TTK

We all know there are several ways to achieve success as a creative, but sometimes it takes inspiration from others to set you on the right path. That’s definitely the case with the multitalented TTK. His work as an art director, painter, designer and illustrator have taken him far, and now he can add another title to his roster — filmmaker!

Our conversation began with a quick year-end check-in, and then TTK talked about “Just Like Me”, a short documentary he created with Havas to educate and inspire the next generation of Black creatives. TTK also shared more details of his life story, including growing up in Florida, serving in the Navy for 10 years after going to art school, and more. Hopefully TTK’s story and documentary can help inspire you to rise to greater heights!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

TTK:
My name is TTK. What I do, I’m an artist, I’m a designer. Currently, I work in advertising. I’m a director, I’m a painter. I wear a few hats.

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

TTK:
The year’s been good for me so far, man, the year’s been very, very good. How I measure if the year is doing good, I measure if I’m doing something this year that I didn’t do the previous year or if I accomplished something this year that I didn’t in the previous year, that determines for me whether it’s good or not. We’re going into the fourth quarter right now, so the accomplishments and what I’ve accomplished so far in this year, I’m really proud of myself. I took a few punches, but that’s life right there. I hop back up and take it on the chin and take it as a lesson learned. But all in all, this year’s good for me. It’s been going great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you still want to try to do before the year ends?

TTK:
Paint more. A friend of mine jokes and it says once I learned how to do digital work, it made me lazy with painting. And I don’t want to admit it, but he is right because painting is a process. Well, everything is a process, but whenever you’re painting, you got to wait for the paint to dry, come back to it and work into it some more, then work into it some more. It takes much longer.

And you would think with me being traditionally trained before I even learn how to do anything in Photoshop or any software, I was doing this first years before I knew how to use any software. You would think I would be conditioned for it. But learning how to work in digital just made me just work faster and have less patience maybe because working in the industry, working the agency, working the companies, I’m on a timeline where I got to turn this stuff around fast. It can be very competitive, whereas with painting, this can take… Because I’m so meticulous with the details and everything when I’m painting, it can take anywhere from weeks to a month. Depends on how much time. Well, I try not to take breaks in between, but I wind up doing that. Anyway.

All that to say I just want to paint more, knock out more pieces. Because I got a solo show coming out in 2023, a solo art show. It’s the first solo show that I’ve done in, oh my god, probably 12 or 13 years with all original pieces, so I’m on the clock right now. It’s next year in the spring, but time catches up real quick so I got to start really cranking out pieces. Teah, all that to say I want to paint more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find when visual creators, particularly when they get further along in their career, they often want to go back to some sort of physical, tangible way of creating. Like you said, doing it digitally does make you faster, but there’s a craft in the visual art that gets lost I think sometimes when you’re relying too much on digital tools.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. People will ask me, “Can I get this? Can I commission you for this piece?” And I’m like, “Truthfully, it’ll be probably easier for you on your budget to commission me to do something digitally.” Because paintings, it takes a while. Well, for me it takes a while because there’s a certain level of quality that I want to put out. And there’s no command Z to go back when I make a mistake or it doesn’t come out the way I want it to look. I got to wait for it to dry and then I got to go back and rework it, or I’m mixing these colors, and the tubes of paint ain’t cheap. You know what I’m saying? You can buy the cheap stuff, but you going to get cheap results. It really adds up. But all in all, this is always my first love right here. And I always go back to that.

I was just working on this piece that I’m currently working on. I’ve been working on it about two months now. I just think working in it, I forget about how I used to feel painting before I was doing anything digitally. How I would just put a album on, put a CD on, put a record on, just rock out for hours on. And I miss that feeling of seclusion and just painting.

I was watching something, one of those shows that come on Sunday, one of the Sunday weekly news shows or whatever, but they were talking about… This is a few months back. They were talking about George Bush, how he put out a book, maybe it was last year. It was a book about people across the nation or people in this community or something like that. But it was his paintings and these people. And it was like, we don’t really rock with George Bush. You know what I’m saying? We don’t rock with George Bush, but his paintings weren’t bad. You know what I’m saying? Man, this dude actually isn’t that bad. He was on his ranch just painting or whatever and everything. I was like, I never would’ve guessed that from this guy. But I’m like, man, I would love that life just to be in a loft somewhere just, I don’t know, in the middle of nowhere, just painting. I don’t know, man. One day, one day. I’m going to speak into existence.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you’ll get there. You’ll get there, absolutely. Let’s talk about your day job, what you do. You’re a senior art director at Havas, which is ad and PR company. Talk to me about that.

TTK:
Yeah, so I’ve been at Havas for about three years now. It’s been good, you know what I’m saying? A lot of opportunities have come from me being there. What I do, I work on clients. The main client that I’ve worked on since I’ve been there is Michelin and doing stuff for Michelin social. And I got a chance to kind of be… Not kind of be, I got a chance to be very creative with their brand. I worked on stuff for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, worked on a few other projects, but… My mind is blank right now, but Michelin is probably the main one that comes to mind because I’ve been on the brand pretty much 80% of the time I’ve been there.

One thing I can say about working on stuff for Michelin is that I’m blessed it. Everything I touch, I’ve been able to add my own personal touch or flare to it that they probably wouldn’t have done, whereas I push the limits where I can bring my personality and my style of creativity to a brand like that that has so much rich history and it’s been doing something a certain way for so long. But I’ve been able to bring my look and feel to it and explain to them why this works. And they’ve been open and they’ve been receptive to it. Sometimes we get pushback, of course, that’s just how it goes. But for the most part, I think with me working on the brand for so long, I know the do’s and don’ts and know where I can push it and where I can’t. But the areas where I can push it, I really try to flex and really do something where if someone’s scrolling, if they’re scrolling on their phone or whatever and they see this graphic like, “Oh, this is pretty dope right here,” it would make me as a consumer want to check out more about this product right here. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you started there in October of 2019, which it feels like… With this pandemic, that feels like a lifetime ago. But how did the pandemic change up how you work?

TTK:
It’s funny you say that because I was doing… Right now I worked out of the Chicago office. And prior to me working out of the Chicago office, I was in New York, I was in Brooklyn. I was doing freelance work for them, and then they gave me a full-time… offered me a full-time role. And I was like, “Hey, I’m already doing freelance for you guys out here and I’m delivering what you’re asking me for. Can I just stay out here in New York?” It was like, “Yeah, we want to have you in the office.”

I move cross country, and then a couple months later everybody’s working from home. You know what I’m saying? My partner, Chevon, she was working remote as well at the time for a nonprofit, and she had been telling me, yo, everybody in her nonprofit is all over the country. You know what I’m saying? Working. You’re doing the same thing.

Working from home thing, it definitely… I always say as messed up as the pandemic has been and COVID and all of that, it was a big reset to show some of these jobs that we do the way we do them is outdated. And this is just my opinion. And going into office every day, five days a week, sometimes six, and sitting there for eight, 10 hours just to say that you’re here, we can do the work everywhere. You look at people on… What’s the site? Fiverr. You know what I’m saying? You don’t know where these people are at, but they’re still delivering stuff for you or whatever. And that’s what this pandemic showed. In my opinion, what it showed is thankfully the type of work that we do, the digital creative stuff, we can do it from anywhere. It definitely opened up my eyes and everything because I feel like I was… Like a lot of us, we were programmed to just come and to go into the office, just sit there and just look watching the clock waiting for 5:30, 6:30 to come, paying $15 for lunch every day, all of that right there.

I don’t mind working remotely at all, man. You know what I’m saying? I don’t mind it, truthfully. I know me personally, I can be extrovert, I can be reclusive as well. When I’m creating, sometimes I just like to be alone. We can collaborate, but I like to be alone. I’m able to execute the way I really want to execute and execute my best way sometimes when I’m alone. I don’t mind working remote. I actually love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a typical day look like for you?

TTK:
I juggle a few things, man. It depends on the workload sometimes, man. A lot of times, like when I was working heavy on Michelin, when we had a lot of deliverables for the brand, it would be coming up with all these different creative pillars of ways to how the brand incorporates into travel or how they incorporate with food, how they incorporate it in their heritage, coming up with creative ways to display this stuff right here, like getting things ready for a client meeting.

Basically, the day starts, we get briefed on what’s due, what everyone’s working on. And that’s pretty much it, thankfully for me. I’m in a space where I can just do what I need to do and no one really bothers me, I guess because maybe they know that’s how I operate best. That’s pretty much my work day.

As far as doing side projects or painting… Well, the paintings more so of recent things. I take breaks in between that. But sometimes I might work on little side project here, do little brush strokes on the painting for maybe about, I don’t know, 15 minutes, come back to it a couple hours later. My day is basically just me being creative. I’m thankful to say that. I enjoy what I do, and I have fun doing what I do. And it’s how I envision my life. No stress. I’m not working in the cold. I’ve been there before. I’ve done a lot of things, man.

I’m thankful that right now every day when I wake up, no two days are the same, but every day when I wake up, man, I can honestly say I’m not stressed about what I’m doing. And I’m doing what I love to do. It may not be the exact project that I want to work on, but at least I can say that my day consists of me being creative. And I’m getting paid to be creative. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that’s a good thing. I think especially agencies tend to get the reputation… I don’t know if they get the best reputation, I’ll put it that way, sometimes because you’re often working from client to client so you don’t have a lot of time to spend with maybe a particular brand to do something before you’re put on another project or put on another campaign or something like that. But it sounds like with what you’re doing, especially because you mentioned earlier you’ve been on the Michelin brand for so long, you’ve had time to grow into it in a way.

TTK:
It’s cool because I’ve had access to all of their assets and their personal login site where it’s so many assets, so much history. And that’s a cool thing about working on a brand like this right here that’s been around for over 100 years; there’s so much that you can pull from. A.And not to sound cliche, but a lot of times with working on this brand, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Everything is there already, you just got to figure out how to repurpose it. I’ve worked on… What’s the faucet brand MOEN. I worked on MOEN briefly. I worked on Yellowstone National Park.

I don’t know if I said it before, but Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That was cool working on that. This was pre-pandemic. We had a cool, very, very dope idea and campaign for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, but didn’t see the light of day because the pandemic happened at the time. The pandemic happened and everything shut down so we had to redirect the direction of where we wanted to go. And it was a much, much, much more scaled down version of… It wasn’t even scaled down, it was a whole new direction. Everything that we created, the hours that we spent, no one really will ever see this out into the world. But that’s the nature of the game, you take it how it comes, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve worked before as a graphic designer, and we’ll talk about that a little later, and now you’re an art director at an agency. How would you describe the difference in those two?

TTK:
I don’t think there is any difference, man. Personally, I don’t. Maybe on paper where it says what the roles are, what the responsibilities are. On paper, it probably says certain things, but from my personal experience, I was doing the same thing coming up with ideas, coming up with ideas, coming up with ways to execute this thing, thinking of ways where we can… places where we can place these ideas so people can see it and engage with it.

It’s similar to what I’m doing now. I worked in music, working at Mass Appeal. I worked on the record label side of the house. And sometimes I would work on the agency side as well. But it is the same thing, just one’s more culturally hip hop based, the other one’s more very American and reaches a broader audience and selling products.

But selling music is like selling products as well, man, so it’s the same thing. The way I see it, I think the only thing probably change is the company that you’re getting to check from. I always joke and I say this to people, and not to sound like a Debbie Downer or nothing like that, but you pick your poison. What are you able to accept and what are you able to deal with and whatever role or company or agency that you’re with? But I don’t find it any different at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the most challenging part about what you do? What you just mentioned?

TTK:
I think the most challenging part about this right here, that working in design and advertising, from my experience, it’s a revolving door. I don’t know too many people that’s been in one spot for over five years. I just don’t.

Early on, it was shocking. Not necessarily shocking to me, but it affected me emotionally. Damn, am I good enough? Or what could I have done differently? But then I understand it’s never personal, it’s business. And sometime business is up, sometime business is down. And when business is down, you might get cut. And that’s just the nature of the game.

And I think that’s where it just comes in. In trying to figure out too what do you love? You know, could work on one thing where the money is great, but you don’t really care about the work that you’re putting out. You’re not really in love with the brand or product or whatever that you’re working on. And then it could be something where you’re all about the mission that this one company or agency has, or you love what you’re working on but the pay isn’t the greatest. It’s all about trying, well, for me, trying to find that middle, that medium where, okay, I can get the best of both worlds.

But in all, back to what I was saying it’s a revolving door from, just from my experience, and a lot of my peers, not too many people I know stick around for a long time. And I don’t know whether it is because us being creative, you want to do your own thing eventually, or… I don’t know. I don’t want to make it a race thing or whatever, but it goes back to how do we see ourself? Well, for me personally, how do I see myself in a place where there aren’t many of people that look like me, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And cannot coexist and naturally be myself in these spaces, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think it might just be burnout or something?

TTK:
Yeah. It’s a few things. I feel like with junior people, when they don’t have the support or support from senior leadership, you got somebody might be fresh out of college and they got all these dreams of, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this award-winning stuff.” Of course everybody’s got those thoughts in their heads or whatever. But I feel like you take someone junior and you put them in a position and you don’t give them the support that they need to grow, it can be discouraging. And people will, “Yo, this ain’t for me right here.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Or resourcing or whoever, they may not know a person’s… What’s their skillset? What’s that person’s strength? And the only thing they see is the person’s name and a title. And then, “Okay, well let’s put this person on this right here.” They might not even be the person that’s equipped for that. It’s like playing basketball; you can’t have the center playing the point guard position. You know what I’m saying? It don’t work out like that. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

TTK:
Well, you could, but you’re not going to get the optimum results.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about you, talk about your personal life. Tell me about where you grew up.

TTK:
I’m originally from Jacksonville, Florida. That’s where I’m originally from. That’s where my early years were based out of. I moved away years ago, years ago. But I went to high school down there. And I was thankful to be in an art program going to an art school, Douglas Henderson School of the Arts, which at the time when I was going there, it was prestigious art school and everything.

But my father, when he went there, my father went there back in the ’50s or the ’60s or something like that. And at the time when he was going to that school, I think it was a school for Black students. You know what I’m saying? This is when segregation and all that stuff was going on. He went to that school decades before me. I just think it’s ironic that I ended up going there, but it’s a whole little different school at the time when I went.

But yeah, I got introduced to the arts there. Well, what’s the old TV show from back in the day? Fame?

Maurice Cherry:
Fame. Yeah.

TTK:
It was like that, you know what I’m saying? Yeah, so it was a school like that and everything, man. Shortly after I graduated high school, a couple years went by, I tried to dabble in fashion for a little bit, but I couldn’t so I realized there wasn’t for me. I could design the stuff, but I couldn’t sew. And then going to college for… I went to Artist Studio Ft. Lauderdale only for one semester. I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t sew then.” But it was cool though, it was cool though. I’m like, it’s more than just drawing, illustrations and everything.

Some years went by in between me having a child. After graduating high school, I just joined a Navy. I joined a navy cold turkey one day. I went to a recruiter and I was like, “Yo, I need a job.” You know what I’m saying? I need a job I can’t get fired from, maybe because the jobs I had at the time, life put me on a path where I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do creatively, creatively, I was just working jobs. I’m like, “Damn, this ain’t it right here, this really ain’t it.” I’m 21, 22 trying to figure life out. I went to a recruiter one day and I was like, “Yo, let me just hear what you got to say.” I didn’t even think I was going to sign up, but they hustled me like a car salesman, like a used car salesman.

Maurice Cherry:
Of course.

TTK:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And at the time, they told me, “Yeah, you can get a sign on bonus for $7,000.” At the time when they told me that, $7,000, I had never seen $7,000 before. When they said $7,000, I’m seeing a million dollars in my head. You know what I’m saying? I was like, “Yo, yeah, let’s do it.” I joined the Navy in September 2001.

Yo, it’s crazy. I went to a recruiter station on a Friday. September 11th happened that Tuesday. Two weeks later, I was in bootcamp. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

TTK:
I was in bootcamp. Yeah. And I was in the Navy for 10 years. I’m a ex sub mariner. I was on submarines. There’s not many brothers on subs. At the time when I was on in the early 2000 and everything. And with me being in the Navy and being mostly in the north or whatever, the bulk of the time I was in the Navy, I started planting my roots in New York and in Brooklyn. A lot of people think I’m originally from Brooklyn, you know what I’m saying? That’s my second home. But I’m originally from Florida, from Jacksonville, man. I got roots down there as well. We’re all over the place right now. What else you want to know?

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just curious about this 10 years in the Navy. First of all, my dad’s a Navy man, so I understand what that’s about. But the whole time that you’re doing this, were you also still pursuing creative things during this time?

TTK:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Or how did that happen?

TTK:
No. Mind you, at the time in my early 20s, man. I look back on it now, I was a kid doing adult shit, you know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
I was trying to figure it out, man. And I was a parent as well, you know what I’m saying? I was a parent trying to take care of a kid. I’m like, I don’t really know myself just yet. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
But I just know I need to provide some kind of way. And so the first couple of years of just me being in, it was just me just trying to figure out this thing, figure out this system, figure out what I got to do to not get in trouble and still keep some funds in my bank account and still perform and learn all the things that I need to learn, man.

Like I said, I was on submarines, and that’s… Aw man, that’s a whole nother world within itself and so much stuff that we have to know, from physics to… It’s so many things that I had to remember, being around top secret stuff, having a security clearance, working around nuclear weapons and things like that, man. It was a lot.

I was always doing drawing or whatever the whole time during those early years, drawing little tattoos for people and stuff like that. But it wasn’t until probably around 2004, the end of 2004, the sub that I was on, we left Norfolk, Virginia and we went up to Kittery, Maine. Kittery, Maine is on the border of New Hampshire, so Maine/New Hampshire. It wasn’t until I got up there that I wasn’t going out to sea, I’m just going to work for a couple of hours every day then going back to my barracks room. That gave me time to really do my art the way I really wanted to do it because I hadn’t done any art for so many years outside of high school. And by this time, I’m out of school for maybe seven years now, so I wasn’t really doing anything besides maybe sketching in my sketchbook. Seven years of not producing any work, it was really eating away at me. You know what I’m saying? I’m like, I know it’s more to life than this right here, there’s more to life right here. People tell you like, “Oh man, you do your 20 years, you’re going to get your retirement or whatever, and you still get out. You be young, you still be able to pursue other things.” But I knew deep down inside that that wasn’t me, that wasn’t for me.

But going back to, like I was saying, in 2004, a good friend of mine, he was from the Bronx. And around this time in early 2000, he was like, “Yo.” He knew that I like sneakers a lot. This is the early days before everybody… The sneaker app and all this other stuff like that. I was always one of those guys that had mad sneakers, you know what I’m saying? Before everybody knew me for my clothes and my sneakers and stuff, and he knew I could draw as well. A good friend of mine at the time, he was like… I guess he had went home for the weekend. He was from the Bronx. He went home for the weekend one time or something. He comes back, he was like, “I see these dudes customizing sneakers and everything. Why don’t you start doing that?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I’ve always thought about it, but I never really tried to pursue it.

And I started searching on lunch, trying to figure out what paints and stuff I need to get. And once I figured out the right paints and everything, I think that’s when it really, really took off, where it really began for me as being an artist and putting my work out into the world through sneakers. This is the early days too. This is around ’05, ’06, going a little forward, the MySpace days, me just putting my stuff upon MySpace at the time and people checking for it. And it was like I was running a business out of my barracks room up in Maine. Nobody knew who I was, you know what I’m saying? No one knew who I was, they just knew the name TTK. That was my tag that I went by. My real name is Michael Harris. It’s a very generic name. There’s always another Michael Harris everywhere I go, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I was like, I got to do something that makes me stand down or whatever, so TTK. I was always into graffiti and stuff, man, so TTK was the initials that I like to tag. And I just like just it looks, the two T’s together and the K from a design point, I just like the way it looks.

Yeah, so everybody just knew, “Yo, this guy named TTK is customizing sneakers.” And this is the early days so there wasn’t a lot of people doing it how it is now almost 20 years later. That really opened my eyes. While I’m doing what I love to do and I’m getting paid to do what I want to do, this is what I want to do right here. I don’t know whether it’s going to be customizing sneakers or working for Nike or whoever one day, but I’m being creative and I’m getting paid to be creative. This Navy thing, this right here is going to be my way out.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just asking were you still doing design and stuff or interested in design this whole time while you were in the Navy? And it sounds like you turned it into a profitable side business almost.

TTK:
Yeah. That led to me doing a bunch of other things. I went to high school for visual arts, traditional means in the ’90s, man, like painting and things like that. I knew I wanted to paint, but I knew I couldn’t carry a big canvas with me everywhere. And I know not everybody has an appreciation for, I don’t know, fine art or the graphic design. Even though graphic design is isn’t everything that we see and interact with, most people don’t even realize that. But I was like, “Wow, how can I get my skillset, show what I want to bring out to the world and how people buy it?” Put them on sneakers. You know what I’m saying?

The first year of me customizing sneakers, I wind up being featured in a book, I can’t even think of the name of it right now, but it was a book about custom sneakers or sneaker art from the early 2000s. But I was featured in this book. I wind up winning some contest with Finish Line at the time. I wind up having my two solo art shows at the time, and I wind up doing some freelance work for Timberland, the brand. And this is within the first year of me doing this. And I was like, “Wow, you know what? I got something right here. I’m onto something.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And what I was doing then, it’s very… I don’t know, I call it maybe it’s… It wasn’t on the skill level that I’m at right now, but I saw, you know what? I got something right here. You know what I’m saying? I got something right here.

And then shortly after that, I wind up meeting a good friend of mine who’s like a brother to me, Justice Hall. He was a designer at Timberland at the time. Because Timberland’s headquarters is in New Hampshire. I forget the town that it’s in in New Hampshire. But Justice saw my work on display at this skateboard shop. He saw my custom sneakers. And when Justice saw my work, he reached out to me. And he didn’t know who I was, he just saw the name TTK and he saw the work that I was doing. And it was like, “Yo, this person’s dope. I need to find them.” And he found me and we connected.

And he calls me up. It’s funny, I tell this story all the time. But when Justice, he got my information from the guys at the skateboard shop in New Hampshire. And they didn’t tell him who I was or anything like that. He was like, “Yo, this is this guy, this is TTK. Call him up, man. He’s dope.” When Justice calls me up and I answer the phone, I said, “Hello,” the first thing he says is, “Oh shit, you’re Black.” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “What you thought I was?’ I was thinking the same thing too because when they said designer, I didn’t think it was going to be another brother, someone the same age as me. You know what I’m saying? That’s into the same things that I’m into. It was like we were shocked to meet each other. And it was crazy because up there in New Hampshire/Maine, there aren’t many brothers up there. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
At the time, whenever it was like you see another Black person up there, you were like, “Oh man, you’re from up here? Oh man, where you from?” Or whatever. “Man, we should hang out or whatever.” You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
Because I really didn’t see many of us up there or whatever, man. But anyway, so whenever me and Justice connected, it was like he put me onto so much. And I talk about it all the time. He showed me that everything that I wanted to be, I could be it. This guy’s the same age as me, similar interest and everything, come from similar backgrounds, and this guy is doing all the things that I wanted to do in life at that point. He just encouraged me.And at the time, I didn’t own computer, I didn’t own anything. The only thing I knew how to do was to paint and just hustle and just do art. And he told me, he was like, “Bro, you’re a brand and you don’t even realize it. You created a brand in a barracks room and people are buying your work from all over the world.” He’s like, “You’re special, man.” He was like, “Yo, you really need to get out the Navy, man.” He’s like, “Yo, I can get you a job right now.” I’m like, “Well, I’m under contract.” He’s like, “You can’t break it?” I’m like, “Nah, I can’t break this contract. I get out in…: At the time, I think I had five more years left because I had just reenlisted.

Yeah man, I owe a lot to Justice, man. He credits me for giving him a breath of fresh air and inspiring him as well, but I thank him all the time, man, because if I never met him, I think I would’ve got to where I needed to go eventually, but it would’ve probably taken a little bit longer. Like I said, at the time when I met Just, this is 2006. He’s showing me his portfolio. I didn’t even have a portfolio at the time, I just had some photos of my work that I took. And I took him to the pharmacy at the time to get the photos developed [inaudible 00:37:03] or whatever, man. Like I said, I didn’t know, I was very, very green. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know. I knew I got a good product and I just know how to hustle. That’s the only thing I knew.

He’s showing me all his credentials and everything, he’s telling me about, “Yo, I work with Kanye.” This is during the Touch the Sky era and all of that, man. He’s showing me this. He’s showing the brands he’s worked on. I’m like, “I did this cool sneaker for my man right here.” You know what I’m saying? He was like, “Don’t even worry about the credentials. It’s going to come, man. You trust me. You got it.” Once I met him and I saw what I wanted to be, it was no turning back after that. I was like, “Yo, I’m getting out. I’m getting out. I’m going to figure it out one way or another.”

Fast forward, I don’t know, I can’t do the math right now, 15 so years later I’m here talking to you, bro. There’s a lot of stuff in between that I’m jumping over, but, yeah, I’m here, I’m here. And I think I’ve done a lot of great stuff. My name is in places where I only dreamed about, or I’ve worked on things where when I was a teenager only dreamed about working on or thought it would be cool if I got to work on this or connect with this person and work on this project. And I did it. I’m still doing it. Sorry for the long rant, yo.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s all good. Let’s hop forward to 2011. That’s when you got out of the Navy. You had been in the Navy for roughly about a decade. And then right afterwards, you enrolled in City Tech, which is a university in New York city. Talk to me about that time.

TTK:
It was interesting, man, because I was so hyped to get out and just be a civilian again because… In fact, most people didn’t even know that I was in the Navy because I was doing so much my artwork, putting my work out there. By this time, I’m not really even doing sneakers anymore, I’m painting, and people know me for my paintings. It was an interesting time. But I knew just from my first time going to college in the late ’90s, I’m like, “All right, things are getting… It’s digital now.” I just can’t see myself going to school to pay to be a fine artist. Nothing against people who do. You know what I’m saying? But for me, like I said, I had bills. You know what I’m saying? I still had some kids to support. I’m like, “All right, how can I be creative and get paid to be creative?”I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew the process of applying for art colleges just from the past, but I’m like, damn, I don’t really have any work that represents what people are looking for in this current state of the world, 2011. And I was like, “Man, I know I got the skills, but I don’t necessarily have the work to show it.”

A good friend of mine, he told me, he was like, “Yo, why don’t you go to City Tech?” I’m like, “What’s City Tech?” He was like, “You can get the same education there at a fraction of a price.” He was like, “A lot of the teachers that teach there, they teach you the big name schools as well.” And he’s like, “Yo, dude, you don’t even got to do a portfolio, you just go and you show up. Just apply.”

I went to City Tech, I applied, I got in. And within maybe, I don’t know, two weeks of me getting out the Navy, it’s my first day of class. And the first year or so I’m trying to figure out, all right, what do I want to do? I didn’t feel like I was being challenged. And then maybe almost around the first year of me being there, I was in a class with this professor named Douglas Davis. Whether he knows it or not, he’s the person that really inspired me to stay at City Tech because I met him in the first day of his class. I saw he was speaking in a language that I understood. And I just liked the way he just came across in the room. You know what I’m saying?I’ll never forget this. This is over 10 years ago, but the first day of class, he comes in, he looks… He’s not much older than me so he looks young, he looks like he could possibly be a student at the time. He comes in and he says, “My name is Douglas Davis.” He’s like, “What I do, I get money.” He said, “You listen to me, you’ll get money too.” And he says something, I think he says, “I’m surprised. I remember it was yesterday.” He said, “My wife, she don’t got to work. I bring home enough money to support my family doing what I love.” He’s like, “You listen to me, I’m going to give you everything that I got. But when I ask for it back, you better give me 100%. I’m going to run this class like it’s an agency. If this ain’t going to be for you, I’m not going to judge you. I’ll help you get to where you need to be. But if you here for the ride, let’s work.”

And I was like, oh, man. I never heard no professor in the classroom talk like that. And I was like, wow. His whole presence. He’s saying what I want to hear. Yeah, man, and that really put me on the path of going the route of learning about advertising and the stuff that I’ve been seeing for my whole entire life and just wondering why, wow, I like the way this ad looks, but I can’t explain why I like it. Being around him and other professors as well, but that really… I guess I feel like it cemented me in at City Tech where it’s like, all right, I’m not going anywhere because I like studying under this guy right here, I like studying under this other professor right here. They’re talking in the language that I want to, you know what I’m saying? That I want to hear. And they’re telling me the things that I need to know to apply to what I do already. Yeah man, that’s how I ended up at City Tech.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, shout out to Douglas Davidson who we’ve had on the show twice now. That’s the first time I’ve heard his classroom style, though. But as you described it, I was like, “Yeah, that’s 100% him.”

TTK:
Yo man, I tell you, he’s a great guy. No joke, man, when I was in his class, I felt like I was on… What’s the one show? Making the Band or something like that, you know what I’m saying? Because I didn’t want to mess up, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t want to mess up.

The nights leading up to the days when we had to present, he was like, “Yo, when the door is shut, the door is shut. If you not in, you not in.” I would make sure I’m on the train early, that way I’m not late to class that day and everything. I have everything set up, staying up all night just trying to get it right and just going up there. Because he didn’t hold any punches or whatever like that, he really ran it, his classroom… He didn’t run it like a classroom, he ran it like it was an agency, like it was a business. He’s a great guy, man. You can tell he really cared about what the people that… The students that he was working with. And he was there. He’s a real special person, man, he’s a real special person. And he’s someone that I’m very happy that I was blessed to meet in my journey along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of that journey, you documented a lot of this in a recent project that you released called Just Like Me. You directed it, you put the whole thing together. Douglas was in it as well. Talk to me about the documentary. First of all, why did you decide to do a documentary?

TTK:
With the documentary, that came about… Well, actually it’s a idea I’ve had in my head for many, many years but I just never really talked about it. I didn’t really talk about it to anyone; maybe one person. But it’s just something that I had in the back of my head. I was like, if the opportunity presents itself, it’d be cool to make this thing. It’s just something like a passion project.

And the opportunity came sooner than what I thought it was going to come in life. But around the time… In 2020, summer 2020, everybody’s in the house, the pandemic, COVID, all that stuff, and then the incident with George Floyd, all these agencies and companies having, I don’t know, a coming of age moment. We didn’t know. You know what I’m saying? What can we do to support Black people? Or whatever like that, man.

That was a moment in time where someone said to me… A real good friend of mine, a mentor as well, he said to me, “This is a moment in time where you need to use this opportunity to make what you want to make and do what you want to do, because I know you can do it.” And when he said it to me, I’m just thinking from a point of having anxiety and just fear of what’s the worst thing that could happen? This could happen, this could happen. And I just brushed it off.

And he came to me, he was like, “Yo, look man, make what you want to make.” I’m paraphrasing right now, but he said to me, “Your story is a very, very special story. How does someone go from working on nuclear submarines to knowing all the people that you know and working on the stuff that you worked on? You really have an interesting story.” And he said, “I’m not telling you what you should make or whatever, but you got something.” And I was like, all right. He was like, “I’ll help you get to a certain point with putting the pieces together, but after that, you running the show.” Because I’m like, “I’ve never directed a documentary. I’ve been around when documentaries are being made from my time working at Mass Appeal and I saw how much work goes into making a documentary. I know it’s a lot of work. He was like, “Don’t worry, you have what it takes.”

And I was like, “All right, I’ll put some days aside.” I wrote up three paragraphs, three, four paragraphs. I talk about basically the moment, this particular moment in time about how people were talking about the state of Black people in America with all the whole George Floyd’s things and the police incidents. It’s nothing new, it always happens, but the spotlight was on it in that moment in time.

Like I said, plus these companies are talking about, “Yo, we need to bring in more diversity,” and all this other things like that. I thought about why is it that there aren’t many Black people and there aren’t many brown people in these spaces of creativity?| And I’m like, “Why is that?” And I start thinking about my own personal experiences, about how we don’t really hear about them. And it’s like, I know a lot of Black creators, but the average person don’t know who these people are. But they’ve done a lot of great things and they’ve contributed to a lot of things that are historic now. And I’m sure you know, with you doing your podcast, you know we create a lot of great things that everyone knows and a lot of people benefit from, but a lot of times people don’t know who the wizard was behind the curtain that created this thing.

And I thought about too about why there aren’t many of us in these spaces. And I thought about a lot of us don’t know that this path exists until maybe much later in life when people got bills, they got families to support and they give up on being a creative. They give up on it because there’s always this narrative of being a starving artist. And that’s not true.

Going back to something Douglas David said to me once, and I always quote it, he says, “This thing called design is like the Matrix.” You know what I’m saying? “It affects all of us. We all work, operate in the Matrix and everything, but you’ll never know the Matrix exists until someone points it out to you.” And that’s like how design is. Everything is designed, everything, but most people don’t think about the whole process of that and how it interacts with us. And I thought about, wow, more of us, more Black people knew about this at an early age and were aware that you can make a living off of this, you’re not going to be a starving artist, I felt like you could see more of us in these spaces. And in order for me to try to educate more people on it, I wanted to show people who were influential to me. There are many people who are influential to me, but I wanted to show a few Black men and women who I’m blessed to cross paths with them in my journey and what they meant to me.

And not only just show who these people are, show their work because a lot of times I feel like when it comes to designers and things like that, or just anything… I’m losing my train of thought. But I feel like we will show a person and we’ll have the title, but a lot of times you don’t know the work that they’ve done.

I think about if I was 16 or 17 years old, I might not know what a creative director is. I might not even understand what a ad agency is, but I know this Nike shoe right here, I know this commercial right here, and now I can connect the dots like, oh man, this is the person to help put this thing together right here. You know what I’m saying? Show the work. That’s what I wanted to do with the project. I wanted to show some people who that were like me and the work that they’ve done and the work that have had impact on so many other people. And I pretty much wanted to make something that I would’ve loved to have seen when I was younger.

Sorry for the long spiel, but I wrote up a short paragraph explaining that, about how representation is very important, representation is very important. You need to see examples of a roadmap of people that have done things before you that can hopefully inspire you to want to go down that path.

And I also told a story in the pitch about when me and Justice met each other, when mt man Justice hall, when me and him met each other in the early 2000s, why were we surprised that we were both Black? We were surprised because we don’t see many of us so it’s a shock whenever we do find it, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
At that time. And I pitched it and I got the green light, you know what I’m saying? I got the green light. And I reached out to everyone from St. Adams to Douglas Davis to Julian Alexander, Aleesha Smalls Worthington, Dana Gibbons, John Petty III, and Justice, Justice Hall. I reached out to them, and they were all on board.

I connected with my man… He’s a creative director, he’s a director as well, my man, Ben Hype. And me and him came up with the whole creative look and vision, and we put it together. I just knew working on this right here, I knew that I wanted to make something visually appealing, visually, visually dope. The message is dope, but I want the visuals to be engaging as well where when someone’s watching it, they’re not going to want to look away because it’s just a beautiful piece. And I thought about what’s the series on Netflix? Abstract.

Maurice Cherry:
Abstract. Yeah.

TTK:
You know what I’m saying? Out of what two seasons, they may feature one Black woman or person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
They had Ralph Gilles in the first season, and then in the second season they had… Oh God, they had Ian Spalter, who’s head of Instagram in Japan, and they had Ruth E. Carter, the costumer. They had her.

TTK:
Right, right. This is just my opinion. I feel like that just an afterthought, like, “Oh, we got to check a box,” or whatever. You know what I’m saying? And Abstract is a great series, but if you go off of that, you would think Black designers don’t exist. You know what I’m saying? Don’t get me wrong, we’re rare, but it’s not as rare as how that series made it seem. You know what I’m saying? There’s a lot of us. But that’s what I wanted to show. Yo, we’re walking in plain sight every day, and we put a lot of things out into the world that you seen but you probably didn’t know that, hey, I’m the person behind this right here because…

And not even to sound the cliche or stereotypical, but whenever you… A lot of times when they think of basketball courts or sports, you think of a Black man. You know what I’m saying? When you think of entertainment or whatever, you think of Black people. But what about all these other roles and titles out there that we’ve contributed a part of, been a part? And I wanted to show this right here. But not show it in a preachy way or like I’m giving a lecture, I wanted to do it in a way that’s conversational.

And I credit my man, Brandon Coleman. He’s a designer. He’s another one of the first Black designers I ever met when I met Justice at the time. But he gave me the inspiration to go that route because like I said, I never done this before, I never directed anything before. I know what I wanted to see and I know that I want it to look good, I want it to be visually appealing. But he asked me a question early on. He said, “How do you want tell your message? Do you want to have a lecture or do you want it to be conversational?” And I was like, “I don’t know, a lecture?” He was like, “No, you want to have a conversation. Put yourself back into the 16, 17 year old version of you, TTK. Did you like when people were preaching to you? Or did you like when when people were having a conversation back and forth?” He said, “I don’t know how you’re going to do it, but think about that whenever you’re trying to put this story together.

And that helped me with the whole creative direction. Whenever Ben Hype was filming it, I told him, I was like, “Yo, I want you to show the people, show their hands, show them moving around, show closeups of them.” I want you to feel like you’re in the room with these people. I want you to feel like you know them. And even though if you may not know them or whatever, but you konw their work. But I want the people, when they view this, I want them to feel like it’s an intimate moment, like you’re close with these people, like you’re talking to a cousin or someone who’s a part of your family or a friend that you’ve known for years. And I think I was able to accomplish that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, the documentary is really great. And we’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. We’ve had Julian on the show too. Julian is episode 250, I believe.

TTK:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But no, it’s a great documentary. I hope everybody will get a chance to check it out. When you had the idea and you put it all together, like what we talked about I think before we started recording about you never know how it’s going to be received. What has the reception been like since the documentary’s aired?

TTK:
It’s been good, it’s been very, very good. It’s slow, you know what I’m saying? It’s slow or whatever. But so far I haven’t had anyone say anything, “I wish you could have done it this way or whatever, this and that.” The response is always the same, “This is amazing. I never seen anything quite like this before. And it’s very real, and I feel inspired.” I did it. That’s what I wanted to do.
Like I said, when I initially pitched the idea, I said I wanted to make something that’s meant to educate and inspire. Whatever comes after that is just a extra benefit. I wanted to make something that lives beyond this particular moment in time where if you watch it a year from now, two years, five years, whatever, it’s the educational piece. And I want people to be inspired by… I want to hopefully inspire the next generation of Black creatives out there to show, hey, these are people that are alive right now and they’re doing it versus I’m hearing about somebody who did some great things back in 1970. I’m like, wow, I’m hearing about it from someone else’s perspective versus hearing it from the person when they’re alive right now.

I’m going off on a rant right now or whatever, but I think about how Cey adams that’s featured in a documentary, why isn’t he taught about in schools? You pay this money to go to school for design and everything, you learn about all these other designers, and they’re great people and they’ve done great things, man, I love the work, but Cey is on that level of, in my opinion, the Paula Schers and all those other people out there because he’s done so much stuff that people know. They know his work but unless you’re into this thing called design, you probably wouldn’t even know who Cey is. And I feel like he’s someone who should’ve probably been on the Abstract series. This man was around in the ’70s, New York, going from graffiti on trains to his work in the ’80s to the ’90s, to being in, what, the National African American Smithsonian Museum. Come on. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
And I’m skipping over 40 years worth of work right here because it is too much to talk about that he’s accomplished in his lifetime. Why isn’t he taught about in school? And it goes back to what I was saying, when you think of design, they don’t think of us. And I was like, “Yo, I’m not making this to ask for a seat at the table, I want to make this to just educate us and show us, tell these stories from a real perspective versus someone years later to tell the narrative a certain way.” I’m like, “I want you to hear from the people while they’re alive, people who are heroes to me, people who, whether they know it or not…” I took a little bit from all of them to get to this point right here. I want other people to be inspired as well to accomplish things that I didn’t accomplish or we didn’t accomplish, but a lot sooner.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you 100%. I can liken it to what I do with Revision Path, with having folks on here. I’ve been able to have people on here at different parts of their career journey. There’s folks who I’ve had on maybe in 2014 that now I can bring back seven or eight years later and be like, “Let’s talk about how things have changed,” or something. You know?

TTK:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I totally get that. Actually, I have a funny story. Well, I don’t know if it’s funny, but I have a story about Abstract. This was in 2019 I think was when the second season was about to come out. And I had watched the first season. Well, I’m not going to lie, I watched Ralph Gilles’ episode on Abstract for the first season and that’s it because I was like, I don’t want to hear about everybody else. I was like, I’m going to watch his.

And the place I was working at the startup at the time, and we were looking for design firms for a project that we were going to do, this lifestyle vertical. And so one of the agencies we reached out to was Godfrey Dadich, which is in San Francisco. The Abstract series came from Godfrey being Scott Dadich, who was the former co-founder of Wired. And I didn’t talk to him directly, but I talked to someone at the agency because I was like,” Yeah, my name is Maurice Cherry,” blah blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. And they were like, “Oh, we know who you are.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” I wasn’t coming to them in a personal capacity, it was a professional capacity. And not even for the show, it was for my employer at the time.

They were talking to me about the second season of Abstract. They’re like, “Oh yeah, the second season of Abstract is coming out.” And they were like, “I bet you’re really going to be excited about this because we got two Black designers for this season.” And I’m like, “Why would I be excited about that?” Yay, you found two, but I’ve found hundreds. I mean, I don’t know if they were saying it to be solidarity or something. I don’t know, I just thought that was weird that they brought it up in that way. We ended up not going with them, not for that reason. But I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out when it airs on Netflix.” They’re like, “Yeah, we managed to find two great Black designers. I’m like-

TTK:
We managed to find.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we managed to find, which is funny that they said that, because I was like, one, I’ve known Ian. Actually, I did an event here in 2017 back when he was… Well, he still works for Meta and everything with Instagram. But I met him at a live event here in Atlanta for Revision Path. And then Ruth, I don’t know Ruth, but I’ve had Ruth’s goddaughter on the show, Courtney Pinter. She lives in Switzerland. I think at the time she was doing flavor design for this company called Givaudan. Now she works for Fifa. But I’ve also had Hannah Beachler to give the Black Panther connection. I had her on the show for episode 300.

Your overarching point around the importance of being able to have people give their own history in their own words is super important because when I started Revision Path, and this was almost 10 years ago, that’s not to say that these stories weren’t out there, but they were really hard to find. And one of the few places that I found them was at AIGA when I started volunteering there with the diversity and inclusion task force. Because they would do these design journeys things and they would talk about folks. But even the way that they… The imagery and everything almost memorialized them. And keep in mind, these people are not dead, but they memorialize them in this way like they’ve gone on to greater things. And I’m like, these folks are still alive. What are you talking about?

TTK:
And they’re active, too. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and active. Michelle Washington’s one of the first people that I had met through that. Her and I are working on the book together. Maurice Woods, who’s been on the show before, Maurice Woods of the Interact Project. I think he’s episode 12 or 13. Emery Douglas from the famous former Minister of Culture from the Black Panther Party, AIGA medalist, he’s been on the show. That was episode 15. But I didn’t find out about those folks until I volunteered and did that. And the way that even they just put it out there made it seem like these are not living people still doing work, it was almost like in memoriam. Nah.

TTK:
Yeah, that’s like when we was putting the pieces together for Lust Like Me, Douglas Davis, he connected me with Cheryl D. Miller. I don’t know if you know her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

TTK:
Yeah, oh man.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s episode 248.

TTK:
I felt like I was sitting with royalty talking to her. You know what I’m saying? Me and Davis had some questions to ask her. Man, once she started talking, man, the questions just went out the window. She was just dropping so many jewels and so much history and stuff, man. And it’s like, wow, how come I didn’t know this woman’s story? I’m happy that I spoke to her while she’s alive saying, you know what I’m saying? Hear it straight from… It’s from the source.

And she said something. Well, I don’t know if you remember, but at the very end of the documentary, Just Like Me, there’s a quote from her at the very, very end before the credits. When we were talking, she said something, “It’s sad that your generation has to experience the same thing I experienced 50 something years ago around the time when Dr. King died.” She was like, “Yo, all these companies had an awakening moment for about a year or two, maybe less than that.” And she was like, “And this is what’s happening right now because of George Floyd. These companies are having an awakening moment, but it’s going to fizzle out,” unfortunately, man.

When you say we can have all the different programs, DEI, all this, whatever, if you want to change it, change it. And she said something too. She was like, “Yo, if they try to tell you that we didn’t exist, that’s a lie.” She’s like, “I’m fortunate that I got all of this stuff because I was alive and I archived it.”

Like a magician, she pulls out a issue of Communication Arts from 1970. And I ordered it because of her. She was like, “This is one of the first…” This is what from 50 years ago, she just pulls this magazine out. She was like, “This right here on page whatever, 90 something or whatever, you see the Black designers right here? This is 1970 right here, so if they try to tell you that the only person that was out doing things is Milton Glazer and all those guys like that,” she was like, “nah, he was just the only person that was getting the work. That’s why you knew about him. But these other people were out here as well. And here, this is their work right here on.” And she said, “I got it in the archives right here, so nobody can ever try to pull the wool over my eye.”

And when I got that issue, I was able to back order it online, and I saw Ms. Dorothy Hayes, she was a Black designer as well. And I used to see she was a professor at City Tech. And I never knew that this woman was one of the first Black designers ever published. You know what I’m saying? I had no clue. I never had any of her classes, but I would just see her in passing. And I’m like, wow, there’s so much history that we have. And that’s why I feel like we got to tell our stories before… Tell them in real time and tell them authentic and speak to the people who needs to hear it because you already know how it goes, man, years later, the narrative, it gets switched up and it gets watered down. That’s not how it really was. Yeah, man, salute to you for what you do, man. I’m honored to be a part of this right here.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. And yeah, Cheryl is 100% right about that. When I ran across Cheryl, this was in 20… Now you got me here telling stories. This was 2014, and I had just started doing volunteer stuff with Revision… Not Revision Path, with AIGA, started doing volunteer stuff. And that’s when I learned about her thesis that she did in 1985 when she was at Pratt about Black designers and their viability in the industry and how that became this 1987 print article, and then there was this AIGA symposium.

And I’m doing all this research trying to find… Well, one, doing the research on what happened from that thesis, but then secondly, I wanted to put it into this presentation that I was putting together that I was going to present called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was like, is Cheryl still alive? And I remember asking folks at AIG, and they were like, “Well, we don’t know what happened to her.” I was like, “Let me find her.”And I found her. How did I find Cheryl? Oh, I know, I found her on Amazon. Wow. She had written a book about her mother. It wasn’t even about design, it was about her mother and the relationship she had with her mother and everything growing up. I just found her book, eventually did some more searching, found a website, reached out on a whim and was like, “I’m Maurice Cherry. I’m doing this research. I’m putting this stuff together. I’d love to talk to you about this kind of stuff.”

When I first encountered Cheryl, like I said back in 2014, she had put design behind her. She had had her design work and stuff. She had, I wouldn’t say retired, but she raised a family, became a theologian. She was living a totally different life. And then since then, of course, doing the presentation and then more people finding out about her work, now she’s Dr. Cheryl Miller and has given lectures across the country and doing all amazing stuff and is still here doing this stuff.

TTK:
That’s beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s beautiful, it’s beautiful. And so with Provision Path, I’m certainly fortunate to be able to share that story and to bring more awareness to people in general about what Black folks are doing in design everywhere. I just had this year my first Black designer in South America, which is something I wanted to have for a long time. I was like, I’m going to hit every continent. Couldn’t hit Antarctica, but I done talked to a Black designer on every continent so far start with 2022 this year with someone in South America. Yeah, I just want to keep going and keep telling more stories and getting more folks on here to tell their stories so folks know that we did exist.

To that end about the whole black squares thing, in 2020, that summer, I was looking up a bunch of old Ebony and Jet magazines and stuff. I think Google has the full archive, the full digital archive of Ebony Magazine, and so I was looking at issues from when Dr. King was assassinated. And when I tell you it was the exact same thing about companies posting black squares, exact same thing people were doing back then when King died, sometimes even the same verbiage. I’m like, this is wild, this is wild.

TTK:
And that’s one thing Ms. Miller was saying, she was like, “Just change it. You want to make change? Do it.” These people that have positions to do it, they don’t want to do it. This right here is a moment in time. Like she said, I’ve seen it before. I’m not even thrilled by it. You know what I’m saying?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

TTK:
I’m not thrilled by it at all. Just from her telling me… Hearing stories that I’ve never heard before. One day, thankfully, you’re doing what you’re doing so people will have,… We’re able to control our own narrative more so now. It was great, but at the same time, it’s bittersweet as well, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

TTK:
Because wow, man, I’m experiencing the same thing my elders experienced. How come I don’t know about Cheryl Miller, the woman who created the original BET logo? You know what I’m saying? Something that’s a part of my childhood. Why more people don’t know about who this woman is right here?

I’m honored that I was able to speak with her and basically just sit and listen to her talk, you know what I’m saying? Just sit and listen to her talk. And to have a quote from her in the documentary, I was like, man, that was a great book end on it. It was a real book end to the project. Like I said, when you watch it, in the very beginning it says how it started, and at the end it says how it’s going. And you see her quote at the end, someone who’s been around that predates all of us. She predates even Cey, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

TTK:
Who has 40 something years of work. She predates him. To have someone like a OG basically, a vet, to have her to be a part of the project, man, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for everybody that was a part of helping me put this project together, Just Like Me. Man, I’m thankful for everybody, man. But yeah, Cheryl Miller’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

TTK:
I want to be known as a painter more. I want to be known as that. I want to do gallery shows, more of them. Because in the past where I was just doing art shows myself, and I was just happy if I was able to fill the room with friends and stuff like that and create a memory. I want to sell my work on a high level. I want to work with more brands, but I want to be working with brands because they want to work with me, not because I need a job. I want to bring my personal creativity and my expertise to the table. “Yo, we want to collab with you. We love your story.”

And I want another opportunity to make a project, another project like Just Like Me but bigger. I know when you watch the documentary, it looks like it was… Yeah, it’s put together very, very well, but oh man, we were building the car while we were driving it, making this thing right here. We were really making something out of nothing, but it looks like it’s on a high level so I would really like to have a chance to make something maybe… I don’t know if it’s the same type of topic or something completely different. I wouldn’t mind directing another project.

All in all, I just want to continue to be creative, continue to make a living, and live comfortable using my imagination, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go in the next five years, but I’m speaking into existence right now what I want. And truthfully, I feel like I can’t even fathom what’s going to be for me because it’s going to be something that I’m not even expecting. You know what I’m saying? Just this documentary, just like…

We didn’t mention it, but working on a project for Nas, you know what I’m saying? Well, I worked on a few project for Nas but having my name and the credits next to Nas and Kanye, you know what I’m saying? Wow, you can’t erase my name from this project. You know what I’m saying? I’ve worked on this right here. You know what I’m saying? If you would’ve told me at the time 15 years ago that, “Hey, you’re going to work on this project. You’re going to be the person who designs and put this thing together,” I’m like, “How is that going to happen?” I couldn’t… I’d imagine it, but I was like, wow, it seemed like a fairytale. But the have, I did it, and it’s a thing of the past now, I’m onto something new, wow, that’s great.

And if you would’ve told me three years ago that I would direct a documentary, I’m like, “How would I do that?” And that’s going back to what I was initially saying, five years from now, I just want to be doing something great and making a living and just putting the best stuff out into the world, man.

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

TTK:
Multiple ways. You can check out my site artbyttk.com. That’s A-R-T-B-Y-T-T-K.com. You can check my IG as well. It’s instagram.com/gottkgo. You can pretty much find me anywhere online with that, Go TTK Go.

And if you want to watch the documentary, Just Like Me, it’s on my site as well, man, but it’s also you can go to the actual micro site. The site is justlikeme-havas, that’s H-A-V-A-S, .com. jsutlikeme-havas.com. And you can read a little bit about the project, a short description of it and the creation of it. And you can watch the documentary. The documentary’s only… It’s just in the 30 minutes, but it’s strong. It’s a very powerful piece that I’m really proud of. I always say that project is my magnum opus project at the moment. Yeah, that’s where you can find me at.

Maurice Cherry:
TTK, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, for sharing your story, which again, I hope people will check out the documentary so they can get a chance to see it for themselves, but also just your whole story about perseverance and pursuing your creative passion. I think that’s something that hopefully a lot of people can get inspired by. And I’m excited to see what you do next. If this documentary is any indication, I’m pretty sure what’s coming up next is going to be great. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

TTK:
No, brother, thank you for having me on here. Thank you. Also want to thank my partner, Chevon, because she was very vigilant about trying to get me on your show. Thank you to Chevon as well, man. And she’s @chevonmedia on IG and on Twitter. Yeah, thank you to Chevon. I’m honored to be a part of this. And maybe, I don’t know, five years from now, maybe you’ll reach out to me to revisit what’s going on in my life for whatever project I got going on, man.

Maurice Cherry:
There you go. All right.

TTK:
Yeah.

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Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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Dr. Jacinda Walker

This week’s interview is truly special, because I got the chance to sit down with the one and only Dr. Jacinda Walker. I have been privileged to watch Jacinda’s glow up over the years, and now she’s reaping the benefits of her hard work, perseverance, and dedication to making the design community better for the next generation.

I got to speak with her fresh off her receiving an honorary doctorate from Ringling College of Art and Design, and she talked with me about the experience. She also shared news about the new space for her business, DesignExplorr, and the curriculum and workshop programs that she created based on her graduate research. We even chatted a bit about her work with AIGA’s D&I Task Force, what keeps her inspired, and how she measures success now at this stage of her life and career. Jacinda’s research and advocacy work deserve our recognition and support, and I’m glad to be able to share her story here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Hi, my name is Jacinda Walker. I am founder and creative director of DesignExplorr, located in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maurice Cherry:
I should say congratulations, Dr. Jacinda Walker. That is such an amazing honor. I’m not going to get over that. That is so amazing. Please talk to me about how that all came about.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree with you, Maurice. I’m still absorbing it. To be quite honest, I don’t know how long it will take me to fully absorb the magnitude of achieving such an honor. I have no idea. When Ringling College of Art and Design reached out to me originally, they said, “Hey, listen, we’d love for you to do a commencement talk. We’ve been following your work. We want to build a relationship with you to come down and meet more of our students,” and I’m like, “Oh, bet I can do it.”

And then they talked to me about what the honorarium was and how long I was going to be in Florida. I’m like, “So y’all guys are going to put me up for four days in Florida to go to this commencement, give a 20-minute talk, and hang out with you and your students afterward? Oh yeah, I’m in. Call me. Keep me posted.” About two days before the event, they notified me that they wanted to present me with this honorary doctorate, and they wanted to know if I was going to accept it, which was kind of crazy because you’re like, “Is there anybody who turns this down?”

Is there anybody who says, “Oh no, dog. I’m good with them letters. Don’t worry about that advancement on my career, advancement on my salary, that advancement on my hourly rate now. No, I’m going to pass.” I don’t even know who does that. But I went down there. Florida was amazing. Sarasota was beautiful. I hadn’t been to Sarasota before. So to see it on top of everything else that was happening, it was just a huge, huge experience.

Maurice, I really thought I was going to be good because I was like, “I got this.” At this commencement, I saw all the paper degrees that they were going to be passing out, and I just assumed that mine was over in that pile. I felt like I could handle this. They read the bio, which I didn’t know they was going to read all 750 words of it. And then they have you stand because there’s a hooding ceremony that happens.

They put this cap over you. And then there’s this neck … It’s a velvet, a sash, so to speak, but it goes around your neck, and it attaches to your graduation gown. I turned around, Maurice, and they took the cover off of the degree and I totally fell out because I thought I was going to get one of the small degrees that was on the table. It was framed. It had my name on it huge. It’s got this silver plate statement on it. It’s got the school.

If you watch the video, I think I spent maybe the first three minutes of my speech sniffing because I was still trying to just pull it together and get into the words that I had prepared. Even my father was like, “You’ve got to start taking Kleenex with you. You’ve just got to.” I was like, “I had no idea.” I had no idea. I’m still absorbing it.

One of the young people that I work with here at DesignExplorr, she said, “You should put them all on the wall like they do at the doctor’s office because you got a full set now.” So I have an associate’s. I have a bachelor’s. I have a master’s. I have the doctorate, and I have two undergraduate minors and a graduate minor.

Maurice Cherry:
Whew. Degreed up.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Degreed up. I share this often when I go into classrooms with young people. This is coming from a person who almost failed the fourth, sixth, and the eighth grade. By the eighth grade, my momma had had enough. I don’t know if you’re ever been in a place with your mom where you knew she had had enough. Well, Renee had had enough, and she told me flat out, “I don’t care what is going on at that school. I don’t care what you think is going on at that school, but it stops today.”

She enrolled me in tutoring. She made my brother walk me to school because I had to go to tutoring before school started. So school usually started about 8:30. I had to be there at 7:30, 3 days a week, for the rest of the eighth grade so I could pass. I didn’t even know if college would even be in my future. I was just trying to get out of middle school. I was just struggling to do that. So to be at this place now, Maurice, is a lot to absorb.

Maurice Cherry:
It is well-deserved for-

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
… the advocacy work and the volunteer work and everything that you’re doing not just in your local community, which we’ll talk about, but just nationwide, worldwide. It’s amazing. I’m just saying this from with Revision Path. You can put stuff out there in the world and you never know where it’s going to land, who it’s going to reach, how it’s going to affect them.
So just kudos to you for always fighting the good fight. I’m immensely proud of you. I heard that, I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. That is so amazing.”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you so much. I just appreciate everybody, like yourself, reaching back and just keeping me encouraged even in those moments when I was fighting just to stay focused and what I was fighting for and that it would come to fruition, and it really, really has. So I’m eternally grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about another one of your recent accomplishments from this year, which is a dedicated space for DesignExplorr. First of all, where did the idea to create DesignExplorr come from? Because when I had you back on the show back in 2014, I don’t think DesignExplorr was even a thing yet, was it?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
No, Maurice. In fact, I was painfully writing it. I was in grad school when we first spoke. I was in Columbus at the Ohio State University. I had received a full ride scholarship to research the lack of diversity in design disciplines. I presented the idea to the university about a year and a half before I was actually in school because when you apply, you have to say, “Hey, what are you going to research? What’s your topic going to be?”

I submitted this out of the challenges that I had been experiencing in Cleveland. I submitted that topic out of everything that I had learned with the mentees that I had. I submitted that topic as a way to solve it because I was just tired of it. I was just tired of it always being the only, even in this day and age. In 2000, I just couldn’t believe there were still people who were the onlies.

By time my niece announced that she wanted to be a designer, Maurice, I was in overdrive. I was like, “Oh God, I’ve got to fix this, not eventually, not …” I knew I had to fix it, and I felt like I had four to six years to figure it out because she was going to go to college and study design. It pained me to even think about her experiencing some of the challenges and the microaggressions and the discriminatory acts that I experienced. It highly motivated me to figure it out and to put something in place so she wouldn’t have to go through those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with this dedicated space, what does that do now for the mission and the vision of DesignExplorr? What does that do now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Absolutely. First, I have to share that I have moved DesignExplorr physically every year for four and a half years, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, every year. Remember I told you I started writing about DesignExplorr in Columbus. So when I graduated, I moved back to Cleveland. So the first year, I want to say year and a half, I was in my home literally upstairs because I had moved the desk that I wrote my thesis in because that desk has become sacred now. I ain’t never giving up that desk. That desk is never going in the trash.

So I had moved that to my upstairs loft area, which my father just ridiculously laughed at me all the time because he was like, “You going to put your desk right next to the bed? Are you sleeping?” That’s what I did, Maurice. I would literally go to sleep. I would wake up and work. I would fall asleep watching TV, go to bed, wake up, roll out my bed, go to the desk. That’s probably what I did every day for about a year, year and a half, until I got DesignExplorr launched off the ground.

So having this space, when you talk about what is it going to do for the mission, it’s going to allow myself and now team members, Maurice, there are probably about eight young people in this space right now who come in and out, who do tasks, who do design projects, who do photography things, who write. I have a young lady who’s also writing right now. Here in Cleveland, I’m surrounded by three major colleges. There’s Cleveland State University, Cleveland Institute of the Art, and then we also have Cuyahoga Community College, which is a two-year college.

All of these schools are probably within five minutes of where the space is going to be at. So that’s why I wanted the space because we were just growing out. When I left my house, I moved into a space that was probably about 375 square feet, which at the time, Maurice, I loved it. I was like, “We legit, y’all.” I got a door. I had a parking spot, and I had a key. You know how you can come into the co-working building?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I just thought we was doing it. I was like, “We’re doing it.” One day I looked up and there was myself and three other young designers in 375 square feet, literally. I was sitting at my little desk. It was one across from me, and I had a little round table, Maurice. They were coming. None of them was like, “You know what? It’s small. I’m quitting. I’m leaving.” Nope. They was like, “I’m staying. I’ll just work in the hallway until So-and-so leaves.”

After the 375, I moved into 680 square feet. Now, the 680 square feet was nicer. It was on the fifth floor. We called it the penthouse. From there, I started getting other organizations who helped to create pilot programs to have interns trained in design to work for their organizations. So that’s how I got a couple more interns. At the end of that summer, I was like, “We’re not going to fit here.”

I already had two desks. Maurice, I think at the time I only owned four chairs. People, they were still coming. I was like, “I’m not going to be able to do this work in this confinement.” It just wasn’t going to happen. I had an opportunity to talk with a commercial real estate agent here in Cleveland, and she explained the game to me.

I was like, “Okay. I know what I have to do, and I’m going to find a space on my own. I’m going to find it without a real estate agent because that process isn’t working for me and I need this to really, really be what I want. I already have a vision, so I’m going to do this on my own.” I found a space. I found a space here in Cleveland. We’re on 3800 Euclid Avenue downtown, right across from the Children’s Museum and adjacent to the American Red Cross.

It’s awesome, Maurice. It’s 1,821 square feet. There’s a huge front-facing window. We have this huge area that we’re going to have for open space. So I’ll be able to fit eight to 10 young people there. And then we’re going to have a huge great room in the back where I’ll be able to have a multipurpose room where it might be a classroom and a little conference area. We’re going to have a kitchen, a private bath, reception area, and I’ll even have my own office.

I can’t begin to describe it. What’s super awesome is that right now at the time of this interview, we’re in the interim space upstairs. So for the last month, I’ve been peeking downstairs, talking to all the construction people. They have plumbing in, Maurice. We have plumbing. So to see this space being built exactly how I envisioned it and exactly doing the work that it needs to do is insane just to be able to be at this place.

So that center will allow me, once it’s complete … They’re telling me eight to 10 weeks. Once it’s complete, we will open up the experiential learning portions of DesignExplorr. See, in the past, I’ve mostly been doing youth workshops that expose young people to design. I’ve been doing a lot of local summer camps, afterschool programs, in-classroom assignments where I was teaching design to a K-12 audience.

But the center will allow me to provide opportunities for designers, 18 to 26-year-olds, who are interested in working in the profession. So I already have a host of clients here who are allowing us to work on their design projects, their web projects, their photography work, some writing assignments. We have a couple social media clients that we’ve been working for.

It will allow me to expand that part of it so that when young people who are from Cleveland who are interested in this expanded learning to fulfill that gap space between high school and college and between college and workforce, they can come here and ask questions. They can come here and fellowship with other Black and brown designers. The best part is they’ll have opportunity to do real world work so that when they go into these workforce positions, it won’t be a mystery to them.

They’ll have a really good expectation as to what it could be and what it should be. So I’m hopeful that’ll help to increase the profession, increase diversity in design, and just to continue my work, being able to not have any more only designers anymore, any more only women or any more only Black designers or just no more onlies, no more. So that’s what I’m really hopeful that the center will be doing for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean all of that is amazing. I can’t wait to get a chance to actually see it all in person once you get it all together. Hopefully, if there are some design companies or some furniture companies listening, they can help you really swag out the space, really make it something nice.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes. I would love that, Maurice. In fact, that is what is needed because I have exhausted everything in getting the space. They say that entrepreneurship is about risk, and I understand that this is a risk doing it this way. But what I know is that I won’t be able to flourish if I’m not in a space where I can grow, and having the 1800 square feet is that space. It’s like me moving out of a small pot into a bigger pot so I can bloom.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the young designers that you’re mentoring. I know when we were initially trying to book this, we thought about having the possibility of actually having them on the show, which I think maybe we can do that in the future. But tell me about some of these young designers that are coming through the program.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
There are about eight right now. Five are here. Well, four are here in-person. They’re here regularly, two or three days a week. I have another two or three that, hey, they call in. They’re already in the workforce, so they’re doing some things. I have two designers from Kent State University that I’m working with. I have about three students that I’m working with from Cleveland State University.

I have a young lady who’s in urban planning. I have another young woman that I’m working with. She is in industrial design. The majority of them are in graphic design and web design. I have another young lady who’s highly passionate about getting into UX and UI design. So they’re all doing some truly, truly awesome things. Maurice, you’ll love this. I even have a young writer who’s on team. She is interested in writing in a creative space.

So we’re like, “Well, you found your people. Welcome. Enjoy. Come on in.” So it’s been great having various amounts. I have male and female, mostly all Black right now. I have two young people who are in our neighborhood association who are Puerto Rican, and they’re also interested in coming onboard when the new space is open. So even just having the space here, the young people are already coming and staying, trying to stay. So I’m excited. I’m very excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also along with this mentorship, you’ve created resources for educators, right?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve created something called the TakeOver curriculum.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of our favorite ones. I had an opportunity to work with an educational consultant. She is a consultant who helps educators become better educators. So you imagine when you’re in a K-8 school or a K-12 school, there are lots of challenges and curriculum changes and all those types of things. Well, Dr. Kelly is who we work with to help us transcribe all of my slides, all of the things that are in my brain into an educational curriculum that is in alignment with Ohio-based state standards.

We also have developed along with that nine-week program, we call it the TakeOver. We also have a six-hour training component for educators to be able to work in this design-thinking methodology and helping to be able to utilize these tools to creatively expose and use them to help young people absorb challenges and topics that might be a little difficult, how they can maybe bring some different insight into getting young people to think about recycling or finances, even science and history.

I believe that design has the power to achieve and to help connect all of those things. So having that educator’s curriculum will be able to allow them to also learn how to apply that creativity in some of those difficult topics that young people have.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are there other programs that you have through DesignExplorr? We talked about the curriculum, but I noticed, I’m looking at this PDF you have on your site. There’s things like design learning, Think Like A Designer Workshops, et cetera. Tell me more about these different programs.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
So our Think Like A Designer Workshop is a workshop that we actually originated out of COVID. When I first learned about COVID, I was actually in a classroom and I had not known that the governor had just closed all the schools. So the teacher was trying to hurry them up. I’m like, “No, no. They got to do this part. They got to do this part. I didn’t give them their worksheets yet.” She’s like, “They got to get on the bus.”

I’m like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “The governor just closed schools.” I’m like, “So what happens if you are from an underserved area and you don’t have a computer at home during COVID? How are you going to continue your learning? What if the art class was the thing that you loved to go to and now it’s over?” Because, remember, when it first happened, we didn’t know how long this was going to be.

So I started thinking about how could I develop materials. During COVID, I had two of my young designers that I worked with, Elena and Kennedy, who were in the office at that time. I had this whiteboard, Maurice, of all these things I wanted to accomplish and all these things I was trying to do. Kennedy was like, “You could do that one now.” And I’m like, “The schools are closed. Nobody’s going to buy anything. What are you talking about?”

She was like, “Yeah, you should just find a bag for it. We could sell markers, and they could have kind of school supplies. We could put design activities in it.” I was like, “Kennedy, this is not the time to do this.” I shut her down like, “This is not the time.” Maybe about a couple days later, Elena came up like, “I know where we can find those supplies at.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with any young people, but they have the tenacity that is sometimes even a little annoying. You’re like, “What? I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to talk about that.” They just kept being on me, Maurice. They were like, “You got to figure something out. You got to figure it out. What if I could find the supplies?” I was like, “You know what? Here’s $20 for gas and another 20 for the supplies. Be gone. Go ahead and do what you need. Let me know how it turns out.”

When she came back, Maurice, she had $5.56 change. I said, “What?” That was the day we started the Think Like A Designer kits. During COVID, Maurice, what was crazy, we gave out 56 kits that year. 56 kits. We went outdoors. We went to Staples outdoor back-to-school sales. We went to churches. We were in basements. We were at YMCAs. Young people just really, really gravitated.

We put educational curriculum. We put an empathy map, a user discovery sheet. We made these cards where you could think about, and they’ve just been selling. We’re just now finishing the detailed instructions for that, so we’ve been selling those. The design learning challenges, we’ve always done those in some shape or form in whatever activity we’ve put on.

When the libraries kind of peeked open a little bit, they were looking for content. We used our digital design workshop series. We taught Adobe Express. We taught Adobe InDesign. We taught Adobe Illustrator. We were in the maker space at our public library. Kids could Zoom in, and they could also come in person. The library had a certain amount. You couldn’t go past six people in a room or something like that. Those programs all did so super, super, super well.

So now that we’re a little bit past COVID, not done with it, but now that we’re a little bit past it, I’ve been able to create online materials as well as in-person materials and then curriculum. Because, ultimately, what I really want is a line of stationery items for kids to be able to draw and to sketch and to be able to access that are very economically reasonable. Those are the kind of things that we’ve been putting in the kits and into the swag bags and stuff like that. But it’s been exciting to see their response to them.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s just so amazing to hear how much you’re doing in the community. When we first met, it was because I heard about the work you were doing back there in Cleveland with this design company called GoMedia. GoMedia used to have an event conference roughly every year called … I’m blanking on the name. Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, That’s what it’s called.

So you have really been going hard for design in Cleveland for a long time. You even have on your IG profile, the phrase, “A believer in Cleveland.” Why is making an impact in Cleveland so important for you?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work in many places. Maurice. I’ve been one of the consultants for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I traveled with the museum for three and a half years doing programs in other cities. After the second or third time we were in San Francisco, I actually had one of the educators like, “Oh yeah, we did one of your workshops in my classroom, and it went so great.”

I was like, “So my stuff is working here in San Francisco. My stuff is working in Detroit. My stuff is working in Oakland. My stuff is working in DC. My stuff’s working in Baltimore. My stuff’s working in Philly.” I was just like, “You know what? I need to rectify that. I need to be able to go home and do the work where I know the need is and be able to do it for young people who look just like me, who come from places where I came from, and who probably went to some of the same schools I went to.”

So it became very important to me quickly to be able to make that kind of impact here in Cleveland. I’m regularly asked, why am I doing DesignExplorr in Cleveland? I’m regularly asked that. But I don’t see it not happening in Cleveland. I feel like if I can make it work in Cleveland, I can make it work anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. What’s next for DesignExplorr? How can people out there listening support your work?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Oh gosh, there’s so many ways. Well, first of all, you can support the work by supporting the young people. A lot of times, they’re looking for opportunities, whether they be full-time work experiences, whether they be entry-level positions, internships, externships, remote intensives. All of these things are necessary for designers of color, particularly those who are transitioning into the workforce.

So when you have a position and you call me and you’re like, “Hey, Jacinda, can you just pass this out to your network?” Well, that’s great, but for those positions who are already for experienced designers, but what about passing me positions that young designers, designers who are looking between one to three years or one to five years for, what about giving me those kind of opportunities?

The second thing that people can support me with is being able to furnish and bring the center to fruition. Right now, I just bought chairs, which were incredibly expensive, but we didn’t have any chairs before. So I had to buy chairs. I was only able to buy six desks. So that’s kind of what I have to house 10 to 20 students working on right now. We definitely need assistance for that.

Right now, I’m paying the internet bill. It’s challenging because I don’t have the regular package. I got the package for when young people come in, they can use that because they’re in this space now. So that is super helpful. Maurice, it’s so serious right now. I have promoted my father to chief logistics officer. His responsibility is keeping snacks in here so we don’t fall out from hunger and from thirst. So that is what he has been doing. That’s what his contribution has been to DesignExplorr.

I also think another thing that the profession, designers who are currently working, organizations, they can help me to fund the work that the young people are doing. That’s a very, very important one because it’s easy to say, “Oh, I want to help you, Jacinda.” But when you say you want to help me, what I really need to know is, are you willing to help them? Because that’s what I want. Some people think, “Oh, I only want to help you. I don’t want to help them.” I don’t see us not being together in this movement.

Maurice Cherry:
I get that about Revision Path, too. People will say they want to support the show, but not me, or maybe the other way around. That’s so weird.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, I’ve literally had people like, “Well, I know you have a lot of young people that you’re mentoring, Jacinda, but what do you need?” What I need is for them to be successful. That is what I need. Right now, they say I’m doing a lot of strange stuff for a hunk of change to make it happen. So what I need is for people who are interested in not just helping me do something, to help me help them do something. That’s what I want, because they are coming out of the woodwork.

Every time I think one is gone or they’ve got a position somewhere, then another one up here is like, “Hey, can you help me write my resumé? Can you help me with my LinkedIn page?” Just being able to provide the resources to get them that kind of help, even in getting their taxes done, all of these things that you did when you were a young professional, those are all the same types of things that I need right now.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to touch on your time with AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. You were the chair from 2016 to 2018. Now that I think back on it, I recommended you to join the task force, I think, maybe sometime around 2015 or so. So the fact that you moved up to a leadership spot that quickly really says a lot. But when you look back at that time, what comes to mind? Do you have any feelings in particular?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, Maurice. I have a lot of feelings. It was hard. For an organization who kept saying they wanted diversity, every time I pitched something, every time I proposed something, every time I suggested something, every time I identified an opportunity, it was just always a fight to get them to want to do it. I understand that there were people there who were in direct opposition of that goal, of that mission. I know that now. But in the moment, Maurice, it was hard.

It was two years. Because, remember, I sat on the task force for two years and then I chaired for another two years. I also served as emeritus for another year, year and a half. When you asked me about that, it was just hard and, dare I say it, unnecessarily hard. So I regularly think about those times and those activities and those relationships. But it was just super, super hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That task force stuff was … I mean I remember my time. I was there from, I think, 2014 to 2017. We had a change in guard. And then it just kind of felt like some things were being hamstrung in terms of how we tried to get certain things done. We couldn’t really operate as a group. It was more of a reactionary sort of thing.

I don’t know. I look back at that time because I got to meet y’all. I got to meet you. I got to meet Dian, some of the other great folks. But I look back and I’m like, “Did we really do anything?”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I mean, Maurice, that was one of the reasons why I fought so hard for the archiving because we talk about the task force that I chaired through the research and through the deep dives. I found out that there had been three before us. There had been three task force before us. To learn that that happened made it even more surreal because you’re like, “Wait a minute. What?”

So the first thing I did was I went and I found many of the old task force members. Many of them were done like, “You’re with who? Oh no.” Click. I got hung up on a lot. I was able to get a couple of people to still talk with me, to still participate. I was even able to get one young man to join, Andrew Bass. I was able to get him to come back and share his knowledge and to ask AIGA to archive his things because he had material from his task force that he also was saving.

So that part, I don’t even know if they even really, really archived it because it’s not public. So I can’t go anywhere. I don’t see anywhere on the website where I can access the archives. And then they’ve recently done a website update. So that meant all the stuff that I archived during the task force that I was over, I don’t even know where that materials went.

So it’s hard because they’re saying that they want people who are interested in moving forward. They don’t want to talk about the past. They don’t want people to keep bringing it up. We wouldn’t feel this strain if it was just public because it’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the organization. So why not put the things that need to be and that can be out, out?

So that archiving piece was super … That was a big thing for me while I was there. So when you talk about what resulted out of it, I probably am sitting on a plethora of digital assets, all of the impact reports because we did two impact reports the years that I was there, archiving the photography, even photographing the things that were happening whenever we were in different places.

We also had two meetups during the time period where I was chair. It was super awesome because we even got an opportunity to have a task force retreat as well. Those are the things that I fought for, and I use the word, fought, I fought for during those times. It was challenging internally and externally. So when you asked, I’m like, “It was hard.” It was really, really hard and really unnecessarily hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I would say, given the way that the website is now, I don’t think they archived anything because … Well, let me walk that back. Do I think there are archives? Yes. Are there archives that will ever be available publicly on the website? Probably not, because Heather still works there. This is a different Heather, not GoMedia Heather. This is Heather Strelecki, I think is her name. She’s the keeper of the guard with the archive.

So I think some of that stuff is still archived there. I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day on the website. I mean I don’t even know if the website is even that up-to-date because the folks that they have listed for the task force aren’t affiliated with the task force anymore.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. I noticed that as well. I think that my time at AIGA made me a lot more interested in if the challenges that I was having were just in one organization. So what I did was I joined many other organizations. Anybody knows I’m an organizational junkie. I probably am in far too many organizations. I’m intrigued because I know the power of what can happen when you get a group of people together who all want the same thing and who are all willing to do the work required. I know what that’s like.

But finding it within some of these organizations and finding that they’re interested in this racial diversity and these seven levels of diversity, that’s what I’m always looking for. So I participate on IDSA’s council. They have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. There’s a great, great Facebook NOMA group out, and I love being in that group. I’m also heavily involved in many of the student chapters. I love being able to support them online.

We do a huge proponent of student spotlights. Actually, I was working on a project with Prairie Review in Texas, and I also had a great opportunity to visit Jennifer’s class at Bowie State. That’s actually where the idea for the student spotlights came from because each of them had these … I would go down there and look at their work. Jennifer would let me in her classes and talk with the students, and they had tons of questions. Everybody got questions.

I’m like, “I need to do something about that.” I knew I was already, quote, unquote, “My bandwidth had been exhausted.” But I’m like, “These students are just truly, truly talented.” Who knows? What happens when Black and brown designers graduate? What happens? Nothing that I knew of. It didn’t happen for me. So I’m like, “What if I could create a platform where they could have a little recognition?” Where they could be acknowledged for their accomplishments and where we as professionals could acknowledge, “Hey, young designer, congratulations. I’d love to look at your portfolio.”

So we’ve been carrying that for a few years now. But being able to see what’s going on in these organizations, it always gives me great ideas of what else we need to do. When I worked with IDSA, I actually wrote and developed a map that charts all of the youth design organizations that I had been charting for the last five years. So if you go to the IDSA innovation page, you’ll see the map that I developed there. Our hope is to be able to update that with them one year.

But I love joining these organizations to see is the promise achievable? Is the promise feasible? How realistic is it? Is it realistic in this organization? Why keep joining? I’m looking forward to seeing it one day. There are lots of challenges, but I believe that it’s possible. It just might take some time, and you just got to have the right group of people involved. So that’s why I keep joining. That’s why I keep looking.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One last thing with AIGA and we’ll move on from it. Any thoughts on its current state, with Bennie being the new executive director? They’re bringing the conference back in-person. They’re doing a gala this year in October, actually, this month, the month we’re recording. They’re doing it in Seattle.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I have heard about that. I’m kind of challenged in a couple of ways. My first thought is, Maurice, I’m tired of the pontification that happens amongst elite designers. So when I learned of all the stuff that AIGA was doing, I quickly went to see what are you doing for young designers? What are you doing for Black young designers? What are you doing? Maurice, I don’t see much.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think you saw anything, probably. Let’s keep it a buck. You probably didn’t see anything.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I don’t see much because, again, remember I told you I’m all about trying to refer and I’m all about trying to share resources with the young designers that I have right now. I’m looking for things for them to get involved in. I’m looking for things for them to say, “Hey, Jacinda, I love that. Can you share more of that with me?” Even though I had a difficult situation with AIGA, I remain hopeful, and I just haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t seen it yet.

That’s another reason why now I’m in a place where I’ve done the national groups. I’m looking at local chapters now. So I stay active in my local chapter because at least I can see the impact here. Because when I go to the national site, I don’t see it. IDSA recently had an awesome conference. They had women industrial designers all convene. Maurice, I was like, “Wow.” There was a component of young industrial designers who came.

I met many of the students who were there in the young designers. For me, the importance and the significance of professional design organizations, to me, it’s only about the impact that they are giving to young designers. It’s that servitude leadership. It’s that serving. How are you serving? It can’t only be to a bunch of rich elite designers. It’s got to be to all of designers. I don’t see much. I’m looking. I’m looking. I’m always looking.

I’m on the email list twice because they double emailing me. So I haven’t seen quite the thing yet. When I do share their resources with the young designers that I have, they’re disconnected because the young designers that I have are trying to get into the workforce, and so those materials seem out of touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair assessment. That’s a fair assessment.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. When you ask about the new leadership, I have called. I have sat in meetings with … The meetings are challenging and frustrating because they have a lot to achieve, and they have a lot that they are working for. And again, I don’t see the how and the where and the when with Black and brown designers. So when you ask, it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll leave it there. We’ll leave it there with AIGA. Whose work are you inspired by now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s really weird, Maurice. It’s not that I don’t love designers still. It’s not that I don’t love designers, but I really feel like I’m in this evolution of a design career. So I’m in a place now where I can look at other aspects. I really look to educators now. I look to how educators are creating curriculum and impact. I look to how there are many design educators who are writing textbooks now. I would love to get into that.

There are a group of educators right now who are working to create a documentary. So it’s those kind of things. Honorable mention, I’m always inspired by young designers. So right now, the one young man I was working with, Aaron Mann, he just produced his book, Equal by Design. It’s actually online. I already bought my copy. I suggest y’all buy yours. So I’m inspired by books and materials written for and by young designers.

There’s a young man in New York. I cannot think of his name off the top of my head, but he has a game about being a designer, also.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Deon Mixon.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Deon. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
We had a great conversation. That’s inspiring because they see it. Whereas as young designers, they see the challenges and they’re just going after them. As opposing to where I find senior designers, we’re trying to figure it out. We’re trying to do fundraising. We’re trying to talk. Young designers, they’re like, “We should do this. Let’s make it. Let’s put it out there.” So I’m like, “You need me to support that? Let me help you help yours.”

There’s another design organization here in Cleveland. It’s called Battle of the Teal, and they have a performing arts and a visual arts competition, and being able to work with them. Actually, one of the young ladies that I’m mentoring right now, she was a winner in this competition about two years ago. So she’s just needed resources. So every year, I refer like, “Hey, here’s a great summer program to get into.”

She reached out to me when she was trying to understand, Maurice, how to coordinate her Google calendar with her art classes. So we’re looking through this. I’m like, “Honey, you supposed to let some of these calendars go.” She’s like, “Oh.” So it’s these aha moments that I look for resources and that I remain inspired by. She wants to draw, and she’s just trying to figure out how to get her homework done so she can finish her animation project.

So these are the kind of things I’m inspired by. It’s not that I’m not inspired by any of the big designers. It’s not that at all. I’m still in love with the work that Gail Anderson is doing. I love what Eddie Opara’s doing. I love what the Hue Design Summit team of young designers is doing. I need things to meet mission and meet impact now. It’s even more important than ever for us to be able to accomplish these things together.

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

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s still a really long list. I still have a lot of things I want to do. Where I’m at right now is when I see something that’s already on my list that I want to do and somebody else is doing it, “Hey, how can I help you do that?” Because truth be told, Maurice, I don’t have the bandwidth. That’s another reason why I need the center because I don’t have the space or the calendar time. Y’all going to have to come here.

What are some things that I still want to do? I really, really want to have a precollege residency program. I saw the one that they had at Ringling and, Maurice, it was awesome. It was awesome. To be able to have something like that in the Black community would be stellar. It could be a chart-making, data-increasing, design profession-changing aspect. This program was a mixture of the Young Scholars program. It was a mixture of the Urban League’s Young Professionals curriculum and creativity all round up in one.

I was like, “How can I make a DesignExplorr one?” I don’t have the resources to do it how they’re doing it. But the way that they are engaging with the students every summer, the way that they provide practical experience, the nurturing, because that’s a huge thing. That’s definitely high up on my list. That’s very, very high up on my list of next things for DesignExplorr.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, how do you measure success? What does it look like for you now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It looks like legacy. It looks like legacy, and it looks like impact. If those two things aren’t involved, I don’t know why I’m here. So I want to be able to know that the young people that I have mentored, that I have had conversations with, who I’ve been working with on their careers, that they’re successful. So every time I see one of them and they’re doing something crazy big, I’m like, “Maybe. Maybe I’ve made an impact. Maybe.”

Last weekend I was at an expo here in Cleveland and, Maurice, you would have loved this. Three of the young people that I had mentored, they were having their own booths selling their own businesses and products. They came down and visited me, and we just talked. They talked to some of the young designers that were at the table volunteering for me. It was like full cycle. You know what I’m saying? Full cycle going on.

So that was thrilling. That was thrilling to be able to see and witness that part of it. I don’t know, Maurice. It’s got to be a legacy because I want to be able to know that all of this went and worked for something and someones, a whole bunch of someones.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Have you thought out what you want this next chapter of the legacy to be, especially now that you’ve got the center?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. Everything is going to be about the center, and it’s going to be about that residency program. When I analyze and I look at the profession, and you know I’m a huge data nerd, so I’m always looking at the numbers. I’m always reading the BLS numbers. I’m always looking at the NASAD numbers. I’m always looking at these things. If we don’t create a better pathway and not just better, I’m talking more access, more inclusion, more resources, more everything, I don’t know if our numbers will ever really, really go up.

So when you say five years, Five years for me is this lifting off this residency program. Five years for me is getting more of the TakeOver programs in schools. Five years for me is getting the young designers that I work with more actual real experience with actual clients, not just pet project kind of things, but real things. To me that’s five years. But I signed a five-year lease, Maurice. So five years is not long for me. It’s not long.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll be here before you know it. I’m telling you.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree. I agree. So the planning and the implementation of it is always strategic. It’s always strategic. But the most important thing about it is staying focused on it. So now that I have the space, I will be able to focus on that residency program. I feel like that could catch a lot. That can really, really, really help close the gap and, ultimately, that’s really all I want.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and your work and the center? Where can they find all this online?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You can find me at DesignExplorr, and it’s D-E-S-I-G-N-E-X-P-L-O-R-R. And yes, that’s two R’s. We spell it real gangsta here. You can find me there on all the channels, so Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, all of the above.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Dr. Jacinda Walker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean I had you on the show years and years ago. You and I, of course, have worked side by side together, have gone through this whole crazy design industry in different ways. You were the last designer that I saw at an in-person event back in 2020 when you were out in LA when we did our live show.

I mean it never ceases to amaze me how tireless your efforts are and your work is towards making sure that you are setting the stage for the next generation of designers. I don’t know anybody that’s operating at the level that you are when it comes to doing this. I’m just so glad not just to have you on the show, but to call you a friend as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You are super welcome, and I appreciate you always reaching back to keep me involved and keep me engaged. So kudos to you and the success of the show as well.

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Shawn Alexander Allen

Games are an integral part of our society, and not I’m not just talking about Nintendo, Xbox, or PlayStation. Games are culture, and this week’s guest — Shawn Alexander Allen — has dedicated himself to getting people to think about games as more than just a leisure activity.

Shawn and his family recently moved to Atlanta, so he spoke about getting adjusted to the new location and getting into a groove with work through his studio, NuChallenger. We also talked about his critically acclaimed video game, Treachery in Beatdown City, and Shawn shared his origin story of growing up in NYC, working at Rockstar Games, and a lot more. Shawn is ready for a revolution, and I’m interested to see what he has in store for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Hey, my name is Shawn Alexander Allen and I currently make video games for a living, I guess. I make a lot of things, but video games are basically what my company does.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, it’s been a wild year. A lot of stuff from the last two years just all hit in 2022. One thing being COVID, the thing that we’ve been trying to run away from. My wife and I got it from my kid at daycare and we have a lot of my wife’s… A lot of our family lives down here. We’ve been basically in a bunker in this house looking at people through windows and gates and once we got COVID, it was post vaccine for us. I don’t know, it pulled the bandaid off a little bit. So we go to family gatherings more and we go out more. And I’ve been traveling again, going to games conferences and stuff. Definitely with masks. I think I’m still being treated like I’m crazy by a lot of people. Even doctor’s offices where no one’s wearing masks, but still wearing masks.

And then on a better level… I mean, that was really good for mental health actually was being able to get out, see, just go back to games events, go to new games events, hang out with people who I’ve gotten to know better over the last two years on the internet. And finally getting to see each other in person. I got to see my business partner in person, actually both of my business partners meet one of them in person for the first time and see my other business partner who I’ve known for 26 years, got to come stay with me in Atlanta. That also leads to the fact that after two years of negotiation, we were able to get investment in my company, NuChallenger, which allowed me to leave my day job. And so I’ve just been able to focus a lot more on things that I love and less on corporate game development.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into NuChallenger. Talk to me about your studio and talk to me about the game Treachery in Beatdown City. I know they’re pretty closely linked.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
For NuChallenger, we like to say that… We say we making publish dope games and comp culture and I think younger me, I don’t actually know what younger me would’ve wanted out of a games company, but as I get older, I started working on this game Treachery in Beatdown City 10-ish years ago, maybe earlier, and just in my thoughts trying to do an indie dev thing even probably 12 years is where my brain started really thinking about it. And so the purpose was games, but then I started looking at the industry and I started looking at just the world and… I don’t know, having more space in my brain, being able to getting to meet Saul Williams’ poet who I love person and talking to him about video games because he’s interested in that and he’s doing a comic book and all this other stuff and talking to comedians who like video games and they’re interested in it.

And all these people that I really respect in other art forms, all being interested in what I do. A very formative conversation was when Saul introduced me to Vernon Reid, one of the best guitarists in the world, Living Colour. And he’s like, “This is Shawn, he’s a game designer with the most enthusiasm.” And I’m like, “You’re Saul, one of the greatest poets of the planet and you’re Vernon Reid, one of the greatest guitarists, but also secretly a heavy sci-fi nerd.” And the fact that we could then talk about video games after that really gave me this… A lot of these folks that I meet don’t know what it takes to make video games and I don’t know what it takes to make what they do. And I’ve wanted to make music and I write poetry from time to time and have been discouraged from doing it and doing more as an adult.

And comedy is something I love. And these are all Black art forms that there’s been a whole lot of innovation in. And so what I want to do is be able to work with people from all these groups. So I think about even with Treachery in Beatdown City, one of the thing that came out before the game was a rap single for that we dropped with our launch trailer with Open Mike Eagle, like a rapper who started loving in 2015. We met at the Highline in Manhattan where Vernon Reid was actually funny enough, that was the second time I saw him in person. He was at a rap show again, that was… I kept looking at these intersections of interests and then getting to talk to Mike over years and being like, “Oh, Mike really likes video games.” And it was like, “Okay. Cool. Let’s see about making just a cool track that’s like, it’s a track, it’s about a game.”

Game is about more than just games because the last decade has shown me that who I am as a person isn’t just as someone who plays video games. It’s a lot of things. It’s a game that deals with fascist police and stealing elections and all sorts of things. And so let’s make a song about that and then let’s release that song and let’s do cool things that are transmedia I think is very important. And something that was really big in the [inaudible 00:09:08] and kind of died off, but you saw a Black Panther, they put out a Kendrick Lamar album with it and everybody loved both. So that’s what we want to do with our studio. It’s being led definitely by games because I don’t think I want to make movies and there’s no shame on just a people that are just game studios, but that’s just not all that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, tell me more about Treachery in Beatdown City.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, Treachery in Beatdown City, so I’m from New York and originally biracial kid who grew up with a white mom looking different in a lot of different neighborhoods, always being harassed by people for that difference, being random person on the street, cops, whatever. And always having a lot of personal anxiety around the city in general, but also loving the city tremendously. I love New York. I love New York more than a lot of people do. There was a line from the last Black man in San Francisco where the main character says… Because people are saying, “I hate San Francisco” or something, and he says, “You can’t hate a city unless you love it.” And I feel that way about New York. Growing up in the city and growing up through one billionaire mayor that ran for three terms. One of them dubiously legally, fairly illegally. Or another mayor who threatened to kill the other mayor basically.

New York’s just a wild place. A lot of cultures from there, a lot of cool stuff’s from there. A lot of really bad stuff on corruptions there. So all in all, to say beat them up have always felt very interesting to me because they were always based in a Japanese retelling of post apocalyptic New York and other media around there. And we wanted to make our own game that was the New Yorker telling of post apocalyptic New York, which is now post Cold War New York essentially. And then, yeah, doing a funny… What if the president gets kidnapped? Except now it’s based on a Black president and it’s no longer complete fiction that there’s a Black person as president. You get to fight these weird stand-ins for… Well, a lot of people that are just on the streets. The people that would shout at you, ask to touch your hair, all sorts of things.

You get to fight those people. It’s like this catharsis that we always wanted to have. And also at the same time, again, loving comedy. I’ve loved Key & Peele for a very long time since both of them were on Mad TV even. And so their humor bled into the scheme. We call it a dark comedy tactical brawler in that it innovates a lot on the fighting stuff, but it also, it’s dark humor, it’s funny, but it’s also… It’s not really uplifting in a lot of ways. And that’s also my way of being a comedy writer when I don’t have time to do standup because I’m working on a game for 15 hours a day or more.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I know that’s been the main game that you’ve worked on through the studio. Are there any sort of other projects that you’ve been working on through the studio?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. So Treachery in Beatdown City, yeah, it started full-time, full-time when I was finally able to work on it. Because I used to work at Rockstar Games. That was my first job in the industry. Then I moved into Treachery in Beatdown City in July of 2012. And then over the last two years I’ve been pitching projects and pitching projects, pitching the idea of the studio just as a Black led studio that does cool culture working with the things I was saying, working with people from creators from other art forms. And so we have a two or three projects that are in various stages, but nothing that can really be talked about.

One thing is that everything that we talk while we do is NuChallenger’s mission is to definitely focus on the oppressed and also focus on being able to subvert that oppression and also just to fight back. And one of the projects we’re working on, I can just cryptically say it’ll deal with boxing and I’m very excited about it because I love boxing games. I know lots of people do and I would love to make a really unique, but cool boxing game that makes a lot of Fight Night fans happy. Makes people who like stories happy as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Boxing game would be pretty cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
There’s not enough. I stumbled on in the Punch-Out!! manual they talk about the dude who’s with him said-

Maurice Cherry:
Doc Louis?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Doc Louis, yeah. And they have a one sentence thing about how he was a champion or around the champion circuit in the ’50s and I stopped and I was like, “Wait, wait, we need to know more about that.” That really actually started making me think about just wanting to… Because, yeah, I love Punch-Out!!, I love Fight Night. Up until a certain point where the controls… Like Fight Night around three was I think the height of the games for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know we could definitely go more into video games and I want to definitely touch on your time at Rockstar because that sounds super interesting. But I’m curious, when you’re coming up with a new game, what does that process look like?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s strange. It’s interesting because it’s a… Process is I think always different. 10 years ago I did not know what I was doing at all. And I think I had been working on this project. Actually 10 years ago, earlier in 2012, I had actually put out two smaller games with teams that were two to four people and those games were made in a weekend each, because they have these Gamejam things that are 48 hours, they could be six months long. Also, I worked on a few month long, Gamejam also once upon a time. But it really all depends who you have, what resources you have in those instances because in a Gamejam setting, you’re just writing down stuff on a board and seeing what sticks and doing… I mean, I think in any game thing you want to have brainstorming, but when we are working on Treachery in Beatdown City, it was like I want to make a beat them up and playing a lot of beat them ups, writing down the things that I like, the things I didn’t like.

Taking those things, putting them together, then trying to make something, make a prototype, fail, continue going. I think that’s always something that no matter what you’re doing with your games, you always want to try to get something that you can play to see if it’s the idea that you have is working. You obviously don’t want to polish something too much because if you work for months on something that you could get in within a week and in months later you’ve polished the thing before implementing it and then you implement it and it sucks, then you get it rid of it or you keep it because you sunken cost fallacy, you then are like, “Well, we got to keep it because we spent three months on it.” Yeah, it’s just all over the place. Right now, I’m sitting in Miro for one project just dragging art onto it because we’re creating just a massive vision board of games, movies, people, our art styles, all sorts of things just to… And then I also cut together a hype reel that basically folks what we want the game to feel like.

And that would be something to stay internal and it would just get people hyped internally and say, “Oh, this is what you want to do. So we’re working towards this.” I don’t know, every studio I think has their own ways of doing it. I’m always trying to learn. The next projects we’re working on are the first time I’ll be working on a bigger project for myself. And when I worked at Rockstar, I never got to start those games ever because they were already in process when they were handed to me. And when I worked at MLB, which I worked at for six months, a lot of stuff was usually in progress or they were such short deadlines that it’s hard to even tell somebody like, “Hey, here’s how you make a video game in three months”, that where you already have existing tech and have to staple stuff over it. It changes constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like though, at least part of that beginning process is just setting the mood, setting the motif for the game. Because it sounds like, as you were saying, you’re like dragging stuff in the mirror. It sounds like you’re making a mood board almost.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. It’s something that a friend of mine who’s designing a game, he’s designing a lot of it in Muro actually. And so that’s a new thing that I learned this year. I’m learning to model my stuff after studios that are successful. I have a whiteboard in the corner. Yeah, I mean, my whole thing right now is I’m working to try to get small bits of the game put together and then we’re going to put them all together when we know that they’re working. Especially when you’re trying to pitch a project, it’s all about de-risking.

It’s like getting a good piece of concept art ahead of time could be better than even getting a broken build because if you could sell the game then you can make the game and that’s the… I don’t know, there’s a chicken and egg issue sometimes. And that’s actually been something that the games issue’s been trying to fix is that people need money to make prototypes, but they don’t want to give money to make prototypes. So that’s something that’s new. But yeah. And so for me, yeah, I’m just learning because I have these several projects and they’re all have different paths ahead of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about what the process is like because I know that we’ve got listeners that probably have thought about making their own video games. We’ve had other video game designers that have been on the show. I’ve even had ideas for video games, but I feel like it does involve probably a lot of programming. I mean, are you doing the programming as well or do you have a team to do that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I’m right now working with a team of folks doing programming. I’ve wanted to program, but it always puts me to sleep every time I try to learn anything. The most I really know is I can code html in notepad. That’s the most code I really know.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No, I was just curious on what that whole process looks like. I’ve had an idea in my mind for a long time, probably much longer than it needs to be for… I’ve had a fighting game idea, but I’ve also recently started with a role playing game idea and I saw this artist, this guy he used to work for Buzzfeed, his name is… Oh, it’s escaping me. No, his name is Adam Ellis. He started this on Instagram where he was making these character sketches for essentially a role playing game that never existed. He made these characters and these debuff items and bosses and all this sort of stuff, right? And then turned around and turned it into a book.

So the book is sort of a strategy guide, it’s called Fever Knights, but the game doesn’t exist. And I got the book, I was like, this is really cool. I really like how he sets the setting and the characters and the story progression or as much of a story as you can probably piece together from all those elements. But it’s not a game, it’s a game that doesn’t exist. But I feel like it has the elements that could become a game. I don’t know if it ever will be a game, but I just thought that was really cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, the ways that I’ve been able to actually do anything is the first “lines of code” for Treachery in Beatdown City was, I was getting frustrated because the person who ended up becoming the lead programmer in the game, we were just not working for any money at the time and I kept being like, “So when are you going to start putting stuff in the game?” And one day I just said, “Screw it.” And I booted up Game Maker because this was 10-ish years ago and I just put a Sprite in and you can get a Sprite walking around and animating pretty quickly in Game Maker. So if you have ideas, that’s a thing you can definitely do. I had to do a ton of UI design, all those things and that was the last bit I ever did also because as soon as I did that, it got a fire under his butt to start.

I said, “Oh, if I don’t start on this, then Shawn is going to just keep going without me.” And I’m like, “That is absolutely not true because I would fall asleep, I think I would die under pressure of trying to code and do all the art in a fighting game.” I’ve seen fighting games from all sorts of levels. There’s a really good that requires. I mean, there’s a… How I think double helix pitched killer instinct to Microsoft when they wanted to make the New Killer Instinct. They had just made one character that could play against themselves with barely any animation and they had to, but they did have to do probably a lot of code to make sure that everything felt good. They focused purely on feel. It was all gray models for on gray backgrounds. And then the hard part comes from then building out all the characters, but getting that little prototype that they had was fun.

So that was why Microsoft was like, “Oh, cool, you were able to get the feeling of killer instinct, but with 3D models.” So we want to do that. That there’s a famous story for Street Fighter 4 actually, where it used to not have 2D hip boxes and the team was confused why it didn’t feel good and they put it in 2D hip boxes and the whole game felt better. But it took hiring people who knew better to, so even big companies can forget how to do things. Yeah, like I said, everything comes from different paths. I feel like how did you start your game from 10 different teams? You’ll get 10 different answers.

Maurice Cherry:
So the process is still… I don’t know, it feels a little mysterious in that way then because everyone’s working from their own base of experience it sounds like.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, even a lot of video game stuff is, it’s what I always talking about how information dissemination is one of the keys to unlocking the problems of there being not enough Black and other underinvested in peoples in the games industry is that there’s no information on how to do a lot of things out there. I worked at MLB, I grew into a producer role there that I was hired to do because they just needed somebody to manage some stuff and also help out with a various other things. But I’m a game designer first and foremost. I ended up becoming a designer producer, but my job was always producer and I asked, we had four or five producers and I asked all of them what being a producer was and none of them could answer be the same way. And I’m like, “We all have the same job apparently.”

But some people would be like, “Oh, a producer, good producer plays the game all the time and gives no to the team.” And some producer’s like, “No, you really got to be good about the time.” And even in Japan, the term producer is different than it is in America. So there’s game planner, there’s game director, there’s like all these words that might mean something slightly different depending. I’ve had people explain job postings to me as being not as complicated as they list them. And someone tells me, “Yeah, you should apply even if you don’t have this skill.” And then I’d interview for their… Like, “Yeah, but you don’t have that thing that we asked you for.” I was like, “What is going on here?” So there is a lot of mystery there and that’s I think a key thing that we need to figure out. Because you know what a best boy is, what a key grip is, what a director on a movie is, what executive producers are like.

Executive producers don’t really have any weigh in on the final edit the editor does. Usually those are discrete things, but in the industry the executive producer could walk over to you and be like, I want this to be different. Yeah, I think we need more definition, more transparency. Everything’s just in opaque soup over here.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned when talking about Treachery in Beatdown City, that you are from New York. You grew up in New York and I see that you went to SVA and you majored in graphic design, dynamic media and 3D rendering in animation. How was your time there? Do you feel like it sort of prepped you for getting working into video games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yes and no. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be in games. I was working on comics, I’d been working on comics my whole life. I always was interested in music, but music always seemed to be a dead end where… I don’t know, I just couldn’t figure out how to get in or I couldn’t figure out how to get over my own stage fright to try to, I played piano as a kid and then didn’t get a right scholarship, so then I just stopped doing it. And comics sustained me through high school. But I remember a career person asking me, “What are you going to do in five years?” And I was like 15. I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.” And they were like, “Well, what happens if you don’t do that?” And I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.”

And so it just locked it in my brain. And so then I guess spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make games. And again, the information thing there… I mean, it was a lot harder to do back then. There weren’t Unity and Game Maker and Construct and Scratch. There’s so many engines that you could just pick up and go make something with. Now all you had back then was RPG maker on PlayStation and I ain’t known a PlayStation until a PS2 in 2000. So going into SVA… Something about SVA, I think I’ve been doing art my whole life because I wanted to. And then I hit SVA and with all those, I clashed heavily with the pretentious art weirdos that I had a couple of friends there. But also I lived very close to school. I was very depressed from all my friends from high school going away to school elsewhere, everybody basic, like I went to Brooklyn Tech with 5,000 kids.

So my graduating class was like 1,500 people, 12,00 people, 1500 people. I think I legitimately knew 100 to 200 of those people and most of them all went away. It’s a school. And so even one of my best friends from eighth grade also went to school at in Albany, New York. So I was like, “Ah, I’m all alone.” The girlfriend that I followed to SVA, that’s why I actually went to SVA was because she got accepted. She got actually told that Brett just didn’t want her and that her work wasn’t good. It was wild. So she went to SVA, I was like, “I’ll do web design.” So then I was like, “I’ll go to graphic design, I guess I don’t know what I want to do.” And when I got into SVA, my creativity tanked. I stopped wanting to do anything creative whatsoever. And 2002 I finally got a job at the EB Games I’d been hanging out at and I’ve actually found hanging out at that store once all my friends left, I needed friends so I would be on message boards play like…

It’s how I started playing Fire Pro Wrestling on the Dreamcast because it was an import. And I really got obsessed with that game, which actually then that game in turn helped me want to make video games because they actually would mod that game to make it in English, to give people new moves, all sorts of stuff. It was really cool. It was something that I was like, “Oh, you can do this even on a console.” And just being at this game store meant I was always talking about game stuff and it made me think about the games that I played.

And so then I thought, “Oh, maybe I could get into games as a writer. So I started, I just kept writing and writing and writing until I started finally writing about what I liked about the games didn’t like from… Which was from divorced from aesthetics, which was a bad idea at the time. But I was just like, “Do I like this part of the game? Do I not like this part of the game?” I was trying to ignore art and stuff like that, which again is hilarious since I’m an artist. But that’s actually what got me more into wanting to make games, was talking to people about it daily, talking to customers about games, going home and then writing about them. That’s what kept me living the idea of wanting to make games because art school made me want to not be an artist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that sentiment from folks before, not just specifically about SVA but about other art schools in general. They had all this promise and then there was something about the structure or the regiment or the attitude or the discrimination or whatever about the particular school that just sucked it out of them. That’s what it sounds like. Sounds like that’s what happened to you.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I think also just working, I had to work… I mean 2004, the first two years of school graphic design was a bust and I wanted to do animation, but computer animation was like, they talked about how sophomore year, which would be my 2004 because it would be my fourth year in school. But they basically made me go back a year. It actually made me go back two years in terms of what I had to learn to relearn a bunch of stuff for foundation year. And then the sophomore year they were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to take two majors on and figure out which one you want.” Dynamic and 3D. So they said most people would just quit the school during that year. And this was a thing they told you in the interview and it was just like, “Yeah, you really did give me way too much work.”

Classes are supposed to be three credits each so that you’d have five classes for 15 credits. In computer art they made you take three, two credit classes so that you had six credits and then a no credit class. So four classes to fit into two space of two classes to just jam. But that means you still have an extra six hours a week of class you have an extra six hours a week or 12 hours or more of homework. Yeah, just so when I’d be done working, I just want to play video games. I didn’t want to do schoolwork, I just wanted to watch wrestling and stuff like that. I’d hang out with friends because also not being able to see people at school, not being able to have friends there, it was not being on a campus I think really was detrimental. But I also couldn’t afford living at SVA and I lived 10 blocks away so couldn’t justify it.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get your start at Rockstar? Did that happen while you were at SVA or afterwards?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That was interesting because I was eyeing jobs in my last year at school and there was a lot of stuff at a lot of different companies and I was like, “Oh cool”, but I have this mental blocker where I can’t apply for something until I know I will have the space for it. And so I waited until I graduated to start applying and everything had disappeared and then I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck as an assistant manager at GameStop.” And because the games industry in New York is very small. I had a partner who had a kid, had my mom. I didn’t want to move outside because outside, I had never really lived outside the city so I didn’t know how to drive. I was like, I don’t know how to find a games job and I’m not going to go move to somewhere with no skills or whatever to just go try to work somewhere.

So that summer I just kept refreshing all the websites. I saw PR job at Rockstar and I applied to it. I had two interviews and then nothing. And I kept asking, “Hey, what’s going on?” And the guy, the first interview guy actually was like, “Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Turned out the whole department fell apart. I found this out after I was hired because of something that the global PR guy had said who actually he quit then that’s why I couldn’t get hired because the person who was supposed to hire me quit. So then Game Capture or Gameplay Capture showed up as I kept refreshing through the summer in September of 2007. And I think GTA four had just been delayed. It was supposed to come out in the fall and it had been delayed to the spring and they needed some folks to work on their trailers and they needed to fill that role quickly.

And I guess that’s where I’ll say the SVA thing did come in contact because I did actually have a decent thesis. I had to jury rig together this 2D slash 3D thesis, which just showed good camera use. And that was something that I think I just had inherently. Anyway, my teachers were all like, “How do you know how to do this? Other people don’t really do it this well.” So I don’t know if Rockstar got me there, but I don’t know if SVA got me to Rockstar. But it got me to make the thesis and I sent Rockstar storyboards that I had made for my… Actually because I had gotten failed in a class and I had to redo a thesis class. So I had two thesises that I had completely storyboarded out. So being able to hand over all the storyboards, the scripts that I had written, all sorts of stuff that apparently got me my job.

I interviewed for… I found out my salary at GameStop. The guy came because I was a few blocks away from Rockstar and he was able to just come down and be like, “Hey, we want to hire you, we just need to talk money.” So then within a week and a half even, I think I was working at Rockstar.

Maurice Cherry:
And so if you could sum up that time, I know you were there for a good while, but I mean you helped with launching a lot of games. There are GTA 4, GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, LA… I’m reading from your bio, if you could sum up that experience in a couple of words, how would you say it was for you?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, definitely complicated. I always say I wouldn’t have stayed there if there wasn’t anything good, but the amount of work you have to do wasn’t tense. It was within two weeks of me working there that I was working seven days a week for a while. But I learned a lot. I didn’t necessarily learn again things towards making my own video games, but I learned how to manage people better. I got to watch movies to learn better cinematography because there was a lot of good stuff there.

Also good friends, it’s really cool to see those games from the inside out and know how that stuff. So if I ever get to make a AAA game at that level again, I’ll be like, “Ah, I’m ready for this, because I’ve already worked on cut scenes of stuff that are 3D, big stuff.” But it did help me, my trajectory also working at Rockstar, having Rockstar games cards, people are in awe of you for working there. Got me to have a conversation with Method Man at an E3 where he really actually, he bought a copy from Madden of Madden from me at EB Games one time and then many years later he had a show at E3. It was right after Red Dead came out and we got to talk about Red Dead Redemption, which is cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now I had first learned about you from your Kickstarter campaign that you did for Treachery in Beatdown City back in 2014. I’d love to just know, I know you’ve had the genesis for the idea around that time, but I guess what drove you to start a Kickstarter campaign to try to get it off the ground?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
So the initial development of the game was built fairly off of either free time or severance/unemployment to be able to pay my bills. Because I’ve never existed in a space where I could just not pay myself. I needed to contribute something. Having gone to school and having student loans and everything and also having grown up in poverty, I didn’t have… Savings wasn’t a thing. My mom could not support me. I had been supporting my mom through my job at EB Games. Any job basically. Even after I moved out, I was still paying into internet. I got my mom internet, I got my mom, new computers, et cetera, et cetera because she could not afford any of that stuff. So I never had that luxury. That’s one of those things you hear about indie games where they’re like, “Ah man. And that person just worked for five years and then they put out the game and it was like, yeah, that need money to do that from somewhere.”

And again, I was living with my former partner and her kid, so we all had mouths to feed still. And so leaving Rockstar, it was good because I was able to leave with some package that with some money and some unemployment because I could never just quit and leave with nothing. And then I had this PlayStation Mobile contract that there was an interest there that they had this where they were putting some money into alternative indies, I guess people who had alternative backgrounds in games. Because having a AAA background and then from Rockstar and then having this idea for this interesting beat him up was something they were interested in. It wasn’t a lot of money they would give you, but it was something. And so that kicked in as my unemployment kicked out and after the six months and I was able to pay the programmer who was able to buy his own computer so that we could work together, which was a game changer in and of itself.

You know, don’t think about the resources that you need. One of the game jams that we were at, we had to share a computer and that made it really hard to make a game when you had to keep handing each other the computer. So yeah, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources. And PlayStation Mobile in 2014 we could tell was going belly up. I don’t know, there’s a lot of strife internally from what I could tell. And we knew New York just isn’t a place where games are made a lot of times. It depends, it comes and goes. But I don’t think I could have gotten a job in the games industry as again, a designer, non programmer. I’d have to find somebody who wanted to just hire me specifically for that.

So we had been working on this game for a while and yeah, end of December 2013, I was like, “What am I going to do?” I was really scared actually. And so I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a Kickstarter.” So I started getting to work and it was a few months of work to get the Kickstarter ready. The launch went really badly in that I didn’t know they needed to vet your page.

I sent it in and then they were like, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Oh no.” So it threw off what your 30-day trajectory looks like. It was not even going to end during the week anymore. It’s not going to end on a Saturday, which is not a good idea. I was very naive and I thought I’d built up enough of a fan base following of the game that and just of myself as a person in the games industry that we’d be able to be successful. But nothing went right. We weren’t able to get videos recorded in time, we weren’t able to. And I honestly should have just waited another month or so. But I was desperate. I was, again, coming from poverty, you come from a money is just constantly dripping away mindset. So I was just like, I need this money as soon as possible. And so I launched and you can tell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say, I know that the campaign wasn’t successful, but I mean the way that you… And I understand where you’re talking about it, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 that flopped hard. So I completely understand. I think also though just the climate around crowdfunding was not as, what’s the word? I guess prevalent as it is now. When I started mine in 2011, a lot of people had no idea what Kickstarter was, what crowdfunding was, why should I give you money, that sort of thing. And I thought that I had a audience behind me that would be able to support what I was trying to do with my campaign and it just flopped. So I know what that’s like. I know exactly what it is to go through that whole thing. You did end up starting another Kickstarter campaign, but I’m curious when it fell through, what was going through your mind? What drove you to keep continuing working on the game?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m actually trying to remember. In video games, there were actually a bunch of successful Kickstarters. That was why we were like, “Ah, this is a place that we could go to.” That was one of the burgeoning sides of it. People in my direct family still did not know how Kickstarter worked obviously, but you could see making millions of dollars on Kickstarter and I wasn’t looking for that. But I think why I saw it as a possible path out and when it failed. So the last day, two days, Kickstarter were hilarious. Like I said, it got bumped to Saturday. That weekend was Game Developers Conference that year, so starting on the Monday. So it was failing on the Saturday before the Monday and the Friday before that. I never missed a plane. I missed my flight to San Francisco at 8:00 AM. I had to sit in JFK for 12 hours.

I was basically… Because I wasn’t sleeping well that time either. So I basically just went to sleep in my lap and waited for my flight to finally show up. I think I went and found some food at some point and because I was fairly broke back then, I really would. I try to leverage my friend base to try to find somewhere to stay the first night or two before an event kicked off. So I didn’t actually have anywhere to stay that night when I got to San Francisco. But when I landed in San Francisco and it was at night and a friend of mine was like, “Hey, you can come stay at my brother-in-law’s apartment.” It ended up being in a basement that had no cell reception. So it was actually perfect because I’d have to go outside to check what the internet was doing, what the Kickstarter was doing.

So I just had resided that it was going to end and I just turned on Archer on Netflix, on an Xbox and I went to sleep and I woke up and it was over. But it was really good to be there at Game Developers Conference because literally the next day there’s this website, unwinnable.com where they write about games and they have all sorts of amazing great games writers there. I had written for them a couple of times. They write about personal stuff. Sometimes they just write cool music of the year lists and stuff.

But they used to rent a house for Game Developers Conference so that they could bring a bunch of writers and charge them based on how much they could pay. This is before Airbnb really. And I got to stay there the day, I think the Saturday after Saturday night after. Yeah, that was awesome because I got to just talk to these people who were like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know about this game was on Kickstarter, et cetera, et cetera, cetera.” I just was around all these people were like, “Oh, this sounds amazing. What are you going to do?” People all very, very uplifting, very positive. It was the exact right place to be when something didn’t succeed because I had so much support.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it sounds like it. That’s good. No, I feel like we’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years that game development can be a hostile environment. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, yeah, my thoughts mostly are that my wife used to work in non-profit stuff and I’ve seen her abused as much as I was. In terms of time and what people expect of you, it’s more benign. I don’t know, I think all industries suck. I always say like, “Well, let’s look at the CG industry and how they farm it out to non-US countries a lot of time and then don’t credit them and stiff them on money and stuff.” The games industry’s definitely got a lot of bad parts. It’s got a lot of good parts. A lot of people want to keep focusing on the bad things and I mean there there’s tons of hostility. It’s absolutely true and that’s why I don’t give up. And I’m always trying to mentor folks on the side, introduce people, tell people who did a thing so that they can avoid that person.

I’ve been the victim of a lot of more, I guess insidious toxicity or just people smiling to your face and stabbing you in the back. People just not wanting to work with you after they screwed you over rather than them act or if you just complain about things, people not liking that. There’s definitely an air of toxic positivity, which I think needs to be talked about a lot more because I don’t know, there’s an uroboros of people being like, “Why is the games industry, why are fans so toxic?” And then the industry, you look at 30 years of the industry being like, if you don’t have the best form of hardware, then you’re nothing. It’s just like why you think, I think it’s up to climate change. It’s up to the big companies to really put money in to fix a lot of the stuff. I just try to do as best as I can by the people that I work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Do you have a bigger goal or a bigger message?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m an artist, so game development is the thing I use to do stuff. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know, Treachery in Beatdown City is about how far will rich people go to take control over things. And it’s a very timely thing. Every piece will be different. I mean, I also put out a little Twitter art piece a while ago that was being Black in America and it was using Mega Man Sprites, which evoked an interesting response from a lot of people on the internet. A lot of people being like, “Wow.” And a lot of other people being like, “Well then they should just act right” and you see people showing up on themselves. Basically what I make is does exist to provoke a response a lot of the time, one way or the other. But again, I’ve released music with people.

I release board games, big video games, small video games. I think it’s just who I am. It’s how I think the term NuChallenger is funny that I stumble on it because I feel like my existence in the games industry is a challenge to the games industry. It’s funny that EAAS was challenge everything and I’m like, we’re one of the biggest companies in the industry. You don’t challenge a whole lot of things clearly because you keep making the same matting game every year. Everything we do is going to be different, but definitely feel like something we’re doing.

There was an article a long time ago that was looking for the Spike Lee of games and I don’t think the article understood what the Spike Lee of games was. They were just seemingly looking for a Black person making video games. And I’m like, Spike Lee went and had to hustle a ton of people for money to make Malcolm X the movie. And it’s a huge epic that has its flaws. It’s an amazing, amazing movie that I’m so happy it exists. He’s also made stuff that I don’t ever want to see again, like BlacKkKlansman and because of its weird propaganda thing. So he’s an artist. He’s entitled to make Project to Project. That’s how I think of myself and what we want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t think of yourself as a Spike Lee of games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I say I’m the Malcolm X of games.

Maurice Cherry:
Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Well, I mean, I don’t know. I think of a lot of things, but I mean I provoke response from the games industry a lot. I mean, again, I’ve been fighting this fight. I think about having written that thing about having written a talk, how Urban Black and Latino cultures the next frontier of indie games nine years ago, taking months of researching and educating a ton of people in the industry about how it’s very strange that if hip-hop was in parallel with video games and it’s a very technical art, especially from the production standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. Actually other than that video games were so insular that it told people that they were not welcome basically to be in it. My whole thing is, and I provoke responses to people. I say things that are uncomfortable to people’s faces. I’m trying to make the games industry better.

I’m trying to bring Black people together to make a bigger space for them so that people aren’t always expecting Black people to make sad games about blackness. I don’t know, I just want Black folks to be free in the games industry. That’s a very important thing to me. I don’t know about Spike Lee’s intentions for movies. I know that NYU likes to parade him around. They’re like, “See, we have a successful Black person who came from our program”, I’m like, “Where are all the other Black directors?” I think of myself more along the… I want to work with Jordan Peele one day. I like Boots Riley. When I saw Sorry To Bother You, I was like, “Ah, this is along what I like to do. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t say I’m the Spike Lee again, but the Malcolm X or the Stokely Carmichael are more what I try to go for.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was just curious. That’s a powerful comparison. So I was just curious to know where that came from. For people who are listening to this who want to get into developing games, what would you recommend to them?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s always hard because I feel like every time I give people advice, they just want to hear advice to hear. They are hoping that the thing that they’re doing is the thing that’s right. And then they just move on. I’ve told so many parents how to do things for their kids and then they never do anything games. Well, I mean, I’d say don’t be afraid because I mean, it’s just like, don’t take every game tutorial thing with, take a lot of them with a grain of salt. Don’t sit in your head for too long. A lot of times I think trying to take a small game and just modify it. Can you turn a deck of cards into fighting game or something for the game? Corporate Vandals I worked on, it was like, can you take Tic tac toe and make that a graffiti tag warfare game?

Basically turf warfare game. And it doesn’t take, It’s really hard because people always tell me that I seem to have a knack for these things. And again, I guess the thing that really got me to the point that I’m at is I played a lot of games and I wrote down analysis about what I liked and did not. I feel like an opinion on things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And don’t be afraid to be really harsh on big games because I feel like people tend to let big games off the hook more. And I’m like, we don’t say Transformers is the pinnacle of movies. And that’s what we say for video games a lot of time.

The biggest flashiest thing that makes absolutely no sense at the end of the day. And it’s maybe a little ugly from an arts perspective, art design perspective, we’re like, “Oh man, that gets a 10.” And you’re like, “What?” So look at that stuff. Look at that stuff. Look at small games, big games. See what overlaps, see what doesn’t. I would say also read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. I really like that book a lot. And she’s just very, very smart game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into game development?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That’s always a hard one because like I said earlier, when I was a teenager, I decided this is what I was doing. Everyone tried to talk me out of it. It was weird. I don’t know. As an artist, every time I try to think about my life without making video games, I’d come up with a blank. Because when I was working on my comics, the reason why I wanted to make games was because I wanted to have this old comic when I was 15 that I really wanted to turn into a thing where you could make real meaningful choices and then have these sprawling side things. And I had another game like that too, where I wanted to basically turn Crono, make Chrono Trigger, but make it 10 times as big. I always had these ideas about telling stories that go off in these different branching narratives, and as I make games now, I really love the mechanics of them.I mean, I think I wanted to make movies, but I had to work at a game company to learn that I liked movies. Strangely enough, I stopped liking comics. I don’t know, my brain just doesn’t have the attention for them anymore. I don’t know why. The only comic I could read was, what was it? The Understanding Comics is the best comic that I can read. And it’s funny because it’s about comics and it’s about sequential storytelling, but I can’t read, I get bored of them. Even short comics very quickly nowadays. Even ones that I loved since I was a kid. So it’s really hard. That’s one of the, as someone on a funding landscape and seeing people saying, “Oh, X, Y, and Z is going to replace, X is going to make it really hard to do this, or people only want these types of games, or these people only want that and it’s going to make it hard”, puts me in a weird place.

And that’s why I’m also very protective about the games industry as well, because I look at it as a place where art converges, I mean, I want to do hobbies when I am no longer doing a lot of this stuff in my free time. I was actually trying to gear up to do standup few years ago and then COVID happened. I’ve been trying to had a guitar for a while that I’m trying to learn. I want do those things, but I actually think I want to do those things and just practice them without the need to make money off of them. Because making video games for money be being a thing that I love tremendously for money and having to sell that art is very distressing in and of self. But yeah, I don’t know. The path is, I hated graphic design. I mean, I love graphic design as an idea, but I hated it from a, I don’t know if I could sell it because it changes so often. I guess I do apps, I have a bunch of app, I have a bunch of things, designs that I’d like to do. I’d really like to make a good dating app. But it also comes from game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Well that’s where the dating apps are getting their behaviors from. I

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Think we need to onboard people in general for everything Twitter needs to onboard people. We need to have a little quest that you go on that’s slightly hidden from the user so that they can somehow be tripped into learning that people are people on the internet and that they can’t just be shouting at women that decide not to answer their texts and hiding messages. I don’t know. All sorts of things that, as someone who met my partner on OkCupid, after a lot of digging through in A/B testing, profile pictures and length and this and that, and just figuring out what actually made people interested in me on a very quick interface. I want to make that better for other people. That’s what I would do, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What work do you want to be doing?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Really hoping that we’re done with the project that I’m pitching now. I would like to be done with that before the next five years. So in the next four years I’d like to be done with that and have that in the world while making the other project that I’ve also been pitching. Those are the key things. I’d like to just be at home more or rather, I work from home so I’d rather be not. Because right now I’m just in this time space where I’m doing this update to treasury and beat Town city. So it’s taking a lot of my time and I’d like to just be able to spend more time with my kid and my wife and hopefully have more of a feeling of Atlanta as a city since I’ve only been here for about less than two years now and just vibing out with musicians, maybe doing some music, doing some standup. I don’t know. I just want to be able to be more creative and free I guess, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Atlanta’s a good city for that. I mean in, I think you told me you were in Marietta, right? Yeah, yeah. Got to get out the suburbs, come into the city. Yeah. Yeah.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Tickets to see Qualey Chris at 529, October. Him in push a fee like three days apart. So it’s going to be, so two different experiences. I’m trying to go in as much as possible. It’s exciting. But yeah, that’s also the other thing is working all the time keeps me out here. I need to learn how to drive. We might need to buy another car because the car right now basically takes the baby to and from daycare, takes us to doctor’s appointments and does grocery shopping and I can’t drive to the city while my kid needs to be picked up. Right. We’ll see. Yeah.

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?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I have a site, it’s a nuchallenger.com, N-U-C-H-A-L-L-E-N-G-E-R.com, where I’m trying to post stuff about the games. We’d love to update that more. beatdowncity.com is Treachery in Beatdown City. Twitter, ShawnDoubleA, S-H-A-W-N-D-O-U-B-L-E-A. That’s where I just am on at beatdown_City on Twitter is where I do a lot of corporate ship posting. It’s funny. I like it because I can actually be free there and post dumb fighting gay memes and stuff that I find funny that I don’t feel uncomfortable posting to my eclectic group of artists and game important people.

I don’t know. I have a strange Twitter following that. I’m like, Why do you follow me on Twitter? And I don’t want to lose everybody. And also I’ve just been bullied so much over saying anything about being Black in games that I just stop arguing on that side. But I’m trying to get more things like this going like a podcast. I’m trying to, I want to work on a book at some point because I think it’ll be important. I’m going to try to put out some video content too, because people keep telling me that I should be talking about more of these things and I’m just like, yeah, Time is the key limit there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, Shawn Alexander Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I mean, one, just sharing your story of how you got into games and about the story with building treachery and Beat Down City. It sounds like this is something that of course you’re really super committed to, of course doing this through your studio. So I’ll be excited to see what comes next from you, what comes in the future. I know you mentioned before we were recording that there’s a big update for Treachery in Beatdown City coming, so I’ll make sure that we put links down in the show notes for the games and everything so people can check that out. But thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Thank you very much.

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Reggie Tidwell

It takes a lot of drive and determination to chart your own course, and no one embodies those qualities better than this week’s guest. As the creative director (and founder) of Curve Theory, Reggie Tidwell has provided beautiful and effective design, branding, photography, and videography work to clients for over 20 years.

We talked about the secret to Reggie’s longevity as a creative entrepreneur, and he shared his story about growing up in St. Louis, studying graphic design, and his early post-grad career as a Flash designer in the beginning days of the World Wide Web. Reggie also spoke about what brought him to North Carolina, and about his work in bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville. Reggie is a prime example of what being a steward of design and giving back to your community looks like!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Hey, I’m Reggie Tidwell and I am a graphic designer and a professional photographer as well as a videographer, which I do on occasion as well. I tell stories.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Wow, it has been a great year. Bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you. I also have had my best financial career last year. Everything has culminated to that, and this year seems to be on track to even beat that, so that’s super exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s real good. That’s real good. I mean, even with all of that, is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean, once you own a house, there’s always house stuff that you want to accomplish, but professionally, man, things have just been falling into place and sort of a beautiful way that I feel just very excited. I’m going to be doing all of the photography for… So I’m a huge fan of the outdoors and nature landscape photography. I do a lot of that for Explore Asheville, which is our big tourism division here in Asheville, and the Gray Smoking Mountain Association has reached out and they’re going to have me do all the photography for their new book on Cade’s Cove, which is a really beautiful spot in the Smokies. So if you’ve ever been to Great Smokey Mountain National Park, it’s our biggest and most visited national park in the country and it’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’m super excited. I’m going to be doing all the photos for the book, so I’ll get a book cred.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Congratulations on that.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you, sir.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your company Curve Theory. Now, Curve Theory has been around for over 20 years, which I definitely have to tip my hat to you. I ran a studio for nine years and I know how much goes into that. So 20, over 20 years, I think. What, 21 now, right?

Reggie Tidwell:
21 years. 21. I’m in my 21st year. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s been the key to your longevity?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, it’s building relationships. I’ve never advertised. It really is a combination of building relationships and being passionate about the work that I do. I love designing photography, I love being a creative, I love people. And so it just makes sense that I would be able to maintain this business because it’s all the things that I love and things that I would be doing anyway. I’m always building relationships. I always tell people, and I always think it’s a funny little bit of a factoid about me. I don’t typically just add people on Facebook that I don’t know, and I’ve got 3000 plus connections on Facebook and every single one of them is someone that I know. I had either a meaningful conversation with and align somewhere, or they’re friends in real life or I served on the board with them, or whatever the case may be. They’re all real connections and when you think about that, that’s a lot of… Exponentially the more people, the sort of more you can grow your network. This business for me is really about being present and available.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good for Facebook. I think Facebook and probably a lot of social media networks now have really enabled this way to just collect friends, almost like you’re, I don’t know, collecting trading cards or something like that without really having any intentionality behind it. The way that you’re about connections on Facebook. That’s how I am on LinkedIn. I’m really, unless I’ve worked with you or I know you personally or something like that, we met at a conference or something, we’ve had a conversation. That’s usually the only way that I’ll add people. Although now, lately I have gotten a little lax and well, partly because I let them stack up. So I’ll go months without adding anyone on LinkedIn and all of a sudden I’ve got a hundred connections. I’m like, “Oh, I should probably go through these and see who I know.” And I tell people, write a note to let me know how we know each other. And I mean some of them are just sales calls and what have you, but…

Reggie Tidwell:
So many of those.

Maurice Cherry:
But in terms of the power of the network, I got laid off recently and I posted I think two posts on LinkedIn about it and I was flabbergasted by how my network showed up and spread the word and put me in connection with other people. And I’ve had some great conversations and such, so…

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s this author Porter Gale who says your network is your net worth. I totally believe that. Absolutely.

Reggie Tidwell:
Totally. Yeah. I get so much business from those connections on Facebook. I mean, quite honestly, it’s just doing stuff, especially from the photography side of my business. I’ll post a photo and I’m constantly posting photos and I do also on LinkedIn. Ultimately what ends up happening is because you’re constantly putting content out when someone thinks a photography and someone says, “Hey, do you know a great photographer?” You should be in someone’s very short list of their mental Rolodex. And that’s what happened. I get calls all the time. Hey, so and so… I mentioned on Facebook that I was looking for a drone photographer or a lifestyle photographer, a commercial photographer, whatever, and they mention you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s a typical day look like for you?

Reggie Tidwell:
So for me, it’s nice being a designer and a photographer because on any given day, I never know it could bring me being out in a field on a photo shoot, it could bring me in a brand strategy session with a client, or a discovery session with a new branding client, whatever it is. It’s nice because my days aren’t always the same. I get to travel, I get to, for instance tomorrow I’m going to be in another area of North Carolina for a commercial shoot for pretty much much of the day, starting at Golden Color. And it’s nice. And then Friday I’m in the studio all day, probably editing photos from that shoot and rounding out a logo for another client.

Maurice Cherry:
So you include your photography as part of your design service, so I guess company services, I should say?

Reggie Tidwell:
Kind of. Occasionally the two will intertwine, usually the two intertwine when I’m doing web designing. So if I’m designing a website for a client, a lot of times because I know exactly what kind of images the client needs, I can add it as part of my service to do a lifestyle shoot of their company or their clientele, and then that can get baked into their website. And I’m working with my own images. I can control a lot more effort that way. But yeah, it happens. It doesn’t happen as much because I don’t do as much web design as I used to. I’m probably doing about two or three sites a year where I used to do quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Back when I had my studio, I wound things down from the design end, I’d say roughly around in the mid 2010s because there was certainly a market for bespoke web design. They want, people wanted a particular website theme or something like that. But now with all these website builders out here, people are taking the design element, or at least the modular parts or the design process into their own hands. And it’s like, yeah, I don’t really need bespoke anymore. And so I ended up doing more consulting because you were able to shift like that. So it’s interesting now because I’m looking for work at the moment and people are like, “Oh, okay, you redesign a website?” I’m like, Ah. I mean I haven’t done it in a long time maybe.

Reggie Tidwell:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m probably not your first choice for that, but I get what you mean. People, they hear design and of course if you have an online presence and a website, that’s the first thing they think about is, “Oh, can you design a website or can you redesign a website?”

Reggie Tidwell:
I think depending on the client, I do still see value in bespoke. I feel like ultimately I’ll end up doing a completely custom website where I’ll get to work with a developer and I’ll design the front end and we can work beautifully and make something really amazing. But that doesn’t happen as often as I would like. But I do find the builders have actually worked for me because especially if you know them, there’s Divi and Elementor, there’s a handful of other ones I’ve been using Divi for a while, and though it can be a little bit verbose in it’s code, I find that the flexibility of me being able to do something completely custom using mostly you doing custom CSS to some of their built in modules.
So I can build the content and lay out the content really quickly, then go in with CSS and really start to fine tune and make it exactly what I want it to be. That’s a nice, because I do work with very large clients and also small clients, that’s a really nice option for clients that don’t have six to 10 grand in their pocket to do a website. It’s just nice to have that as an option and for them to still get something that’s custom.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of which, what are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, I’ve got a soft spot for the mom and pop shops, either they’re startups or they’ve been around for a while and it’s time to change things up. I love that transition of being able to help them renew their own passion in their business through that process. I’m working on the branding right now for an auction house that’s been around for decades. They’ve been on Antique Roadshow, so they’ve got a presence, but their brand look is a bit dated and they’ve started resting on their laurels a little bit because everything is just so tried and true. It is what it is. It’s been what it’s been. And they realize this time to shake things up a little bit. They want to expand their market a little bit, they want to… And so going through that process with them, it’s so rewarding because they’ve been living with the same logo for 20 years, or longer.
And to be able to see them embrace something that’s different, and it’s a fun process too with this particular client because they were like, “Yeah, we want some completely modern and avant garde.” And I went there, they were like, “Oh no. We love it, but we’re not ready yet.” And so, okay, that’s good. At least I know what your comfort level is. And so now I can dial it back and land exactly where we need to be. And then feeling them working through the resistance but then initially, not only acceptance, but oh my God, this is amazing. This is going to be really great for our company. We’re excited. That’s a great feeling.

Maurice Cherry:
So when a project, let’s say, comes in your inbox or something like that, what does your process look like when it comes to starting on new work?

Reggie Tidwell:
So I usually have a quick little meeting with the client just qualify whether or not we’re going to work well together and whether I’m the guy for the job. But then once that decision is made, I set up a discovery session where we really actually start to dig deep into the typical discovery questionnaire where you learn a little bit more about their business, their aspirations, what’s working, what’s not working, so I can better provide exactly what they’re looking for. I feel like, for me anyway, I feel like the key to being a good designer that makes happy clients and solves the right problems or solves problems in the right way is asking the right questions at the very beginning. So I’m all about being inquisitive. I want to know everything. And if you feel like it’s too much, it’s not.
Because at the end of the day when I’m digging into sketching out logo concepts or I’m coming up with a tagline or whatever that information that I’m going to be so thankful that I have it because I can go through and dig in for inspiration to recheck the direction that I’m going to make sure I’m headed in the right way. But yeah, it’s all about the Q and A, at the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
So I see here on your website that you do a lot of volunteer work. You worked also with Leaf Community Arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So, Leaf Community Arts for me was a big part of, I did service work before that, but it probably to date was probably one of the biggest chapters in my life in terms of giving back. Leaf Community Arts is a nonprofit here in the Asheville area that they have teaching artists that go into the public school system and the neighborhood centers and basically recreation centers and they work with youth, teaching them poetry, dance, how to play the Djembe, how to do different types of art, visual art. It’s pretty amazing. And it gives kids this sense of ownership of something which I think is quite necessary, especially for the age range of students that they work with. But then they also have this other part that I was actually more aligned with was they do cultural preservation in First Nations, third world countries like [inaudible 00:16:38], and Uganda, and Rwanda, and Cuba, all these different places where there are cultures that have been around for ages and First Nations tribes that as the youth are becoming more westernized and the elders are dying off, these cultures are just vanishing.
There’s no evidence of their songs, or instrument making, or costumes, or any of it. And so what Leaf Community Arts did what they were partnering with an agency on the ground that was trying to do that cultural preservation and help raise money to do things like build recording studios, or hire artisans that know the native language to native songs, the instrument making, the dances. And they actually make it really cool for the youth where they’re putting their phones down, and totally engaging, and dancing, and singing. And I found that particularly interesting. I love the beauty of cultures, and how different cultures are, and how you can learn something completely and different from a culture that you never had experienced before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now are you still doing work with them? I know that now you’re also the new president of AIGA Asheville, the founding president, but have you waned your work with Leaf Community Arts?

Reggie Tidwell:
I have still a supporter of it. I worked all the way up to my presidency in 2017 and then my term ended. So I’m now board president emeritus. I’m still, the Leaf Community Arts people are family, they actually put on a huge music festival three times a year. I’ve met Arrested Development, Speech. Now we know each other by name. I’ve met, gosh, we’ve had Angelique Kidjo, and Mavis Staples, and Indigo Girls, and all these amazing bands that have come played. The Family Stone. But they put on this music festival in the spring and in the fall and this really beautiful place out in Black Mountain called, Black Mountain, North Carolina, called Lake Eden. And then they do one in downtown Asheville in the summer. And that basically raises money for all of the work that I mentioned before that they do with cultures and with the youth.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Nice. And we’ll talk more about your AIGA Asheville work a little bit later on in the interview. With everything that you do through Curve Theory, what gets you truly excited about your work?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I love to solve problems. Quite honestly. I love working with clients and trying to find out exactly what’s not working with them and helping come up with solutions that one, inspire and excite them. But then also they continue to propel me forward in my love of the work that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now let’s dive a little bit into your personal story. You talk about this I think a bit on your website, but you grew up in St. Louis. Is that right?

Reggie Tidwell:
Born and raised?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was raised mostly by my grandmother, an amazing dad too, that was also in the picture. But most of my time was spent with my grandmother, who was an educator. She taught for 36 years and she was a huge supporter of education. And so in the summers where all my friends were out playing and running around, I had to do homework before I could go out and join them.
And of course I hated it then, but on some level I understood the importance of it and it would come into play in many periods throughout my life, just being someone that is studious. I ended up testing the highest in the seventh grade in language and math in the entire school that I was in seventh.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
In seventh grade. Which that said a lot about my grandmother’s dedication and how she worked it with me, but it wasn’t with a heavy hand. She just understood that she wanted me… I grew up in a very, I would say mean, just put it bluntly. It was a poor neighborhood, lot of gang violence, a lot of break-ins and theft. And I saw some pretty horrific things in my own neighborhood, just in my own alley. It wasn’t a place that I wanted to definitely grow up and grow old.
And so education for me was the key of being able to get to a more ideal situation. So I wouldn’t say I was a first generation college student. My mother had a degree music, actually two. She had wanted music and art, possibly three maybe in education. But my grandmother, of course was educated. And so it set me on my path to discover who I really wanted to be in the world. I think you had mentioned very briefly what was it that made me choose this path of design? But all that didn’t come quite easily.
I ended up pretty much blowing away my first couple years in St. Louis at a junior college called Florissant Valley. I think I had a 1.9 GPA because I wasn’t inspired. I picked business administration because I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But you’re asking a 18 year old, 17 year old, 18 year old kid to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life. And yeah, of course I want to run a business. Oh yeah, business administration, that’s what you should do. But that’s such a broad topic. I wasn’t inspired.
I actually went from that student, at one point I was the student in the back of the class nodding off, not very inspired. The teacher would call on me and not only did I not know the answer to the question, I wouldn’t even know what the question was because I was probably asleep. So I ended up taking a break after four semesters of that, I said I got to do better. This isn’t going the way I wanted to go. So I ended up taking a semester off and really doing some deep diving and soul searching. I talked to my counselor at the school. I really thought long and heavy about what I liked and the things that I knew I liked were being creative. I was always drawing from the time I could hold a pencil, I was sketching and doodling. And so I always loved art. My mom was an artist, is an artist. And so that was an inspiration.
And so I went back to school. I decided at the time that I wanted to be an interior designer or a architect. And the path to both of those were mechanical drawing and a lot of drafting. And so that was all I needed to be inspired. I went from that student that I mentioned before to the student making the top score on every test in every class until I graduated. I went from a 1.9 GPA to a 3.2 GPA, graduated with honors and got my general transfer studies to go on to a four year college.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s that saying that goes, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do to try to get to do the things that you do want to do. But I think also to that end, just from what you’re mentioning, that whole period of high school going into college, there’s so much pressure to try to decide exactly what it is you’re going to do. And I mean we also, I think have to put this in the context of just where the world was at this time. Because I’m guessing this is around early nineties. Early nineties.
And there was just this push, and I was mean I was in elementary school then, but I mean still there was this push to know exactly what it is that you’re going to do with your life at fairly early age. Look at the state of the world with what’s going on, what is it that you want to do? And for a lot of people it’s tough. I mean, even when I started out in college, I ended up switching majors because I thought I wanted to do one thing just based on societal norms and such. And then I was like, eh, I don’t really like it.

Reggie Tidwell:
I know. That’s a big part of it. I mean, thinking about it nowadays students take what they call a gap year. I am a firm supporter of that because I do feel like somebody that young needs to go out into the world a little bit and understand who they are. I mean, up to that point, they’ve just been a student studying all the basic electives. There’s nothing in that that would potentially produce career inspirations. Maybe you like math and maybe you like biology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a mathematician, or a scientist, or a biologist.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, I feel like that would’ve served me well. But thankfully I was able to make that comeback and find that inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
You ended up going to Maryville, University of St. Louis and there you studied graphic design. Talk to me about that time.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, actually Maurice, I started, remember I said I was interested in just interior design or architecture. That’s what got me to Maryville because they actually had a nice interior design program. And I got there in those first two years I thrived. I was still inspired and I was still being a great student and loving the experience. But at one point I got, so the way Maryville’s program was set up at the time was you did all your art electives and got all those out of the way, and your art electives as well. You got those out of the way the first two years and then you dove into your concentration.
Right as I was about to make that transition, I talked to my counselor, Nancy Rice, at the time and I was like, I don’t know if I want to do interior design. I like the sketching part, I like the conceptualizing, but then it’s all floor plans and elevations and it gets super technical and that’s the part that’s where I get lost. And this particular teacher who, it is funny because I’ll tell you this in a second. She basically told me, Reggie, you’re great at computers. You love computers. I’ve been working on computers since I was 15. My grandmother bought me a Commodore 64 and I was programming in basic, I was playing games. I became very comfortable in that computer world. The nerd, the invention of the nerd. I took that as a compliment. She’s like, yeah, you’re big in the computers. And then she said, and you also love art, so you should consider graphic design.
And for me that was a new term. I hadn’t thought about it. And once I did the exploration and thought about it and understood what graphic design was and understood that I’d already seen it all around me all the time already and thought about how I could be someone contributing to that. Yeah, I was like, you’re exactly right. This is exactly what I want to do. And that’s where it started. I feel, I feel really fortunate that I’m someone who got a degree in something that I’m actually still doing.
I guess it was a few years ago, I reached out to her because we’re friends on Facebook. I thanked her. I didn’t remember if I’d ever thanked her, but my whole career came from that decisive moment where she told me about something I didn’t know about. And then I ran with it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m trying to think, I’m trying to place this in time because we talked earlier about early nineties. So this is mid nineties or so.

Reggie Tidwell:
So this is mid nineties. Yep. Mid nineties. Actually…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you said…

Reggie Tidwell:
…ended up graduating with my BFA in graphic design and December of ’97.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Tell me what it was studying design back then, because you also have the big advent of the personal computer. You’ve got the coming of the internet as we know it. What was it studying design during that time?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, it was wild. I mean, first and foremost, we’re working on Apple Performs 4500s I think was the model number.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
And I mean these things were tanks and dinosaurs. You could have Photoshop open, only, or Illustrator, but not both. And if, we’re talking 32 megabytes of RAM and I mean lots of crashes, so you had to frequently save your work. We definitely did some cut and paste stuff because that was just not too far out of the rear view mirror that people were still making the migration to computer. So there was still a lot of manual cut and copy and paste, cut and paste design, lot of assemblage, a lot of that stuff was still going on. So of course it was part of our curriculum.
And I’ll tap into my photography side as well. I always find it a little bit of a, for me, I paid my dues. It was a rite of passage that I actually got to do photography. I got to take photos using film and understand the value of the frame and not just take in 450 shots and hoping there’s a good one in there. And then actually developing my film in the dark room, all that stuff was happening around the same time, which all feels of course very archaic now. But that was the start. That was what it was like back then.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like it was just really hands on because the computer couldn’t do everything. I mean, it could do some things, but you still, like you said, have to do copy and paste, or cut and paste, or you still have to take photos and develop them yourself. It’s so wild now when I think about digital cameras, because I remember in high school having Fun Saver cameras. You go to the party, you have your Fun Saver camera, you take all kind of shots, you don’t know what you’re going to get back until you get it back from Eckerd or wherever that you got them developed at. But yeah, and I took a photography course back then too, so I know about developing in the dark room and stuff, which now seems… It’s funny. I’ll watch a movie or something and they always paint it as this, I don’t know, old school way of doing things. Developing. And it’s not that far away from now.

Reggie Tidwell:
No. No. And honestly it’s become of a niche for some people. I know a lot of people that actually I say a lot, but a handful of people that are still shooting film and still developing in that handful of dark rooms that are left. And it’s something, I think maybe they embrace it, not because they’re too stubborn to switch to digital, but it’s a craft for them. Some of them are people that have embraced digital, but they also still really love film. I admire that. I think it’s great. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the smelling the smell of fixer and then and not knowing what you’re going to get until you are dropping it into the developer and hoping that you nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I could imagine even doing design back then because computers were changing and software was changing and everything. Were there trends back then? I’m just curious because I feel like a lot of stuff still carried over from print, but were there specific graphic design trends that you remember from back then?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean I think there was a time where decorative fonts were really starting to become prevalent. And you started, I mean this was quite honestly, I think this was when fonts like Hobo were actually still being used.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
Oh yeah, yeah. Papyrus. Yeah, I feel like there was a exploration… Fonts just exploded. And with the advent of the computer, fonts started off trickling in and then they exploded. And I think designers had to be really disciplined to not, I feel like most designers were going really far out and using all these crazy decorative fonts and still having their design disciplines about them. So they may only use one decorative font and a nice San Serif that balanced it. But those fonts were not elegant, at all. And it of course, depending on what you were trying to do with it. And I think what has happened, we’ve seen from a time where people were trying to get away from using the tried and true fonts, the Adobe Garamond, the Futura. People were feeling like those were overused or they were too basic and so they had to expand their typeface horizons. And then I find these days, man, some of the best brands go back to basics and are going back to some of those tried and true fonts and looking for things that are a little more elegant.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t even think about the proliferation of typefaces as something that was part of design back then, but it was. I mean really because you had, of course, greater displays that were coming out and you could just do more than what you could do with print in terms of the types of typefaces. You just had different things.

Reggie Tidwell:
I think that was it. I think it was so many people were used to doing manual print design and then all of a sudden you’ve got access to 3000 fonts. Hold me back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s exactly what it was.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Maryville. You’re out there in the real world as a designer. What was that early postgrad career like? Talk to me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So the first thing I did, so going back to that whole wanting to be an entrepreneur thing, that still was in me. I still definitely wanted to have my own business and I started actually working with clients before I graduated. I worked at Office Depot, so I met a lot of people and there were people coming in that needed business cards, but they were really awful designs that they had or they didn’t have one at all. And I said, “Well this is what I do.” So I started developing a clientele before I even graduated and then spent the first year postgrad being an entrepreneur, working in the basement of the apartment that I lived at in at the time, it was actually a townhome, doing branding work. And it was mostly just branding and identity systems that I was doing early on. But about a year into that, being someone that’s super social, I started to get that cabin fever and wasn’t around people as much as I’d like to be.
And so I had a side job working at Circuit City. On one particular day I was venting about, man, I really think I want to work in an agency or a company. And there was a guy by the name of Mike whose dad headed up a division of Lid Industries, which Lid is a Fortune 500 company and they had a division in St. Louis called PRC. The acronym got dissolved, so I don’t know what it ever originally meant, but it was in PRC. Anyway, they were hiring a resident graphic designer and at the time, you’ll appreciate this, in terms of historical relevance in the design and web design world. They had a Macromedia authorized training facility and I got the interview, got the job. They wanted me to teach Flash and Fireworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I ended up being the only guy in St. Louis teaching Flash through a Macromedia authorized program. And so that really just kicked off all kinds of just awesome awesomeness in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know you were in high demand back then. Cause Flash was everywhere. Everywhere.

Reggie Tidwell:
Everywhere and everything. And that was right at the onset of its popularity. So I stayed with that company for about a year, ended up, gosh, being in a big metropolitan area, teaching Flash was awesome. So I ended up getting hired away by a information graphics company called Xplain. And I ended up being their interactive team leader. That was pretty exciting. Did that, ended up teaching at Washington University while I was there because the Art and Design faculty at Washington University wanted to learn Flash. I did a summer workshop for the Art and Design faculty. They loved it so much they invited me to create a multimedia class as part of their visual communications curriculum based on Flash and other video and other multimedia applications. And that was amazing. And I ended up partnering with a lot of design agencies in the St. Louis area, fairly large agencies because they didn’t have a web team or division.
So that was cool. I ultimately got laid off from Xplain. They went through four rounds of layoffs. I went in the last round and because they still needed the work that I did, they became my first client. So that’s how I started Curve Theory in 2000, and or in 2001. It was just one of those things. I was still popular, the work was still necessary, the company was needing to make some pivots. And that was a blessing on my end because I always wanted to have my own business business. And that’s how it happened. I started, I launched Curve Theory with them as my first client 21 years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I can’t think of a better way to roll into entrepreneurship like that. You were already super highly sought out for your design work in another medium. The company you’re working with goes out of business. You start your own business. That’s perfect. That’s a perfect handoff.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, it was. And they didn’t go out of business, thankfully. They did go back to their original, I think they grew to like 45 employees at one point, but they went back to the original 13 and they’re still around a day and they’re still thriving. But yeah, it’s getting kicked out of the nest but then given a nice little mattress to land on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
It was great. And I really love St. Louis, but I definitely knew that at some point I was going to want to leave St. Louis.

Maurice Cherry:
So what brought you to North Carolina?

Reggie Tidwell:
So at the time, the woman that I was dating was also in that same head space that she was ready to leave St. Louis. I was still teaching in Washington University and then actually had just been encouraged by the design chair, the Art and Design faculty chair to apply for this tenure track position that was opening up in the Art and Design department. And so I was at this crossroads where in my heart I knew I really didn’t want to stay in St. Louis that much longer. Things… I had envisioned leaving St. Louis almost as soon as I graduated but things kept falling into place career wise, which was great because those things were setting me up. But at one point my partner and I, ex-partner and I, were having these frequent conversations about where we would ever relocate to and at one point I mentioned that a good buddy of mine had in passing talked about moving to North Carolina.
And so I asked her, “What do you know about North Carolina?” And she said, “Oh my god, Asheville. Asheville is absolutely amazing. You would love it. Check it out.” And of course, since we had the web then, I looked it up and I mean, I think within 20 minutes I knew it’s where I wanted to be. It wasn’t landlocked. There’s a four hour drive to the ocean. Mountains, waterfalls, streams everywhere. Hiking trails, mountain bike trails, you name it. That’s the kind of guy that I was. I mean, thankfully had a father who raised me. In the time I spent with him, we would go camping and hiking. And so early on I garnered a love or appreciation of the outdoors.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you had the job that allowed you to do this work from anywhere. So why not go to a place you really want to go?

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. I actually, I had to finish that first semester at Washington University and then I had the whole spring semester. So this was in 2023. Loved that semester, loved my students. Finished that semester, turned in my grades in May and the following weekend was Memorial Day weekend. I’d literally moved a week after I turned in my grades and never looked back.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been there ever since.

Reggie Tidwell:
And been here ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’ve been a part of the Asheville design community now for such a long time. You mentioned your community work earlier and you’re the founding president of AIGA Asheville, a new chapter. What was behind bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville?

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s a great question, Maurice. So for me, one of the things I did mention that I was on the board for the St. Louis chapter in the mix there. I think I joined the chapter while I was, might have been while I was still at Lid in PRC, but I know I did two or three years on the board as their web chair for the St. Louis chapter. And I really love that community of design, the comradery, the people that you surround yourself with understand your day to day trials and tribulations, they get it. So that was, I really appreciated that as it pertained to the design community in St. Louis. And I got to Asheville and we didn’t have that. As a matter of fact, I was trying to find designers just to connect with, just to network with and they just weren’t around.
I think I had maybe three or four design friends at the time, but we knew there were more designers in and around the area, there just wasn’t anything in place to help bring them out. Out of the woodwork. And so we had a lot of early conversations about, I would reach out to these other designers that I knew in the area and tell them how much I wanted to have a chapter in Asheville, because the closest chapters were in Knoxville and Charlotte. It’s a couple hour drive each way in either direction. And so for me, just selfishly, I’m like, God, I want that here. I don’t want to drive two hours to have community. It took a while. Originally you had to have 40 sustaining members just to even be considered to have a chapter. And I think given the fact that we were having a hard time finding 20 designers in Asheville at the time, that was a tall order.
So we ended up creating this thing called Design Salon, which ended up being a hang for designers in the area. And the more people gathered, the more the work got spread out, and the more designers you realized were here. The more you understood that there were some really talented people that were in Asheville. And because Asheville is such a draw for people all over the world, somebody that’s here now probably wasn’t here two weeks ago. That’s how’s how it works. There was a woman named Jamie Farris who’s also a really good friend of mine that took Design Salon and started adding programming to it, and that made it even better. And so the more program she added, the better. The more it had an actual format instead of just being a creative hangout, the more I saw that we were there, it was time.
And so 2019 was when I had a feasibility meeting. I just called a bunch of people that I knew and they invited other people and I said, “Hey, I think it’s time to finally start a chapter.” I didn’t actually know the requirements had changed in my mind. I was still thinking 40 sustaining members. So half the way through, we learned that it was only 20 sustaining members, but we actually turned in our petition to become a chapter with 43 sustaining members, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Just because we are a little bit of a smaller city and I wanted to show how bad we really wanted to be a chapter.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And from that first meeting I was able to build our first board of really awesome and engaged founding board members. So yeah, we started literally the year before the pandemic and have thrived through the pandemic and we’re still kicking it.

Maurice Cherry:
That is amazing. That’s amazing to hear that. And now when you say sustaining members, is that members at a particular membership tier? Because I feel like they had that at one… I feel like sustaining was one of the, if not the top, but one of the top tiers you have to have.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I think Design Leader was the one after that. I think the sustaining member was at the $250 giving level and then it went to Design Leader, which doubled to 500.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And so that is, especially for a professional association, that was a lot to ask, but I was just elated that many people wanted it to and believed in us having a chapter that much that they signed up. We still have a tremendous amount of sustaining members. We probably have more sustaining members than we have in any other giving level. And they have changed the price structure and the names of the giving levels a bit. And so it’s, I think easier now than ever to join the AIGA and I feel like that was part of the reason behind just sort making it a little simpler, especially after the pandemic. But yeah, it’s quite wonderful to be in a city that now has a chapter. We have great programming. We’re putting on our first design weekend, which is a mini design week that’s coming up at the end of the month.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh. Very nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, first weekend of October, so it’s September 30th through October 2nd. Super excited about that. We got David Carson coming to speak at our annual meeting in November. That’s going to be pretty cool, Mr. Masterclass himself. So yeah, we’re happy to have a chapter and we’re happy to be able to have such a positive impact on our design community and that means everything for me.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all your experiences, is this how you imagine yourself when you were a kid in St. Louis?

Reggie Tidwell:
No, not at all. And it’s funny because I think being a kid in St. Louis and growing up where I grew up, I feel like my grandmother knew and saw my potential, but I didn’t see it because it’s hard. I’m surrounded by the things that I was surrounded by. And I think it’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re in that scenario. And for me, I don’t think, honestly, I still get surprised. I think at some point in your life, Maurice, when you’ve accomplished a lot, when you’ve done a lot, when you’ve had this longevity of experiences and learning, at some point you start to realize that people see that in you and they see all the experience and all the leadership and the guidance and they start to seek it out.
I get called to be on boards, I turned down probably seven board positions last year. I’m publicly a leader. And so I think it still surprises me sometimes where, and I think it also surprises me that sometimes somebody asks me a question and I think I’m still that 25 year old in school and still on his path figuring things out, and learning, and discovering. But then I start to answer, I hear the question and then my head just gets filled with all of this relevant information that you don’t even really think about. You’re not just sitting around thinking about all the stuff, but when someone calls and asks for mentoring or it’s a colleague you’re just shooting a breeze with. You start to realize how much of that stuff is in there and it’s quite amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do now?

Reggie Tidwell:
I think for me it’s those relationships and experiences. I’ve always said that if I won the lottery and had all the money that I would ever need, I would still be a designer. I would still do design, I would just do mostly nonprofit work, and do it pro bono, and just take a select number of projects a year. I love the work, I’m passionate about the work, and I’m passionate about the people that I get to work with. I’m very particular about the clients. If a client doesn’t seem like they’re the right fit or I’m not going to have a mutually enjoyable experience, then I’ll pass on a project. And I’m pretty thankful to be in a place in my career where I can do that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give for someone who, they’re listening to this interview, they’re hearing how you’ve come up throughout your career. What advice would you give somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps?

Reggie Tidwell:
I would say, and I talk to young people all the time, I actually mentor. And the thing that I feel like is the most important is to really keep exploring who you are and what you like, and don’t follow the money. I feel like it’s very easy to, I’ll talk back to a time in my life when I worked at Office Depot when I was Florissant Valley in Junior College, I was asked to get into the managerial track at Office Depot where at the time I might have made, once becoming a manager, I may have made $35,000 or $30,000, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. And that’s a very easy distraction. That’s a very easy temptation. And I had a friend at the time who also was a really, really talented artist. He also was wanting to go to design school.
He ended up getting in that track and hated it. It just completely dominated his life. He wasn’t fulfilled. The money at some point wasn’t even relevant because he never had time to spend any of it because he worked so much. I turned it down because I knew, I think at this point I was already at Maryville University, so I was already in the graphic design program. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. So in order to get to that point, you have to do some self exploration. You have to understand who you are, what it is that you really value and set your sites on being able to do that for a living. And don’t waiver.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What sort of work would you like to be doing?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I would love to retire in five years. I’m 51. So that’s definitely a tall order, but in a perfect world, I might completely crush it for the next five, six years or so and retire early, or at least partially retire. But I do see myself in leadership. I do see myself still trying to bring positive change to communities in whatever way I can. Through social justice, through design leadership, through, I’ve hinted at the thought of being, it’s been mentioned and it’s been a internal conversation and conversation I’ve had with colleagues about the AIGA trajectory, and perhaps maybe serving on a national board at some point. I have friends on the national board. I love the organization and I love what the organization provides to the design community. And I always see its potential is limitless and to be able to serve in that world at a higher level, definitely. But yeah, that’s probably something that I would look to within my five year trajectory. And more than anything, I always want to make sure that the work that I’m doing continues to be meaningful.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you should definitely consider it. I mean, I’ve done work at the volunteer level, at the national level, and it’s great. It’s been great. I highly think you should do it. And I’m sure other people have probably mentioned this to you as well, but there’s a book in your story. There’s a hundred percent a book in your story.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I don’t know if anyone’s outright said that, but I definitely know there’s stuff in there that I always find it intriguing to look back in my past and see where I’ve been, and where I am, and how I’ve been inspired, and how I’m now able to inspire. That all is important to me. But yeah, thanks for saying that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, there’s a hundred percent a book in your story. I mean, one, I think just because of how you have managed yourself through how design and technology have changed, but then also I think your personal story added in as a layer on top of that. And with the work that you’re doing now through volunteering and giving back, that’s the best seller. You might want to think about it. You might want to think about it. I’m just saying I’m putting it out there.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thanks. You’ll get their first copy for sure.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. So curvetheory.com. C-U-R-V-E-T-H-E-O-R-Y dot com is my commercial website. There is a link to my print work on there, which yeah, prints are great, but if you want to see the bulk of my commercial photography, landscape stuff, nature, and cityscapes, that’s a good place to go. I also am on Instagram Curve Theory on Instagram. And there I don’t really put a whole lot of design work on. I do have a separate account that I’m hoping to start building up my, putting all my design work on, but really photography… Years ago I had a mix of photography and design and it always just felt all over the place for me. And one of the things I always noticed when I go to other Instagram accounts and I see these really nicely curated feeds that everything just, there’s something nice about the continuity and you’re like beautiful landscapes, and then there’s a logo. It just feels odd placed. And so I took all my design stuff off of there and it’s just my photography on my Instagram account. But those are the best places to find me. And I’m also on LinkedIn. Reggie Tidwell on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Reggie Tidwell, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, of course, like I just mentioned about there’s a book in you, your story and the passion and the service that you’ve given back to the design community is something that I think is really inspiring for a lot of people. Certainly your local community. But I hope that people that listen to this interview also pick up on that as well, because you mentioned being raised by your grandmother and her being a teacher, those values that she instilled in you, you’re continuing to give those back out to the community, which are really the basis of your success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Tidwell:
Hundred percent agree about my grandmother, and thank you so much for having me on, Maurice. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

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