go to the scanner. I’m dating myself, you have to go to the scanner. There was one computer with the scanner for 36 designers.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, my God.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you had to go to the scanner, scan your stuff in, mail it to yourself, because we didn’t have Dropbox because it didn’t exist then. You mail it to yourself, you get back to your station, and then you have to trace it out. We were using Dreamweaver because it’s 2006. You basically had to build a website, retype all the information and everything. Eventually, you got faster because it’s one thing to do the actual coding and the design work and Photoshop and Illustrator, whatever, but then you’ve got all this other operational stuff you have to do like pull the rec and scan and do this and return the folder and walk it over to QA, physically walk it over to QA and all this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually, you get better just in terms of speed. So, I could knock out four or five websites in a week. If I got the packet in the morning, I could finish it by lunch. And then I could pick up on that lunch and then finish it by the time I was ready to go home. Again, this was 2006. So, this was right around the time when table-based layout was being phased out and CSS layouts were being phased in. I mean, we fired some people because they couldn’t get it. They did not know how to convert the tables to CSS, so they weren’t getting it. We fired people.

Maurice Cherry:
God, this was a long, long time ago. But eventually, I like made a little CSS work template or something that I could easily just plop in and change the value so I could get quicker with it. I still use that to this day, principles from that. But it’s one of those things where if I wasn’t in that type of design environment, would I even know to do something like that? You know what I mean?

Chris Burnett:
Exactly, exactly. So, do you think that having the point system actually helped people stay on track in terms of what they needed to get done? Because I mean, that’s almost public accountability for the work that you have to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, yes and no. For some people, it really freaked them out. Because if you didn’t hit your number, because you could see how everyone on the team was doing at any given point in time. So, you could see what your number was and who was above you and who was below you. So, it was one thing for you to know the number but now everyone else knows your number. So, you’ll be sitting at lunch and someone will come and be like, “You got to get the numbers up.” Keep in mind, we only could take a 15-minute lunch. So, you have to wolf down your sandwich or whatever that you brought from home.

Maurice Cherry:
And there would just be random people, random supervisors that don’t even work on your team will just come by you. Points look a little low this week. I don’t need that kind of pressure. I’m trying to try to get the work done. I don’t know if it helped. I mean, certainly, it’s one of those things where you either cut it or you don’t, but you definitely knew at any given point in time where you stood. Eventually, it got to the point where they upped the amount of points you have to get and then they lowered the point value of the items. So, you have to crank out more work to get to a higher target. It was a mess. I left there and said, “I have to do my own thing.” I didn’t want to work for another place after that. I think similarly, when you left Nike, you started freelancing too. Is that right?

Chris Burnett:
Yes. So, between those two stints that I just mentioned, after the first one was when I decided to leave. I just had a nine-month contract, so I never actually took full time at Nike. I was what was called ETW, it’s like a temporary worker. My contract was up after nine months. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at freelancing, which is something I had never done before. The funny thing is even coming off of the new work ethic that I just developed, all the skills and connections that I had made, freelancing did not really work for me. I think it was because I lacked motivation to do so just because I was coming off of nine months of very, very grueling work. Having this time to set hours for myself, it made me not really want to do that much work and almost like take a vacation.

Chris Burnett:
So, in that period of time, I was focusing a lot on my music and a lot of my artwork, but I wasn’t really successful at the freelance thing. So, by the time the Rio Olympics had come around, the guy who wanted me to work with him on his team, Ibrahim Hassan, shout out to Ibrahim, he became my mentor in that moment. He wanted me to come back and work on the Olympics. So, that’s when I went back. That was even more grueling than the first time, but I learned so much more by working with him and working with our team that it was very much worth it for me to do it.

Chris Burnett:
But after that, I knew that that was it, that I couldn’t keep doing it. That’s when I went freelance. The second time around it, it clicked for me. I’m not necessarily sure what I changed. I think I was just more hungry to make it work, because it didn’t work the first time.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, I think, with freelancing, for me, when I first started out, I left in late 2008, I just quit my job. I was like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and started my studio. I’d say maybe those first three or four months were rough, because even though I was like, “I got all the skills, I know people XYZ,” finding the work ended up being difficult. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t do it. It was just finding the right clients.

Maurice Cherry:
And then eventually, I did end up working for a client. It was a political client. And then working on that campaign kickstarted my studio and kept me going. If I wouldn’t have gotten into that, I don’t know if I would have continued freelancing. I don’t want to say I have to link up with someone. But once you got the right client and it clicked, then you’re like, “Okay, I can keep doing this.” It makes sense. You had worked with an agency called Ceremony of Roses when you were freelancing, right?

Chris Burnett:
Right. So, after I left Nike the second time, I think there was a stint in between where I went overseas, just to travel around for a little bit. That was maybe three months in Southeast Asia, which was really fun. By the time I came back, I did another short contract at Jordan, which was still on Nike campus, so in that world, but just for the Jordan Brand instead. And then after that, it was like, “All right, I think I’m going to move home to L.A.” At the time, that agency, Ceremony of Roses had reached out to me and was like, “We have a position open at our agency down in L.A.” It was literally perfect timing because I was already moving back home.

Chris Burnett:
That’s when I decided that I was going to take that job down in L.A. when I got back. They were heavily focused on music, so a completely different world than sports and branding. They had a lot of clients in the music industry. Their main bread and butter was merchandising and creating the brand that surrounded the artists, whether that’s from tour announcements and flyers and posters to actual merchandising to websites to things for them to post on social media. So, in a similar way to the agency that I worked with for Odd Future, who was just handling a lot of the creativity, that’s what Ceremony of Roses was, but in a updated and more efficient way, I’d like to say. I stayed there for about two years.

Chris Burnett:
My timelines are always a little foggy, but I stayed there for around two years in L.A., just doing a lot of work with artists in the music industry. Janelle Monáe had released her album, Dirty Computer. That was one of the bigger projects that I got to work on. Her and her team were fantastic just because they really trusted me and they gave me a lot of creative freedom to create pieces that worked with her album and with the whole concept of what she was doing. That was one of the highlights of that job for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wonderland Studios has a great team.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, yeah, yeah, fantastic people to work with. So, I made a lot of good connections from that, from working with that agency. Yeah, we still work together today.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, cool. I know George 2.0. We went to Morehouse together.

Chris Burnett:
Oh, nice. Yeah, 2.0.

Maurice Cherry:
We went to Morehouse together. Now, this was back before she was doing the whole Android thing. She had the CD called The Audition, I think. I remember buying it off The Strip one day in the late 2000s, not late 2000s, way earlier than that. This was early 2000s. I’m not that young. But I remember getting her CD and being like, “Oh, this is really good.” Of course, they have the Atlanta connection, because she’s lived and worked here before and stuff. But their whole crew, their whole studio is doing great work.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I’ve always admired them because they operate in a way that’s different to a lot of artists. I think just their tight knit community of people that they work with, it was a real family vibe when I would connect with their team and we would talk and discuss work. It just felt really good to be around them, great people.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors throughout the years?

Chris Burnett:
I wouldn’t say that I’ve had specific mentors, where their role was to mentor me through the stage of life that I was in, but I think a lot of the times, the supervisors that I had at the companies I worked with took on that role in maybe a subconscious way. The first being a guy named Michael Spoljaric, who was the… I think, he was brand director or creative director. There’s so many titles at Nike that I forget what he was doing, but he was the head of sportswear brand design when I was there.

Chris Burnett:
So, when I got hired to work with them, he was the introduction into that world of professional corporate design. So, really, in terms of design and creativity, he really helped me to understand good typography, good layouts, how to design a book properly, what images to choose for a campaign, stuff like that.

Chris Burnett:
The next when I was working on the Rio Olympics, I already mentioned Ibrahim. He really became that mentor figure for me. He already saw that I had potential, but he fine-tuned it. That’s what I really appreciated about him was that he really got down to the nitty gritty and the specifics of things, the details of things, because every little detail counts if you’re trying to make something that is impactful. If you leave one little thing out, then it might ruin the whole trajectory of the story. So, he was really a figure like that for me.

Chris Burnett:
When I came to Ceremony of Roses, the two people who really stuck out to me was Brad Scoffern, who’s the owner of the company. He’s the one who brought me on board. I met him when I was working at Odd Future. He always remembered me. So, by the time he started his own agency, he immediately reached out to me and wanted to work with me. And then another guy at that company named Jared Hankey, who became my pseudo mentor at that time when I was working there, too. So, I haven’t really had specific people outside of work environments that have done that for me, but it’s always been supervisors or bosses or those who are in higher positions than me who can show me the ropes and keep me on track.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you call yourself a creative superhero. What does that mean to you?

Chris Burnett:
It means that I have a lot of superpowers. It’s always been really difficult for me specifically to classify what I am or who I am in terms of my creativity, because I can say one day that I’m an artist and then another day, I can say I’m a musician. One day, I can say I’m a designer. I can wear all these hats, and I try to wear them really well. I was always thinking of, “What’s just a cool umbrella term that I could use that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but does speak to the idea that I can do all of these different things?” I came up with that when I was designing the website for Colibri and it just stuck. So, that’s the moniker that I like to use if it’ll be on business cards or any little bios, but yeah, that’s what that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I’ve read where you talked about your ultimate dream project, which was back when you were working with Odd Future. It was this collaboration with their brand, with Golf Wang and Hello Kitty. That was years and years ago. Is that still your ultimate dream project or do you have another dream project you want to do one day?

Chris Burnett:
I think I have a bunch of dream projects. That one specifically came about, my older brother, who’s also a designer, artist, musician, just like me, his name is Jordan. He was really into A Bathing Ape. This was before I was really knowledgeable about these brands at this time. He had this one shirt, which featured a character named Baby Milo, which was a very cute drawing of a little monkey. It was really simple and it had really thick lines. I was just obsessed with that illustration style for the longest time. I remember when I was working for Odd Future, Tyler had created a character called Shark Cat. He was really into cats. We used them a lot, a lot of the merchandise. I decided that I wanted to create a Shark Cat version of almost a Baby Milo-like character.

Chris Burnett:
So, I took this cat head that Tyler had come up with, and I placed it onto a very simplified body with the bold strokes and just really a cute little character. I wanted to use it for something but I didn’t really know what we would use it for. And then my boss at the time told me that Sanrio, which is the company that owns Hello Kitty, they were looking to do a collaboration with Odd Future. That was the moment that I was like, “Okay, Hello kitty is definitely in the same style of Baby Milo, and this is the moment where I can combine those two worlds. So, I can take this little Shark Cat character and I can take the Hello Kitty character. I can put them in one.” I must have created an entire capsule collection for them.

Chris Burnett:
And then I don’t really know what happened. I was told that the executives at Sanrio saw some of our futures videos and were like, “Maybe not, it’s not really in line with our brand aesthetic.” So, it never went through, but that was definitely just a dream project because I really was into the aesthetic of Hello Kitty and Baby Milo and wish that I could have combined those two worlds, but that never really came to fruition.

Chris Burnett:
But fast forward to now, my biggest dream project is more self-focused. I want to have a gallery show with… I’m working on a new body of work right now, some of the biggest canvases I’ve ever worked on. I want to have a gallery show where all of that new work is there. I want to create a couple of sculptures to go in there. I also want to perform my music at the gallery show. So, then it can be a full representation of my artistic abilities. That’s really what I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the past couple of months. So, that’s where my brain goes when you ask, “What would a dream project be?”

Chris Burnett:
If I could work with a client, it might be Tame Impala. He’s my favorite band. Kevin Parker, the guy who writes and records all the music, is the reason that I started making music. That happened at the end of CalArts, but we can get into that a little later. So, if I could work on some album packaging for him or do some tour visuals or just anything, even if I could just meet them and have a conversation, I’d be happy. But yeah, he’s a big influence on me.

Chris Burnett:
And then I also love the brand Fucking Awesome. It’s a skate brand. Here out of Hollywood, they have a store here. Jason Dill is the creative genius behind that brand. The reason I love it is because his artwork as an artist, as an individual artist, is the aesthetic of the brand. So, I don’t know if it’s still like this, but at a certain point, he was designing all the graphics. He was making all the skateboards that people would ride. That’s always just been a huge dream of mine is to either work with him or create a brand that follows in his footsteps, because I love skateboarding, too. I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years at this point. So, combining those worlds would be amazing to me.

Maurice Cherry:
I could really see that gallery show. I could even see a gallery show that combines all of this. You’ve got that, you’ve got the music. I don’t know. Maybe you have a small halfpipe in there doing some skateboard or something. I could see all of this taking place. It’s interesting now even looking at exhibitions and stuff like that, because we’ve had a few Black artists on the show, exhibitions now are so much more than just a painting on a wall. They’re really these immersive 360 creative experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
I mentioned Dawn Okoro before, and she did a show that had a punk band in it. So, she’s doing her art and has her art on the wall, but then also has a punk man performing. Wow. So, it’s like a whole environment that’s being created with exhibitions. Especially in L.A., I could see all of that really coming together.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, I mean, that would definitely be a dream of mine to have this multi-hyphenate experience for people to enjoy. A big thing for me is the more that I look at art, the more that I want it to not exist in just a white walled space.

Chris Burnett:
I understand that that allows the art to speak volumes when there’s nothing else to look at except the piece that’s on the wall, but I’ve also had this dream of having a gallery that’s outside and maybe an old, abandoned warehouse and seeing how the art that’s on the wall in the warehouse communicates with the actual aesthetic of a rusted-out building. I think that could create an interesting tension too, but a lot of these things that I feel like I’ll pursue once I established my footing in the art world and then I can maybe expand on some of these ideas. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are you still pursuing your music?

Chris Burnett:
So, music for me has been really interesting in terms of my dedication to it. Honestly, this happens with a lot of the facets of my creativity. There are moments where I’m really into making music, and I’ll write a new song every day. And then there are moments where I just want to collage and I don’t even pick up the guitar or play the piano at all. Right now, I’m in a down on the music and I’m really focused on the artwork. So, it tends to fluctuate and I like that. Because if I was too obsessed over one thing all the time, then I think all my other things would suffer. I just can’t let anything go.

Chris Burnett:
So, I can’t ever stop collaging. I can’t ever stop making music, but they ebb and flow in ways that support each other, whether I know it or not. That’s how I feel about it. So, I am planning to release a project next year, but there’s not much in my mind that’s happening with it yet. But I know that it’s going to be released early next year. I’m sitting on a lot of music that no one’s heard. So, it was definitely enough to create a project and give it to the world.

Maurice Cherry:
All in due time.

Chris Burnett:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose or do you think you’re still figuring it out?

Chris Burnett:
Wow. It’s funny that you asked that, because I would say that I learned what that was this year, specifically. It’s been a long journey to get to this point. I’ve always known that I wanted to do art. I’ve always known that I wanted to be creative. I’ve always known that I wanted to do music. But for some reason, recently within the past couple months, the specific focus has been on I’m an artist and telling myself that and believing it and moving towards it. As I moved towards it, the more it feels natural to me, which also tells me that hey, this is probably what you’re supposed to be doing. Because for a long time, I was in the design world. I was a graphic designer, and I would call myself that.

Chris Burnett:
I think the artist’s part of me was really sad that I wasn’t allowing myself to embrace that. I think at heart, I’m an artist. I can do graphic design, but I think at heart, my purpose is to create art and share it with the world. So, yeah, I think I’m getting there. It’s baby steps for me in terms of establishing who I am as an artist and sharing that with the world and being a bit more open with what I’m doing creatively, because I tend to sequester myself a little bit, but that’s all starting to change. So, I’m pretty happy about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your career to look like?

Chris Burnett:
Next five years, definitely doing more art shows. I think the ultimate goal for me is to have a bunch of solo shows and really focus in on creating work that challenges the way we think about life, that challenges the way that we interact with each other. Yeah, I see myself really settling into the art world and becoming the artists that I know I can be. It’s been so long, because when I graduated with a degree in graphic design, to me, that felt like, “This is who I am now, and this is what I have to do.” After working so long and reaching a certain amount of success that I am satisfied with, I realized that there was just something missing.

Chris Burnett:
So, this year really marks that transition that I mentioned earlier into me fully embracing me as an artist and maybe moving away from a lot of the client work and focusing in on the work that I want to be doing for myself. So, in five years, I’ll be 35. So, hopefully, by then, I’ll have a couple solo shows under my belt. I’m definitely getting better at playing guitar. That’s one of the things I’m focusing on too. I want to put a band together so that I can play shows in Los Angeles, eventually tour around the world if that’s a reality that presents itself. Yeah, but really focusing in on the artist’s aspects of me and myself. That’s where I see myself in five years.

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

Chris Burnett:
So, you can go to colibristudios.com to pretty much see everything that I’m doing. I’m not on social media, and I don’t really like Instagram. We could have a whole another conversation about social media. As much as I understand that it’s something that allows you to connect with people that may have never seen your work before, something about it just doesn’t feel right with me.

Chris Burnett:
Especially given the past couple years that we’ve all experienced in America, we’re starting to realize and understand the effects that these platforms can have on our mental health and our well-being as individuals and our relationships with other people. I’ve decided to remove myself from it. So, I can have a different type of perspective. I think it served me pretty well. So, I only have a website. That’s why I’m saying that. It’s colibristudios.com. That’s where all my music is, photography, artwork, design work, everything. That’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Chris Burnett, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, for just telling your story and really given some insight into the work that you’ve done, but I think also, it’s important when we hear your story and hear you talk about the passion behind your work to know that creativity is something that we all in some way can tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s one of those things where as a kid, we have finger painting and all this stuff. But then as you get older, doing things in art design tend to be looked at as more of a hobby and less of a profession. It really seems like you were able to really lean into a lot of creative work, work with a lot of really interesting and creative companies and people. I’m excited to see what you’re going to do in the next five years, because I think it’s definitely going to be something worth talking about. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Chris Burnett:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you.

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Matshoshi Matsafu

November ends with a fantastic conversation with Matshoshi Matsafu, and let me tell you…she has lived. Lived, I tell ya! She currently works as a senior UX designer at Microsoft on their Flipgrid product, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what she does and what she’s experienced.

Matshoshi talked about growing up in South Africa and attending college in Johannesburg, relocating to South Korea to teach for a few years, and about her most recent move to Minneapolis and how life has unfolded in the years since then. She also spoke about being a Black creative in flux (and how to embrace it), the joys of embracing being a generalist, and shared what keeps her motivated and inspired as a creative. According to Matshoshi, being a Black creative is a myriad of things. So why not explore them all?

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So my name is Matshoshi Kholofelo Matsafu. I am originally from South Africa. I’ve been based in the US for almost five years, six months and a couple of days. I am currently working as a Senior UX Designer for Flipgrid, which is a subsidiary of Microsoft. Essentially it is like a video exchange software where it became really popular during this pandemic because it was really useful in the education field. Yeah, I work in tech. I create digital artwork from time to time. I illustrate, and I’m into music, into a lot of things that just like equal creativity. I guess that would be the sum of me. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was going to ask you about Flipgrid because I had not heard of it before. So I’m guessing this is a company that Microsoft acquired. And you work on the team?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes, yes. So it was acquired actually not too long ago. Essentially we make a really robust video editing camera and software that’s available online predominantly for students and educators now, but it’s expanding. What I love about it is that I get to work directly with real educators. We’ll get into this a little bit later, but I spend some time doing ESL teaching myself. There was always a need for tools to help students that aren’t necessarily comfortable speaking out loud in front of a classroom forever, or giving them prompts and creative ways to elicit a response. This is one of the things that I get to build on a day to day. That’s what really is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I could see how something like that would be really useful, especially with so many classrooms over the past, God, two years now, geez. Like adapting because of the pandemic and things like that. But also not just schools. We’ve done some work in the past with the Smithsonian,. I know that do or they tend to have curriculum for schools like summer programs and things like that. I could see where they could even use something like that because especially in terms of curriculum, a lot of schools will look to museums and such for field trips and things like that. But when you can’t travel to the museum for a field trip, then how are you supposed to get that same I guess, cultural exchange? So I could see how Flipgrid might be super useful for something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It certainly is. I’m really glad that you went into that because looking at some of the very surprising use cases that have come about, it’s exactly that. It’s families connecting with each other when being divided because of COVID, sending each other video messages on a private secure platform. It’s teachers obviously connecting with their students. It’s book clubs and choirs and auditions for plays that are happening on this platform because it’s a way to be able to ruminate about what you want to create, but not have so much pressure to have it be completely perfect and still be able to express your creativity. So I think that’s kind of why I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So how has 2021 overall been for you?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I can say there’s a definite shift in terms of my feeling of not being tossed into the wild like 2020 was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think the acclimation that has happened, whether it be from a mental health perspective or from an understanding how I work and what works and what doesn’t. Like a lot of people, the introspection helped a lot. It has definitely been a year of revelation for me as to what’s important. How do I want to spend my time? What do I think is worthy of my attention and what relationships do I need to foster? How do I hold myself not so much accountable, but how do I grow in a non pressurized and from a perspective of love standpoint?

Maurice Cherry:
You’re located in Minneapolis, which last year was such a nexus point for so many things happening just in this country around police brutality and protests and things of that nature. How was it being in the city during that time?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was incredibly wild because little bit of history, I grew up in the dredges, like the end or not quite end of Apartheid date in South Africa. So when I saw the tanks patrolling the streets, it just drew me right back to memories of growing up in a policed state.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Where white people were trying to kill us. They were holding AK-47s. There were tanks patrolling the areas that we were essentially forced to live in. We call them townships. If you speak to a lot of South Africans, kind of like if you speak to a lot of indigenous and black people here, there’s been a a reclamation of areas that we were sent to die, essentially. By calling them townships or the hood and not actually calling them what they are, which was essentially a concentration camp.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
We are a resilient people. All I remember is seeing those riots and understanding what is driving people is not about actually the incident that occurred, that was just the tipping point. This iceberg has been building. Like everywhere else in the world, I was really in turmoil about the conversations that were being had and the ones that were being avoided. There was so much focus on the masses of people, black and brown bodies showing up and demanding to be heard.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But there was very little talk about what would lead to folks to be so desperate, and so disenfranchised, and so broken to have to break up our own resources. It doesn’t just come from nowhere. Thinking about, looking at … We need to talk about colonization, we need to talk about settlement. We need to talk about the remnants of capitalism. We need to talk about all of these things that show up in these ways.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s incredible to me that a lot of those things were not being talked about. So it was hard for me because I had a little bit of PTSD, not a little, a lot. I was afraid to go outside some days because I couldn’t reconcile seeing tanks and young kids, younger than me in uniforms holding rifles, ready to do what.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I can only imagine how much of an eerie parallel that had to be to see that as an adult, and then to remember how that was in a totally different country as a child, like, oh my god.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. The only thing that’s different in the world is that some regions, things got given names. Ours was called Apartheid. In Europe, they called it the Holocaust. Here, it’s loosely called slavery. But the remnants of all of that are ever present. That was the most sobering thought.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But on the flip side of that though, because I always try not to dwindle in the maelstrom, is that whenever there’s destruction, creativity booms. So walking through a ghost town where things are boarded up, but people have reclaimed those boards and created some of the most incredible public art that I’ve seen in all the places that I’ve lived.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That was a wild experience, people expressing pain through art, like visceral, tangible arts and the dichotomy of emotion that comes as you’re walking through a street, knowing that at any point, a crowd could come rushing through, breaking windows. But then immediately after, folks will be boarding up and painting. Those are such extremes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Goodness. Geez. It almost feels weird to try to pivot back to talking about what you do for work after focusing on that. But I mean, I think what you bring up and certainly from your unique vantage point of, like you said, having lived through a very similar type of situation as a child, one thing that really struck me during the pandemic last year was how many people I talked with for this show.

Maurice Cherry:
Us, Even in these conversations like you and I are having, trying to reconcile what it is to be black and work during this sort of time and have to compartmentalize the issues that are happening in our society, and what’s going on outside of our windows, while also expecting to show up to our and be productive, and still hit your numbers or whatever you have to do for work. Oh goodness.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was wild. In as much as it feels like it was a total alien experience, I think every single person who was just really in tune, it felt like you’re having an outer body experience because you are looking at the world going up in turmoil. But at the same time you’re facing yourself, like truly having the time alone with yourself to really figure some things out.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
One of those things is reclaiming your time even from work, which I think I saw a lot of evidence of, being black and creatives really standing up for, “You know what, you’re not entitled to have 18 hours of my day. You’re entitled to have this many hours of my day, and I’m entitled to have this many hours. I’m going to pour love into myself,” however that looks like that was certainly something that came up a lot.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I was appreciative of seeing that too because you just don’t know how many of us are functioning on empty. We never take time off. We always have to work harder than everybody else. We have to explain things and be the cultural competency solution in most of our jobs. Having to do all of that labor without getting paid for it, even though most of us do have a so-called equity, diversity and inclusion department in our workforces or workplaces, they don’t infiltrate the every day. The day to day, when you get on a call immediately after the Floyd incident, and somebody makes a joke about murder as a icebreaker. Like how? Navigating those and having to have that conversation with your manager and having to not teach all of these white people that that’s not the right thing to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess I’ll try in some way to pivot this back to work, but not in a complete way. But what do you do to separate yourself from work when that sort of stuff happens?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Well, black Twitter has been very helpful. The reason is that without black creatives, all of the social media platforms would’ve been dry. The amount of effort that people have put into creating humor out of nothing or making really think pieces just an equipped, like one tweet that makes you really reevaluate things or laugh so much that you can forget for a little bit of time has been helpful.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Also because of building new language and ways to talk about things that are quite heavy, but there’s a lightheartedness to it, right? The memes that keep coming up across the board, that has been one way to help. Of course, other things include being very intentional about mental health practices, simple things, taking breaks, going for walks, engaging with people that I love, my friends, my family, and also pouring time into things that make me happy. They may not necessarily be hobbies per se, but just things that make me happy. That’s it really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I try to keep it as simple as possible because sometimes also trying too hard is trying too hard, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s very true.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s very stressful.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Around that time last year, I was actually unemployed. I had gotten laid off from my job right before Memorial day. I was feeling this sort of a different kind of tension because at that time, I’d say the summer, at least June through August was really the first time in my professional career that I had any sort of a break. That I didn’t have to feel I needed to rush out and get a job or something like that. Like you have down periods between jobs and stuff like that. I would always feel like, “Oh, I got to go find something else.” But I was fortunate that I got enough of a severance and had enough savings that when I got laid off, I was like, “Oh, I’m good for about like four or five months. So I’m just not going to do anything.”

Maurice Cherry:
For me, it was so odd to reconcile this time of rest with this huge time of unrest happening out in the world, and in a way almost feeling guilt for taking a break and not getting out in the streets and what have you. I don’t want to say I rationalized it, but I don’t know. Have you seen the Tony Morrison documentary, The Pieces I Am? I think that’s what it’s called.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
She has a part in the documentary where she talks about her role or what she felt her role was in the Civil Rights Movement. She was saying that I can’t go out and be on the streets. I can’t do that, go out and march and things.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s like, “But what I can do is like publish a writing to get it to a bigger audience. I can support the writers and the poets. I can help fight in a different way.” So I guess even in a small way through this podcast, I felt like, “Oh well, as long as I’m sharing this out still with people, then I won’t feel so guilty or guilty at all about …” I don’t want to say taking up arms because it sounds like I’m joining a militia. But I wouldn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m not out there, you know, marching the streets with a sign or anything.” It was such a weird, weird time because really, I mean, I’ve been a working professional for so long. But I’ve never really had that time where I could just have a break for several months and not worry about what the next thing was that was coming.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah. That whole existence was some of the most trying. Because for myself personally, I had the added layer of being an immigrant in this country. So I was having such a push and pull in my mind. It was like, “Oh, when my country was going through its liberation, similar things happened.” People on the streets, other countries came and stood up. People were in the crowds, and bodies were out there. But what it means for a black body to be out there is a whole different thing here.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When I was talking to different types, different groups of folks, those who were adamant about physically being present and also sometimes that came with judgment too, right? That if you’re not in the streets, then you’re not really participating. You’re not really standing for anything. I think that needs to be to, Tony Morrison’s point, that needs to be taken to question because we all have our different roles to play.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right? So I think we need to really talk about expanding what resistance looks like from a more holistic view. From yes, we have bodies in the forefront. Yes, we have intellectuals that kind of theorize. Yes, we have business people that are like, “Okay, how do we change these structures?” Yes, we have money people even like, okay, so capitalism is not working. How do we think about something different? How do we build equitable society? Not just in the moment, but what happens after that?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s where I think design comes in. That’s why I’m excited to be a designer because even in the smallest things that I’m building, those things play a part.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. I want to go more into your background. I know you mentioned earlier being from South Africa. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. I mean, you mentioned the apartheid. But what do you really remember from your childhood aside from that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I mean, my gosh. It’s kind of a Willy Wonka experience. Right? There’s moments of extreme insurmountable joy and awe because of the creativity of black people, the music and art expressed. I think the first time I encountered design was in the township. Most people grew up in what are called like Shanty houses, which are made out of tin, aluminum bars or even asbestos at some point. It’s one room, there’s no electricity, toilets outside, everything.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
But the creativity to make one room feel like a home, that is invention. I remember there was a neighbor that I used to visit who took the covering of of a can, just like a can of … There was a brand called Lucky Star. It’s Sardines essentially. But the graphic art on the label was so striking because we were in that era of just poster designs, so really bright colors and just beautiful typography.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
They spent however long gathering those labels and made wallpaper out of them. When you look at that, and I look at that, and I look at what is called, so-called modern design. I can see that that could easily be in a pop art museum because that’s the kind of art that it was. Or it could be likened to mid-century modern repetition wallpaper too. So I feel design came through just because of necessity. Design is the answer to anguish and pain. Design and art and creativity is the answer. So it was everywhere. I was lucky enough to notice.

Maurice Cherry:
Now being around it as much as you have, when did you decide that this was what you wanted to study? This is what you wanted to go to school for?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I initially wanted to be a fine artist. I remember in high school, one of my memories is my mom made the decision to send me to what we then called multiracial schools, which meant there was a handful of black kids in a white school, which was interesting. But I really loved my high school because it was in the middle of a forest. I was in boarding school. It was designed like a little European village, I suppose. The classrooms had a lot of natural light, which is not common here. All of the classrooms look like prison industrial complexes.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
One thing I remember is painting. I would paint for hours. I would be covered in paint from 7:00 AM in the morning until 6:00 PM when I had to go back to the hostel. Eventually, when I was head of hostel I had the keys to the hostel. I don’t know why I was lucky enough to be in a really nurturing environment. My teachers believed in me. I would be painting well into the night, and they trusted me.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s odd. It’s unheard of. As a black girl in a white school painting these massive three-by-six pieces, and being free to do so, that’s one of my best memories. From then, I thought, “Okay, I’m going to pursue a career in fine art.” But reality hit when I left school and things were not good. I got accepted into one of the biggest, best art institutions in South Africa, but I couldn’t afford to go. So I found a design school down the road from me. I literally took all of my paintings, my huge portfolio in public transport, and walked up a hill or two, and arrived at the administrator’s office with my ill-fitting clothes and a hat over my head, and sweating, and being like, “I do arts. I think I can do design too, if you give me a chance.”

Maurice Cherry:
Now this school, that was Vega School, is that correct?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. Yes. I spoke directly to the head of department at the time. His name is Gordon Cook. He’s an eccentric white man, not typical, very much future thinking. He saw me, I’m sure when he saw me, he was like, “Oh my goodness. What? What is this?” I was disheveled and I had this big portfolio case of art pieces. He looked at my stuff. He was like, “Okay, we’re going to give you an entrance exam.” I wrote the paper.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The last question I answered, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, they’re never going to accept me. I don’t know what I’m trying.” Then they accepted to me. So I ended up doing design and multimedia at the time, which was the introduction to digital, which is interesting, like user interface design, and also animation, and of course communications, and just graphic design. So that’s how I started. I haven’t looked back since.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from there, what was your early career like in Johannesburg? Did you feel like the school had really prepared you to go out there in the working world?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
In a sense, yes, because when I was working, there was definitely a push to have more black creatives. So I found myself in a network of just really great black creatives. We all grew up in similar ways. But some of course more extreme than others. It was just really great. Because you’ve got to remember that my country has multiple, I’m going to use the word “tribes” loosely, but multiple cultures too.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Because of the separations, some of them were just melded all together. So if you can imagine being in a brainstorming session with people from multiple cultures, but we’re all in the same country, all speaking different languages, and just throwing all of ourselves into it. The texture of what came out of those years is amazing. Sometimes I look at that work and I’m like, “Wow. South, Africa’s just a incredible place in terms of creativity, because it’s such a vibrant with different cultures.” So yeah, that’s kind of what stood out. My first job, I was making those really, really terrible user interfaces for phone recharge cards. I don’t know if you all ever had that service here where you prepay for like $30 worth of money to put on your phone so you can call people.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember though. Oh my god, this was back in … I’m showing my age here. This was like back in the early, like late 90s, early two 2000s, I remember those. Because I got my first cell phone in 1999. God. I’m really dating myself here. I got my first cell phone in 1999. I remember having to buy cards to put minutes on it. It was from a-

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It was from a provider. It was from Powertel, which is now out T-Mobile. But I had to buy cards and then put like 500 minutes on it or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. So those little machines that you would buy your minutes from. The buttons were all embossed and made in Photoshop. Terrible. Like minute fills. Yep, that was me.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, somebody had to do that. Somebody had to do that work.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was terrible. Then, I mean, the cell phone companies were coming up. So I’d be making little animated banners on the sites that would just live there. Then I worked for a production, like digital print production, which it wasn’t creative work, but I think it just taught me the basics in how to work quickly, print stuff and B2B stuff.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Then I worked in a network BBDO, subsidiary of like the larger network agency, the global agency. That was really, really fun. I was paired with a copywriter. We were one of the few fully black creative teams, like all women creative teams. We got to work on some really fun campaigns, local ones, but also some international brands. Yeah. Then I remember the turning point when I decided to leave advertising. I loved the advertising world. I learned a lot. I was in charge of people who had been in the industry for so many years. I was like, “I’m making ads and you’re older than me? But you have to listen to what I have to say? Oh my god, this is so scary.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was just so fun. Very exhilarating. Then I decided to leave home because of a number of things, but also primarily because I felt like the advertising industry back home, this is hard, was kind of masquerading as being for black people, as in using black imagery and our colloquialism, like our style, our dress, our lingo, our music, and selling us these things. But in real life, it wasn’t really reflected for most people. One of the so-called marketing research sessions we did was with a group of aunties. I would call them aunties. Most of them, single mothers and caring for multiple people in the household because our culture is as such, is that you’re not an island.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So they’d be caring for multiple kids. So why it disturbed me is that the company I was working for wanted us to encourage this demographic to use what would’ve been their 12th check in December, which they would usually use to stock up on supplies for the following year because people aren’t rich. You buy extra bags of flour, and you send them out to the village or to the neighboring family. You share, and that’s the way we were all able to survive. So we were trying to encourage these aunties to spend that money on a cellphone contract. I was like, “No. I’m not doing this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this anymore.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting you mentioned that about advertising. So I live in Atlanta. The part of Atlanta I live in is, I want to say it’s the black part of town, but like most of Atlanta’s the black part of town. But the neighborhood that I’m in the west end, is I’ll say one of the lower income areas of the city. It’s a historic neighborhood. Morehouse College is here, Spelman College. Like it’s well known in terms of just black history and whatnot.

Maurice Cherry:
But I do see a lot of the advertising that’s done around here, and it’s always for like prepaid cell phones and things of that nature. For things that don’t really better the community in any sort of way, it’s just like, “Hey, you just got paid. Give us your money.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Not even for well-meaning whole things. It’s like, give us your money so you can buy some shoes. Give us some money so you can buy a combo meal or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It felt sickening at some point to know that we’re putting things out there that actually catch people’s souls because that’s what we are meant, what we’re trained to do as communicators, as media makers, as creatives is find a nugget that makes people feel that connectivity to being human and exploit, use, expound upon, whichever one you want to use and sell them a product. That felt really disgusting to me. So I left.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I also just kind of wanted to experience life. I originally wanted to go to Korea to go in … No. I originally wanted to go to Japan, to apprentice with a calligraphy master and eventually become the second black samurai. That’s what I wanted to do. Okay. Because Yasuke is one of my heroes. I was like, “Okay, well, I’m 24. I don’t really have any reason to just stay in one place. I really love of Japan and Japanese culture.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I consume Manga and Manhwa and everything. So I wanted to go there. But I applied in Korea as well. Korea got back quicker. I knew that I didn’t have the resources to just travel. I knew that I’d have to work. Teaching English felt like an easy way because I’m really good with languages too. Then I didn’t mind kids. So I was like, “All right. So if I teach English, I can save up money. I can travel. I can build some character, learn about different things. Maybe I’ll still figure out how to be a samurai.”

Maurice Cherry:
I mean. Matshoshi, the samurai, it has a nice ring to it.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right? That’s what I thought. I thought. Everything. I was going to have my braids. It was going to be so cool.

Maurice Cherry:
So you decide to leave Johannesburg, leave South Africa, go to South Korea. I’m sure it was a big culture shock. But what ways did I guess … So many questions. One, how was it a culture shock for you? Two, like when you think back to that time, what really sticks out to you the most?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The funny thing is that I think moving here was more of a culture shock for me than moving to Korea.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. The reason being is culturally, I think indigenous cultures, we tend to have similar social structures in the sense that you never address your elders by their first name. You defer. There’s a different type of way of speaking, which is more formal or informal. That was familiar to me. There were things like gestures to show reverence for older people. You don’t just hand somebody something without supporting your arm. It was universal.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
All of these things were apparent even before I learned the language. So those things felt familiar. Also our families tend to stay together. Your grandparents raise you or have a part in raising you. You grow up not just as a nuclear family. The idea of all for one, one for all, we share resources. There’s even a word in Korean called chong, which is the direct and same meaning as a word in one of my language called Ubuntu. Ubuntu and chong, loosely translated, mean the spirit of humanity. That we are beholden to as humans and should respect and impart upon each other. That’s powerful to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting that moving from South Africa to Korea was not that big a shock, but moving … Yeah. I could see how moving to the us would be a big, it’s definitely a huge change for that especially depending on the part of the country that you’re in. Because even what you’re describing in terms of that familial structure, I’m from the like deep south, from Alabama. In a way, it’s sort of similar to that.

Maurice Cherry:
The town I grew up in, Selma, is a very insular town. So even as you’re describing that family structure and reverence of elders and things like that, that’s still very much a thing. Now, it might be different in other parts of the country. Actually I know it’s different in other parts of the country. But yeah, even depending on where you would move here and settle in, it is totally, totally different.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I mean, there were the obvious things, right? There were reactions to my skin color, obviously. We’ll get into the not so nice things about that. There were reactions to my hair. There were to my perfume because when I had moved there, black people, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t use Cocoa butter or Shea butter. That’s just what it is. There at the time, it was difficult to find things that we were accustomed to, like lotion that doesn’t have whitening agent in it, or deodorant. I had to import some stuff because it was just not commonly used. So there were so many reactions, reactions to my hair obviously.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I remember one day standing at a bus stop. I felt something tugging at the back of my braids. I was like, “What the hell is going on?” I turn around, and there’s these two really small grannies, and their faces are all wrinkled, like crinkle paper. They’re playing with my hair. Then I have this moment of, “Don’t touch my hair.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
At the same time, I’m looking at their expressions. I had learned a little bit of Korean then. I understood what they were saying. They were saying A, that my hair was beautiful and that it looked so familiar to a style that their ancient Koreans used to do as well because they also used to braid hair. Right? Braids were something that royalty used to have. So they were talking about that. I decided to focus on that aspect of the conversation.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Even though it was a teaching moment, like, “Next time, please ask.” It was also a humbling moment for me to have grannies that are 70, 80 years old being fascinated with my hair, and not from a judgemental perspective. That’s the beauty I drew from those moments. But when there was full out racism, oh man. Whoo. I had direct jobs declined because I’m black. People were not shy to say.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Very clearly, “We need you to speak in an American accent in order to have this job.” We had to send photos in with our resume. The moment they got my photos, they would just say, “No, sorry. You’re not what the school wants to represent itself by.” In other words, you’re not blonde, white haired and blue eyed. Yeah. There were some serious racial offenses. But as you know, those are all over the world, if you’re walking around in a black body.

Maurice Cherry:
This is true. But I would imagine, even more so in such a homogenous country like South Korea or in Japan or something like that. It’s definitely a lot worse because what it does … I mean, it’s one thing for it to be racism, but similar to how it is. Well, maybe not so similar to how it is in the United States. It just impedes how far you can go in society. It keeps you, the racism keeps you down literally at a level where it’s preventing employment and any like social rise in that way.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. But at the same time, it was a balance of, yes, I’m being racially profiled, and these things are happening. I’m not able to make a living in some. There were some spots where it was really bad. I was like, “Oh my gosh, if I don’t get another contract, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” But then at the same time, because teaching wasn’t the only thing I was doing there, I was performing music. I was doing like graphic design and design stuff, freelance and production assistant on some films, and things like that, because I never stopped being a creative. In those areas, because of what I looked like. I had so many opportunities. I was a wedding singer.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Because everybody had this idea of a black soul woman in a red dress, just like belting out these love songs from the fifties and jazz. I was like, all right, I’ll play that role. Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
That is amazing.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh my gosh. There was aspects of living in Korea that was so fun. I got perform on stages. I got to do weddings. I got to be in a couple of movies and ads. I got to sing in K-pop songs. It was the truth, and purely because of being black and because of the consumption of black culture. So I have to sit with myself and reconcile some of the really negative feelings around that. But for the most part, I was just like, “Okay. At least in the granded scheme of my life, I can say I once did this.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, those are the kind of memories you keep with you for a lifetime, just great stories too, to tell, to get to know people and things like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So in 2016 you ended up relocating here to the United States, in Minneapolis. How was it, making that change?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was brutal. It was brutal. I wasn’t even based in Minneapolis first. I was based in Duluth College. Duluth, it’s a college town, but it’s also an old town. So not a lot of people around my age. It was in the middle of winter. I’d never experienced a winter here.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. You went to one of the coldest parts of the country in the winter. My goodness.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It was brutal, but it was I think a character building exercise for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more homesick than in those years. Especially considering the political climate too, being in a small town in an almost reddish state, and being highly aware of how many or how few black people there were in the vicinity was very jarring for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it ever get that cold in Korea?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh yeah. I mean, it did get cold. I think the Minnesota cold hits different though because of all the other things. Right? Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, I feel you. Yeah, totally. Also you came, because if you came in the winter of 2016, I mean, that was just such a contentious time in this country because we had the change in leadership from Obama to the president whose name I shall not mention. All of that combined, did you feel like at the time, that you had made the wrong choice?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Absolutely. I had so many moments of … I was like, “Why would I choose this? Why, why, why?” But I also know that life has peaks and valleys. If anybody grew up the way that we grew up with all the things that we’ve seen, this is nothing. In the grander scheme of things, there’s growth to be had here. That’s why I think I’m still in the city, is that I feel like the city is a place for treading water and refining, refining.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
This is a place where I refined. Okay. I want to work in tech. But what do I actually want to do in terms of my career? Is my career serving my purpose, innate purpose or is it something that I do for money? Do I feel like the surroundings or the circumstance determine my happiness? I’ve had to be very, very, very active and intentional about answering those questions for myself because it would’ve been really, a much harder time, if not. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How has the Minneapolis like creative community been for you? I mean, it sounds like wherever you’ve managed to go or wherever you’ve managed to be, you’ve tapped into some creative community, whether it’s in Johannesburg. In Korea, you mentioned being a wedding singer and all this stuff. Have you found like similar creative opportunities or communities like that in Minneapolis?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When I’m being intentional about it, yes. This is except for the past two years.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right. Because of the pandemic. Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. The thing that I appreciate about here is that even though it was very difficult to find black, brown communities, there are things that show up, like events. If you’re active, you can figure it out. I mean, I had, at some point been planning my month’s activities in advance to go to book launches or independent films or live sketch, anything that would put me in proximity to creativity and art ,like visiting galleries or talks or going to photographer’s exhibition, something, anything. When you do that, then it is very possible to find a bunch of creative people. Right now, I’ve been attending a lot of virtual things and slowly getting into communities. There’s pockets of really interesting things that are happening in the city because oddly enough, there’s tons of funding for the arts, like tons of funding for the arts.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So when you really go out there, you realize that it may not necessarily be completely futurist yet. But there’s an underbelly of building here that’s really exciting. Black people owning co-ops, black people owning artist collectives and exhibition spaces, black people putting on shows and music and theater and everything. You’re just like, “Wow, this is actually really great. I never expected it here.” I would always be going to Chicago and New York, around LA to find those. But more and more, I think people are actually staying in Minneapolis and deciding to build it here rather than seek it elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
We just had on the show a few weeks back, someone that’s in Minnesota. Terresa Moses, she’s an educator at the University of Minnesota. She also has a design studio called Blackbird Revoke. I’ve had other folks on the show, I think in the past, that have been in and around Minnesota. Of course, as I mentioned to you, I know some people there just personally. So I’ve always heard like great things about the community there. I’m glad you were able to really sort of tap into that, to hopefully make it feel … I don’t want to say like home, but at least feel like it’s a place where you can be.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually know Terresa.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Okay. All right. Nice. Tell her I said hello.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Oh yeah. I will go tell.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned to me that you wanted to talk about how to embrace being a black creative influx. I’m sure that a lot of folks in our audience want to know how to embrace that, especially during the midst of this very uncertain, weird time that we’ve been now in for about two years. Can you like expand on that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So when I think about that, it’s essentially how in this time of what it means to be a black body working in corporate world, especially in a creative profession, our creativity is very closely linked to our identity. Now you’re working with your identity, and your identity is now your work. So you have to really think about like, how do I separate? How do I accept that my emotions, my state of being, my home life, all of these things, the fact that I’m in a black body is going to influence my work, whether I like it or not? The expectations that are put on us to be at the forefront of creating new isms, and memes, and things, and media can, I think, lead to a little bit of an identity crisis.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I’m saying this out loud because I’ve certainly felt that way sometimes, and embracing the fact that A, you don’t have to be one thing. That’s been the biggest thing for me is that yes, the messaging around find your passion, gear your emotion and your focus and your work towards that passion. Then it’ll turn around for you. Hopefully, be equitable.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yes. But also we are multifaceted intersectional beings. Right? Half of the time, all of the way that we are around working and being productive and showing that we are worth anything is very Western. Being in one lane is a very, very just constrictive way of being. Part of me kind of realigning myself with my cultural learnings and what feels true to myself has been this, having grace for myself to say, “Okay. So I’m an illustrator, but I’m also a singer, but I’m also a writer, but I’m also a great arter. I’m also a really great technologist.I am also a great philosopher.” These are all the things that I am and more, and I can be good at all of them. I can be good at all of them. I don’t need to be good at all of them at the same rate at all, all the time. But I can certainly not squeeze myself into one lane feeling like that’s it; and if I don’t do that, then I’m not worth anything.

Maurice Cherry:
So what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days, like knowing that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
The funny thing is I inadvertently surround myself, maybe not even physically, but I somehow manage to find people that when we connect, we remind each other of our natural frequency of joy. Whether that be just a conversation or exchanging a message or something, just to reset and remind and inspire. Right? That’s what keeps me going. I have a friend of mine that like a ton of my friends, we don’t maybe not even speak to each other for six months at a time. But when we do speak, it was just like, “Oh, I remember what it feels like to be really happy existing in this time right now.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
That’s it. Then on a more practical sense is not stopping the things you know bring you joy on a practical day to day level. Things like journaling doodling without purpose, not thinking of the final product, whatever it may be taking pictures, cooking, doing something that removes you from being in front of the screen all day. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Don’t stop doing those things and don’t stop documenting because when you feel like there’s absolutely nothing left, then you have a whole archive of things to remind yourself that you are more than your work. You are more than productivity, and that you are an actual massive being.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like that a collective thing that a lot of people have started to really discover within themselves this year. We hear all this talk in the news about the great resignation and people casting away. Casting away the jobs that they may have once had under pre pandemic life and doing their own thing. I know so many people over the past two years that have ditched their jobs just to become quote-unquote “content creators”.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very broad term, but they’re doing stuff on YouTube. They’re doing stuff on TikTok. They’re podcasting. They’re doing any number of things that are not what they were doing beforehand because they realized as society shut down and things got stripped away, they realized what’s really important. For many of them, it was not the jobs they were doing. So they had to tap into who they were and find out how they could become more of that authentic self and really lean into that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right. Then also balancing the pressure of even if it’s okay to be multiple things, it’s also okay to be one thing. I think we have this pendulum swing that keeps the happening where it’s like stick in your lane or be a complete hustler and have five different, six different hustles going on at the same time. But some people aren’t built that way. The true thing is to really take the time to know yourself and understand how you built and go with that. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose now or do you think you’re still searching for that?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think that’s a constant search. I the think if I ever assumed that I know or that I have found, then my ignorance is really set in deep, personally. If I don’t continue searching, refining, pivoting, learning, becoming new, then I personally feel that I’m denying the very nature of existence. Our cells change on a daily basis. You’re not the same yesterday as you are today. Our personalities, our minds are constantly evolving. So for me, that means that everything should be constantly moving. Will I find some lanes that I’m comfortable in? Sure. But to say that it’s found, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember, I think this probably went around a couple of years ago about how the body cells replace themselves every seven to 10 years. So in many ways, you’re literally physical not the same person that you were because your body is always in a state of change.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, and I mentioned this because you had touched on this a little bit before we started recording. But where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is it staying in Minneapolis? What do you want to do or where do you want to be in the next five years?

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I know for a fact that I’m building my life to be as such that I don’t need to call one place home. I want to be three months in one country, three months in another country, in another city and another, and be comfortable in all those places because I know that that’s what I need, to be a structured nomad, I suppose. Because that’s fun for me. I love learning. I love being immersed in different cultures. I love languages. I love building and designing from that perspective of having multiple sources of influx. That makes me excited.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So that’s one of the things I’m building my life as such to make that easy for me, whether that means also delving into real estate and understanding how that works, so that I can have another passive income that’s actively happening. So I can facilitate my being able to move around, whether that’s increasing my technical knowledge and skill. I mean, I can definitely work from home from anywhere in the world. But the more proficient I become in my particular field right now or the things that I’m able to do, whether it be the illustration or the UX or design, getting even better at that. So that it’s easy for me to move around, and I’m not encumbered by one contract.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I think I also definitely want to pursue some business aspirations that I’ve had that have been lurking around. Yeah. So that’s it. I want to be in a state where I can live anywhere in the world for three months at a time, unencumbered, be working whichever way it is. Whether it’s through my own business or through contracts, and to be exploring and learning about different cultures, and also being able to spend a lot more time with my family because I don’t like this, what’s been happening for the past two years and not being able to hold my mom. I need to be able to give my mom a hug, and my brothers. It’s intense. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I just got to see my mom this summer back in July. I mean, it came unfortunately at a tragic time because my grandmother had passed away suddenly. That was the first time I got to hug her was after that happened. Oh my god. Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. I know because I live in Atlanta. My folks live in Alabama. People will ask me like, “Oh, why don’t you do what you do in New York or in San Francisco,” or da, da, da, or whatever. I’m like, “Look, I got to be close to home.” Even if it’s just a state over, that’s close enough. I can’t go too far out like that. I would love to, maybe one day, but yeah. Sorry. That brought up something that was not … I was not expected to go there. Oh my god. No, no, no.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
It’s real though. It’s real.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s real though. Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
When you feel it in your chest and in your throat, and you realize that such a simple thing … Right now, there’s not even any words for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Yeah. I mean I want to travel with my mom. That’s the next thing I want to … This is strange. I don’t know why old people like cruise ships, but it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, oh my god. My mom, my mom wants to go on an Alaskan whaling cruise or something like that.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
Exactly. Oh my goodness.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “You’ll be by yourself, lady. I’m not doing that.”

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I’m so shook. I’m like, “What? Okay. That’s what we’re going to do.” So yeah. Yeah. I want to build a life where I can fully take care of myself and my mom, and my family. Just be like, “All right, we’re going to be on a cruise ship for the next couple of months.” Because that’s what you want to do. Let’s do it.

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

Matshoshi Matsafu:
So everything is under my first name Matshoshi on the Grams and Twitter. That’s M-A-T-S-H-O-S-H-I. Also my website is Matshoshi.com. You can see all of my design work, and my forays into creative experiments there. So yeah, that’s where I am. Sometimes I’m vocal online, but most times I’m not because I live in the moment. That’s just the way I function. So if you catch an illustration or a thought here and there, cool. But I mean, I’m there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Matshoshi Matsafu, thank you so much for coming on the show. One, really for just sharing your perspective of working in the world and creativity in different countries and stuff. But just sharing your story, sharing the deep thought that you have behind your work and around, your artistic practices and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m kind of getting a little tongue tied. This was such a really good interview because we didn’t really talk about your work that much. But I’m glad that you were able to really just talk about who you were and showing how being a black, creative is not just the work that you do. It encompasses so many different things. I really feel you embody that. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Matshoshi Matsafu:
I appreciate the opportunity to chat with you. It was a wonderful experience. Thank you.

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.

Terell Cobb

Back in the day, the path to becoming a designer might have meant attending an expensive art school, interning at a design studio or an ad agency, and then working your way up the corporate ladder. But this week’s guest, Terell Cobb, illustrates how you can become a successful designer by carving your own path!

Our conversation begins with a look at Terell’s work at Microsoft, and he talks about his day-to-day schedule, working with his team of designers and researchers, and gives a peek into Black Designers of Microsoft and how they work as a group. Terell also spoke about how his athletic career as a football player taught him about design, and shared with me some mentors who have helped him become the designer he is today. With his drive and ambition, Terell Cobb is definitely someone to keep your eye on for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Terell Cobb:
My name is Terrell Cobb. I am a design lead over at Microsoft as part of the Digital Transformation Studios.

Maurice Cherry:
Digital Transformation Studios, that sounds super lofty. And I’m sure we’re going to get into that. But before we do, how has 2021 been for you so far? How have things been going?

Terell Cobb:
2021 has been a great ride for me. I believe that last year during the pandemic, it was learning how to be more self-sufficient at home and also taking care of a fam all while taking care of myself as well. And I think within 2021, I’ve gained the appreciation of changing states and moving, and then also starting to center life around just taking care of me and also taking care of the family. It’s been a good ride so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Also you moved to Texas this year then.

Terell Cobb:
When Microsoft had the opportunity for flex work, I took advantage of that and got an opportunity to come back to the Dallas area and get to some familiarity and also just enjoy the atmosphere that we’re in right now. Sorry to rub that into Pacific Northwest folks.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what’s changed for you last year, but clearly location’s been a big part of that.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. And the sun, and being able to see the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Being a design lead at Microsoft over the platform that you mentioned, can you tell me about that? What all does that entail?

Terell Cobb:
The Digital Transformation Studios is conglomerate of several spaces within that Microsoft. One of those spaces in which I work in is the business applications group. Business applications group are the parts of the business that actually build applications for large enterprise customers. And being able to sit in that part of the arena of Microsoft, it allows me to see how businesses are, specifically using supply chain and provide certain intelligent solutions to that supply chain space.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team make up look like?

Terell Cobb:
My team today is made up of a couple of designers and also a researcher. However, one of the things that we kind of anchor to within Microsoft is being able to go with an A1 Microsoft mindset. So I also consider my engineers and PMs as part of my tetra or my team as well. I have an amazing group of people that I get to build amazing things with on a daily basis.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s been a fairly new development within companies to have a researcher on the design team, as it relates to what you’re doing, how does that work?

Terell Cobb:
I appreciate research so much. I believe I’m one of the biggest advocates for research and also content design. But specifically research, I believe that they’re the silver lining of experiences and if we don’t have their heartbeat of what the experience should be, we’re building in the wrong direction and that could be expensive over time.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see how certainly if you feel like you’re going in one direction and internally, you might think that’s a good a thing and then your users are using it and it’s something completely different. They’re not responsive to it or receptive to it like you want to and you have to go back to the drawing board.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think just being southern and being from the south, you hear those proverbs like it’s wrong to run 100 miles per hour in the wrong way. You would want to go in the right way so that you’re not making further mistakes. Start of the project, they’re essential to the midpoint of the project and they’re essential to the delivery part of the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through what a typical day looks like for you.

Terell Cobb:
A typical day for me these days are just a bunch of new negotiating. It’s either negotiating confidence of how much confidence a user is going to be exposed to by the options or things that we’re building. It’s also the negotiation of time of how much should the team be leveraged against a certain initiative? What are we talking about six months from now? What are we planning for a year from now? How do we engage the team itself? And I think recently, really taking a step back away from just design as a delivery, as a process, to more of enjoying the process of actually designing and the delivery will get there, but actually taking the time to enjoy the process of discovery, going into definition, going into actually defining from the research and actually delivering something that’s powerful.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’d imagine in that process, you’re also working in sprints and making sure everyone’s up to speed in other parts of the company or maybe other parts of your team, because you mentioned engineers as well that you’re working with.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s a healthy balance of speed and quality. And I know not a lot of other designers out there have to deal with most of that. But being at a large enterprise company like Microsoft, there’s nothing new under the sun and you have to bring in your best pudding on what that solution could be next, if that makes any sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. Now, also at Microsoft, you’re the co-founder of an employee resource group there called Black Designers At Microsoft, which is for black designers at Microsoft. Tell me how that whole thing came about.

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So the amazing story behind that is that I came into Microsoft and previously started other groups like Dallas Black UX. And also while I was at Capital One, worked with a couple of folks to kind of co-found the Black and Design Employee Resource Group there. When I got to Microsoft, it was more of, hey, I’m just going to focus on my career and a climb. I’m going to leave the Employee Resource Group to the side. I’m going to just stay focused and do this. First day walking in, I meet another black designer and she basically says to me, [Cherryanne 00:09:37] Porter from Houston basically says to me that, “Hey, I’ve never worked with a black designer before you are my first black designer that I’ve ever worked with before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Terell Cobb:
And that was the inkling of, okay, here we go. We’re about to do it again.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re like the Grand Theft Auto meme , you’re like, “Oh, shit here we go again.”

Terell Cobb:
Here we go. It then intensified by both of us being on the same team and actually going to orientation. And when we went to orientation, we saw on the screen another black designer that was a part of the studio. We were like, “Wait a second, where is she?” And this is Zoe and she’s been inside of the studio, but pretty much could not find her. And then low and behold, the next all hands we meet with each other and we’re like, “Huh, okay. There has to be more of us. Where are we?” I think along with that and just how big the company is, along with some of the understanding of designers being disenfranchised from not even being inside of the world of design from a black designer standpoint, we took that as an opportunity to build something ourselves inside of Microsoft and grow the talent that’s internal but then also attract talent that’s external to the company as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sort of feeds into what I was going to ask. What sorts of things is the group doing internally and in the larger community, but recruitment sounds like a big part at least of that external, I guess, outreach of the group. Is that right?

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. I think if we look at just some of the general grounding of the group itself, it’s based in on not just looking at one form of design. That’s one of the biggest differences there. It’s not just a UX designer and you’re a part of the group. It’s more so of design with the capital D as it’s reference from our fearless leader, Jonah Sterling, it is design, it’s research, it’s producers, it’s data science, motion designers, audio designers, front end development, illustration. All of these people are a part of the group and the key points there is getting into the intentional community to influence diversity. Influencing diversity internal to therefore make it external, just creating that ripple so that we can continue to build from the inside out and doing that, it was growing the community itself by creating teams channel in safe places along with the opportunity to do share outs, hackathons right now anybody in the group can kind of spin up a opportunity for someone to have a quick review and they can basically get started and you’ll have multiple people join in to give them feedback.

Terell Cobb:
And it’s different because you’re getting feedback from friends in that sense. I could tell you, “No, bro, that’s not going to make it. That may not make it bro, or I like that, that’s going to be amazing.” And it’ll be a little bit different because it feels that it’s coming from that place that we get most of our things from that feels safe for us. Continuing to drive that type of community was important to us and doing it internally through the community piece, but then also reaching out to external to the community and going after middle schools and high schools and also HBCUs. Last year we had a couple of events where we actually partnered with some of the HBCUs out there to kind of expose the craft of design to them.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. When I was in an HBCU some twenties years ago, one of the first company, one of the first tech companies I interviewed with was Microsoft. And actually, I mean, I think I’ve told this story on the podcast before I’m well outside of college now, so I can sort of tell the story, how I scan my way in there. But essentially I was a math major in college and my whole thing was I was part of this program that was sponsored by NASA, my scholarship and everything. And so the goal was like, oh, well, when you graduate college, you’re going to work for one of these NASA facilities. I had interned at two NASA facilities. So in my mind, I’m thinking, boom career set when I graduate NASA. 911 happens.

Maurice Cherry:
And when that happened, the funding for my program got pulled and it went towards Homeland Security. And so this whole guarantee of, oh, well you’re going to work for NASA when you graduate completely gone. I’m like, damn, I got to find a way to … I don’t know what I’m going to do when I graduate because I was working at the high museum selling tickets for $8.70, not making real kind of money and really had no prospects of career stuff. But I had sort of gotten in really good with the computer science department, with the secretary there, shout out to Mrs. Banks. I don’t know if she is even still there or not, but got in really good with her, started hanging out in the computer lab and stuff, started hanging out in her office and that got me access to this interview book.

Maurice Cherry:
And the interview book was basically juniors and seniors that were interviewing with all these companies and all you had to do was just kind of slip your resume in, put your name down. And I was like, “I’m just going to slip my resume in there and write my name in it.” And I interviewed with real player to show you how long ago that was, that went nowhere.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I interviewed with Microsoft and I remember, God, I don’t remember the woman’s name, who I interviewed with, but it was a black woman interview with her and she gave me one interview question. She was like, design an alarm clock for a blind person. And she slid over a sheet of paper and a pen. And I was like, just walk me through your process. And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” So I was talking through, oh, we should do this. And it should vibrate and maybe have sound and all this kind of … She was like, okay, all right, great. And she took it and she put it in a folder, shook my hand. And that was it. That was the interview. I was like, “That’s it.” Apparently it was good enough because they flew me out to Seattle to do an interview with Microsoft and they had it in this sort of almost an elimination style.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if the interviews are like this now, but you do the first interview and if you pass the first one, you go to the second one. If you pass the second one, you go to the third one. And this was all day for an internship. I remember because this started at maybe 8:00 AM and it was getting until around maybe 7:00 PM. I was tired. And I forget what the question was, it was something about notepad and right to left text or something. And I think it was at that point that they realized, oh, wait a minute, you’re not a computer science major are you? Because it was some programming stuff and I was like, I don’t know. I don’t know how to do this and I didn’t get the internship, but I remember vividly being on the campus and everything and when I think of companies that have sort of given me a chance in college, like Microsoft was that one company.

Maurice Cherry:
The fact that you all are still doing HBCU research now some 20 something years later is a testament to the fact that you all have put skin in the game and that it’s not just, oh, we need to look for a diversity. Where should we look? Why do I look at black colleges? You all have been doing this now for a long time.

Terell Cobb:
Indeed. It’s incredibly rewarding not just to win by yourself, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see others win and see that spark in a high school as I, that, wait a second, I can become a designer. I could be a researcher, I can work at Microsoft is like, yeah. Actually, one of the previous workshops with CodeHouse, shout out to CodeHouse in Atlanta who brought in 29 students from Morehouse and Spelman at the time. And we ran through just roughly about a six hour to seven hour workshop with design. And you can kind of see the amazing minds that are there and applying design thinking to those amazing minds, our leaders coming behind us are going to be crazy good. And I think that is the reward that most of us get from that because there’s a great chance that, hey, we will be working with these leaders later on in life. It’s extremely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say the fact that you mentioned high schoolers and middle schoolers, you’re going past just reaching them while they’re in college. You’re getting them at a really pivotal age when they can make a decision on where do I want to go in terms of, I want to say my career, I really think it’s unfair to sort of burden an 18 year old with that anyway. But the fact that you’re showing them that this is an option because now social media and technology is ubiquitous. When I was a teenager in the nineties, there was Game Boy, there was Tomagotchi, there were Super Nintendo. It was all consumer electronic sort of stuff. Certainly no smartphones or anything like that. But now you can show them you can be more than just a consumer or a user. You can be a creator. You can be someone that makes this stuff and to show them that at such a pivotal young age, at middle school and high school is really something.

Terell Cobb:
That is so key. I mean, and even if they choose not to become a designer, we still win because we just taught them design thinking. So now from that point on, they have that emotional intelligence or that critical thinking mass to take with them to the next adventure. And I think that’s part of the reward back to us as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Now, let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned being in Texas, is that where you also grew up?

Terell Cobb:
No, actually I grew up in South Florida in a small town called Boynton Beach, which is roughly about 40 minutes north of Miami.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Growing up there, were you exposed a lot to design and everything?

Terell Cobb:
Not at all. I like to tell the story this way, that growing up in Boynton and also just South Florida in general, you’re growing up in a football arena. And there’s not much else to do outside of football. You got the notoriety that you had from football. There’s countless of times of pretty much kids starting playing football at four years old. And you could see those kids training and practicing with parachutes at four or five, just trying to get faster and trying to get better there. It’s still to this day, I believe the, South Florida is leading in the most NFL prospects within the country. And it’s not by chance. It’s just simply because of the arena of how important football is in those areas. Because of that, that had gave me an opportunity to be exposed to being a football player, but just doing it a little differently.

Terell Cobb:
I still had some of the tenacity of being on the D line and knowing how to use my hands and knowing how to be fast and running 707s with different people. But I also found a unique ability of me actually setting up the field. I love the aspect of walking each five yards and putting a cone or a shoe or a hat down to say that this was a first down or this was a yard marker. Or this was going to be the goal line, even down to cones. I’ll never look at orange cones the same ever in my life, because I would take these orange cones and you would create different patterns a pentagon, a triangle, a square, a circle, depending on the pattern that’s on the ground, that’s where your feet or your toes would interact with in order to beat the drill.

Terell Cobb:
I got really good at setting up these cones. I really started to understand well, wait a second, I’m good at this. I can also draw a little bit, where is this leading me? I just said no, don’t worry about it. I’m good. I’m going to just put that to the side and continue all with life as is. But the opportunity presented itself when I got into college once leaving the Boynton area. But I appreciate the hardships of Boynton because it taught me the lessons that were needed to be a champion on the things that came to me afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about sort of growing up in that crucible of football. I mean, I’m from South Alabama, well, South central, Alabama, and it’s either Alabama or Auburn. One of the two. I know what it is about … And I remember, there were like those Pop Warner football leagues and stuff like that. And I wanted to be, and my mom was like, “No, you’re not doing that.” But I remember there would be six-year-old, seven-year-olds in pads tackling. I remember that vividly exactly about growing up that whole thing about just really getting into football.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I mean, that’s exactly it, but I think this is how I attribute back how football taught me design because being one of those four-year-olds out there with the helmet that can’t hardly hold myself up, but making tackles, it’s not just the football field, it’s the people, it’s the cars around the football field. It’s the atmosphere of the lights being on at a certain time. It’s the concession stands as part of food trucks before food trucks were food trucks. It was all of that atmosphere that kind of gave me a sense of how not knowing at that time, but how designed was working or things were designed around me.

Maurice Cherry:
I was in the margin band too in middle school and high school. Every Friday night, it’s a whole production. It’s a whole production. The whole thing. Absolutely. Given that football kind of taught you design in that way, that’s also why you ended up studying it I would imagine in college and you went to Washburn University.

Terell Cobb:
Well, the interesting thing, I went to Washburn University but I think prior to Washburn University, I like to tell the story this way that I earned my way to the middle of Kansas at a junior college called Butler County Community College by not getting great grades in high school. That also earned me the opportunity to see a deer for the first time, see a cow for the first time, didn’t know turkeys could fly found that out.

Maurice Cherry:
And they’re mean, they’re very mean bird, probably because we eat them every year.

Terell Cobb:
It was so interesting to have that culture shock from being from the city and brick and hardship and going into country immediately. The school itself was a college, a cemetery, a Walmart and an oil field. The rest was just the school. It was a stark reality of, hey, if you want to excel in life, there are some things that you will have to do. And that stark reality basically helped me understand what the direction I wanted to go into next. And so as part of the Juco experience, you get an opportunity for teams from across the country to come in and actually draft you or actually pick you up or recruit you from that location. It’s actually high school part two. And during that process, the school Washburn drove about maybe three to four hours down the road in Kansas and actually picked me up and took me to the campus.

Terell Cobb:
And it was one of those moments where you step in and look around like, man, this is nice. I think I could do this. And it was slow and it feel like academia that you saw in the movies for my aspect. And I think that’s what drew me to it because I saw a calmness or a piece around it. And I think heading there starting out, it wasn’t immediately designed. It was jumping directly into psychology. And I thought for sure that I was going to be a psychologist actually getting up to somewhat of my senior year in psychology classes and actually stopping and actually working as security as part of the design as part of the work study football job, making sure that people log off the Mac lab, I guess, I got the opportunity to play on the computers from every once in a while. And the classes that were more of the later classes were the illustrator, the photoshop. I’m going to date myself now, flash multimedia or SWiSH Max classes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. SWiSH. Oh my God, you took it back. You really took it back with SWiSH.

Terell Cobb:
Being able to see those classes actually happen gave me an opportunity to be like, “Wait a second, they’re doing what I was doing, but drawing, but they’re making stuff move. They’re making their drawings move.” How is that happening though? Wait a second, and think after talking with the professor that night, I actually went in the next day and changed my major to art and then started to go down this path of being the football player, leaving practice with an easel, running across the football field with an easel and all of my art materials and running into the art lab and of course sitting in the corner because pretty much I’m just leaving football practice and fresh hour, but still just leaving football practice, four hours of practice.

Terell Cobb:
I dealt with that dynamic for two more years and it was incredibly beneficial for me just simply because it started to introduce me into graphic design. I was always exposed to graphic design on via bubble letters, airbrush tees, just drawing certain things for certain people, but just didn’t know that it was actual profession behind it. And being able to make that correlation there kind of sparked my career into the design world.

Maurice Cherry:
Getting that exposure to it, knowing that this is something it’s an option that you can take because prior to that design was something that you just sort of consumed, like you mentioned in these sort of bubble letters and stuff like that. But now knowing, oh wait, I can do that too. I can make that. I mean, even that whole setup about leaving football practice and going to our class with a easel, sounds like a feel good holiday movie or something. I mean, if you ever want to transcribe that to a story, I bet Hallmark can pick it up. That sounds pretty dope.

Terell Cobb:
I may have to do that. That’s a good idea. I receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early days post-college in terms of your career, you’ve graduated now, you were majoring in graphic design. What was next after that?

Terell Cobb:
It was the real world posting its first challenge to me. I think that first challenge to me was getting into an internship. Well, as a football player, you’re spending 40 hours a week on football. So you’re not able to kind of go and market yourself to other agencies and say, hey, I’m a designer. I could do these things. It just wasn’t acceptable or it wasn’t available for you. But in my case, the real world slap that was put in front of me was in order to work my internship, which I finally got at a local ad agencies, Joan Youths And Partners there in Topeka, Kansas, I was only able to do that into on Fridays from roughly 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM. In order to be able to do that, I’m finished with school, but of course I have to make money somehow.

Terell Cobb:
I hustled my way into talking to a Topeka Youth Project, a local small school that taught kids that were 15 to 21 jobs and life skill readiness. It was my job to go out to the local fast food restaurants, the local libraries, anybody who had a job for 18 and actually become a business representative and pitch the school to that company to say, hey, I know you manager, and I know this kid that I just taught this class, you guys sound like you’ll be a great match. You should probably hire this kid. Getting the kid hired, that was the first indication of negotiation and stakeholder agreements. Knowing how to actually have those conversations. While doing that, I was only able to work. I believe it was 28 hours a week or 25 hours a week with that company. In order to do that as a business representative, I bargain to say, hey, let me help you with your website and your logo as well.

Terell Cobb:
I’ll do your website and your logo, and I’ll also be your business representative. I was doing that. A normal day for me post college, and this is how bad I really wanted to be in this world of design. I worked from 8:00 AM to roughly about 3:00 PM, Monday through Wednesday at the Topeka Youth Project. On Tuesday through Thursday, I was working overnight shift at FedEx, unloading trucks. Pretty much from roughly about 3:00 AM to 7:00 AM. And then in between the Thursday to Friday, I was also unloading packages to Target and basically being a Target shelf, stocker. All so that I can get the internship completed and also get the first level of experience out of the way.

Terell Cobb:
Now, I’m not saying that most design now coming out of college, don’t have to worry about those types of stories and those types of hustles but it was just a slightly different for me being in a small town and just wanting to make this work so bad and not wanting to go back home and say hey, I didn’t do it, I didn’t make it. That was the start of hard work makes something out of you. But then also hard work creates the character that you need as you continue to progress.

Maurice Cherry:
You were hustling.

Terell Cobb:
It had to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
That reminds me a lot of, there’s another guest we had on the show several, several years ago, his name is Ben [Lindo 00:32:19]. He’s a industrial engineer out of, I think he’s out of Philly or Pittsburgh, one of the two, but he was mentioning how he would do design school. He was doing design school and it was UPS driver at the same time. And would come to class in his UPS uniform and the teacher would always have something to say and that kind of thing but he made it work. I mean, when you’re out there on your own, you have to hustle to make that happen. You have to make those sacrifices, those compromises. And it sounds like you really, really hustled to make that happen. Props to you.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. And I think it benefited me a lot just because I was exposed to so many different conversations, so many levels of small talk. Many levels of strategy. I knew that I can unload a semi truck of boxes from FedEx in under 56 minutes, holding that record doing that. But I also do the pattern of, if I unload the boxes too fast on the belt it could stop the belt and then pretty much that makes the day longer for other people that are behind me. It’s just so many lessons that are there through that first year out of college.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it really teaches you the value of hard work too. I mean, I think it’s one thing, if you’re going to school and you manage to land that super cushy gig right out of school, and it’s not too hard, but not too easy. It’s kind of Goldilocks kind of situation but I mean, it’s another thing when you get out and you really have to hustle to carve your way into a position or to get to a point where you’re going to be you hopefully setting yourself up for the future in a good way.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. I think, just being the first of the family to go to college, first of the family to graduate college, you knew and understood you are your help. It wasn’t something else that you can wait on, you were your help. You were ascending this next avenue in arena so that you can then help your family on the back end of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like you said, it’s that thing where you don’t want to go back home defeated. You don’t want to go back home like, oh, I couldn’t make it. That also pushes you and drives you to succeed as well, that feeling.

Terell Cobb:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So you worked for a number of companies between being in Kansas, being in Florida, being in Texas, worked for a lot of places. When you look back at your career, now that you’re at Microsoft, do you feel like there was a particular moment or a particular job or anything where you felt like you had leveled up?

Terell Cobb:
I think it was the first opportunity to leave South Florida in working in the banking industry down there at the credit union where I started to see the shift from design as more so as a graphic or tangible color or button style to design as a product experience element moving forward. And I think that was the transition from working in South Florida at the credit union to getting a first big break at working for Barclays Bank here in the Dallas, Texas area. One of the mentors that I had at the local ad agency who saw the drive of what I was doing actually called me up from the South Florida area like, “Hey, you want to try this out?” It’s like, “Well, no, I’m pretty good. I’m building websites. I’m doing club flyers. I’m good.” I’m around my family, but not too close because I don’t want them to get on my nerves, but pretty much I’m close enough so I can go hug them and come back.

Terell Cobb:
But it really was at that point in which I saw the level kind of change because it went from me being just a single designer/webmaster slash business representative at that local credit union, continuing that trend to not just being a slash, but being a focused disciplined designer. And that was coming into that first level of product design at Barclays there with that company.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also prior to Microsoft, you worked for two other pretty large companies, you worked at Capital One, you also worked at FedEx. Was it a big sort of culture shift going from those two companies? One’s logistics, one’s banking. Going from that to a strict tech company? Was that a big shift?

Terell Cobb:
I mean, the amazing part of my pathway is that each one of those companies had a different element that I’m using today in firms of my leadership and moving forward. Within Capital One in the FinTech arena, you’re constantly thinking about how could you do things as a group? It’s all about innovation, how to be … And I greatly appreciate just being there in that arena because Capital One didn’t consider itself to be a bank. It happened to be, as they say, a tech company that so happens to be a bank. And that opportunity of being with instant innovation all the time and blue sky thinking and being able to stop projects from releasing and saying like, “Hey, wait a second. Was that innovative enough? Are we really proud of this thing.” To the introduction of service design and the introduction of critical thinking and the folks from Adio coming in and merging into that as well.

Terell Cobb:
Capital one taught me somewhat of the college of product thinking and design external to school, external to that other layer of just design as a button color or movement. Capital One gave me the piece of grounding then moving into FedEx it was like, “Wait a second, I’ve learned all these things. I can put these things to use. Do you want to see them?” And they’re like, “Now we’re a little bit more safe here.”

Terell Cobb:
We’re just a bit more safe. But I think the logistics side of FedEx taught me the technical aspect of what an engineer actually has to do in order for packages to arrive at a certain time. Understanding, and I’ll never forget this quote, from one of the engineers he basically said to me, “Terrell, how do you build a tank?” And I was like, “What do you mean? Military builds, tanks? Send a request to the military, they build a tank.” And he was like, “No, if you had to build a tank yourself, how would you start?” And then I think this is similar to your clock challenge here, where an engineer thinking about a tank is going to be the larger items first and then start going into the cogs of the tank and building the cogs to get back out to the larger things, having a base building in, and then starting building out the shell of the tank and the color of the tank, none of that matters to them.

Terell Cobb:
And that gave me the perspective of how an engineer thinks versus a PM thinks versus a designer thinks. Wrapping all of that around and kind of turning the corner here and going back to where I’m at at Microsoft, it was the critical thinking and also being able to take chances at Capital One, also along with the technical understanding and saying, “Hey, I can’t go build this tank without these particular cogs. They’re important to somebody they’re important to the experience. And then they’re also important to the team that’s building it.” So how do I become a technical designer/team player and then entering into one of the largest tech companies in the world, it’s how do you mash up all of that experience into something and make sure that you can speak the engineering language, you can speak the PM language and you also provide the quality and also the confidence within a customer using this product moving forward. Hopefully I’m answering that question in the best way.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean I think that you always want to think about how you can transfer skills when you’re going from one really big, I think, type of company to another one. And granted all of these do have tech sort of at their core in some way, you’re just using that tech to solve different problems.

Terell Cobb:
I think doing that and also keeping the duality of going back to football, no man left behind or no person left behind and going back and sitting having lunch with the engineers, sitting next to them and saying, “Hey, show me what you did because that was kind of dope. How did you do that.” Spending the time to get to know your teammates, getting the time to actually make this analogy football there’s 93 plays to a game. How many times have you talked to your coworkers in a week? How could you start to understand what they’re going through? How could you start to extend to your team and actually give them the same type of comradery that they’re looking for because you are spending a lot of time with that person. Just anchoring back those principles inside of the duality of also having the technical chops to talk workshop, if you needed to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And one other interesting thing, and you sort of talked about this, I think a little bit at the top of the interview was that you’ve also, maybe not at each of these companies, but certainly you did this at Capital One and now Microsoft, you started these black ERGs. Was it important for you to sort of build that community as you started? How did that manifest itself?

Terell Cobb:
It was incredibly important to see other people like me within the design world. I think like most designers starting out, you’re constantly looking for mentorship and sometimes you have to be the mentor as you rising yourself and you’re providing advice to people, however, you are looking for some advice yourself. And I think within the different groups, it was the opportunity to not only see people that look like you doing amazing things and being able to connect with them and saying or resonating against saying, “Hey, I’ve gone through that as well or I have had this conversation as well,” to more of just that comradery of, have you had an ethics conversation about this design? What did they say about this ethics conversation and being able to just talk shop with them in that way? I think the pleasure that I have within all of these groups is they’re all unique and all based on just different stories of how they got started.

Terell Cobb:
I think within the Capital One space, there were roughly about six of us that stood up at an all hands and were like, hey, I see you. I see you. And it was like, “Well, maybe we should stay in touch.” And then it went from, maybe we should stay in touch to maybe we should have meetings to maybe we should influence more recruiting and to maybe we should have somewhat of a council or somewhat of a type of event. And then with the Capital One piece, it was then like, how do I extend that outside of the company because I can’t just do it from Capital One. How do I also extend inside of the Dallas area? So then it was working with the Bobby Lloyds, the Michael [Tingling 00:44:03], the Labora Willis, the Adrian [inaudible 00:44:06] to kind of expand just create a ripple here in the Dallas area but then also move around to the Houston area.

Terell Cobb:
Just trying our best to create events and also create community for us here. And I think that just followed me just going into the Black Designer space at, at Microsoft because it was so welcomed by other people in that community too. And also the aspect of being able to create something that you know 20 years from now will still be there is something that I get chills over just simply thinking like, hey, that group is going to be amazing because we set it up in that way and they have their heart in the right place.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back throughout your career, you mentioned mentorship. Who have been some of the mentors that have really helped you out in your career?

Terell Cobb:
Oh, wow. I think there’s some really awesome people out there. I say, some folks like Ty Griffin comes to mind, then there’s, people who were helping that didn’t even know that they were helping, that were just more friendships, right? Like the Tim Allens out there, the Danley Davis is out there. The folks like Dr. [Oco 00:45:30] who was pretty much the person who kind of helped me shift from saying I’m just going to work in a hospital to, hey, I’m going to go to college. I’d say those people along with the Pastor Hicks in Topeka Kansas, the Lisa Carters that are out there and all the football coaches associated with it. Those are some of the people that kind of gave me the drive, but also instilled that I cannot just keep this to myself. I have to also throw the rope back for somebody else or leave a breadcrumb for somebody else behind me so that how I can help them would be beneficial to the future.

Maurice Cherry:
In recent years, what would you say has been, and the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Terell Cobb:
I would say that I’ve learned that I am incredibly a nerd when it comes to setting things up and being deeply in process. I read some of the similar books throughout the week. I have my coffee and sit on the stoop and actually bask in the sun, but also just that appreciation of designing the little things. And I think this recent trip that I just took to Denmark for a designed workshop there kind of reminded me as I saw enabled person, actually leave the train with with a wand who was basically visually impaired, actually get off the train, stumble on the little ground stubbles and pretty much make their way like a boss to the escalator without any help. It was a reminder to me of, somebody thought in process of this person leaving the train in this way, somebody thought about the doorknobs that’s in front of me. Somebody thought about the angles that in front of me, what are the processes that I’m creating for people behind me as well.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Terell Cobb:
I define success a little differently from other people. And I say that just to say that I look at success as an opportunity to succeed. As long as you have that opportunity, I don’t believe that you fail. I believe that you learn. And if you have that opportunity, you started in part of that success you’ve already … To start is success.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. Because oftentimes really, it’s just that first step that you have to make.

Terell Cobb:
Exactly. You have the thought and you have a couple of seconds to go about that thought or a couple of minutes or that first step. I think we’re a little bit hard on ourselves sometimes and I think just to start in itself is success.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Terell Cobb:
I have this grand dream of creating pillars of design practices across the country and their anchor inside of some of the experiences that I’ve had over in the past of the different tech companies or the different businesses that I worked for. But I think mostly the desire to have those communities or those practices is kind of related back to just one in the lead break grounds. My desire is to work on the next 20 years now. There’s an amazing book out there Called What The Forecast. And I look at it almost every week because it kind of puts these brain like exercises in front of you that says it’s five years from now. I am doing this, I’m driving this. I am living here. And it goes from five years to 15 years to 20 years. And I’m constantly thinking about those 20 years just because if you don’t start on it, it’ll just sneak up on you.

Terell Cobb:
That’s my next step here. Just continuing on that path of thinking about those next 20 years. And I have breakfast with some amazing guys, almost every other weekend. And we joke and say, well, we’re talking about our 85 year old self and what our 85 year old self is eating. What could we do now to help our 85 year old self? Are we at 85 and we’re riding motorcycles to eat for breakfast? Are we pulling up in our wheelchairs? Do we have scooters? How mobile do we want to be when we get to that age? I’m constantly thinking about the future in normal yet intriguing terms of life now.

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

Terell Cobb:
Yeah. So if anyone wants to find me on LinkedIn, definitely reach out to me. If I can’t get back to you, I promise you, I will find somebody that can get back to you. Terrell Cobb, T-E-R-E-L-L C-O-B-B on LinkedIn. If you want to follow me on Instagram, it’s a vintage_424. I’m always there. And those are some of the main channels right now where people can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Terrell Cobb, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One for just giving a peak behind the curtain as to what it is that you do at Microsoft and even how you’ve helped to create community not just inside of Microsoft or designers there, black designers there, but also the help out in the community as well, but really sort of showing the fact that perseverance really the way. There’s so many paths into design, there’s so many ways to be a success or to do anything really in this industry. And I think what your story really illustrates is that there’s no one single way to do things. There’s no one way to be a success. And so hopefully people will get a chance to hear your story and we’ll take that to heart. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Terell Cobb:
This was incredible. Thank you so much, Maurice, I really appreciate it.

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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.

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Roneka Patterson

These past two years have been stressful for all of us in a lot of ways, but this week’s guest is proof that you can find a way to redirect those feelings into something positive. Meet Roneka Patterson, an associate creative director at Hawkeye in Dallas, Texas, and the co-creator of The Unwritten Rules.

Roneka and I talked about adjusting to work from home life, and she shared a bit about her process and what it’s like to be a creative director. From there, we discussed The Unwritten Rules, including how the project was launched last summer with other Black creatives, and she shared how she got Hawkeye on board with amplifying its message. Roneka also spoke about mentorship and how she’s helping local high schoolers discover their creativity as well. Roneka’s motto — “keep going” — is one I think we can all adopt as we move forward and chart our own paths to success in this industry!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Roneka Patterson:
I’m Roneka Patterson. I’m an associate creative director with an art director background. I work at Hawkeye, which is an agency, an ad agency in Dallas, Texas. I’ve been at Hawkeye for about four and a half years, and I work on the Capital One account. So we do just basically a little bit of everything for Capital One, but a lot of CRM and direct mail, email messaging for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve had quite a few advertising folks on the show, probably since the beginning of Revision Path, but certainly over the past year or so. How has it been adjusting to the work from home life?

Roneka Patterson:
It’s had its ups and downs. I think when we first started last year, there was definitely a lot of anxiety for me. I’m kind of an introvert and so I really relished having my time at my home with my family away from work. I think there was just a lot of nervousness on our team when we first went home. I was just getting pinged all night, 7:00, 8:00, 9:00 at night through our messaging apps. Finally had to like, “Guys, we still need to have some boundaries here even though we’re at home.” So that stuff has kind of leveled out, but there’s still I’ve three year old daughter and so there’s times when she’s at home trying to work and my wife and I are juggling who’s got her now. It’s been a challenge.

Roneka Patterson:
I’ll say that from a creative standpoint, I don’t feel like the work for our team has dipped any. I feel like we’ve actually been a little bit more creative working from home. I don’t know. I think there’s a freedom of being able to work at your own pace with things, whereas if you’re in an office there’s a little bit more like, “Okay, how are things coming,” you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roneka Patterson:
But this has definitely been my most creative year in a while in terms of just the types of ideas that I’ve had, the thinking I’ve been able to do. I’m grateful for that. It’s been ups and downs, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
How long did it take for you to get into a groove where you’re like, “Okay, I can do this day to day.”

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, man. I think maybe over the summer. Maybe the fall of last year, of 2020, I think that’s when things kind of started to level out. So it was a good six months of it just being very chaotic. Not chaotic in the sense like, “Oh, I wish we could go back to the office,” but just this is just a lot. And I know that it’s a lot more than it would be if we were in the office. I think that fall is pretty much when it started to feel like okay, I feel like I’ve got the handle of this and it just wasn’t as intense.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your work at Hawkeye. You mentioned you’re an associate creative director. Is the Capital One account the only project you’re working on or do you work with other clients?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, I work with a couple of other clients just on project by project basis. I’m dedicated to Capital One. Our team that I work on, there’s about 30 of us. I think we’re one of the larger accounts in the agency and so we work pretty much primarily on them. But there are little things that come in the door that we can help out with for other clients. So I’ll say it’s about a 90/10 split.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s say a new project comes in. Talk to me about that process. Where do you come in? How do you work with the particular client? How does that work?

Roneka Patterson:
So as an associate creative director, I’m a half manager, half hands kind of person, I think moving a little bit more towards manager. So basically when a project comes in, I’m helping staff the job. So it’s like, “Okay, we think this project is going to need two art directors and a writer, or two art directors and two writers.” I’ll help with that and then I’ll just be providing oversight and guidance as those projects happen. So I’m helping out with brainstorming, helping check files to make sure that they’re built correctly per the standards of the client. Basically just oversight.

Roneka Patterson:
Occasionally I’ll still get in there and do some design work. If we’re a little understaffed and we’ve got some people out on PTO, I can definitely help out in those cases. But generally just providing oversight and guidance based on the experience that I’ve had working on the account.

Maurice Cherry:
And so how long did it take you to get to that point within Hawkeye? Because I would imagine coming in you have to work your way up to that, right?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So I’ve been an associate creative director for a year and a half now. I think it’ll be two years in January. So prior to that I was a senior art director, and so a lot of what I was doing was the associate creative director level of things where I’m having to lead presentations and oversight on jobs. It hasn’t changed much, but yeah, a lot of it was just getting familiar with the company, getting familiar with the team, establishing a name for myself on the team. And then again, just starting to do that next level of work that finally they’re like, “Okay, yeah, you should definitely be doing this job because you should be getting paid for this because that’s the job that you’ve been doing.”

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day for you working at Hawkeye?

Roneka Patterson:
So a typical day for me now, a lot of meetings. Whether it’s kickoff calls, like we’re kicking off new jobs, status calls just to see what everyone on the team is working with and help allot resources for the different projects. We do a lot of check-ins. Our account is very agile, so they love to meet. They’d much rather over communicate than things get dropped. And so we’ll do a lot of check-ins internally with our creative folks, like this is how the work is coming along. We’ll give feedback, we’ll do check-ins.

Roneka Patterson:
Capital One has their own robust creative department, so we’ll do check-ins with them to make sure that the work that we’re creating meets the brand needs. And then we’ll do check-ins with the client, the business managers who’ve actually requested the work. So a lot of meetings. In between there is time for brainstorms and occasional sketching, but a lot of it is just making sure that things are moving properly, that creative folks have the help they need so if they’re stuck on something or if they need an extra set of eyes on something, providing that support. But that’s pretty much how my days go nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that you think people underestimate about your role?

Roneka Patterson:
So when you’re at a CD level, and this may be me making assumption about that level, there’s a lot more strictly oversight. It’s understood that your job is to lead and to direct. With an associate creative director, you’re kind of in this in between area where there’s an expectation that if we get in a jam, you’re going to have to help out designing something or laying out something. Because of that, even though my workload, it may look like Roneka is only designing on a couple of things, I’m actually overseeing seven or eight things. So I think sometimes there’s the assumption that because you don’t see me doing the art direction stuff, that I’m not doing direction.

Roneka Patterson:
It’s one of those things, it’s not like a woe is me type of thing, but it’s something that I didn’t realize about the role before I got into it was just that there’s a lot of oversight takes time, to make sure to check in projects, to be able to switch on a dime to remembering, where are we at with this one? What kind of feedback can I give here that would be helpful? Presenting to clients, just being able to manage if something goes wrong and how do you talk to that? How do you speak to that in the moment? There’s just a lot of that kind of stuff that I think I wasn’t cognizant of before I got into the role.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that from other folks that are in advertising as well, so what you’re saying definitely lines up with that. I want to go more into your background. I know you’re at Hawkeye, which is located in Dallas. Are you originally from Dallas?

Roneka Patterson:
So I’m from Austin, which is about three hours south of Dallas, so I didn’t go very far. Yeah, most of my family is from the Dallas Fort Worth area and my parents just kind of branched down to Austin and had me. I just stuck down there while I grew up and then I ended up moving back to Fort Worth for school.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you know early on that you were into design and advertising and all of that?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, so I always loved art. I love to paint, I love to draw, I love sculptures. Always had a passion for that. I mean, I can do think back to grade school and just being super into that kind of stuff. So I didn’t necessarily understand how to make a career out of that in terms of what design was, what advertising, art direction, all that kind of stuff. But I knew that I was really passionate about that.

Roneka Patterson:
Funny, actually, when I was in middle school, I used to run track. Pretty good at it. We were city champions my eighth grade year, which was a highlight for me. When I got to high school, it’s a different ball game when you’re changing sports in high school. There was a lot of practice for running track in high school. And I remember going home with my mom one day and I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was like, “I want to just focus on my art.” And my mom was like, “Well, whatever you do, just make sure you go a 100%.” So she let me get out of track and I really started focusing on art.

Roneka Patterson:
I was taking art classes. I got some AP credit in art that I was able to take to college with me. I loved to create, to draw. I used to joke that my favorite class in high school other than art was history class because it allowed me time to just draw. I’d sit in my seat and just draw during the class and I loved that. But that’s where that love started to really strengthen. From there I was like, “Okay, I want to go to school, to college, and I don’t know how to do this.” So I was able to find TCU had a really good graphic design program, so I was able to get into that and the rest was history.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about that. Tell me what your time was like at TCU.

Roneka Patterson:
It was good. It’s a small private school and there’s a lot of money that gets poured into that school. They’ve got a pretty good football program. The Black community there is pretty tight knit because I think there’s only like 8% Black students there out of the entire school. So created some camaraderie that was nice.

Roneka Patterson:
In terms of the design program there, I think I was the only Black woman in my coursework, but there were other Black folks in the fine arts, studio arts degree path. So I was able to make some connections with them. Some of them I still speak to to this day.

Roneka Patterson:
So I think that overall, with all of the creatives that I’ve met through my career, I do feel like it was a really solid education, a really solid foundation. It taught me design fundamentals, an understanding of conceptual advertising thinking. I’ve met some folks that didn’t have one or the other, who went to an ad school or a design school. I just feel like TCU gave me a really good balance of the two things.

Roneka Patterson:
I’ll say that that’s where I had my first design job. I had a professor who pulled me this side one day and he was like, “Roneka, the dining hall is hiring.” And I’m like, “Excuse me? What’s that have to do with me?” He was like, “No, no, no.” He was like, “They have a marketing department and they’re hiring. They’re looking for a designer and so I think you should check that out. I think it might be a good fit for you.” It was great. I got to design posters and little logos for advertising around the dining hall. I got a free meal every day, which was amazing. And so that was my first design job was at TCU.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. In a way they really did prepare you for getting out there, working as a designer because you got a job working for the college while you were there.

Roneka Patterson:
Yep. Yeah, it was awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So when you graduated, what was your early career like? I see you worked for an agency called Sonus. Tell me about that experience.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So that was a privately owned small boutique marketing agency. And so I think when I got hired, there was one other designer there and then I think she left within a year so I was the sole designer there. We had an account person and me. It gave me a good foundation of these are all the things that are entailed with marketing, kind of had to do it all. I learned how to present to clients because I was the person that had to present. I did the work and I had to present the work. Timelines, budgeting, all that kind of stuff. I think I learned more in that experience than I think I would’ve learned just being dropped into an agency environment or a larger agency because there just wasn’t enough hands. I had to do a lot of it.

Roneka Patterson:
I left there to work at an ad agency, and I worked there for six or seven years. It was at Moroch in Dallas. That experience, high highs and low lows. I think that I got to work on a bunch of different clients. I got to do a lot of different types of projects. The range of work that I got to do there really was amazing. It was the aughts, the mid-aughts, the late-aughts, so there was a lot of… I don’t know, the reckoning that’s happened in advertising over the last year or so, that was not a thing back then. So there was a lot of just political, cultural things that just really just wore me down.

Roneka Patterson:
There’s too many things to name. Just random things that happened that I think if you talk to any Black person who’s worked in corporate America, they could probably be like, “Yeah, yeah. That sounds about right.” After the time that I spent there, I left that agency and I said that I was never going to work in advertising again. I don’t care where I work. I’ll be a postal worker, I’ll work at the art museum. I don’t care. I can’t do this anymore and I don’t want to go back. This isn’t for me.

Roneka Patterson:
So I ended up at a greeting card company. So we did basically the B2B greeting cards, the type of cards that corporations send out during the holidays. So I worked in the marketing department there and got to lead and also just to see how things go from the business side because that’s another thing that you don’t really get to see when you’re working in an agency is just the business side of things. How are some of those decisions made? How are our agencies received? Because we worked with some freelance agencies, some of our projects and just sitting on the other side of the table, how are those things received?

Roneka Patterson:
So I did that for a little while and then I started to get the itch about potentially moving back into an agency environment. I’d said for myself it needed to be the right agency. It needed to be the right environment. I needed to feel safe. I don’t mean safe in the sense of boring, but safe as a Black queer woman, am I going to be safe in that environment? Am I going to have opportunities in that environment? So that’s how I ended up at Hawkeye. Actually, I got interviewed by two women who were creative directors and immediately I was like, “Okay, this may be it.” I’d never actually worked with a female creative director before in my entire career. So that was a very big reason why I wanted to work there. There are a bunch of other women creative directors at Hawkeye, which was really, really comforting for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that appealed to you about going back to work at an agency?

Roneka Patterson:
I missed the creative department. I missed having a team of other creatives that you could bounce ideas off of, that could help push you and help push your work. I missed that. I missed having writers that could help me generate ideas and say it in a way, a lot more concisely than I could say it. I missed all of that. I missed the direction and just opportunities to just solve different types of business problems for people. I missed all that.

Roneka Patterson:
I didn’t realize it when I left that first agency, but I was like, “Yeah, I definitely miss…” When you don’t have it, that’s when you realize, yeah, there’s some value in having people around you that are super smart and super talented and they can just help make your work better. Also, they get it. You’re not having to explain and reexplain why creative is valuable and why it’s important.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s good that you had that break after working for two agencies for a long time. You can sort of separate yourself a bit from it. There’s that saying that hindsight is 2020. So you’re able to then look back and say, “All right, well, these are things I liked and this is why I want to have more of these things and maybe less of something else.”

Roneka Patterson:
Yep. You got it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you talk about encountering a female creative director and that’s sort of what made you decide to work with Hawkeye, but did you encounter a lot of Black creatives in advertising throughout your career?

Roneka Patterson:
A handful, Maurice, a handful. when I was at Moroch I think there was about maybe five of us total Black creatives there. Traditionally in advertising, I met more Black strategists, account folks, relationship management folks. We had a few of those there. But creative, it was just few and far between really, and it was very discouraging.

Roneka Patterson:
I never saw anyone that outranked me. It was either a peer or someone that was a junior level. It gets in your head a little bit because you’re like, “Okay, maybe this is not thing that women can do. Maybe this is not a thing that Black women can do to be leaders, to be creative leaders.” I know logically that’s not true. I keep an eye on the industry, I know that that’s a thing that happens outside of where I’m at right now. But when you’re young coming up, you just don’t know. I was like, “Maybe I have to move account side or move into strategy and that will allow me to grow, have advancement.” But yeah, it messes with your head a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you found now that you’re more into your career in terms of tenure that you’ve encountered more Black creatives?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, definitely, definitely. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable and confident with networking. Like I said earlier, there is a camaraderie that we have, those of us in this business, even if we don’t know each other. There’s just a little like, “Oh, yep, yep, yep.” You know you’re probably fighting some of the same battles and trying to champion some of the same causes. And so yeah, I definitely, any time I’m out and about, whether it’s an industry thing, an industry event or a conference or something, I’m definitely connecting with folks because you just never know.

Roneka Patterson:
You never know when you’ll run into those folks again, there may be an opportunity that you can provide someone or vice versa. I see a lot more now and I’m able to connect with a lot more now, which is really, really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
You created a project called The Unwritten Rules, which you did in conjunction with a former Revision Path guest we had on the show before, Alex Pierce, along with some other Black creatives. Talk to me about that. How did this come about?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, so this came about last summer. Obviously we had just a period of months of just… It was like a drumbeat of violence against Black people. Shootings and police violence and intimidation and gaslighting. Obviously a lot of that, the feelings of that culminated with George Floyd’s passing, murder rather.

Roneka Patterson:
So Alex reached out to me and he’s like, “Hey, I’m going to get some folks together to see if there’s just something that we can do or create just to get some of our feelings out about what’s happening.” And so I’m like, “Yep, just invite me to the meeting. I’ll be there.” There was about 20 of us, and so mostly creatives, couple of strategy folks. And Hawkeye, like most agencies, it’s a predominantly white agency, but the Black creatives there, we all have a side group chat and we keep in contact with each other, check in with each other. It was Alex and myself and Adam Johnson who’s a Black copywriter formerly, at Hawkeye. He was at Hawkeye at the time. Couple of other creatives.

Roneka Patterson:
We just talked, the Black folks on the team, we just kind of talked. We were like, “What are we feeling? What message can we say? What can we create? What can we do?” We did some brainstorming, we just did some really just brainstorming. What could we do? What could we create? We settled in this idea about these rules, these unwritten rules that Black folks all know that the larger population may not be cognizant of. In the conversation, it was just a little bit like, “What if we came up with an encyclopedia or just a foundry of these different rules?”

Roneka Patterson:
We talked a lot about tone because part of the thing last year that happened with a lot of agencies, immediately there was a lot of like, “Things are bad and here’s your black square and we need to do better. And we will.” Okay, great. It was like the universal we need to do better. Okay. We’ve been telling you that for a while, but okay. I’m glad you caught up. Tonally, we were like, “These rules are not melodramatic, trauma porny kind of stuff.” As a Black person, they don’t make me feel anything other than, yeah, this is just the way we have to… These are the things we have to know to stay safe and to avoid craziness.

Roneka Patterson:
It was very similar, in a lot of ways, to we’re doing some research on The Green Book If you read The Green Book, or any of The Green Books, there is a very matter of fact tone about the fact that this magazine needed to be created to keep Black people safe. It wasn’t like a so and so got lynched yesterday. It was very much like, “Hey, if you’re going to be driving to El Paso, here’s a body shop that you can go and get your car serviced. They won’t hassle you.” Very matter of fact. That kind of tone resonated with us. It made sense to us as Black folks. Again, these are rules that we just have to know, and we thought it would be a great matter of fact way to present these rules.

Roneka Patterson:
One of the main things that we really wanted to do with it was not just to say, “Hey, these are rules that Black people need to know.” But the so what. So what is here’s some data that backs up why this rule is a thing. Here are some things that you, person who’s reading this rule, can do to help make this situation better. For all of the rules that we have that we outlined, we came up with some different resources that we thought would help pay off. You read this rule, here’s something if you want to get involved, here’s a thing that you can do that can hopefully help make this rule not be a thing anymore, to erase that rule.

Roneka Patterson:
And so once we solidified this idea, we did some design exploration. There’s a designer at our agency. Her name is Rosie Ulloa, I always mispronounce her name. But she helped create the visual, the color scheme, the fonts, the visual direction for this. And from there, we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to build a website. We’re going to do a social media campaign. We’re going to start creating some things with this.” And so from there, we started developing the website and we had an interactive designer, a web developer rather, from the company who was able to donate his time to help us build this thing. From there, it was once we had the look established we started working on our social calendar, because we did want to do an entire social media campaign that’s tied to this website to help promote the website. We wanted to do some user generated content. We want people to write in about rules that they’ve experienced that we may not have covered.

Roneka Patterson:
The website ended up being pretty robust just from a researching standpoint. We did the audio, we did audio narration of all the rules so you’ll hear my voice on the website in some spots. We really wanted to do a full audio visual kind of multidimensional thing.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, that’s kind of the origin of it. We did this on our own time. I do think the pandemic helped make this a thing. I think had we been in the office it would’ve been a little bit more challenging to, “Hey, we’re meeting on the fourth floor at four,” kind of thing. It’s a lot easier to just, here’s a Zoom link. Let’s link up. Just a lot of nights and weekends and some holidays just turning on it and refining it and getting the content, the writing.

Roneka Patterson:
We had some great writers that have helped flesh things out. Oversight is what I was talking about earlier, making sure that the tone is right and making sure that we’re not saying things that are improper. Yeah, it was a big thing. At a certain point we had to tell our agency, “Hey, this is the thing that we built.” And they were super supportive. It was really just a passion project that’s still going, still reviewing social posts once a week. But yeah, it was a side of desk thing that took a lot of love and heart and we wanted to do it for Black people so that when Black folks see it they’ll know we got you. You’re being heard. You’re not alone in that experience. And then we wanted to do it for the broader population so that they see in writing that these are things that Black folks have to be aware of and why.

Maurice Cherry:
You said something interesting in there I want to, I guess, learn more about. You said at some point you had to let Hawkeye know that this was something that you were doing. Why is that?

Roneka Patterson:
Well, we needed some support. I think part of it, we needed some legal counsel with some of the user generated content stuff, ideas that we were thinking about. We wanted to be clear with Hawkeye that, while we are all representatives of Hawkeye in our day to day, this was a separate thing. We don’t want this to be The Unwritten Rules courtesy of Hawkeye. Our CEO, Joe DeMiero, he’s a great guy. He was very much from the get go like, “Whatever you guys need, let me know. I will help provide it. We are here to support. So whatever you guys want to do.” They’ve been very, very, just the right kind of support.

Roneka Patterson:
We did want to do some promoting. [inaudible 00:30:53] has 70,000 employees globally. It’s like, “Hey, can we get this on some of our inner agency communications?” They were more than willing to do that. So we got some articles in our inner agency ecosystem. Hawkeye social promoted it and they basically were providing some promotional support, which was really, really, really appreciated on our part. But yeah, that was the extent.

Roneka Patterson:
One other thing that we definitely said we wanted to do from the get go is we don’t want to really submit this for awards. This is not just a how to fix racism from an ad agency. We just so happen to work at an ad agency and we’re going to use the talents that we have just because we work in advertising to do this. But this isn’t awards bait. This isn’t a play to get advertisers to care about this cause. We wanted it to be bigger than that. We wanted it to be for the general public to experience and react to. Yeah, that’s kind of how we ended up where we are now.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see this project going from here?

Roneka Patterson:
So we have some things in the works. I’m not going to say specifically, but I probably should just to make sure we name it, claim it. Our social media calendar, we’ve got that planned out through next summer. And our social media, we’re basically taking the idea of the encyclopedia and kind of expanding it a little bit. We have a rule breaker series. These people in history who’ve broken rules, broken some of those unwritten rules. We’re doing definitions like defining what do we mean when we say defund the police? What does that mean? Sometimes just putting it in writing for people, making a record of it. We’re not the first people to talk about the unwritten rules. We’re not the first people to try to define defund the police and why it matters. But those are the types of things that we feel like The Unwritten Rules should talk about. That’s the big thing that’s continuing to happen. And like I said, we’ve got a couple of other things that we’re working on down the line.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s been the feedback so far from the project?

Roneka Patterson:
It’s been positive. The best feedback I’ve gotten I think was from my family, who I’ve got Black Texans. Grew up in West Texas, East Texas, for them to be like, “This is amazing,” that says it. It says it in it’s beautiful. It says it in the right way. That’s been the best feedback for me. It’s been very, very positive, very, very affirmative. And it definitely does make the time and the love… There’s this moment when you send stuff out where you’re like, “I don’t know how this is going to be received. Is this going to work on Black Twitter?” Yeah, it’s been overwhelmingly positive and I think that’s part of why we’re like, “Okay, let’s keep going.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. The reason I was asking that before about why get your employer involved, because it sounded like this was something you really were all doing as a labor of love. I’m not saying this to cast dispersions on Hawkeye specifically, but I could see how an agency, particularly during this sort of time, would look at a project like that and try to claim ownership over it in some kind of way, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. I’m sure there was probably a little twinge because there was some things that were presented to us where we had to turn it down. It’s like, “Hey, we have this newsletter.” It’s like, “No. It doesn’t really align with what we’re trying to do.” It was like, “Oh, we’re thinking we can create a training module that’s…” Like, “No, nope. It doesn’t really align with the time commitment that we have for this, for that.”

Roneka Patterson:
I know that if it had been a specifically Hawkeye driven project, I think definitely the rollout would’ve been different. And that’s just the nature of they’re in the business. They’re trying to get clients, they’re trying to show their clients that they’re a different type of agency than they are in a lot of ways, hence the support that we got for the project. I know it’s a fine balance, but they were all very, very respectful. Our executive leadership folks, they were very, very respectful and very grateful that we did this and just very supportive of whatever you guys need, we’re going to do it. We’re going to help you make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s really great to hear, yeah.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, in your spare time, I noticed from going through on your website, you’re quite the photographer.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first get into photography?

Roneka Patterson:
I’ve always loved photography, even back to when I was in high school, picking up, figuring out what kind of art I wanted to create. I got my first camera in college. I’d had to take some photo classes to get my degree, and love it. I love being in the lightroom. I shoot all digital now so just love the ease of that.

Roneka Patterson:
But I really got more serious about taking portraits when I was working back at the first agency that I was working at. This business, it’s a grind. And so I don’t think you’ll meet a single person in advertising, creative, who doesn’t have some type of side hustle or is like, “Oh yeah, I do murals. I paint.” And so that just ended up being the side hustle that I really gravitated towards.

Roneka Patterson:
And so I started shooting with my friends and then that had started to lead to some actual work, some paid work. And it’s something that I love to do. It’s something that I’ve kept up with. I take classes and tutorials. I’m a part of the Black Women Photographers group. They have speakers speak to us about working photographers who talk about the business. So I’m always just soaking in all of that stuff. I hope, as I get older, that that’s something that I can retire into. I would love to do that full time in my golden years.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career, and even to where you are right now at the moment, talk to me about mentorship. Has mentorship been something that has really helped you out throughout your career? Is this something that, at the level you’re at now, you feel you have to give back? Talk to me about that.

Roneka Patterson:
So mentorship has always been valuable to me. I feel like I’ve only in the last maybe four or five years been able to adequately provide it to others. I had to get over my issues with advertising and be able to view it in a way to where I could actually impart words of wisdom or good vibes on someone who wants to make it in this industry. But I love it. I’ve worked with the Marcus Graham Project last summer to… I had a couple of guys that I was mentoring. Anytime I’ve been around Black creatives, I’m like, “Hey, let’s network, let’s talk. How can I connect you with something?” So it’s definitely something that I’ve pushed.

Roneka Patterson:
This year, my group at Hawkeye, the team that I work on, we started a mentorship program with Dallas ISD. So there’s a school here locally, a high school, it’s mostly predominantly Black and Brown. And we wanted to teach them about advertising. We basically figured out that part of two twofold issue that’s happening with Black and Brown folks in advertising, it’s recruitment and retention, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roneka Patterson:
Retention is how do we make this environment inhabitable for Black and Brown folks? Make them feel like they have a sense of community and safety. And then with recruiting, do kids know what advertising is? A lot of us backed into it. If you had asked me in high school if I wanted to work in advertising, I probably probably would’ve told you no because it sounded like, I don’t know. It sounds like suits and briefcases, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Roneka Patterson:
I didn’t know that it was something that I could do and still have creativity and also pay the bills every month. So we partnered up with a high school in Dallas, and so we meet with them once a month and we just tell them about advertising. At the beginning of each meeting, we have rotating people that are hosting each meeting. They’ll explain how they got into the business.

Roneka Patterson:
Our session that we had the week before last, we used the Apples Shot On iPhone campaign to talk about all of the different roles in an agency that would help contribute to an idea like that, to help execute a campaign like that. It was really cool. We do quizzes with them to see what kind of things did they want to be? Do you want to be a strategist? Could you see yourself being an account person who manages relationships, client relationships? Could you see yourself creative or a production role?

Roneka Patterson:
And so it’s just an opportunity for us just to impart some knowledge and hopefully make some connection so that in a couple of years, when those kids are in college, they’ve got a connection with us and we can help link them up with someone. We do internships at Hawkeye, provide some opportunities for them. It’s something we’re really, really excited about. I love working with kids, so it’s just definitely fulfilling for me.

Roneka Patterson:
I just recently stepped down. I was the co-chair of my Delta… I’m a Delta. We have a group that we work with with middle school girls and I’d been doing that for 10 years. Finally I was like, “Okay, chapter president, I’m going to have to step down because I’m exhausted.” But picked this up just in time and so it’s just fun working with them and they’re open to learning. And hopefully we’re planting some seeds that will grow into an understanding of the business and hopefully some pathways for getting into this business.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. See, I think that’s awesome on multiple accounts. One, it goes back to that old adage of you can’t be what you don’t see. So the fact that you’re able to expose them to these career paths so early on gives them a sense of knowledge to know that this is a possibility for them to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I feel like also that’s the best way that you learn is by teaching. By showing other folks what it is that you know, and it can help you become more effective communicator and things of that nature. I think that’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
I talk with a lot of companies and they’re always like, “Well, we have to establish a pipeline and how do we do this pipeline and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” I never liked the term pipeline because to me pipelines always strip resources away. It’s not about putting things back into the place where you have discovered them, it’s always about take, take, take, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very kind of like Western paternalistic in some kind of way, doing that sort of thing. What you’re doing though is establishing this connection. It’s almost like you’re planting flowers in a way, you know?

Roneka Patterson:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Because you’re not recruiting them directly from middle school or elementary school or whatever to come work for the agency, but you’re letting them know this is what I do in case you’ve never seen this as a position. This is the work that I do and if it sounds interesting to you, then this is how you can do it as well. That opportunity is what we’re really looking to give to the next generation.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. We took a vote. We were like, “Do we want to focus this on high schoolers or colleges?” Because we’ve got a couple of HBCUs in Texas. We could work with Paul Quinn over in Dallas. And we said there is something really nice about talking to high schoolers who are still trying to connect some of those dots, as you said, planting those flowers. Let’s say, okay, the goal of this is not to… You guys are going to be interned at Hawkeye sometime, but if we can figure out this framework, we can hand this to other agencies. Hey, you’re in Chicago. This is something you could set up with a local school in Chicago. I think we felt like there was a void. And not to say that there aren’t other people doing this elsewhere, but we knew that here in Dallas it wasn’t being done, or this way rather, because I’ve definitely worked with some other agencies before.

Roneka Patterson:
But is there something unique and special that we can do just to drop some knowledge? Because there’s a big push for STEM and business. That’s great, but we’re STEAM. That A, that art. What if people have the creative? There’s this little creative nugget. Black folks are hella creative, Brown folks are hella creative. If we can make that connect connection, you that are supremely awesome at editing TikToks, that’s a production role. You could make a lot of money doing that. If we could start to make some of those connections for kids, I think we felt like we will have done our part. Obviously we’re going to do more than that, but this is definitely how we wanted to start that kind conversation with them.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that mentorship, who are some of the mentors that have helped you out in your career?

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, man. Honestly, I’m kind of on an Issa Rae thing where it’s been peers that have really helped me along the most. Fellow creatives who were in the trenches with me that gave me encouragement. I’ve had a couple of creative directors where it was just like, “Okay, this person is definitely…” I had a creative director when I was at Moroch that I still keep in touch with today. We’ll occasionally have lunch together. He was just super brilliant, creative and helped push me creatively.

Roneka Patterson:
But yeah, a lot of it has been peers. It’s been one of the writers that I work with on The Unwritten Rules. He’s helped inspire me and just a connector. He’s like, “Hey, there’s this thing that I found out about. You should try this out.” Or, “Let’s go to the museum. I heard about this thing that’s happening.” To me, that stuff, it encourages me because being around super talented people, it just helps raise you up a little bit. But just that friendship has been invaluable to me.

Roneka Patterson:
I don’t want to name drop anyone specific, but I’ll just say that it’s been a lot of people being in the trenches with me, peers that have helped push me and encourage me. And I do that for them too.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with at the moment?

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, this is bad. In my personal life or my work life?

Maurice Cherry:
Personal life.

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, this is bad. So my wife and I have been watching The Haves and the Have Nots by Tyler Perry. It’s on Hulu. There’s eight seasons of it. There’s 30 episodes a season. It’s insane. We’ve been binging it. It’s a soap opera. I grew up watching soap operas. Me and my mom used to watch The Young and the Restless and my grandmother and I used to watch it together. So I kind of got out of that over the last maybe five or six years, because life just got too busy and I didn’t have time to be watching soaps every day. But yeah, we’ve gotten into it the last couple of weeks and it’s just been insane. It’s like an addiction. We just got to get one hit tonight and then we’ll… It’s crazy. But yeah, that’s probably the thing right now. It’s kind of crazy.

Maurice Cherry:
I think we’ve all got an escape show that we dive into every now and then. There’s nothing wrong with that. Especially during this pandemic.

Roneka Patterson:
Oh, yeah. This is a judgment free zone here. [crosstalk 00:46:25].

Maurice Cherry:
Look, grab your creature comforts wherever you can. Absolutely.

Roneka Patterson:
I could turn my brain off and set it on the table and just zone out, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you feel creatively satisfied at this point in your career?

Roneka Patterson:
I feel like the last year and a half have allowed me to do things creatively that were kind of passion projects, explorations, just the type of work that I’ve all always wanted to work on in my career. A lot of it was the pandemic and just having the freedom, the personal freedom to do those things, to explore those things. And so, yeah, I would say I am feeling creatively fulfilled.

Roneka Patterson:
I’m definitely thinking about the next five or 10 years. What is that going to look like? Leadership is great. Being able to lead teams. I’m definitely doing more of that now. But the downside is that you’re not getting to create as much. You’re giving feedback and helping push other creatives to come up with really brilliant, amazing ideas. And so I think there’s always a little bit of tension with that. Do I want to continue on this path where I’m just going to be pushing and challenging and supporting? Or do I want to be in a position where I can still roll my sleeves up and do some of the work? I kind of go back and forth on that.

Roneka Patterson:
But I will say, between my photography and just the personal projects that I’ve gotten to work on over the last couple of years, I do feel like I’m getting a lot of the stuff in my brain out into the world, which has been nice and fulfilling.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you hope to be working on?

Roneka Patterson:
I hope that I’m doing work that has positive impacts on the world. So whether that is more pro bono work, I’ve gotten to do a lot of that over the last couple of years and it’s super fulfilling for me. It’s merging the two things that I care about a lot, which is how can I help make things better out there and how can I create and express myself. So I think I would love to do more of that over the next five years.

Roneka Patterson:
As I said, I’m in a leadership role now, so I would like to continue that. I’m very much a let me pull some people up with me kind of person. So that’s a natural fit for a leadership. I’m trying to find opportunities for people. I’m trying to connect people, I’m trying to make sure that especially younger creatives don’t feel grinded up in this business the way I did. I don’t want anyone to feel like I got to quit because this isn’t… I got to quit this stuff because it’s not for me. I want to definitely encourage folks and get them to find that right balance to where they are getting their fulfillment, they’re safe and they’re allowed to grow. Any ways that I can help do that, that’s what I want to be doing over the next five years.

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

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah. So you can visit ronekapatterson.com. So it’s R-O-N-E-K-A, Patterson with two T’s, .com. I’ve got design work and photo work there. You can find me on the gram, @RonekaP. And you can find me on LinkedIn too. I think you just search Roneka Patterson, I’ll probably pop up.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’ll also make sure to put a link to The Unwritten Rules in the show notes as well so people can check that out.

Roneka Patterson:
Yeah, that’d be awesome. Would love that.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Roneka Patterson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. One, of course, for telling us more about this project that I’ve heard about now probably for the better part of a year, in terms of it getting around in the world and getting around amongst other Black creatives. But also about just giving your own story and testimony about being a Black creative in this industry. And that even if there are setbacks, you can still find your way towards something that’s fulfilling, which I think we all need to hear that from time to time. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Roneka Patterson:
Thank you so much, Maurice. This has been great. I’m so glad to get to talk to you finally and just happy to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

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