Desiree Gibbs

Desiree Gibbs is laser-focused on who she wants to be and how she expresses herself. Those skills come in handy not just in her work as a UI designer, but through the projects she oversees and clients she serves as the proprietor of Nü Bläc Studio.

We spoke on St. Patrick’s Day, so our conversation actually started off with both of us discussing how to navigate this new social distancing reality due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Desiree also talked about growing up between Japan and the United States, attending the University of Texas at Arlington for design, and even how former guests Gus Granger and Jacinda Walker helped show her the importance of seeing more Black designers in this industry. Desiree says she wants to ultimately become the most solidified version of herself, and with her skills and drive, she’s well on her way to making that happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Desiree Gibbs:
So I’m Desiree Gibbs. I am a UI designer located in Dallas, Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the Dallas design seem like, I’m curious?

Desiree Gibbs:
In some ways, it’s very large. In some ways it’s very small. I would say that it’s innovative when you meet the right people, very inspirational, again, when you meet the right people, but otherwise, they do a lot of different work, sometimes in behind the scenes, sometimes at the forefront. It’s pretty much a huge mixture depending on your immediate circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that it’s more like tech-oriented or more like artsy?

Desiree Gibbs:
I would say a little more artsy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
But now that tech is pretty much booming there are a lot of large companies that are trying to add their headquarters to Dallas. It’s starting to turn a little more tech now that those companies are relocating and adding new offices out here. I haven’t seen that change much yet, but that’s definitely something on the agenda that’s in the near future.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, and now currently you’re working at Citi, is that right?

Desiree Gibbs:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it’s like, what’s your regular day to day like there? I’ll mention that we are recording this, it’s March 17th and we’re recording this. So we are in the midst of a global pandemic, which is causing a lot of companies to have to now shift to working from home for a lot of their workforce. But as much as you can talk about, tell me like what it’s like working at Citi?

Desiree Gibbs:
So before this all happened, Citi was really interesting to me because a bunch of us were hired at the same time. So there was a lot of newbs hanging out together, which is awesome because then you’re all on the same page, you don’t know anything.

Desiree Gibbs:
So in the beginning, it was a really cool mashup of getting on board with how their culture is, as well as like kind of forming our own little groups and getting to know each other since everyone’s new. From there, once we’ve split up into our teams or our lines of business, they like to call them domains, we really just learn our team really well.

Desiree Gibbs:
Luckily, I’m on a team full of nerds and being a nerd, it’s awesome. All pretty artsy nerds. Pretty like Star Wars, sci-fi, some sort of tech nerds. So we all really get along really well. I never would have thought I’d find a team like that in a place as corporate as Citi, but alas, it does exist.

Desiree Gibbs:
So for me that was a really happy thing that kind of blew my eyes open about Citi, especially since I used to work at The Beck Group. The Beck Group was a really corporate based company. They built half a Dallas, so it’s a very old company as well. So I kind of was expecting Citi to be just as corporate-like, very straight forward. But they are quite the opposite in all the good ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What kind of projects are you working on?

Desiree Gibbs:
So currently I work with some of our partner work. I think like companies that everybody knows about, like American Airlines and we have a card with them, and then newer partners as well. So that I’m pretty much excited for.

Desiree Gibbs:
I don’t know if I’m allowed to mention them, so I’m not going to mention them, but there’s some small hosting type companies that I’m really excited to work on, as well as internally we have some products that we’re opening up, some new things, some old things.

Desiree Gibbs:
A lot of what I’m doing right now is like updating new products to match a new look really. Citi’s been around for quite a while and they’re looking to revamp their look. So it’s an exciting moment to get to be on a team that kind of just pulls open the curtain for a new design for an entire company. So that’s pretty much where we’re at right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, as I did mention we’re recording this during this time where a lot of companies are now basically mandating that their employees now work from home because of COVID-19/the coronavirus. It’s caused, I mean what I can really only describe as massive social, political, commercial and financial upheaval in general. How are you feeling?

Desiree Gibbs:
It’s kind of weird for me and I would say even though I’m an ambivert, when I’m working, I like to work physically where I need to work because of the environment. The environment is really important for me to make sure my mindset changes and the people I’m working around, like my team is really cool. And so, you kind of miss those like small conversations that happen, that kind of add a touch to whatever you’re working on, or even just your mood in that specific moment.

Desiree Gibbs:
And so, now that we’re digital, we completely miss that, that just so happen to walk by moment or that random foosball game that helps you distress. And so, now it’s like I’m sitting in my room on my couch because I don’t have a desk. Thankfully I have wifi and a TV table I can pull out and kind of get settled into a workspace, but it’s a little odd.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Desiree Gibbs:
It’s definitely different in that … Like I said, I mentioned to a couple of people outside of work too that it’s different even when I’m off work, like I’m used to a routine and routine is very important for me. I’m a very methodical person when it comes to things like that.

Desiree Gibbs:
And so, when I get in a routine for work, that’s how I know what to expect every day. And so, now it’s kind of an adjustment to create a new routine to get my head into the work mode as well as my surroundings as work mode as possible to make sure that I’m productive and still be able to reach out to my peers and my coworkers to get feedback and check-ins. So it’s a little weird.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you finding that the team is also kind of going through I guess, that same change where it’s like, “Now we’re working in an office together.” I mean you mentioned this is a group of people that you really like and now you’re all at home, working. How is the team kind of been doing?

Desiree Gibbs:
I don’t think any of them like it really, and I’ll say this because, so Citi actually implemented a alternate work routine to where one team … they split the company in half much and split certain teams in half and Team A would come on one week, Team B would be working from home, and it would switch every week.

Desiree Gibbs:
So we had only gotten about two weeks into that before everybody was just like, “Let’s just stay home.” I mean, even during that week people were like, “I don’t know how to handle this. This is weird. The building feels like a ghost town.”

Desiree Gibbs:
Some of the people on my team they’re socializers so they need that people on people interaction and it’s hard to work at home in an environment you’re not used to working in and being either distracted by other people who sound like they’re having fun outside.

Desiree Gibbs:
Because here sometimes some kids, some families, their kids are on spring break and those spring breaks are actually being extended because of to prevent the spread of the virus. So it’s actually going to be two weeks of kids’ spring breaking. So it’s very odd. I don’t think any of us really like it all that much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ve closed the schools here and I’ve heard, I don’t know, it hasn’t been super noisy. My apartment overlooks the pool in my complex so it’s usually only noisy in the summer because like kids are at the pool. Right now, the pool is not open so it hasn’t been super bad. The play area in my complex is a little bit further away from where my window is, but it’s a big shift. It’s a big change.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean one like you said for the fact that there’s kids around because school is being extended for spring break, in some places schools are closed. But then also just the adjustment of now taking what is your living space, which was not a workspace and now having to not only sort of convert it into a workspace, but then you have to still be expected to keep the same work output as if you were in the office.

Desiree Gibbs:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Desiree Gibbs:
It’s a lot. I will say too that in the design world, it’s normal to work on more than one screen. So while we’re there, we’re working on three screens and it’s easy to be a little more productive because you can easily switch between screens really well.

Desiree Gibbs:
Now that I’m on a laptop, it’s a little bit harder to navigate, and since I’m doing design, it’s sketch. So sketch, you’re working on multiple screens at multiple times. You have all these layers and artboards. It’s very easy to switch between that on multiple screens or even just two screens. So I will say that that’s another thing that I know a lot of my coworkers are having … it takes a minute for them to adjust to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Are you finding that your employer is at least sympathetic to the situation? Do they know that this is something everyone’s going through and so we’re all kind of in this adjustment period?

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely. One thing I really appreciate is that we’ve actually been having weekly call-ins, like all-hands call in to where our lead update us on what’s going because one of our locations, our main locations is in New York.

Desiree Gibbs:
And so, New York has been one of the top states really that have been on the news about the breakout. So from there, they’re really sympathetic to people who want to work from home to be more cautious and people who have kids who are out early because of it.

Desiree Gibbs:
So they’re able to work from home and this is in the beginning stages. Now, one thing I appreciate because I also practice it, is meditation. So one week for one of these calls, we opened up the call with just a few minutes of meditation, whether you’re into it or not, or if you want to try it, you can, if you don’t, that’s fine.

Desiree Gibbs:
But a lot of people are experiencing a lot of anxiety from other people, and even if they’re not watching the news, they’re experiencing some panic or some negative emotion that affects them. So that’s one thing I definitely noticed about them off the back, is that they’re definitely empathetic to the whole situation.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s great. I think that meditation idea is really, really good too, because like you said, there’s multiple stressors that are at play. The thing about working from home, and I mentioned this to you before we started …

Maurice Cherry:
… at play. The thing about working from home and I mentioned this before we started recording, I’ve been working at home for a long time is that it takes a good while to get set up into a work from home routine. And that companies really should not expect employees to just fall right into line I would say within the first month of doing it. It takes a while, because it’s not only a behavioral change in terms of just being able to focus while you’re there. But in many times it’s also a change of your physical surroundings. Like you said, you don’t have a desk, you may have to get a desk if this is an extended thing.

Desiree Gibbs:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
If you’re doing something where you’re transferring a lot of files, you may have to get a larger internet package. If you have roommates or you live with elderly parents or something. That’s another stressor that you have to deal with now on top of work. Work is now not the escape from that. It’s right there. And if you have kids too, your kids are going to be there with you all day in the house while you’re working.

Desiree Gibbs:
Got to feed them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, got to feed them, got to tend to them. They’re going to want to see what mom and dad is doing and everything. And also some places just don’t have great wifi.

Desiree Gibbs:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
So there’s a lot of things that have to go into working from home and it really takes time to get a setup. The fact that so many companies I think moved to it quickly is good because it did show that people are taking this seriously. But it’s a big shift. You can’t just go from in the office on Monday to now being on Zoom on Tuesday and think everything’s going to be the same. It’s not. And I think what we’re seeing now, especially if you look on Twitter and stuff, is that people are, I guess they’re dealing with it in their own way. Finding whatever stack of books they can make so they can have a standing desk or doing something where they’re drinking during the day.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, people are coping in very interesting ways. Because again, it’s not just that you’re working, but also the other stress of just being in the situation is, it’s a lot. It’s a lot and I don’t want to dwell on it for this because this is about you, but this is something that is going on right now and I did want to make sure that we kind of give at least some space for it.

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely, it gives some context as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Desiree Gibbs:
I wouldn’t be working from home. Some of the things I have to do now are definitely dependent on the fact that we’re in this situation right now. So I definitely agree with that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. So I want to go more into your career, because you mentioned the Beck Group, but before that I want to just go back to the beginning. Where did you grow up?

Desiree Gibbs:
That is a tricky question and it always is for military brat.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
I grew up in multiple places. I spent most of my childhood split between Japan, Virginia, and Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh?

Desiree Gibbs:
My dad was in the air force and so my family moved around to wherever he was stationed.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first feel like you were exposed to design in a way that you understood it?

Desiree Gibbs:
Man, I’ve been drawn since I was a little kid. I was a artsy little freak. I still have drawings from when I was in man, probably like first grade, second grade, somewhere in my mom’s storage attic, wherever. Of me drawing sailor moon with color pastels, I’ve always been the artsy-fartsy child or the family. Everybody else was way over there. But as far as design, I knew that design was a little bit different for me though. Because when I was in middle school, I used to think about doing code. So where I’m at is very much a marriage between the analytical side of design as well as the artsy-fartsy part to where everything’s … Looks pretty or it’s coordinated, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when you were in school, I guess in high school you decided you wanted to go to college also for design. Is that right?

Desiree Gibbs:
So-so. Now I think about it, it wasn’t really a decision I made. I just expected that that’s where I’d be going anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
So I actually did architecture first for a couple of years and then actually switched to graphic design at the same school. I wanted to graduate on time was one of the reasons, and I found that I really like architecture, but I wanted to be a little more artsy as well. And with design, I actually got to take more of the classes that I wanted to take on top of being a little more creative from the front end of it than I would have an architecture.

Maurice Cherry:
You would not be the first person that has been on the show that started in college in architecture and then veered sort of towards design. So that’s an interesting kind of a, I don’t know, maybe there’s something about. Maybe you tell me, is there something about architecture that just doesn’t lend itself to that kind of more creative design that you do now?

Desiree Gibbs:
I would say in the beginning I definitely thought that it was too analytical for me with … I mentioned that I’m ambivert, which is someone who’s pretty much 50% introvert, 50% extrovert. Our brain is also the same way. I use pretty much both my left side and my right side of the brain equally. So I’m complicated in the fact that I need something to stimulate both, no matter what I’m doing. So with architecture it was a little too analytical for me. In the stages I was in, it was too far on that side of the brain. So when I switched over to design, I was able to really more or less choose the balance between the two. So, that I think definitely architecture was that thing. But I will say architecture did help me realize that I do love rules and the rule-based structure organization of UX design is really, that’s where that marriage is for me. That’s that connection from architecture definitely led me to UX design for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just about to ask if you saw any kind of parallels between UI and architecture, but it sounds like that rule based kind of methodology is what really works for you.

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely. I mean, for me a lot of the way they teach art now in college and in schools, they teach you the rules first and then you learn how to break them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Desiree Gibbs:
That’s pretty much, before I was like, “That’s BS. That doesn’t make any sense.” But now as I kind of think about design, specifically UX design as well as architecture is that once you do know the rules. Once you know how to build a building that’s not going to collapse on people, then you can lend yourself to doing the creative crazy stuff that you want to do. Whether it’s the interior or the exterior to be able to do that, pull out that creative side.

Maurice Cherry:
So at the time you’re at the University of Texas at Arlington, what was going on in your life? What was that time in your life like?

Desiree Gibbs:
Wow, that was a tricky time for me. So college they say is the best time of your life. Me, I stressed myself out, so it wasn’t really great for me. But it did help me see things in it from a different perspective. I think one thing that I learned from going to school is that not everyone’s there to help you, which is a really, really tough thing to learn as you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you want to do. And that goes from people I meet, from students to teachers. The way college is portrayed is that it’s this perfect thing that it’ll teach you all the things and you’ll get a degree and you’ll get a banging job right after. And that just wasn’t the case for me. It wasn’t easy. It was very tough. I also wasn’t the kind of person to ask for help. And then when the time came that I did ask for help, it was I asked the wrong person.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Desiree Gibbs:
So for me it was tough. There were some great things. I do love learning. So for me learning things from different perspectives and learning about different cultures, which is where that military brat part of me comes in, that I loved. I actually took an archeology class, which has nothing to do with architecture and nothing to do with design, but in some ways it really does. So it was kind of interesting to see and learn all these different things from these different classes and be able to kind of cross them over sort of like the UX design. Like I say, I’m going to keep coming back to that. The crossover of information. I love reading about that. I love learning about that. So that was the pro of college for me, meeting all the different people, and learning all the different things. The cons was learning my weaknesses really in the hardest way possible.

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha, yeah. So what was your kind of first design gig after you graduated?

Desiree Gibbs:
Actually, if we want to count when I wasn’t in college, because while I was … My last couple semesters actually worked in the art history office of my school and I was actually redesigning their new website and updating their old one for the museum. And doing various other art projects within the department. That was very diverse actually as far as projects. So loving that I found the next job I went to, which was more of a startup. From there I did a bunch of different projects. I can’t even, and this is actually after my apprenticeship with the Beck Group. The Beck Group was really, like I said corporate. There’s a lot of corporate material, small stuff.

Desiree Gibbs:
I did a lot of production design as well, so that’s kind of why I skipped over it just a little bit because the [inaudible 00:23:02] from graphic design at my school and how diverse those projects were pushed me into Codestream Studios, which is where I was also an instructor. I actually taught web code on top of graphic design and design thinking. So whenever I got to do the artsy part of it, I was able to do that and teach that at the same time of teaching web. I would say that was my official first gig outside of UT Arlington, because that was something I did for pretty much full time as much as I could on top of the other job I had on top of that.

Maurice Cherry:
And what did that experience really teach you at Codestream Studios? What did that experience teach you?

Desiree Gibbs:
Since I was the only graphic designer there, I definitely learned a lot about what other people think graphic design is. A lot of people think it’s marketing, social media, anything that you can think of that’s artsy, they think it’s graphic design. So I learned that not only was it my job to do some of these things, but also to educate the people around me about what it really was. I’m not an expert at social media. I can create graphics for that and create a concept, but as far as campaigns that I might need some help on.

Desiree Gibbs:
So it was really interesting to learn that I can create all these things, but a lot of people think that I’m doing 10 times more. Like you’re wearing these 10 different hats for sure. But the depth and how tall these hats are, how much information these hats are full of. I think that’s where there’s a disconnect, so that was definitely the main thing I learned while I was there. Also, kids are great. I think it’s very strange how much we like to put them in a box when it comes to certain things. So teaching kids, like K-12 it wasn’t just one grade, it was K-12. Teaching them really reminded me how much I like learning and how much learning could be fun if it’s taught the right way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s really something about seeing how kids learn that really kind of brings that out I think. Because however you’ve learned your knowledge, whether it’s self-taught or if you’ve learned it through a formal program. Being able to distill that and then teach someone else, especially someone much younger. That’s a skill in and of itself. But it also I think requires a lot of hindsight to be able to kind of tie those two things together. Because once upon a time you were that student that was learning. And so-

Desiree Gibbs:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
… how would you have wanted to be taught in that kind of way?

Desiree Gibbs:
I think a lot of it has to do with how you want them to see you, but how you want to show them that you see them. Because a lot of kids get ignored in the classroom too. And even at this job, it’s easy to forget about experiences and people that you’re not living their everyday life. So while I was at this job, I also thought about …

Desiree Gibbs:
… life. So, while I was at this job I also thought about ADA compliance. It’s not really talked about when it comes to design. In school, they don’t talk about that at all. And when I say school, I mean college. They didn’t talk about that at all. They say contrast and the colors that go together, color theory, blah blah blah. But they don’t talk about who you’re designing for past the normal, quote “normal.” Don’t think about just the normal people. Think about past that. So that’s another thing that I thought was really not necessarily annoying, but it definitely opened my eyes up more to learning past just what they want me to learn. Learning past just what they want to have at the forefront. Because there’s more diversity than the person who has two legs, who can see all colors, and has a stable job and two and a half kids and a dog, and a white picket fence. I think learning in that job, it definitely reminded me of that, which a lot of people don’t get.

Maurice Cherry:
You also worked for a group called the Brass Tacks Collective. Can you talk about that?

Desiree Gibbs:
This was a really great experience. The Brass Tacks Collective, which is the first company of its kind, it’s described as a design experience agency. We used to call it a teaching agency as well. But you go in with the concept of learning as an apprentice. You get to explore the different roles within the design industry while working on real client work, but also figuring out what you like to do at the same time. We had a bunch, [inaudible 00:27:41] people from different backgrounds, different age groups, different experiences, and so it was a really great opportunity to meet people who are not the same as you, and learning from them and them learning from you. Additionally, learning skills you wouldn’t think you would need to learn as well.

Desiree Gibbs:
So we actually had a lot besides the design aspect of it. We had a lot of classes that met outside of whatever we were learning. So if we had a videographer, she would also be learning about graphic design and sketch, and how do you sketch, and all the other Adobe products that they may or may not use on top of what is service design, or how do you run a business? And a lot of range of workshops and topics to touch that you can ever think of. It was really great. It’s one thing that I wish we had more often.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I agree. This is something that I’ve covered on the show before, just talking about how people find their way into the design industry. And so for you, it sounds like you, well one, you went to school for design, but then also you had these internships and apprenticeships that have given you the space to fail in a way. And I hate to say it that way, but I do feel like it’s important though.

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Because if you come out of school and you get your first job, of course the expectation is that you’re going to kill it, you’re going to crush it. But as you’ve also just stated, the school design environment and the work design environment are two totally different things. And so it takes time to I guess steel yourself to what it means to be a working designer and what all that comes with.

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely agree.

Maurice Cherry:
So who are some of the people that have really helped motivate and inspire you throughout the years?

Desiree Gibbs:
That is a fairly long list. For me, one issue that I ran into a lot in both architecture and in design at my particular school, is that they didn’t really teach about people of color really. So I was very blind to the representation of people who look like me who do architecture or design. So I was kind of lost, really. I couldn’t figure out how to find my design voice without help or without trying to figure out… Even other classmates. One architecture class, someone pointed out that I was the only black person in there and I didn’t even notice that. And this was in 2000 and, what, 2012, 2013. So you would think it wouldn’t be that bad but-

Maurice Cherry:
I would actually, I would think it would be that bad. Unfortunately I would. That’s still one of the bad things about the industry is, even in this modern state, it’s still very, very white.

Desiree Gibbs:
Yeah. So I had that issue. But then one of my teachers, Pauline, she had this idea to have a diversity inclusion panel event. And she had, Jacinda Walker and Gus Granger were my two main levels of inspiration. Because I had no idea… Actually I think Jacinda flew in out-of-state because she’s, I think right now she’s in Cleveland, Ohio. Gus Granger is actually in Dallas. And I hadn’t heard of him until the panel.

Desiree Gibbs:
So, first experience, first level of definitely inspiration is seeing the differences in how they move in the design world. She’s really a huge educator and advocate, which I am passionate about that and I’m still learning more about that. And while Gus does a lot of design, he’s a chief creative officer. So first two levels. And now today I would say inspiration, pretty-much every black person I meet who’s a designer because we all have very different experiences, but also similar experiences.

Desiree Gibbs:
And I’ve been meeting a lot of people at Dallas Black UX, which is a new group that we have here. I think it’s only two years old actually. And [inaudible 00:32:01] that I met a few of other people who all, a couple of them flew out of state as well, but Adrian Guillory and Mike Tinglin, I believe they both founded that. And that’s something that I frequent now because that’s my current inspiration, is meeting people like me, younger than me, older than me, because I don’t see that anywhere in any of the jobs that I’ve ever done. I don’t see black people and it bothers me. It makes me feel a little lost. So I had to go out and find them. I don’t even know how I found Dallas Black UX, but that continuously has been my inspiration really within the past six months as well.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned Gus and Jacinda, both of whom have also been guests here on Revision Path. And it’s interesting that you mentioned those two because I do feel like they operate at very different ends I guess of how the design community is. Gus, like you mentioned is professional chief creative officer. He helmed an agency in Dallas called 70kft. I think now he works for a different company called Cyxtera I think. Something like that. I don’t remember the actual name of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I just saw Jacinda last month actually. We had our live show in Los Angeles and I hadn’t seen her, I don’t know, God, maybe in about almost a year since then. But yeah, Jacinda’s someone who is always super outspoken and really is an educator and a teacher. And she’s doing a lot of great work now with, I don’t know if I can mention it, well I guess I can mention it. She’s doing a lot of work with the Smithsonian actually, with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, helping them with different design programs and things of that nature. So it’s interesting to see how folks can navigate in this space, and it’s good that you looked at both of them as inspirations because they’re both very inspiring, so good job with that.

Desiree Gibbs:
And kudos to them. Thanks for coming down.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you would love to do one day?

Desiree Gibbs:
Oh man. I come from a family who’s all about service and philanthropy. My grandmother’s a teacher, or she retired a while ago, but she was a teacher. My dad was in the Air Force. He actually won an award for most volunteer hours. I didn’t even know that was an award in the military, but he did it. So for me, my dream project would have to be something very, very giving. I haven’t figured it out yet, but it would have to be so punch-in-the-face awesome with that level, that I would quit my job. It would to be that good. As far as the company, I haven’t found it yet. Maybe a B Corporation company might be something close. But that’s my life goal right there, is to work on a project that helps a lot of people. Cliche and corny but-

Maurice Cherry:
Honestly, not in this day and age it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. Because I think what a lot of designers are starting to see is that the skills that they have can have a lot more use in the world than just an ad campaign or something like that.

Desiree Gibbs:
Yep. A lot of people think that’s all it’s worth, is to make something look nice. Get me more views, get me more impressions, make me more money. And to me that falls flat on humanity. There’s so much more you can do with art than people ever mentioned, that, like I said, I want to punch people in the face so that they know that art is not just, you don’t have to be a starving artist. People still say that and I think it’s a huge misconception. And with my rebellious nature, I want to lend my argument to the fact that it can do so much more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you wish you would have been told about working in the design industry before you started?

Desiree Gibbs:
There are a lot of things. One thing I learned recently from Terell Cobbs, he was one of the speakers, Terell Cobb, sorry. He was one of the speakers at our most recent Dallas Black UX event. He mentioned having a tribe, well not necessarily a tribe, he called them, oh, a board of directors, people around him that he can go to for accountability, advice, suggestions. Someone who’s going to give him the real truth no matter what it is. I’ve never really experienced that. So for most people it kind of comes easily if they have a lot of friends, or if they have family who are very outspoken, who are very straightforward with them. I come from a family of introverts for the most part so that doesn’t come naturally. And so I had to learn to, I wish someone had told me to learn to find that, to learn that skill of reaching out to people a little earlier just to get their feedback, and really finding a group of people that support you.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you finding that now through work?

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely. It’s taken some time to get used to because I don’t like selling myself. It feels strange to put myself on the spot and brag. But if I’m not my own number one fan, who’s going to be my number one fan?

Maurice Cherry:
True. That’s true. And I’ll tell you a little secret too, because I used to be the same way. I hated, well I guess you could say putting yourself out there, but I hated going to events where you have to network because it always felt like I was schmoozing and that it felt inauthentic. But what I’ve come to realize now is that as long as I’m talking about something I’m very passionate about, or if I’m working on a project or doing a project that I’m very passionate about, that sells itself, and that in turn sells you. I hate to say sells, but being able to exhibit the passion through the work lets people in, in a way. It’s a good proxy for that.

Desiree Gibbs:
[inaudible 00:12:17]. I never thought of it like that.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you do to get your creativity back if you’re feeling uninspired? Do you watch a certain thing, listen to music? What’s your routine there?

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely both of those things. I’m a movie nut. I love watching different things. Korean dramas are pretty-much my favorite right now. Actually, really Asian dramas in general. There’s a very cliche, very standard way of doing movies in Hollywood, that I like to divert from that. And Korean dramas, they’re crazy on another level. So watching things that are of different countries or different, really, really my number one go-to. Also music as well.

Desiree Gibbs:
… really, really my number one go to. Also music as well. Apparently I listened to 55 different countries last year on Spotify. I don’t know what those countries are.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Desiree Gibbs:
I thought it was just five. But, apparently that’s also my go to. Another thing I like to do is just to read online. There are a lot of random things you can find online from Manga. I like reading different Manga from different countries as well. There are some good Chinese ones out there. Additionally, recently I’ve been into Mindvalley. And so part of my creative process is thinking about what’s under the creative aspect of it. And maybe it’s not the creative that’s lacking, maybe it’s the structure behind it sometimes. So, additionally I’ll look for different techniques to do different things to get out of my vision bubble to see someone from a different perspective, how would they look at it as well. And sometimes that can change the creative aspect to better match multiple views or perspectives, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. What do you think you would have been if you weren’t a designer?

Desiree Gibbs:
Definitely a fine artist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so still doing something in the creative realm then?

Desiree Gibbs:
Yeah, I think I would also probably be some sort of musician as well. It’d probably be like some weird mashup of both. Art can be crazy and non methodical, while learning how to play an instrument is structured and very pinpointed to certain movements. Right? So, definitely one of those two.

Maurice Cherry:
What instrument do you play?

Desiree Gibbs:
I also have a violin.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
I’d probably play the string instrument, some sort of string instrument for sure. There’s something beautiful about a violin that just irks me in the good way. Very beautiful sound. It can be high. It can be very low. It can be vibrating. So, probably some sort of string instrument for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Earlier we talked about interning, and I mentioned about how internships and apprenticeships can be these spaces to fail when you’re just starting out, which most designers don’t really have in the corporate workplace. But if you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you try to do?

Desiree Gibbs:
Ooh, as far as job wise or-

Maurice Cherry:
Anything.

Desiree Gibbs:
Anything?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Desiree Gibbs:
If I could do anything. So this has been how I do my freelance but, you know how Issa Rae said, “I’m rooting for everybody black.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Desiree Gibbs:
I would design for everybody black, because I’m tired of seeing these ugly club flyers on my windshield. I mean, our cultural is awesome. So, to bump it up and give it the love it deserves, I would definitely be designing for black people full time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, would it just be flyers or were you looking-

Desiree Gibbs:
Bigger than that. Pretty much everything. I would say I would have a full stack level of designers from engineers, product designers. That would be a really cool place to work. Just the Wakanda of design.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m surprised no one has really tried to come up with that, especially since Black Panther came out.

Desiree Gibbs:
Right. You know, who’s to say we don’t know it exists. I know someone who-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true.

Desiree Gibbs:
Bree Moore, she’s a fashion designer coordinator. She’s a business woman. She’s been doing something very similar with her brand. She does work for a lot of black businesses. I think she’s ahead of her time really, because she’s been doing that since a few years ago and she’s community-based as well. So she’s really giving the love back to Dallas, that it’s given her.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Desiree Gibbs:
Who knows? There may be a small little company out there who’s doing it already. You just don’t know yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Who knows? They might be listening. You never know.

Desiree Gibbs:
This is true. Keep it up, whoever you are.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, hopefully we have blown past this current dystopia. What do you see yourself doing in the next five years?

Desiree Gibbs:
In the next five years? I hope to be the most solidified version of myself, really. I mentioned earlier that college was really stressful for me. Working an apprenticeship and a startup both at the same time was a little rough. Between being out of a job for six months, I really opened up my schedule to do some personal growth, as well as professional. So, since I’m still in like the early stages of that, in about five years I picture myself to be exactly where I’m supposed to be, wherever that is. Still figuring it out a little bit. But I know for sure it’s in the world of art and design.

Desiree Gibbs:
I hope to be in my tiny house, traveling remotely, educating people, inspiring people to love the earth we live on, on top of doing whatever they love to do. That’s definitely the vision I see for myself within five years, for sure.

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

Desiree Gibbs:
So which work? Not risking. So, I do a lot of things actually. Outside of a designer, I design jewelry as well. Honestly, if you can find me by that page and you can find me everywhere else. I do design through NU BLAC STUDIO. It’s N-U-B-L-A-C dot studio. If you just Google that, you’ll find me. That’s also my website, NUBLAC STUDIO. From there, it links to my Etsy page where I sell my jewelry and my Instagram page where I showcase my jewelry. Actually, those are really the two spaces I live. Instagram and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
And you say there is a link to the Instagram on your website?

Desiree Gibbs:
Yes. From my about page it links to … Anything I do creatively it’s under Dezi Unique, D-E-Z-I Unique. And that’s where I do my art, like my black goth portrait series and my jewelry design, eco-friendly jewelry design, because I’m a bit of a hippie, too. And then most of my actual UI/UX design is on NUBLAC STUDIO.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. You can’t leave without not talking more about the black goth portrait series. You buried the lead here. I want to know more about it. Tell me about this.

Desiree Gibbs:
Sure, sure. So, in the beginning I mentioned I’m a UI designer. If you just met me, I would consider myself a serial entrepreneur. From a very, very personal note, I would consider myself an Afro hippie goth.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
From there, it’s pretty much me, modern hippie tree hugger, plus the goth side of myself. So the alternative side of myself. So, from there I actually designed jewelry when I was in high school, and it’s grown from ear chains to jewelry I made on accident, really. I was trying to make a pyramid and it turned into these cool spike looking things that I’ve kind of expanded into that.

Desiree Gibbs:
And then growing into that more alternative lifestyle, I recognized that I was goth. And from there I wanted to showcase people. Black goths get a lot of crap because one, we’re black already, but then two, because black people can’t be goth. You hear that a lot still. Black people can’t be alternative. Black people can’t be nerdy.

Desiree Gibbs:
So from there I submitted for a scholarship while I was at UT Arlington to do this project, and I ended up winning. And I was able to interview some cool goth people, and I painted a portrait series of them in their cool goth outfits and their beautiful faces.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And that’s on the website, too? NUBLAC.STUDIO?

Desiree Gibbs:
No, that’s actually only on my Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Desiree Gibbs:
The Dezi Unique Instagram. I have a little story that’s focused on my works in progress as I’m working on it, as well as the final products. So I got six paintings, two per person for now. But that’s another project that I hope to really expand on, because I didn’t get to do as many people as I wanted. It’s difficult to find black goth in Texas, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense, yeah.

Desiree Gibbs:
The alternative scene here is very white, so I have to do my research in that.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe if more people, they listen to this interview we can get you some more black goths to paint.

Desiree Gibbs:
That would be dope.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, well Desiree Gibbs, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I’ve mentioned throughout this interview that this is happening at this really interesting junction in society right now. But I think also just from hearing your story, you’re at an interesting place in your career right now as well. You told me this before we started recording that this is your first full-time salary gig. And now this is happening where you’ve got to work from home and you’re trying to adjust to that.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think your perseverance, just from what you’ve told me about your creative background, your creativity with this portrait series and with the jewelry designing, you certainly strike me as someone that is able to easily change to the situation. And so, I feel like we’re just seeing you get started with what you can do. And granted, this time is a very weird time for everyone right now. But, I feel like you certainly have what it takes to go forward and to accomplish those dreams that you want to make happen. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Desiree Gibbs:
Thank you. I really appreciate the way you put that. I love that.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

Sponsors

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Ashley Bozeman

Black history isn’t just confined to February, as this week’s guest Ashley Bozeman clearly indicates. As the first Black woman art director at The Martin Agency, Ashley brings years of professional experience to the table to help some of the most well-known brands in the world get their message across to their customers.

We talked shop about the day to day grind of working in advertising, and Ashley shared how her time at Hampton University and at The Creative Circus helped prepare her for the work she does today. She also gave some great advice for those looking to become art directors, and even spoke on how she finds time for joy in these current unprecedented times. Whether she’s putting together briefs or working on comps, Ashley is poised to become a top talent in the advertising industry. Keep your eyes on her!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Ashley Bozeman:
Hi. So my name is Ashley Bozeman. I am an art director here at the Martin Agency, which is located in Richmond, Virginia. So as far as the title of my actual role, so basically I work in the creative department at a creative ad agency. I’m usually paired with a copywriter and together we are the ones who are briefed and tasked to basically come up with ideas for campaigns, commercials, social posts, really anything you can think of. It’s our job to basically come up with that creative idea. And then specifically as an art director, it’s my job to bring that to life visually. So how does that look? Who is being represented? What are the color choices? What are the style choices? Cinematography, … working with directors and things like that, but we basically just, we’re the ones who control how everything looks. Whereas our partners are copywriters, they are the ones who control the tone of voice and what that sounds like and the scripts and things like that. So together we’re the ones, kind of the big brains behind a lot of the things you’ll see on TV as far as commercials and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like your work is a lot of, I guess meetings and sort of heads down work sessions. Is that true?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah. Yes, definitely a lot of meetings, but it’s also a lot of concepting. So it’s a lot of just, I was briefed earlier today, we’ll get a brief and then we’ll look at our calendars, “Hey when you have some time.” We’ll put two or three hours on our schedules and then we’ll just find a room in the office and literally just sit and come up with ideas. Ideas that are large and kind of lofty that we’re not sure if the clients would ever even buy or do. And then ideas that also fit the brief exactly. So we basically, we’ll just kind of get together and just kind of brainstorm of different ways we can kind of find the best solution for that problem in the brief to be solved or for something to be showcased in the best way possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And now this brief document that you get, this is coming? I’m assuming this is coming from the client or is this someone else is kind of putting this information together for you?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, so internally we have our strategists, so our strategists are the ones who had to work with a client and then they come and work on their own research and insights. So, basically develop a kind of, just kind of a brief, so it just, it’ll give us insights. It’ll have the actual problem they’re trying to solve. It’ll have a target demographic about when we’re trying to do said thing, have a timeline, maybe important events that are happening around that time too. That then they kind of all compile it together to kind of create this kind of, it’s usually about five or six page long document that we can also then use to kind of go back to, to kind of make sure that whatever ideas we do come up that they fit the brief and they fit that target … clients. And they fit the platform that they asked us to create on. Yeah, it’s kind of a mix. A lot of it does come internally, but they definitely have to use findings and have these conversations with the clients to make sure that it’s good to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, from what I heard, you were the first black woman hired there as a creative in the history of the agency. Is that true?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yes. So that’s actually pretty crazy. It’s pretty crazy considering I started in 2018, in the beginning of 2018. And I think I didn’t find that out probably at least a year and a half? A Year and a half maybe into my career here. But so it was kind of a shock. But I think also too, it was something that was also still really exciting. And I think that my friends and my parents, especially my mom, was trying to hype me up about, where initially I felt kind of scared. You know? You kind of feel worried like, “Oh okay, I don’t know if I really asked to be the first.” But something my mom always says is, “Well somebody has to be the first, so why can’t it be you?” So I think that things like that are also just so important when it comes to just kind of remembering your place. And then again, not take it as a negative, but just to know that like, “Hey, this is pretty exciting. We’re starting new things and somebody has to do it.” And all of us are more than capable in being that person.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the brands or clients that you’ve been able to work with?

Ashley Bozeman:
When I first started out I primarily was working on Land O’Lakes Butter. So I know a lot of unnecessary facts about butter. Which is so funny with creatives and that’s why I love creatives, especially in the ad industry. Because everybody knows wild things about wild things, random things. It’s just so interesting. So I know a lot of things about butter, I worked on butter for almost a year. And then last year I did a lot of work for Discover Card, I’m a little knowledgeable actually in credit cards. So that’s kind of exciting. This year and at the end of last year too, I’ve been on more Oreo work, which has been fun and exciting. And then a lot of different other things. As we were pitching for Old Navy, I helped out with that some and that was really fun. And so many that they literally just have us go back and forth. I’m working on Penske now. I’ve done UPS. I’ve done Ritz Crackers, I’ve worked on that for a while.

Ashley Bozeman:
So, there’s definitely a lot of brands that I’ve had the opportunity to touch here, which has been fantastic. But then also too, we also just have a lot of cool brands too that I’m excited to hopefully touch this year, DoorDash and CarMax and things like that. So yeah, it just kind of changes and it’s nice because I’m never just on one thing. I’m usually on a few different things, so that, and I think especially when you have a mind that’s literally all over the place, it’s nice to be able to divert your energy into other paths rather than just one.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a specific type of client that you enjoy working with? Because I would imagine in an ad agency you’re working with, like you just mentioned all these different clients, they’re in all these different industries. There’s a lot of variety there.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, there are. Yeah, there is. It’s interesting too because I think I find that, that almost changes sometimes. I think there’s been parts of every client that I’ve worked on so far that I really, really have enjoyed and I really, really liked. I think Oreo is really fun because they are kind of design heavy and I do love design and they also really love big ideas. So that’s kind of a really fun place to kind of come up with these larger ideas. But I think also too, I really love projects that use their platform to kind of spread a larger message. And I think that that’s something that’s really nice because it’s kind of few and far between. A lot of times people just want to make sure that their brand or their product is put, placed first, which I totally understand. But I think at the same time, I also love, love, love when a client can tap into an issue that is relatable for them and appropriate for them and they want to do something about it. And I think that that’s really fun and I think that’s what gets me most excited when I get, on [inaudible 00:08:52] like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I have to ask this question because you’ve spent a lot of time talking about really sort of kind of the great things about your job and what it is that you do, but what’s the worst thing about being an art director in an agency?

Ashley Bozeman:
I would say the worst thing would probably, honestly and I think you can ask any art director this, I’m pretty sure they’ll say the same thing. I think the death of every art director is making comps and making comps is literally just the art of basically intense hours of photoshopping and searching for images. And let’s say you’ve come up with this grand idea, you said, “Okay, we want to make a truck that has a slide on the back of it.” And of course every client is just like, “Okay, I don’t know what that means. Can we see what that looks like?” So again, that’s our job so now we have to find a truck, I’m going on Getty and search all these things and find the perfect truck then photoshop that truck to make it Oreo branded, let’s say. And then put a giant, and then find another image of a slide that still fits and then still have it look somewhat realistic.

Ashley Bozeman:
So, I think that part can just be just such a time consuming thing because you can search for pictures for hours and you can get stuck in this hole for hours. And so I think that that might be the most difficult part, because how can you move fast but then also make something look as nice. So I think that that’s something I’ve really been working on this year too, is just my speed but then also to my craft and making sure that those two things go together. So, that can just be a little time consuming. But like I said, I think a lot of art directors can feel my pain when it comes to making comps.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you’re working together with the copywriter, are there, it sounds like you’re also kind of the designer too. There’s not designers that are in house that are helping out or you’re kind of?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yes. We definitely, we have a whole super, super talented design team and we also have a very super, super talented studio art team. The studio art, so that’s a group of people that will more so be the ones to kind of help us with those comps and kind of help us get things together and make sure the images are perfect and the files are perfect before they send them off to be shipped to whomever. And then our designers are more so, they’ll kind of sit in concept with us sometimes. So sometimes they’ll even be in the brief if it’s big enough, they’ll be in the brief with us and so then they know that they’re kind of concepting and thinking about it design-wise. Whereas we’re kind of focused on still the imagery, but also too the core of the idea. That’s still a big part of our job description as well. So we still have people who can help us out, but nine times out of 10 they have to kind of, they still have plenty of things they have to do on their own. So it’s just, I think as an art director you kind of have to be multifaceted. But I think a great art director is also a great designer and vice versa. So, it’s an interesting role because it kind of dips into a bunch of different things.

Maurice Cherry:
Was design kind of a big part of your childhood? Growing up, you grew up in Milwaukee from what you told me before we started recording. Was design kind of a big part of you growing up?

Ashley Bozeman:
So, you know what? Not necessarily design but more so just art. It’s interesting because, so I’m the oldest of five and both of my parents are super smart. My dad is an engineer. My mom has always been great at math and science and so I feel I came out and I was just this little, “Hey, let’s draw.” I just always felt, “Wait, what happened? How did I not get that gene?” But it’s fine. I think what’s interesting too is, now that I actually sitting here and talking about it, I think because of my dad’s job, we moved around quite a bit. And by moving around, we’ve probably moved around almost every three years. So, I was constantly going to new schools in new states and trying to, I was always the new kid, but I think I found comfort in art. I think that was something that wasn’t reliant upon somebody else. So if I were to move that summer or something, I could still draw, it was something that still keep me occupied. It was something that I really enjoyed, seeing a picture and then trying to, then bring it.

Ashley Bozeman:
Seeing a picture and then trying to then bring it to paper. So that was something I think kind of like that all kids do. But then I noticed that that was one thing that I really kept with. So I kept with it throughout middle school, I kept with it throughout high school, I even kept with it through, actually, through college, which I had then realized like, “Oh, maybe I should have majored in art. Maybe this should’ve been a thing.” But I still took, like I literally took an art class every single semester and there’s only one semester I did it and I literally could feel the difference. I just didn’t feel the same. So that’s when I realized, “Okay, like this is probably going to be a part of me forever.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ashley Bozeman:
So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Were your parents kind of really supportive of you going into art, like that?

Ashley Bozeman:
They were. They were and I thank them all the time and I’m just so appreciative. They’ve always been super understanding. They’ve always been very supportive in that, and so I always say it. Before I left or right after I had graduated from Hampton, I had gotten a degree in Public Relations, which I still really liked. But you know, I just, I don’t know, there was something about it where I was just like, “Okay,” I basically made a deal with myself. I said, “Okay, so I’m job hunting. You know, I’m looking for a PR job but I’m going to take art classes on the side because I think that that’s something really important to me.” So I was looking for jobs in different cities and I lived in Atlanta and so, of course, I was probably looking up the art schools before I was looking up the jobs, but … so that tells you a lot right there but …

Ashley Bozeman:
I found through a Google search, I was like looking through like art school and then up popped up two different things. It was the Portfolio Center and then the Creative Circus. And I remember reading through, because as I was doing like the job search or like as I was looking at like descriptions for the PR jobs, it was interesting because art director would never be that far because it’s still all in communications. And so I would always see that job position, that job role and I was just like, “Wow, that sounds so cool. It literally sounds right up my alley, but I don’t know how would I become an art director? That doesn’t make any sense.” And like, “That’s really cool. I don’t know how people get into it, but whatever.” Once I found the Circus I was looking through and it was basically, I was just like, “Oh, so this is a two year program where I could learn how to be an art director.”

Ashley Bozeman:
I said, “That sounds lit. That’s exactly what I want to do,” and so I remember I had like, I found it, I thought about it, like I prayed on it and I sent my parents this really long text one morning. I was just like, “Hey, I found this school. I know I wasn’t planning to go right back to school, but I found this school. I’m in Atlanta and I can study as an art director there. And I think that like, I think it’s legit. Like I think this is something I really want to do. It’s something I’m really interested in. What do you guys think basically?” And they were just like, I mean, “Okay, crazy girl.” They’re just like, that’s fine.” They’re like, “Okay.”

Ashley Bozeman:
So like I was like, I was the one who was like really stressed, like, “I don’t know, like hopefully they’ll be okay with it. X, Y, and Z.” They were like, “Yeah, that’s fine. Like, sure why not?” And so for that, I’m very thankful because I just know it’s hard. I think it’s hard really for anyone to kind of tell like their parents and stuff, especially after we just spent all this money at a four year university that, “Hey, I want to go to a portfolio school where, you know, also mind you, you don’t get a degree in.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ashley Bozeman:
“You, more so, just get a certificate,” and it’s kind of crazy. It’s like, “Okay, so we’re about to put some more money back into schooling that you technically don’t get another degree in.” But I was trying to explain the importance. I was just like, “Well, look, like still like there’s like a 99% placement, 95, 99% placement rate after graduation. I think it’ll be great.” So yeah, they helped ride that wave with me ever since then and even before and still now. So for that, I’m very grateful. I know that that’s very much so a privileged that I don’t take lightly.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to go back to the Creative Circus, but even before then you kind of glossed a little bit over the fact that you went to such a prestigious HBCU for undergrad. You went to Hampton University.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah. Those were some of the best years of my life so far. I think that’s where Ashley came to be Ashley. I think I had grown up in predominantly white institutions and places and schools. My mom was the one who actually really pushed for that. She was very adamant and “Hey, I know that, like, obviously, like we couldn’t help like by school district with so much like while you were in high school and stuff,” but she was like, “If you decide to go to HBCU, just know that this is probably one of the only times in your life you’ll be surrounded by so many beautifully educated brown and black people who look just like you and you just won’t necessarily get that opportunity anywhere else.” And the more I thought about it, it was interesting. I was a little nervous because I was actually going into the Hampton, I was worried that maybe I wasn’t “black enough.”

Ashley Bozeman:
You know, I didn’t necessarily have a lot of black friends growing up and I technically wasn’t in all those spaces and necessarily didn’t know all the music and things like that. Of course, I was still like with my family and stuff, but you know, it’s still not the same if you don’t have like a core group of friends and stuff in high school and things like that. So it just wasn’t the same. And so I was a little worried about that, but honestly it turned out that there were a lot of Ashleys at Hampton and it was fantastic. And I think I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, but that fear was just a projected fear that I had. It was never anything that actually happened. There was still a place for me as there was a place to someone who grew up in all black schools their entire life.

Ashley Bozeman:
I feel like that kind of flowing into Hampton was more, way more seamless than I thought it would be. But yeah, Hampton was an incredible experience. I have lifelong friends from there. I have bridesmaids, I have probably maid of honors, like I just have some of my best friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. I just love also, too, I think also, too, I came into terms of also celebrating just who I am and also being black and like how much, like how much power there is in that. And so Hampton taught me a lot of that as well. And so that’s really exciting and it’s interesting, too, it even transcended into some of my art, too. I notice growing up I actually drew more white women, more people who probably weren’t of a black ethnicity. It was interesting to kind of see how my sketchbooks have changed, too, by just being introduced into that.

Ashley Bozeman:
And then also like again, it’s important to know like … Well, it’s important as a child, even just growing up as a teenager, what you see and what your perception is on things and how much that affects you. But it was crazy how that was affecting my art and how I never really drew girls that necessarily looked like me, but now like if you asked me today like that’s all I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Ashley Bozeman:
So it’s very, very, very interesting to see how just that influence that I think that I had [inaudible 00:06:55]. I think that that was probably the best decision I could’ve made. And that’s one of the best decisions I’ve made. Like flat out, in my 26 years or so.

Maurice Cherry:
You make an interesting point there about HBCUs. I mean, so I went to an HBCU also. I went to Morehouse and HBCUs in general are … I mean maybe this is just us speaking as black people, like they’re very warm, comforting open spaces for everyone.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if people that maybe don’t know the HBCU experience or just aren’t familiar with HBCUs in general really see that. But like it’s such a unique sort of family thing. I think one just among students and alums at a particular school, but also between HBCU graduate students and alums of other schools. Like we see like a certain kinship in other people that have went to HBCU. I don’t know if that, if that kind of makes sense or not, but, no. Essentially because you said your mom kind of really wanted you to go there to sort of soak up that culture. I’m curious to know like because Hampton has such a well known design program, I mean we’ve had several people on the show who have graduated from Hampton that went on to graduate school. Actually, you mentioned the Creative Circus, nikita Pope, she’s a Hampton grad. What was the program like there for you? Like did you feel like it really prepared you once you got out there as a working art director? As a working designer?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, so I think what’s interesting is I think as most … Well, I was 17, 18 year old going into college, I think I knew that I wanted to be kind of creative. I knew I liked things that were more like thinking based than creation based, but I don’t think I ever really knew how to fully get into it. And so with that being said, I think some of that, it was also, too, of my own misunderstanding and kind of almost like canceling it out completely. Whereas I think maybe I probably in those four years, I look back now and I’m just like, “Man, I wish I would’ve learned Photoshop and Illustrator and Adobe Suite during Hampton rather than trying to learn it at the Circus.” And so I think that was almost kind of my misstep in like not maybe taking full advantage of all the programs that were there currently in Hampton as I was kind of more so just focused on like just fine art and just drawing and painting and things like that.

Ashley Bozeman:
So looking back I’m just kind of like, “Man, if I would have only really known that like I could have done this and then went here and then that would’ve made sense then I think I absolutely would’ve set it up that way.” But I think, I know it’s not just me. I know it’s a lot of people. I think it’s just like you realize and you’re just like, “Oh, shoot, this was an option and this was a path.” And like looking back I definitely would have done some things differently as far as like my track and kind of like my major, definitely my minor. I think that they have a great solid program and I do have friends and I do know people who have successfully gone through the program, but they’re doing great now still, too. I just think I just wasn’t like for sure, for sure just yet, while I was at Hampton. It just wasn’t able to fully tap into all the resources.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that’s probably like, I don’t want to say a regret, but I feel like that’s a regret for … Sometimes I think for people that are at schools, they don’t feel like they’ve gotten a chance to really utilize all the resources. It’s sort of one of those, you know, hindsight, this 20-20 kind of things. You look back and realize how good you had it in a way. But I mean what you learned at Hampton though at least kind of propelled you forward to then go to the Creative Circus.

Ashley Bozeman:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I think also through Hampton, I think that also, one of big … Well, a really big takeaway that I got from Hampton is learning how to just work with people and learning to really come into your own. I think I feel like that that was almost like, I think college in general, it just, it comes at the right time and then always feels like it ends too early. But I’m sure that it ends right on time, but it definitely prepared me to work with people and professionalism and kind of again, like you were mentioning earlier about that sense of community that now I carry into when it comes to, here amongst all the employees here, Martin, but also especially our black employee network.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ashley Bozeman:
And that’s something that I really lean into hard because I think it reminds me so much of Hampton. So it’s something that I really kind of latch onto and really try to kind of just, I don’t know, just really attach myself to, because it really feels like home.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So when you ended up going to the Circus and you were here in Atlanta, I’m curious like what was that time like for you? Because Creative Circus, I’m thinking, I’m sort of trying to line it up. So this is like between 2015 to 2017 what was that time like in Atlanta for you?

Ashley Bozeman:
Atlanta was a great time. So it was interesting because Atlanta necessarily wasn’t in one of my cities to live necessarily. But I realized that I had really made a home out of Atlanta by the time I … like those two years were up and I miss it almost every day. But I think my time there was just such a whirlwind, was probably the best way to explain it? It was like anything I’ve never, like I’ve ever experienced before. It was just, I just call it, it was just like this crazy two-year bootcamp, I felt like.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ashley Bozeman:
Because the Circus is also set up by quarters, so it’s pretty much year round, and so that was something new. I think also too, that’s the biggest city that I lived in and I lived in my own. Also, too, kind of just going off a whim and doing something that I personally did never knew of anybody doing before and kind of leaping out to take that chance was also really scary. And so I think, what I was like 22, I think I’d just turned 23 the day before my first day of class. And it was just a crazy time. But again, like that was just another time where I learned so much and I got to be just so creative and that’s something else, too, that I miss. There were like, there were barely any restrict

Ashley Bozeman:
… that’s something also too that I missed. There were barely any restrictions. There were barely any like, “Oh we can’t do that or you can’t use those colors. You can do that.” Like everything was open for grabs. There was time to actually do things and even as rushed and as stressed and as busy as we were because we were all those things all the time for those whole two years. At the same time, I think that I still made incredible, incredible friendships and experiences that like, again, kind of like the Hampton, I think that that play in my life will stay with me forever too. I think that that was such a big, important time as far as my career development and also my development as a creative.

Ashley Bozeman:
I really think that that was also the time that I really fell in love with design and digital design and graphic design and digital art and how to transfer my traditional skills and kind of put it more into like this modern day age. So it was like this big squirrel, but it was fantastic. And again, I think that that was also a great choice that I’m very happy I did.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when you look back over your career, look back over your education et cetera. Who are some of the people that have really helped motivate and inspire you throughout the years?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah. So I think a lot of times when I think about those people, a lot of times they are just people who have just been just kind. And a lot of times it’s friends, it’s family, everybody in between. So I would say that first off, of course my family is always super supportive, always have been day one, very thankful. Then I feel like I had my Hampton core group friends, they were always so supportive. I would call them in tears or super stressed out about a project and they would always pick up the phone, always be encouraging like, “Hey, we don’t really understand 100% but we know that you’re doing the right thing. So just keep going.”

Ashley Bozeman:
And then as I got to the circumstance stuff, I’ve met amazing creatives who are just all like just fantastic. And so I’m learning from them every day. And it’s really nice to also go through this journey at the same time with them and hearing similar stories. And I think that that’s something that’s more empowering that I think people may not realize, but having a group of people who are doing similar or pretty much the same thing as you but different places, it’s really cool to see us all grow all over the country. I have some really fantastic, fantastic coworkers who have now turned to friends who have now turned to family. And a lot of those people here at Martin, they are like brothers and sisters. They are like big brothers and sisters. They’re mentors. And I just am so thankful for all of them and I think that they are really single-handedly helping me navigate my career, which is priceless.

Ashley Bozeman:
I just learned so much from each and every one of them and I’m so thankful for their presence. But I think it takes a village and it’s been taken a village. So there’s a ton of people that I feel like I’ve been blessed with that can help me out with that.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to work on one day?

Ashley Bozeman:
Yes, I feel like I’m not 100% sure what that is, but as far as like a name, I think my dream project would be visually stunning, very well designed. And then also too it would be for a bigger cause. It would either be for like a nonprofit, it would be either some kind of announcement. I’ve also always dreamed in maybe doing design or art direction for an art museum. Even like I’ve also been watching a lot of music videos lately. Low key I would love to art direct a music video. And then two, I think also my dream is to work on a movie one day.

Ashley Bozeman:
It kind of like it spans, it can be anything from like a book, like a very beautifully like well art directed well laid out books all the way to helping out to say that I was able to help out with even like a Pixar film if I could. Like be in the room to help out with like art direction or color or things like that. Things like that just really get me excited and those kind of projects too I think would help also to remind me of why I love my job in the first place and it all comes back to being able to make something and I think that that’s what I love the most is just physically making something and that’s why I love being an art director. I love coming up with ideas but also really, really love making things. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I have to ask since you mentioned a music video, which artist would you work with?

Ashley Bozeman:
I mean obviously I love Beyoncé. I would do anything she would ever ask me to do. In drop of a dime if she called me right now, I would run to LA or wherever she’s at, but there are some really, really, really cool artists out here that I really love. So I recently watched … I believe her name is Victoria Monét. She just had a music video drop for her new song Moment and visually it’s beautiful. She did such an amazing job. Her art direction is fantastic. Like things like that I would absolutely work with her in a heartbeat.

Ashley Bozeman:
And also too, I’ve been watching a lot of Brent Faiyaz. He also has some really cool artsy and kind of grungy art direction, which I would also be very into. And obviously Solange also does a great job. There’s just a few different ones. And then even too, people I would also say don’t sleep on even some of the rappers like Playboi Carti, he also does a great job as far as like his editing team, kind of like I love the effort that’s being put behind a lot of these music videos. They’re just so visually engaging.

Ashley Bozeman:
And it’s just interesting because we don’t necessarily have that like 106 apart or MTV playing music videos all the time. You kind of have to go out of your way to kind of watch them. But I love that we’re still putting the effort behind them even if we’re not being watched all the time. You think that that would kind of die off, and in some aspects it has. And I think people that’s why maybe we don’t even have as many music videos on a consistent basis than we think we should. But I think I love music so much. And so to be able to tell a story within a song, I think that that would just be such a fun challenge and you can take that story so many different ways as people do and find meaning and find purpose for everything. But I think that that would be something really, really fun to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I am seeing how the music videos now for certain artists are certainly, it’s bringing me back to like the Heyday of the 90s when we had like Hype Williams video that you had like really dope videos by Missy and everything and it’s like you get so in throbbing. Of course you love the song, but then visuals along with the song, it makes each video like an event of sorts.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like we have to really give it up to Michael Jackson for making videos releases and events like a prime time of it that people used to tune into. I remember as a kid tuning into watch Black or White or tuning into watch Remember The Time, but like yeah, now you really kind of don’t see that. It feels like the big thing now is the surprise drop. I mean like Beyoncé did it of course. And now everyone else is trying to find some way to get your attention really quickly. So it’s not only, yes, we want you to look at the video and consume the music. But it’s really about gathering your attention for a period of time.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah. And similar to how you felt like that. That’s how I felt in Atlanta when she dropped Lemonade. I vividly remember that night and I went over to my friend’s house saw that at HBO, we’d all brought stuff to eat and watch and I just remember just texting my mom like, “Oh my God, do you see this?” I think that that was fantastic. I think that also just goes to show the true craft and then like again that wanting to make something. Again, this is nothing she ever like necessarily had to do, but I think a lot of it for her and just like Michael, I think it’s that wanting to tell that story and go that extra step.

Ashley Bozeman:
Like yes, I made the song and yes I made the lyrics and I have to sing and perform it, but now it’s just like I want to bring it to life visually. And I think that that’s really, really exciting. And I think you don’t see that necessarily all the time. But all that to say too is like Lemonade, like that was an event and I just don’t remember the last music video since then. That has really felt like an event. I don’t know. Like I feel like my memory might be a little jog right now.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think you might be right. Videos come out all the time, but it’s like they get shared on Twitter or something and you watch a vivo link, and you’re like, okay, then you go about your day. Like it’s not really something that you really are tuned in for or anticipated seeing. Because for the artists they want to surprise you with it. It’s like, “Oh, surprise. I put out a new music video.” And you’re like, “Oh, okay.” And you watch it and then that’s it.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, I know. I know. And that’s why I think her idea of like a visual album was fantastic. And then to also see all the songs coming to life from one bigger story, which I think also too, a lot of that just goes back to storytelling and the art of doing that, which is really fun. Whether you’re telling your own story or you’re entrusted to share someone else’s story. I think there’s a lot of power and there’s a lot of connectiveness that comes in being able to kind of bring those words and those experiences to life.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think we’re also fortunate to be at a time where the technology is also accessible enough where you don’t necessarily have to have the huge studio and the crew and everything. I mean people are shooting great music videos on iPhones with gimbals, like the tech and the hardware, I should say, has gotten a lot more accessible for more people to really kind of get into it.

Ashley Bozeman:
Right. Yeah, exactly. It is really cool to see how quickly things move every day. And I know people talk about that all the time, but really things move so fast and so it’s just like you’re just trying to ride away. I would say 15 seconds, but I feel like it’s less than that.

Maurice Cherry:
It is now. I mean you’re starting to see artists that are like … Actually I read this article and I’m sort of plugging work here for a minute, but I read this article on Glimmer, which is my employer’s glitch, but we have a lifestyle publication called Glimmer and one of the recent articles is about how artists manipulates their songs and their DJ system makes sure that they’re getting like the maximum out of streams and everything like that. So it almost feels like the music is not in as much about expression as much as it is about just charting or getting numbers, reaching some like arbitrary success metric.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s good that you have the artists that are sort of outside of that, that are more interested in creating experiences. Like you mentioned Solange, you mentioned Beyoncé, I think Janelle Monáe is like another artist that tries to do that. Like just tries to elevate what she’s doing past just a track or an EP. She wants to make it like an experience.

Ashley Bozeman:
Exactly. It’s artists like that I really latch onto and I really respect them and their path because I think that that’s just like the definition of a true artist. Like you just legitimately want to make something for the sake of making it and expressing yourself. And I think that that’s so exciting. And also too, especially when you do a despite, maybe low views, may or may not help streams or whatever. I feel like in this day and age, if you’re really taking the time for music videos, a lot of times you’re just doing it out of artistry, which I respect. Especially really, really nicely well. Not just also like we’re just blowing this giant budget we have, getting this quarter of a million, million dollar budget. But outside of that we’re actually using it to actually sit down and craft a story. Those are the artists I respect the most.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you wish you would’ve been told about the advertising industry when you first started?

Ashley Bozeman:
I wish I would’ve known how quickly things move. And how things, things as far as like projects almost do like making me here today and gone tomorrow. It’s such an interesting thing and it’s such an interesting career choice because you are investing yourself. So like creatively and kind of like emotionally a little bit and mentally can be very straining and physically you can be very tired. So you’re just putting in all this energy-

Ashley Bozeman:
Basically you can be very tired, so you’re just putting in all this energy, and then into a thing that’s not even necessarily always for certain. So projects can still fall through. [inaudible 00:39:12] can be like, “Oh, we’re not going to do this.” Or they can be like, “Oh, we’re going to hold this for later. Oh, well, we don’t have the resources to do that right now, so we’re going to go ahead and table it.” There’s just so many factors that go into everything and way more factors than I think that people realize.

Ashley Bozeman:
Every time you see a really good commercial on TV now, I actually applaud it and I respect it because there are just so many factors that played into having great work get out there. So it’s just kind of hard. But that’s something I really respect.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you make time for joy?

Ashley Bozeman:
I make time for joy by, I think keeping to the things that I still want to do, regardless. I’ve learned that this job can be very stressful and there can be a lot of projected stress. It can be very rush, rush, rush, this, this, this. But I think what gives me joy at the end of the day, and when I go home and I go to sleep, is just my relationships with people and my friendships with people, and knowing how much those matter to me.

Ashley Bozeman:
So what brings me joy, I think, is doing whatever I can to maintain those, and to commit myself or be committed to still honoring the things that I still love to do on the side and actively making time for those things. So it can be kind of tough when you feel like you’re super swamped, and you have a lot of things going on, and a lot of projects, but I think it’s possible just with a little planning. A lot of things are possible with just like, “Okay, well let me move these things around so I can have some space.”

Ashley Bozeman:
And I also too, I think what I’ve been realizing lately, is just sometimes it’s solitude and sometimes it’s also just taking a step back and just finding joy and peace in also replenishing yourself. I think a lot of times too, we weigh outcomes, we define ourselves by the outcomes of our project. A lot of times, a lot, a lot, a lot of times, it’s because something fell through. A lot of times it’s not our fault, it’s just external factors. So I think it’s important for me to also find your way into other things, that I feel like maybe I do find more control in and putting more of my, some of that same, maybe not more, but at least some of that same energy that I put into for work things, that I will still put in for things like my side project, or if I want to just have a, I call them paint parties. My paint parties, it’s just me painting on my floor by myself.

Ashley Bozeman:
So overall though, I really do think that there’s joy all around us. I think it’s just our … Sometimes it can kind of feel scheduled or kind of like a responsibility. But in living in a world where things are so crazy, and things do move around so fast, and things get rescheduled, and this, that, [inaudible 00:02:58], you’re trying to keep up with things, I just feel like, “Well, hey, if I have to schedule time for me to [inaudible 00:42:03].” And if I put on my calendar, ‘Go have fun’ then that’s what I’ll do. But I find joy in my friends, and also, I find a lot of joy going to concerts too.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Ashley Bozeman:
I love seeing live music, so that’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of, so I’m always at somebody’s concert. That’s something I plan to keep up.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to somebody that wants to break into the ad industry today?

Ashley Bozeman:
I would say, “Okay, cool. I’m glad that … I’m so happy that you’ve seen and considered this as an option.” I think that there are resources, and I think also too, it’s interesting now because I feel like the game is really changing as far as the way that recruiting is going. I think agencies, even Martin, is researching and finding new ways to recruit and find talent. It’s interesting, a lot of times it almost always felt like this secret almost. It’s just like, “How do you get into that? How do you do it?” But I think agencies are now trying harder to be more present, be more present at places like HBCUs, to go to more to a whole plethora of high schools and middle schools, to career fairs, which I’ve been to both and I’m helping with those efforts. Something that I’m also very passionate about.

Ashley Bozeman:
But I think that it’s definitely possible. I think if able, I think portfolio schools are a great, great, great in, a great in to the ad agency life. They really are a great pipeline to get in the door. But outside of that, just really tapping into those creative strengths, working on your craft and your skill, and then just feeling confident in concepting and coming up with ideas.

Ashley Bozeman:
But what’s lovely about ad agencies too, is what we tell everybody, is that there is usually a place for every type of person here, even if it’s not in creative. There’s usually some kind of space that everyone fits into. And so with that being said, I think it’s just so viable and it’s just, again, even if you’re not in [inaudible 00:44:10] department, I think there’s something to be said to be around so much creative energy and be in such a flexible environment. I really truly think, and I know a lot of people out there to feel the same way.

Ashley Bozeman:
But I feel like this is legitimately what I need. I feel like … I always tell people too, “In your heart of hearts, if you feel like you’re meant to do something, you might as well just start now because you’re going to end up doing it anyways because it’s not going to go away.” So, it’s just like, “All right, well if I’m able to start now, let’s just start now.” So yeah, but there’s a place literally for everyone and I think that’s what I love most about my job. Nobody, no two people, come from the same background or the same [inaudible 00:44:51]. It’s just different. But there’s all these different people but they all have a space, and so I think that that’s something to be said.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like it’s 2025, what kind of work are you doing or working on?

Ashley Bozeman:
2025, at that point I feel like there’s probably a good chance I’ll probably be either in New York or LA. I would be working on some really, really cool, potentially lifestyle-esque brands. Whether that be like a Target, or do an interesting media company, like a Refinery29, or potentially even maybe even trying out what it’s like to be an art director at a magazine company like Elle or Ebony or any of those. And am I able to still empower people there too?

Ashley Bozeman:
I’m excited because I think by then my creativity will have branched out to something that’s still art direction, but I think might be a little different. And so that’s what I’m trying to figure out now, is what is it? I know I love creating, I know I love making things, but what are other ways I can also explore that too? And I also too, maybe I’ll have a side project by then that’ll just blow up, and then I can just be an entrepreneur for the rest of my life. You just never know and it’s just really exciting. But there’s so many opportunities to be creative but in different ways. So I’m excited to really explore those out in the next five years.

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

Ashley Bozeman:
My portfolio, which I’m working on updating currently, my portfolio is ashleybozeman.com. So A-S-H-L-E-Y B-O-Z-E-M-A-N.com. And then my Instagram is @AshleyCierraa. So A-S-H-L-E-Y C-I-E-R-R-A-A. So those are the two places that I am the most, especially Instagram, but I’m usually always around.

Ashley Bozeman:
I’m always down, I always answer almost every DM. Or if anybody who ever wants to chat or has any questions too about just getting started, that’s something I love to do. And I love to get people excited and just talk about it as a career. But I love to help out in any way that I can. I think that it’s so important to still reach back. And I know that I’ve only been doing this for two years, but if there’s some way I can help, I definitely will.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. All right, well Ashley Bozeman, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for sharing your story about what it’s like being a young black woman working in the advertising industry, and then also sharing the things that inspire you. We have people, I think really of all ages, that are listening to this show. We’ve got students, we’ve got captains of industry, et cetera, and we try to hit just a lot of different points of creativity and design and everything. So it’s always good to hear from the perspective of someone that’s, I wouldn’t say just starting out in it, but you’ve been in it for a while now.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah. But basically, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I mean to get the perspective of what is it like for you now at this stage? I mean, 2020 for all intents and purposes, is the future, in a lot of ways.

Ashley Bozeman:
Yeah, I know. It’s scary.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, and I mean it’s good to know that you’re at a position where you’re able to craft the images that a lot of people see when it comes to representation for a number of different brands and companies, et cetera. That’s a really big mantle to hold. So it sounds like definitely you have the creativity and the skills to make it happen, and I’m going to be really interested to see what you work on in the future. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ashley Bozeman:
Oh, my God. Thank you so much for having me. This has been fantastic. It was lovely to talk to you and yeah, just thank you so much for having me on this platform, and hopefully that this’ll help or inspire someone else.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

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Tim Allen

Design can be a powerful way to bring people together, and Tim Allen embodies that as the VP of design at Airbnb. He oversees several teams at the popular online housing marketplace, including their newest offering Airbnb Experiences, and we spent the first part of our interview talking about how Tim got started at Airbnb, as well as the company’s open culture.

Tim also shared how growing up and living around the world as a military kid helped inspire his early design work, talked about attending NCSU and working his first design jobs at Interactive Magic and IBM, and spoke on the importance of design leadership and designers as business leaders. Tim truly wants to be a beacon for more Black designers to enter the industry, and he’s leading by example!

(NOTE: This interview was recorded before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. Check out the Airbnb Newsroom to learn about how Airbnb is helping relief efforts, including providing housing for 100,000 COVID-19 responders around the world.)

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tim Allen:
Hi Maurice. I’m Tim Allen, VP of design at Airbnb, and I look after design functions globally across design, research, UX, writing and creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s a lot to look over.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, it’s quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s a regular day like for you at Airbnb? Does that exist?

Tim Allen:
I don’t know if it does exist in terms of a regular day. It’s a lot of context switching, I can tell you that. Sometimes I’ll have a day where I try to avoid these, but it’s just back-to-back meetings with wildly different contexts for each meeting.

Tim Allen:
But typically there’s some combination of our creative culture. How do we feel that? How do we calibrate it? What does quality look like? Which leads into product. How are we impacting customers’ lives through our product and maintaining quality? Again, that’s a pretty constant theme.

Tim Allen:
And then creatively, how are we creating resonance with our brand? So in some variation, sometimes all three, sometimes just focusing on one, like people. I’ll have one day where I’m focusing just mainly on one-on-ones and connecting with folks, making sure folks are being enabled to do the best work.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started at Airbnb?

Tim Allen:
I got started through a conversation. Much like many other positions I’ve had. I had a conversation with Alex Schleifer who is our chief design officer and we just hit it off immediately. Our sons are about the same age, so he was actually on his way to pick up his son the first time we chatted. And we started talking about our design ethos and what we believe in. And that pretty much rhymed and that was a great way to start a relationship.

Maurice Cherry:
So just had the conversation and then before you knew it, you’re working at Airbnb.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty good.

Tim Allen:
It was a snowball effect.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best thing about your job?

Tim Allen:
I guess the best thing about my job, I think it’s just being creative. Just thinking orthogonally about business challenges, customer and community challenges, and then applying my own sense of tuition and background to those challenges is pretty exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team. You mentioned you are doing a lot of context switching. Talk about the teams that you oversee.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. You have experience design, which is a pretty broad function. We have generalists here, so a good range of folks that either index on visual design or interaction design. Or mostly a combination thereof, but with varying levels of capability on either side of that. You have research and insights, survey science, data science and UX writing, information architecture. There’s quite a bit of variance there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that there’s all those positions at a company that is… I don’t know, would you call Airbnb a tech company since they’re mostly deals, I would say with… I don’t want to call it hospitality, but with lodging in a way?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. Accommodations is one big part of our brand. We’ve recently expanded into just Airbnb experiences where you don’t have to own a home or have a home in order to be a host basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. So Airbnb experiences is all about the best in class experiences. So when you arrive at a location you can feel like you’re at home and you feel like a local as opposed to feeling like a tourist. We have different categories such as animals just launched recently to a lot of a fanfare. We have a couple of categories that are getting ready to launch soon as well. Cooking is another category that’s very popular.

Tim Allen:
We also have adapted experiences too. So just in terms of inclusivity and accessibility, a lot of times people with mobility impairments or people that are disabled, have a tough time when they’re traveling, being integrated into experiences. And so we have a whole host of adaptive experiences that are specifically catered towards disabled and the combinations that are required.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s not even so much… It almost sounds like a built in almost a package in a way. Of course with Airbnb you’re renting out someone else’s space, but it sounds like with this it also lumps in different activities you could do, like maybe going out to eat or I don’t know, seeing a play or something like that. Is that a good way of describing it?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean mostly my job is about innovating around the entire consumer journey across digital and offline experiences. From the moment you think you want to go somewhere, as an inception moment through planning, through booking. Obviously through hosting is a big experience in terms of your commendation and the experiences you have while you’re traveling. And so it’s like how do you create the best trip possible and make it as magical as possible?

Maurice Cherry:
I never thought about it, I guess in an end-to-end sort of way like that. It’s not just that you’re providing lodging, you’re also providing entertainment. You’re providing… It’s almost tourism, I guess, in a way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. A big part of our brand is around tourism. We have ecotourism category of experiences as well. So yeah, that’s a good way to think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s see. So one thing that I’ve heard a lot about with Airbnb, we actually have had someone from Airbnb on the show. This was years ago. I don’t even know if he still works there anymore, but he talked a lot. His name is Ariem Anthony. I think he was in the production design department, but he talked a lot about Airbnb and it’s very open culture. Is that something that you’ve experienced since you’ve been there?

Tim Allen:
Yes, one of the biggest things that drew me to Airbnb was my perception from the outside of the community. And then now that I’m a part of Airbnb, it’s definitely rung true. That open theme is definitely there. I think it’s because of the company mission is resonates so deeply with so many people. It’s usually the number one reason people join or want to be a part of the company.

Tim Allen:
And company missions can be fluff sometimes. Right. But I think the actual intent of delivering on the mission of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere, so intentionally going after that and then also having the means to deliver against that. I think those two factors create this culture that it’s like a baseline understanding that people have. This shared purpose that allows people to be open in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that’s something that and really I think in a lot of big tech companies, having an open culture is something that’s really important because diversity and inclusion is important. They want to make sure that people can bring the notion of bringing your whole self to work. Is that something, I would imagine in your position being a VP, that’s a really big deal.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean, if you think about the long game, the way I think about belonging is almost synonymous with creativity. I think when you overlay the factors that add up to belonging with the factors that enable creativity, they’re very similar. To a sense of safety with this fearlessness of not creating errors and the openness of communication, feeling like you can contribute. All of these things that when you feel like you belong, it’s very much a way of cultivating creativity too, which is basically my job.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you help to enable that throughout your teams that you oversee?

Tim Allen:
Well, one thing I start with is just this foundational representation. I think homogenous teams usually make homogenous products based on homogenous strategies. And that’s definitely not what we’re aiming to do. Again, we want anyone to belong anywhere.

Tim Allen:
And when you say anyone, how can your team stretch as much as possible across the breadth of human diversity in terms of gender, race or gender identity, orientation, background, ability, disability and so forth? We’ve got a good range of folks. So you start to get that diverse perspective built in. We don’t have it solved. I think we still have a ways to go as many organizations do but that is definitely our intent at our foundation.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So let’s switch gears here a little bit. Of course, people know you from that not just your work that you’ve done while you’ve been an Airbnb, but also a lot of your other design leadership positions, which we’ll get into later. But let’s take it all the way back. Tell me about where you grew up.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, so my father was in the military, so we moved quite a bit. I actually spent a lot of time growing up in Japan, several years in Okinawa and several years in Iwakuni. And then we moved to California, South Carolina, D.C., Northern Virginia area. And I ended up going to high school and settling in North Carolina. And yeah, went from high school to college and design school in North Carolina as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I saw as I was doing my research, you got your undergrad and you got your graduate degree from NCSU, which we’ve featured on the site before. We’ve talked a lot about how great the program is. We’ve had a few NCSU alums on the show too. What was it like there for you? Paint a picture. What time period is this when you’re at NCSU?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. So this was a while back, at NCSU. It was called the School of Design rather than the College of Design. It was… I want to say it was one of the top 10 design schools or so. So coming into it, for me, was a very big deal. I was so excited to get in. When I first got there, I did feel like a fish out of water though. I was like these are real designers around me. My background is airbrushing so I had my little airbrush compressor and airbrush all ready to do some design work and-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait wait, hold up hold up, back up. Airbrushing? Like how people airbrushed T-shirts or something like that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah that’s actually… So how I got into I guess design or I would say art back then was in high school. Yeah, I had my own airbrush company.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, T-shirts. In sophomore year in high school, my dad got me a airbrush set as a gift because I just drew all the time. I was a big drawer and I just drew cartoons and stuff all the time. And then he was like “You should try this.” And before he knew it I was making T-shirts for the basketball team and football team and all my friends. And then that blew up into cars and boats and then I started doing businesses in the area and stuff. And by the time I was a senior had just a whole portfolio of business. Which I use that as a portfolio, which I didn’t even know what a portfolio was, to get into design school.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were airbrushing T-shirts in the South? I’m imagining this is probably mid ’90’s probably.

Tim Allen:
Yeah you’re talking about mid ’90’s.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were cleaning up, you were cleaning up because airbrushed T-shirts were pretty big back then.

Tim Allen:
Huge, man. I had a pretty nice business man as a little high school student. It was good. I just loved doing it. I’d just stay up. Literally I’d start, I don’t know, after dinner ish and just airbrush all the different, I guess clients I had until 2:00 AM or so. Get some sleep and then go to school and handout all the merch.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it sounds like your parents were pretty supportive of you using your talent in this way.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I mean even just introducing the airbrush. It was just really, really supportive of art in general. I know that’s not always the case but yeah. Yeah, that definitely was the case with my family.

Maurice Cherry:
Did they introduce you to art and design at an early age or was it something you just picked up?

Tim Allen:
Well, it’s interesting because both my… Well, my mother used to teach art and then my father was just a doodler. And I just would see him doodle and he’s actually a really good artist and he taught me how to draw when I was super young and then I just kept doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And then that of course inspired you to end up going to North Carolina State. So tell me about the program. Do you feel like it really helped you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean I’d say there was a couple of very fortuitous events that happened and some mentors that sprinkled in there that just fueled the passion I already had around art into design. And not only helping me understand what design is but also how it relates to art. I think I was very fortunate to be in a curriculum that was labeled art and design. So it was this intermix of subjective emotion and then objective problem solving and how those things relate. Still to this day is foundational in the way I approach design. But yeah, the opportunities I had really were straight coming in. One of the professors saw my airbrushing and airbrushing is very volumetric. And that was one of the things that drew me to it. It’s so easy to shade and so forth.

Tim Allen:
And so he’s like “You know what, 3D design and CGI is probably something you would gravitate towards because you just have this natural instinct towards objects.” And I was like okay cool. And so eventually, that relationship blossomed and he got a grant from NSF to create character animation and pedagogy for what they used to call multimedia back in the day. So this is basically like CD-ROMs and stuff. And so he just paid me for a summer to learn CGI. It was these silicone graphics machines that were down in a basement and no one that knew how to use them. They were built on Unix and he was like “Crack the code on these and learn how to create 3D avatars and animate them and there you go.” And so I literally again, it was sort of deja vu with the airbrush. Because the same thing I did was for the next three months I just holed away in that basement learning 3D. And then yeah, that started… That was my path of how does art relate to design?

Maurice Cherry:
Self taught.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So once you graduated from North Carolina State, what was the first design job that you had?

Tim Allen:
First design job was at this game company called Interactive Magic.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
And they were known for this flight simulation game called Apache and it was just… Apaches are these huge helicopters in the military. I think it’s like… Well, I don’t know, one of the most feared or destructive helicopters in the arsenal or whatever. So we played that up in the game and basically you got the experience of flying an Apache helicopter but we also did first person shooters and a couple other things as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And now as I was looking through your extensive LinkedIn resume, I saw that you were a product design lead at IBM for five years and this was back during a time when product design certainly wasn’t as widespread as it is now in the industry. I’m curious to know, what did you take away from that experience?

Tim Allen:
Oh man, that was foundational as well. I was fortunate enough to have Chris Paul as a manager coming out of the Interactive Magic. He recruited me into the team within a year I was already managing folks just because he just believed in my capability. So not only was I learning product design at a very early time but then also learning how to manage people and so forth early in my career. Yeah, it was a pretty cool time. I was working on WebSphere, which is like a enterprise web development IDE. Yeah and a couple other projects there.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I saw recently, I was reading through, I think it was FastCompany. I was reading through and they were talking about this study. I don’t know, you probably might’ve read this, the study from McKinsey about CEOs and design leadership. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Tim Allen:
Yes…yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So you probably know where I’m going with this. So you’ve held down a lot of design leadership positions at a number of different companies and agencies. I mean we’ve mentioned IBM, of course you’re now at Airbnb but I mean, Adobe, Amazon, Microsoft, RGA. That’s a huge swath of experience there. And to sort of refer back to this study, the study basically was saying that CEOs don’t understand design leadership at all. When you look back at your career, have you found that to be the case?

Tim Allen:
I think there’s been a progression. I wouldn’t say where we’ve reached the Nirvana yet but there has been a progression. And I could describe my early career as trying to get a seat at the table as a designer. And then as a team lead trying to get your team to have a seat at the table. You’re the voice of your team, at the seat of the table. And then human centered design and design thinking. Being the voice of the customer and having the customer have a seat at the table. Table being like executive forums, decision making forums and so forth. And then I think now, if you’re fortunate enough to be in a successful company, most likely there’s some notion of design as a strategic asset in there.

Tim Allen:
I think the extent to which that’s true probably varies. But yeah, I think we’ve grown. At the same time, I think designers as leaders are very rare. And I think at the point of my career that I’m in now, what spoke to me quite a bit, getting back to Airbnb a bit is the fact that the founder, two of the three founders are university grads and Brian and I have a good rapport. Brian Chesky is like a designer’s designer if anything. He leads the whole company as CEO. And the way to approach problems that we learned very early on as designers is just thematic in how Airbnb just runs in general. And I find that fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
So you just dropped a little something there I want to go back to. You said that designers as leaders are rare. Can you unpack that a little bit? What do you mean by that?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, designers as business leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Are rare. Yeah. I think there are very few CEOs with design backgrounds. Typically even at the executive levels, design reports into engineering. Typically there’s very little design organizations that end at CEO level or report into sort of a C level position. Again, that’s just representation, that’s sort of quote unquote, seat at the table. So I just find that interesting. I think that at a certain level, we plateau a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think would need to happen to change that?

Tim Allen:
I think that design… Approaching design with a business lens without sacrificing the ability to be creative is one way to do that. I think there’s a balance to be had there. But understanding and even building this into design curriculums at a early phase in people’s development is key. Like how did decisions get made in business? And how can design play a part not only in what’s delivered but how it’s delivered and why it’s delivered? In relation to the business and the reason why the company even exists.

Maurice Cherry:
Given your design leadership positions, have you found that designers are starting to come more into that business sense as the years go on? Are they improving, I guess? That’s probably a better way to put it.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I think that design has just… It’s been democratized by technology a lot more. So I think when we bring folks in with varied backgrounds, so folks just out of undergrad while they were going to school or even not attending undergrad, that have had their own brand agencies or have been contracting and understand-

Tim Allen:
Agencies or have been contracting and understand business at a level of basically putting the food on the table. I think it enables them to have the same, a different level of rigor in terms of how they impact decisions at work as ICs or even managers.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious about that, because I feel like certainly as technology has made it so more and more people can enter into design at pretty much any level. In a way it sort of forced some people to be almost more entrepreneurial and more businesslike in their design, because they may not necessarily be doing it for a business, but they have X number of clients. Say if they do a bunch of design for a marketplace website or something like that, I don’t know. I’m thinking like 99designs or something to that effect where they didn’t have to kind of talk to a number of different clients and weigh the business cases and not just creates for the sake of creation I guess.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Even just bringing it back to my own story of having an airbrush business and understanding clients and briefs and however crazy they were either in high school or sort of like, “Hey, just hook me up with a T-shirt with the Wu-Tang Clan symbol on or whatever. But you still need to understand like, “Okay, what is this person’s sensibility and what are you’re trying to do with?” It’s basically what this person’s brand is. That enables a different level of … A different way of seeing the world when you hit the corporate or agency roadmap.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you’ve been now at Airbnb, we spoke about this before recording. You’ve been there for about seven or so months now. What lessons did you learn this past year? How has this new experience improved you or has it helped? How has it helped you grow?

Tim Allen:
It’s been for me just refreshing to be in a company where creativity and design is an extreme asset. I mean, I think I probably took that for granted earlier in my career working with Nike at RJ and just being in sort of an agency for so long of like, your purpose or what you believe in intersecting or overlapping with your talent or kind of capability as a designer. And so I didn’t understand how rare that was until after I left RJ and wasn’t working on Nike.

Tim Allen:
And I think now, I’ve worked with a lot of companies that have great missions, but being at Airbnb, it reminds me of early in my career where it’s just like a lot of people believing in something, a lot of people with extreme amounts of talent. And I think that belief mixed with the level of creativity and talent that’s cultivated here is just, it’s one the things that just it’s really refreshing and it’s a delight to be here.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When you look back over your career at all the places you’ve worked at, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned?

Tim Allen:
The biggest lessons I’ve learned I think is that in some ways I think creativity in terms of design is an act of kindness. What draws me to design the most is when that’s quantified and calibrated against. What I’m saying is, I think that creativity by itself is an inservice of something. Creating a better world or impacting people’s lives in a positive way can start to feel a little self-indulgent. But I think a mission like empowering every person on the planet to achieve more. When you mix that with creativity, there’s kindness involved in that. I think a mission like anyone feeling like they belong anywhere, there’s a notion of kindness in that. And design in the right circumstances can impact people’s lives if people are committed to it.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Tim Allen:
For me it is just authentically committing to a purpose and kind of propagating that commitment among team members. So attracting people to that mission, fueling that mission, and then delivering on that mission, which is basically our products and our innovation. So I think success is all about understanding that purpose and just being a catalyst for belonging at this point.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know just started at Airbnb not too long ago, but I’m curious, are you happy kind of with your current work-life balance? Is it good?

Tim Allen:
Work-life balance is interesting because I don’t know, I don’t know if I create a binary between the two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I don’t know if I’d necessarily say it’s a binary, I guess think of it more like a see-saw. Like the balance is where you feel it’s the most balanced, so it’s not necessarily taking one from the other. And I’m curious, if it’s not balanced, what would that look like for you?

Tim Allen:
So I have a two-year-old now, which is a new thing that’s very inspiring as well, and a five-month-old.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Tim Allen:
Thanks a lot. So I think I’m happier in my career, just in terms of where I am and the people I’m working with. I think so that makes me a better spouse, better father and so forth. I think in doing that, the balance is, I think when you’re passionate about something, you’re compelled to do it quite a bit and go above and beyond. So it’s like how do you calibrate against responsibilities as a new father while still stimulating yourself and improving yourself? And just along that, is it just being on a journey of an improvement as a person and then, how does your career fit into that as well? Let’s that being a new father, those are some new variables that I hadn’t had to deal with before.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, aside from your kids, I would imagine.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, kids definitely. I would say that’s probably number one. I mean, without being cliched, you see that everything is new in their eyes. You see everything that comes in comes out in some way. You see a reflection of yourself, both the best parts of yourself and sometimes the worst parts. So that’s definitely an area of inspiration. I read sci-fi, I’m a sci-fi fanatic. I love Octavia Butler. So I read her stuff a lot. I think mainly it’s a combination of fashion, sci-fi, and just being enamored with my kids is probably the biggest inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I heard you are quite the sneakerhead too. Somebody told me that. I mean, you let me know if I’m wrong there, but.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I have a big, large collection of shoes from my days working with Nike and I feel like I’m a reformed sneakerhead a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that possible?

Tim Allen:
I think I probably have way … I don’t know, but I don’t have as many as before. And so I have just a few, a smaller inventory than I did before. But I try to make them count.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like a nice warehouse set aside for them.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:35:38].

Maurice Cherry:
Climate control. Do you feel like you’re living your life’s purpose right now or do you think you’re still searching for it?

Tim Allen:
Oh wow. That’s deep Maurice. Yeah, at times I do feel like that’s the case. I love what I’m doing right now in terms of purpose. I love how it’s being directed and delivered. I love the impact that I have on people’s lives, or the impact I want to have on people’s lives. And yeah, it’s cool to be a new father. And so there’s a lot of things that are in line right now. So yeah, I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but yeah, I’d say I’m starting to live my purpose.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you want to do? This can be career-wise. It can be life-wise, anything in particular?

Tim Allen:
I’d want to learn how to fly, fly planes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, for one of my recent birthdays, my wife got me flying lessons and it was pretty amazing. So I just started, but I haven’t been able to keep it going. But yeah, I’d love to just be I guess a novice pilot.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I feel like we’ve had someone on the show that was a pilot. Well I don’t know if they were a pilot. I think they were just into flying planes, like model planes. I’m thinking of Dantley Davis. I don’t remember if he told me he was into planes or if he did fly recreationally. I don’t remember which it was. But I would imagine that’s probably pretty well within your grasp right now?

Tim Allen:
Yeah. I mean it’s just amazing to be up there and how you feel when you’re actually in control of the plane, how complex it is. But in some ways it’s fairly simple as well. Just seems like extremely challenging but very peaceful at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Will probably make your commute easier.

Tim Allen:
Oh indeed, yeah. Going from Seattle to San Francisco man, you wouldn’t talk about work-life balance. That’s one thing that’s off balance is like, how can I make that commute less painful? So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How far is it? I mean, I’m assuming you’re flying, but it’s what, like a two hour flight?

Tim Allen:
Yeah, yeah. Sometimes a little less. And then yeah, I’m trying to make it a science to get in and out of the airport and to the office as quick as possible so I can get my day started at 10:00 AM starting from Seattle, which isn’t too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. See Airbnb needs to work on the air part. They got the bnb part down.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
They get the air part down, get you a private jet or something back and forth. Make it happen.

Tim Allen:
There you go. I like the way you’re thinking Maurice. We should have a transportation division as well. I got to hit them up.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so what is it like, I’m curious because Seattle is a pretty big tech city. I mean Microsoft is there, Amazon is there, and Nintendo is there, bunch of other probably smaller companies and stuff, but you’re working in Silicon Valley. Do you feel like that’s a big shift for you in any sort of way?

Tim Allen:
For me personally, no. I mean we have an office, Airbnb has an office in Seattle as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. Yeah. So there’s a office here and so I work out of the Seattle office as well as the San Francisco office. So we’re quite a community here in Seattle. And I think what’s interesting, really interesting in terms of the black design community here, woman by the name of Bekah Marcum has just recently just used LinkedIn to literally just knit together a community out of thin air over the last couple of years of black designers in Seattle. I just spoke at one of the events not too long ago, but being a part of the design community just at large in Seattle, it’s great. And like you said, there’s a ton of tech companies here. There’s a ton of agencies here as well. This is a nice creative climate.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that local Seattle design scene. Black design scene I guess if we want to put a finer point on it. What is it like for you at this stage in your career?

Tim Allen:
I like to be closer probably to the black design community or design committee in general. So fairly busy. But yeah, just being able to meet with young early in career designers and folks who’ve been in the game for a while as well is just super interesting. I mean, iron sharpens iron and sometimes it’s just representation, like this being in a room of people that look like you, especially when that’s not often the case is cathartic in and of itself. And if all those people are also within your function and are passionate about what you’re passionate about as well, it’s like paradise.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s something that I found interesting when I started doing live shows with Revision Path is that oftentimes just the fellowship aspect alone of being in the same room, like for attendees, for me too really. Just being in the same room with a bunch of black designers, I don’t want to say that’s enough. It feels like a disservice to say that’s enough given sort of the dearth of spaces that are available in the design community that speak to us, that are for us, that cater to us, et cetera. But just being in the space, every time we do a live show, people are like, “When’s the next one?” I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know.” But they love that opportunity so much and they’re able to talk to people that look like them, that are in the same field as them. It’s such a rarity when it does happen.

Tim Allen:
Oh my God yeah. It’s so rare. I mean basically we couldn’t stop talking about it. After we finished up with the event, people were just constantly remarking about how rare this is and how good it feels. And yeah, I mean just like you said, it just speaks the dearth of opportunities, places, times when we are together. And so we’ve got a long way to go in our industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been a design leader in this industry for a long time. You’ve seen designers come and go, you’ve seen trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you’ve …

Maurice Cherry:
Seeing trends come and go, et cetera. What is something that you think most designers don’t worry about but they should? I have an answer. I don’t want to seed your answer but I want to listen to what you have to say.

Tim Allen:
I would say the why, I think the more senior you get, the more experienced you get, it gets better. But I’ve even seen more senior designers not really understand why they’re making decisions and be able to articulate the rationale behind it. And it goes back to just art versus design. We’re not artists necessarily. We should be artists, but our job isn’t art, as a designer at least. You are solving problems, so understanding how to articulate why you’ve made a decision, down to every design decision. Even some of the design decisions you’re probably making intuitively or instinctually, I’d love to see designers focus more on that.

Maurice Cherry:
That was actually pretty close to my answer. Yeah, I was going to say writing, but for the very same reasons of being able to articulate sort of why you made a certain design decision or why you decided to go a certain way. I mean look, I’m a designer that can sit out and vibe for hours over fonts and find what the right typeface is to get a vibe and all that. But being able to articulate the why behind it is so important because otherwise people just think you’re some woo woo hippie designer just pulling stuff out of nowhere. And it’s like where is … what’s the rationale behind it? What’s the thought process that goes into the decision? Because it feels like without that then yeah, you are an artist because artists don’t necessarily have to explain that. But as a designer you’re in service to the user, to the company, to the client, et cetera. So that rationale becomes paramount.

Tim Allen:
Yeah, I couldn’t describe it better. I think … and then as you rise in seniority, you have this whole notion of accountability. So as you define that, you either create accountability because of those decisions or you’re given accountability because of those decisions. And if you don’t understand what you’re being held accountable for, you can’t measure it, you can’t tout it, you can’t … When calibration performance reviews come around, you’re sort of like, well I did this, but why did you do it? How does that track against the business impact? Can you make a … I think there’s several ways to use that as ammunition and one of them is through performance reviews. I also see that as an area where writing and everything we’re talking about comes in handy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What advice would you give to, let’s say I’m a mid career designer, I’m even loath to use that term because the middle of a designer’s career, it’s often a very weird nebulous period of time. You know what I mean? I mean certainly if you look at titles, you can be a junior or senior whatever, but mid career, is that three years, five years, 10 years? How long is a designer’s career, et cetera. But let’s say a mid career designer, say five years or so in the game, they’re listening to this interview, they’re looking at your work, they’re looking at your resume. What advice would you give them if they want to get to the level where you are?

Tim Allen:
Sometimes I’m a little old school, I don’t even know if this really still applies, I haven’t thought about it as much, but when I was coming up and it was again, my father’s influence, he had the whole adage of you got to be twice as good. He didn’t really necessarily add the whole expect half as much thing. He just … they definitely instilled that, understand where the bar is and then just double it. So I’d say craft and just excellence. If you can just be as scary talented as you can be, I think that starts to speak for itself. And also it reflects your passion, whether that is interaction or XD or communication design, visual design, graphic design, whatever it is. Even gathering insights, just that notion of excellence and understanding where the bar is and always trying to push it is a gift.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of the things that we have for this year, for 2020 is basically a more equitable future. I mean 2020 is sort of this year that’s been driven into pop culture as the future in many ways, whether it’s the new show or just the notion of a repeating year of some sort where this is the future. How are you helping to use your design skills or even just kind of your station at where you’re at in life, how are you helping to create a more equitable future?

Tim Allen:
One of the things we just started to do is to work with companies, like the Inneract Project, I’m sure you’re familiar with the other Maurice Mo and even beyond that how can you create more awareness of design as a viable path. Not only viable but extremely lucrative in some cases, path as well, to underrepresented marginalized groups. I think that’s key. I think for me, in terms of contributing to a more equitable industry and talent pool, it’s just like getting folks in and then understanding the barriers there. I mean it’s not just social economic but it’s also cultural. I think we talked about my background where my parents were very supportive of art just as a means to … as a way of living but that’s definitely not always the case. You see that all the time.

Tim Allen:
So overcoming those barriers, so awareness. I think access is another one. And then also just tilling the soil as it were, as a leader myself in propagating the understanding of representation, diversity and having a diverse population feel like they belong as well and how that puts jet fuel on creativity. There’s tons of research on it, I won’t go into all that, but it’s tangible what happens when you get a bunch of different voices singing the same song.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, it’s even further in the future, what is Tim Allen doing? What’s he working on?

Tim Allen:
Oh man. 2025 in the future, I’m probably a host of some sort. Either a super host, in terms of an experience or my home or both. I’m working on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Oh, an Airbnb host. Okay.

Tim Allen:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why my mind went straight to game show when you said that, but okay.

Tim Allen:
I could be a game show host. That could be interesting too.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, nothing wrong with that.

Tim Allen:
Yeah. No, I feel like I would want in five years to be … to have provided some pathway of access to increase our numbers as black designers in the field. Definitely within Airbnb. But not only us racially but numbers of other underrepresented populations as well. Just being a beacon of inclusion and belonging. Yeah, I think if in five years, somehow in the orbit of what it means to create a creative team or produce creative deliverables that are inclusive and that inspire people to want to be more inclusive and host and make people feel like they belong. That’s what I would want to do in five years.

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

Tim Allen:
You can definitely check me out on Twitter, Tim Allen Design. Hit me up on Instagram as well. I’m just Timothy Allen there. LinkedIn is always a good route too. I’ve got a couple of portfolios out there, but they’re super old. So take a look at those if you want to, but just to kind of see my path and some old work like-

Maurice Cherry:
Any of the airbrush shirts up there?

Tim Allen:
No, I need to put some of those up there though.

Maurice Cherry:
You should, I feel like that’s making a comeback now. Fashion design comes in 20 year cycles.

Tim Allen:
True, true, true. And we’re … that would be right for right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey look, think about it.

Tim Allen:
Okay [inaudible 00:08:44].

Maurice Cherry:
All right Tim Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, one, giving us kind of a peek behind the curtain at Airbnb, what it’s like to kind of be at your position, but also just talking about your path, your journey as a designer, how you’ve come up and also really, I think it’s good to have that sort of introspection once you get to a … I don’t know, I think once you get to a certain level in your career to kind of see this is where I’ve been, this is where I’m going.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s always good, I feel like to have those sorts of insights and reflective moments because not only does it help you out and help you grow as a person, but also it helps out others as well because you’re able to kind of impart that knowledge on the next generation and certainly it looks like with the work you’re doing at Airbnb, through your teams as well as this work that you’re talking about with the black designer community in Seattle, et cetera, that you’re making that happen. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tim Allen:
Thanks for having me, Maurice. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.


RECOGNIZE is open for essay submissions for Volume 2! The deadline is April 30 – enter today!

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Billy Almon

I first heard of Billy Almon at last year’s Black in Design Conference, and I was so energized by his talk that I knew I would have to have him on the podcast to share his story with you all. Being a biology-inspired storyteller and designer might sound a bit peculiar, but wait until you hear how vital and important his work is to all of us.

Billy started off with a primer on biomimicry, and then shared how his experience with Hurricane Katrina changed the course of his life forever. We also talked about the value of exposure, and the creation of Billy Biology, his way of giving back to the world and inspiring generations to come about how biomimicry and design are so important. According to Billy, “the answers are all around us.” And I think after this interview, we should be ready for them!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Billy Almon:
My name is Billy Almon, and I am a biology inspired storyteller and designer. So, I look at organisms in nature, I get an understanding of how they innovate, how they have been innovative, and I look for opportunities to apply that to challenges at the human scale.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Now, I regret to say, I first heard about you last year, at the Black and design conference that goes on at Harvard Graduate School of Design. You were on this panel, actually, with two other people who’ve been on the show, Ari Melenciano and Jerome Harris. Yeah, I know the panel was about equity and justice in technology and media. I remember you gave this example about a slime mold that I thought … I was sitting in the back like, “Wow, that is really dope.”

Maurice Cherry:
How had you heard about the event before you spoke there?

Billy Almon:
I’d been trying to go to the event, I’d been trying to attend the event since the first conference. My wife actually told me about an opportunity when they started looking for speakers for the last conference, so she actually reached out to them and said, “Hey, you might want to check out this guy named Billy Almon, he might be good for your conference.” Then, they reached out to me with an inquiry about participating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Yeah, I mentioned before we started recording how your wife, she reached out to me too, years and years ago, about starting a podcast. That’s dope that she’s been proactive in helping out like that.

Billy Almon:
Man, she’s the most self actualized person I’ve ever met. It does wonders for my career.

Maurice Cherry:
I read where you refer to yourself as a biomimicry advocate and practitioner. Of course, I have to ask, I feel like you probably get asked this on every podcast but, what is biomimicry, and how do you use it in your life?

Billy Almon:
Biomimicry comes from this term called biomimesis, which translates to imitate life. Essentially, it’s the idea of turning to nature for inspiration on how to solve problems. If you think about the world in which we live in, every single organism on this planet, whether it be human, or bacteria, or mammals, all of us have to deal with the same conditions. Sunlight, cyclical processes, ebbs and flows in resources, competition, environmental factors that play into how we live our lives.

Billy Almon:
So, when you think about the fact that we all experience these things, and when you think about the fact that a lot of these organisms have been around longer than we have, you start to see that there’s all of these existing methods and strategies for solving problems, that exist in the natural world. What biomimicry does is we study these organisms, and then we find the underlying tactic, or strategy, or function that’s at play, at how these organisms are solving their problems, and then we apply that to parallel problems that humans face.

Billy Almon:
To give you an example, Velcro is an example of the biomemetic process at play. The designer of Velcro, he was a Swiss gentleman who would take his dog for walks. Every time that he would come home, he would find these little spherical seeds attached to the fur of his dog. So, he took these seeds under his microscope, and saw that there was these curly little hooks on the end of each strand of this seed, and he realized that this is a great way that this seeds attaches to animals, these curly little hooks. That became the inspiration for Velcro. So, if you think about how Velcro looks, when you look at it up close, it’s all of these little strands, and curly strings on one side, with fur-ish counterpart on the other, so Velcro came from the strategy of this seed, which is called a burr seed, to attach to animals, in order to have the animals carry the seeds to locations where they might potentially grow.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. Yeah, I’ve heard something about that, with Velcro and how now, I guess there’s different types of Velcro, where the matting isn’t as plush, or the hooks aren’t as deep, but it is still based off of that same premise, of what you’ve seen in nature. You’re now able to recreate that, in an industrial setting.

Billy Almon:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Given that example, I feel like that’s something we probably, as kids just running around in fields and stuff, have instinctively picked up. You run around, and you’ve got grass and all kind of stuff stuck to your pants, and your shirt, your hair, or anything like that.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first learn about biomimicry? When did you first know that this was something that you were into?

Billy Almon:
I actually came across biomimicry as a result of Hurricane Katrina. By that, I mean after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was an architecture student at Howard University at the time. After the storm hit, and after the manmade disaster that followed, there was a lot of students, obviously not only at Howard, but around the world … At Howard, there were a lot of students who wanted to do something. How can we help?

Billy Almon:
About 500 students from Howard University drove down to New Orleans, and to the Gulf Coast, to just find ways to volunteer to help during our Spring Break. Seeing what took place up close, I had the most transformative experience. It was the most transformative experience I’ve ever had, just witnessing people who look like you, people who look like me, in the conditions that that disaster left that community. As an architecture student I was curious, how do we avoid this from happening? How do we create spaces in communities where this event is not taking place? Especially knowing that climate change is not going way, especially coastal cities, and people in low income neighborhoods are going to be the most affected, and are the most affected by climate change, how do we prevent these kinds of things from happening again?

Billy Almon:
In trying to find answers to that question, I came across this book called Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, which was written by a woman named Janine Benyus. After I read that, everything for me changed, it became my design philosophy.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So, once you learned … Well, hold on. Actually, let me switch gears for a little bit. You mentioned climate change. Here in Atlanta, we have a Museum of Design here, and 2020 the theme that they have for this year is that it’s the year of climate and change. Actually, by the time this episode airs, there will actually be an exhibit there, about biomimicry. It’s titled Learning from Nature: The Future of Design, it was developed in collaboration with the Biomimicry Institute.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really interested in checking that out, because I heard about that right around the same time that I was at Black and Design. I was like, “I need to learn more about this,” because the examples that you were giving during that panel talk really inspired me to think about, what are ways that designers could possibly use nature for design, for technology, for creating more equitable futures? Which we’ll get to, later on in the conversation, but I wanted to mention that.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s switch gears here a bit, because you talked about Howard University. I want to go back, a little bit further than that. Where did you grow up?

Billy Almon:
I was a military brat growing up. My dad was in the Army, and my mom worked for the Department of Defense. So, I was born in Germany, I think we moved back to the States when I was, I want to say, one? Maybe two. Bounced around several states, Texas, lived in Georgia a little bit, lived in Maryland, before I went to Howard. Lived in South Korea, and then back to Germany. So, just all over the place, which was a fun experience, especially when you get to come across kids who have friends that they’ve known since they were in diapers. I have a new best friend every two years, so that was always a fun experience, growing up.

Maurice Cherry:
With all of that traveling, and seeing the country, seeing the world, how did that shape you, creatively?

Billy Almon:
Oh man, it made everything possible. It told me that there’s more options than I think, right away. It added all these different flavors to the mix of how you can create something new, by just introducing a new, or a different perspective, on what you’re trying to do. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense because it’s sort of like that adage, “You can’t be what you don’t see.”

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, the fact that you’re able to see all of these different experiences, different people, different cultures, et cetera, that all feeds into who you are.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. I’ve got to tell you, if there was one thing that really stuck out to me, about the experience of all that traveling as a young kid, was just the value of exposure. I mean, like you say, you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you’re exposed to something, it just reintroduces you to another level of possibilities, right? I can’t emphasize enough how much exposure, even in a lot of the work that I’m doing now, how big of a role that plays.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first know that design, in general, was something that you were really interested in? Were you just prone to it as a kid, or how’d you find out about it?

Billy Almon:
When I was a kid, these are the stories my mom would tell me, about me being in my room, building contraptions, building booby traps in my room, and building cities out of construction paper and Legos. So, my mom would always tell me when I was a kid that I was going to be either an engineer, or an inventor when I grew up. Just her telling me that I was like, “Okay, that’s the name of it,” and I’d just go back to playing in my room.

Billy Almon:
Finding ways to explore my imagination, I think that was really it. Then, her just feeding that was a big part of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when I was a kid, they used to have this, I think it was a contest, called Invent America. Do you remember this?

Billy Almon:
No. What was that?

Maurice Cherry:
I might be showing my age. When I was in school in the ’80s, Jesus Christ, there was this nationwide competition called Invent America, and it was for K through eight students to, basically, creative thinking skills, critical thinking skills, et cetera. You just basically made stuff, and it was a nationwide competition, they judged it. I don’t know if Invent America is still a thing, anymore? I want to say, given the state that America is now, not to be political, but I don’t know if that’s still a thing that kids do?

Billy Almon:
Was that at a public school they did that?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it was a public school. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
Oh man, maybe I was in Korea.

Maurice Cherry:
This is a public school in rural Alabama.

Billy Almon:
Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I figured it was a nationwide thing, I thought it was nationwide. I’m going to have to look into that.

Billy Almon:
You know what’s funny? When you said Invent for America, my mind went to us. What was it, reach for-

Maurice Cherry:
Hands Across America. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
I was like, “Wait, you did what?”

Maurice Cherry:
I need to see if Invent America’s still a thing, because … It’s funny, I think about the stuff that I did when I was younger in school, and how completely unorthodox I think it is, right now. We had a critical thinking … Not a class, really, but they would give us critical thinking exercises. They’d give us an odd scrap of construction paper, or something, and everyone gets the same shape of construction paper, and you have to basically make something out of it. Some people would glue it to a piece of paper, and draw around it to make art around it. Or, someone would take it, and fold it into something, or things like that. I don’t know if kids have that kind of stuff, now?

Billy Almon:
You know what’s crazy about that? Now, to do that, you’d have to pay $20,000 a semester at college, to do the exact same thing. Take this piece of paper.

Billy Almon:
I remember, one of our projects was we had to take one piece of cardboard, and turn it into a chair, and be able to sit in the chair. It was basically just a thicker piece of paper, I could have just went to public school in Alabama, and checked that box.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you have this, I guess, childhood curiosity for creating these traps, and buildings, and everything, so your parents saw that as something that, clearly, you were into. Was that what influenced you to go into architecture?

Billy Almon:
Yes, when it came time-

Maurice Cherry:
Was that what influenced you to go into architecture?

Billy Almon:
Yes. When it came time for me to start looking at schools and start thinking about my major, the closest thing, at that time, that I came across was architecture. I was looking at it like, “What is something that has to deal with psychology, has to deal with politics, has to deal with science and art?” This is 2004, so this is before everyone just was Googling stuff. Before that was a trend, it was… What was it? Hotmail and looking stuff up on that internet. Architecture was the first thing that I came across and understanding, researching about Egyptian architecture and how the architect was treated in society during that time period really kind of romanticized it in a way where I was like, “Okay. This feels like the right thing.”

Maurice Cherry:
How was your time at Howard?

Billy Almon:
I wouldn’t trade my Howard experience for anything. It was the best in so many different ways. One, because that was my first taste of Wakanda, and if you recall from the talk, but I just love black Panther. In part, because you can see biomemetic elements in the design. It was the first time, I remember stepping on campus like it was yesterday, stepping on campus and just seeing beautiful, intelligent people having diverse conversations and they all look like you, right? Just not getting that flavor, again, having traveled the world and primarily being the minority everywhere I went, it was just such a unique and special experience that, I just… Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it your choice to go through an HBCU or was that something your parents were pushing?

Billy Almon:
No, it’s interesting. I had actually planned to go to the University of Maryland and then I got accepted into Howard. I remember, I don’t know how not political or spiritual to not get, but this is literally what happened. I was praying about the decision like what do I do? And literally, I heard the clearest, as clear as I’m talking to you, something was just telling me, “Go to Howard.” Now, literally talking to you, I can totally see how just following that voice just turned into the beautiful life that I have now, especially because I got to meet my wife there. I think that’s probably the main reason anyone should go to Howard. I’m kidding. But so many great blessings came out of that just, I will always cherish it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We’ve had several Howard alums here on the show too. I’m sure they would all agree as well. It’s a great school.

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious though about this connection between architecture and what you’re doing now. So you go through Howard, you’re studying architecture, you graduate with your degree, and now this is 10 plus years later, the work that you’re doing is in biology and design? That’s quite a path to take.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. Coming out of school, I got an opportunity to participate in a competition that Disney has called the Imaginations Competition. Out of that, I got an internship. Myself and four other Howard students, we entered this competition, submitted a design proposal for something we thought Disney should create, something we thought would be a cool Disney experience. Out of that, I got an internship and my first internship was literally, we were given a stack of things that were being worked on in the R&D department. They said, “Come up with new experiences for the future based on these cool cutting edge things we’re working on.” That was literally my first internship.

Billy Almon:
Long story short, after that, for 10 years after that, I worked at Disney in a lot of different capacities. My roles and responsibilities kind of changed to more, not just architectural design, but design of experiences and products and kind of a lot of really kind of forward future thinking. When you’re studying these things and when you’re looking at the future and all of that, you’re very often looking at the past. Again, for me, the natural world was full of all of these amazing innovative strategies. It naturally became something that I kind of just applied to everything that I was working on.

Billy Almon:
The other thing was my mother growing up, she loved animals and my mom is, God rest her soul, my hero. She’d always have stuffed animals on her desk at work and we always loved to be outdoors. That’s another thing that kind of just really stuck with me over time. Then when I got the chance to kind of dive deeper into biology and kind of studying how all these amazing creatures do things, it just blew my mind and really opened up this whole new avenue of resources for looking at innovation and design.

Maurice Cherry:
So then later on, you end up going to grad school. You went to Arizona State to study this kind of further. You studied biomimicry there.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. I was like, “Man,” as much as I loved Howard, I was like, “I’m never doing college again. I’m good.” Then over time, I was just kind of thinking like, “Okay, if I wanted to continue my education, it’d either be an MBA or be something else.” Then I realized that there was an opportunity to get a master’s of science degree in biomimicry. And I was like, “Okay, I have to keep going with this,” and that just further blew my mind and really kind of just opened up the natural world to.”

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there studying this now professionally? I would imagine that probably was a big shock in a way, right?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. One of the cool things about the program was I was also participating in an additional smaller cohort program where we traveled around the world to six different locations where we were immersed for a week in all these different ecosystems. We were literally in these amazing environments; costa Rica, Hawaii, the Sonoran desert in Arizona, the Colorado Rockies. We’re in these environments. We’re camping out. We’re looking at slug and you know, lichen and mushrooms and, and we’re understanding how, not only do they solve problems within their context and within the kind of operating conditions that they have to thrive within, but we’re also seeing how they relate to each other and how there’s so much cooperation in the natural world when most people just think it’s all about competition.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, survival of the fittest.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So the interesting thing about that to me is how out of context that phrase is thrown around when that whole idea of survival of the fittest is really not necessarily the strongest organism or animal, but the one that’s most fit to the conditions to really thrive within that niche. It just completely reframes it in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
It makes it then, more relational and environmental and not necessarily strength-based or some sort of adversarial kind of concept?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. Yeah. It makes it more about there’s a place where everything has its most optimal self.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
You don’t have to be the strongest. Sometimes you need to be the weakest and the smallest because in this environment, to be small is to be optimal. Right? So it’s more about context than it is some sense of bravado, for lack of a better word.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How did Billy Biology come about?

Billy Almon:
Oh man, so it’s funny. It started kind of, I don’t want to say as a joke, but my background wasn’t in biology, but I would be around a lot of biologists. For me, again, a brother in an environment where I’m the only one, when we’re hearing our teachers and our professors talk about these big biological, complex terms, I would kind of break it down for myself to understand, but kind of just blurt it out to the class. Basically, that’s where the poop comes out, right? They have all of these kind of like really, really complex terms about stuff and I would just kind of like break it down like that. It made it that much more digestible for my classmates. One day, we were in British Columbia and I had time to talk to my nephew, he was 10 at the time, and I was just asking him like, “So what do you want to do when you grow up?” His answer was, “Oh, I’m still thinking about it, but either a basketball player or a rapper.”

Billy Almon:
For me, I’m like, “Okay. As your uncle, I support you if that’s really what you want to do,” but as a person who had the opportunity to work among the most creative, talented people at Disney and then travel the world and see all these amazing places, that showed me that this is more about me exposing him to the world that I get to have access to than it is about that potentially really being what he wanted to do. What I would start to do is every time that we would travel to these different places, I would shoot a little video of what I was learning and kind of in that vernacular that I use with my classmates of kind of understanding these biological principles. I would just upload it to Facebook so that he could see it and other people could see it.

Billy Almon:
I got so much great feedback from not only from him, but also from like other people who saw the videos about how they were sharing it with their kids and how much it meant for them to see a person of color talking about science and technology and design. So it became a thing where I was like, “Okay, there’s something here and it’s resonating with people and there’s a need for it. So let me just keep going,” and it’s just kind of blossomed into other opportunities since.

Maurice Cherry:
And one of those opportunities being a television show.

Billy Almon:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You have a TV show called, “Little Giants.” Talk about that.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So that’s crazy. It’s crazy how it happened. A good friend of mine named Bradley Trevor Greive, who I had the opportunity to work with at Disney, he saw a lot of the videos and he and I, every now and then we get together and we’d go and watch bad movies and kind of complain about how bad they were and kind of put our cinephile hats on. He’s a wildlife author and just a really dope human being. So he hit me up one day and he’s like, “Hey, so I’m pitching a show to Animal Planet and I think it would be hilarious if you and I were the host of this thing.” He’s like, “So I want to see if you’re interested in me throwing your name into the mix.” He’s like, “Just want to be honest, it’s a long shot. We don’t know what’ll happened, but I just wanted to see if you’re interested.” I’m like, “Oh, well, you know, it’s a long shot,” which means it’ll never happen. So I’m like, “Yeah, go ahead. Tell them all about me.”

Billy Almon:
So he hit me up maybe six months later and he’s like, “Hey. So yeah, we’re doing this thing, man. The show got picked up. Are you still interested?” And I jumped at the opportunity. So the show, “Little Giants,” is myself and Bradley going out into remote places in the world around the world and finding tiny little creatures and highlighting some of the amazing adaptations and the amazing abilities, the amazing kind of super powers of these little creatures and then exploring, if we were to scale up this frog to the size of a beetle car… What are those cars called? Bug? [crosstalk 00:27:15]

Maurice Cherry:
A VW bugs. Yeah.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. If we scale this frog up to the size of a bug, a VW bug, how strong would it actually be then? Or how high could it leap? And you get to see that transformation. So it’s really fun. It was an amazing opportunity and experience.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, that’s also like a huge platform to be able to talk about biomimicry and about your love for biology and everything. That’s truly something. The show is still… There’s still episodes on and everything, right? It’s still airing?

Billy Almon:
Yeah. So I think six episodes have aired so far. You can find it on Animal Planet Go. I think more supposed to be rolling out. I can’t say the date, but I think there’s more on the way. I know we show more.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Billy Almon:
So hopefully, you guys will get a chance to see that soon.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ll make sure that we link to those episodes that you mentioned, link to them in the show notes. That’s really something to be able to take this love that you have to television that way. I feel like sort of what you’re saying about exposure, television feels like the ultimate exposure mechanism for people when they see like, “Oh, you’ve got to show?” All the other work that you’ve done leading up to that of course is great, but you have a TV show [crosstalk 00:28:27] people get to watch. That means that it really spread your message far and wide. That’s great.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, it was amazing. I consider myself a science communicator and it’s one thing to think that you’re doing a good job of briefly communicating a scientific or biological process, it’s a completely different thing when you’re doing it for television. Again, with my background in storytelling and the work that I did for Disney, I see myself as a storyteller too, but TV it’s such a different medium that having exposure to tell stories in that way was just another really cool thing that I’m hoping to expand on going forward.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to kind of change the topic here a little bit. I want to talk more about biomimicry kind of as it relates to design and creativity because you mentioned being a biology inspired storyteller and designer. For those that are listing, that are kind of interested in these examples that you’re mentioning, can you talk about what the benefit is of using biomimicry?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, so if you think about it, there’s nothing that’s actually wasted in the natural world; the way that humans, the way that our design creates waste. The thing I love about the natural world and why I love studying biomimicry is nature is very entrepreneurial, meaning that things that live in nature, their goal is to thrive, grow, develop their community, protect their families while also expending as little energy as…

Billy Almon:
– while also expending as little energy as possible, and so energy in the natural world is a primary resource. So organisms, whether it’s a vulture eating the scraps left from another animal hunting it, things are very entrepreneurial. They’re very much about how can I be as opportunistic as possible, and because of that, there’s no waste. You have decomposers, you have producers, you have this kind of cycle of organisms that find their niche and are also very resource efficient, and so because of that, you have a lot of sustainable strategies that you see in the natural world. So I can give you a couple of examples. There’s this one company called Sharklet and they produce … they’ve invented this kind of film that mimics the texture of sharkskin. The reason that they do that is because shark skin is covered in these very tiny, sharp little triangular looking teeth.

Billy Almon:
And these teeth on the surface of a shark actually prevent microbes from collecting on the skin and the sharks getting bacteria and infections, and it’s antimicrobial, and so this company developed this film that replicates and imitates that pattern and it’s an antimicrobial surface. So now you have an invention that doesn’t require harsh chemicals for cleaning.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Billy Almon:
And I think that’s the real appeal of biomimicry is there’s so many different ways to derive inspiration from nature when you look at the process, because you’re studying the functions. So you’re studying, why does this form allow this beetle to fly at this rate and be that aerodynamic, but not only just the forms, you’re also studying the process of how these organisms solve problems, and you’re also looking at how, from a systems level, how all of these different organisms might be interacting with each other to develop more efficient and innovative processes.

Billy Almon:
So just to give you another example, one of the things that I’m studying now is how super organisms, things like ants, colonies of ants or bees or schools of fish. How these individual organisms work together as a collective to accomplish a task and what their strategy and how they approach accomplishing a task can be applied to a business organization. So there’s all of these really, really cool, amazing things that when you break down nature to its kind of its most basic principles. There’s design principles at play in the tactics and the strategies that animals use and that their biology use that we can apply as designers to architecture, to engineering, to manufacturing, to sustainability, and with the talk that I was giving even to social challenges, I believe there’s potential for that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, we’re definitely hearing a lot about sustainability in the design world. I mean I feel like it’s more so from a conservation/climate change kind of angle, but you hear about plant inspired materials or even … I think I was reading something about how they’re trying to change how computer storage is more like DNA storage or something like that, looking at DNA and seeing how it stores data to see how they could do it for hard drives or something like that, which I thought was really interesting.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, I mean all of that stuff. I mean the more that you look at nature from … and I’m not saying from a … I’m not getting into the conversation around design versus evolution, not that kind of design, but when you look at what is actually the underlying mechanism that is allowing this organism to accomplish this task, what are the dynamics at play. When you break it down to almost a physics level, you really start to see all of these patterns and connections that just show you there’s some innovation at play.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So how can designers … I would even say probably developers that are listening to, how can they start to use biomimicry and biology in their work? How would you tell someone to go about doing that?

Billy Almon:
So there’s several different resources that you can tap into. The organization, Biomimicry 3.8, that’s actually the organization that Janine, the author of the book on biomimicry, she started, and they do a lot of training and classes and workshops. No shameless plug, or shameless plug. Workshops are a great way to understand how biomimicry works and how … I might even be over-complicating how approachable it is to get into this, but one of the things that I always recommend is talking to a biologist about a challenge that you have, because they have the understanding of the biology, and that’s one thing that we always advocate for is this idea of having a biologist at the design table, because they can serve as kind of a translator of the phenomena that’s happening with the organism and how that might actually translate to the challenge that you as a designer are trying to solve.

Maurice Cherry:
A biologist at the design table. I’m actually going to use that, because my mother is a biologist.

Billy Almon:
Nice.

Maurice Cherry:
She’s a biologist, so I grew up in labs and around all kinds of biological stuff like that.

Billy Almon:
That’s what up.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you mention that, it’s funny because I mean I went to school for math and I graduated with a math degree and I was selling tickets at the symphony. For a few years after I had no plan at all. What are you doing with your life? My mom would be like, “What are you doing?” And I ended up … I was always doing design as a hobby and then I sort of fell into doing design as a job and then I started my studio, but I kind of always feel like … I mean I know she’s proud of me, but I feel like in the back of her head she was like, “What are you doing? This isn’t science. This isn’t math. This isn’t what you went to school for.” It would blow her away to let her know that there are these biological connections to design. I’m definitely going to use that. You think I’m joking? I’m going to. I’m definitely going to use them when I talked to her this week.

Billy Almon:
No, yeah. Go for it. Go for it. She should be proud of you because you’re looking to expand your horizons as a problem solver, which is what we are as designers, and you’re using the natural world that she exposed you to to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
That’s a good upsell.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean I grew up in the sticks, so all kinds of animals and running around in fields and all that stuff. So when you’re mentioning that about the little burrs sticking on things, I’m just thinking of … I’m thinking now of things that I’ve seen as a kid that would remind me of applications that people could use now. For example, the little roly poly bugs. I’m pretty sure there’s a way someone is using a similar type of technology now for armor or something like that. It isn’t totally how that stuff is being used, but that’s amazing. You mentioned these workshops. You have your own workshop, BESA lab. Talk to me about that.

Billy Almon:
So there’s two components to it. One is more kind of professionally design oriented for older kids and adults, and then there’s a second component which is more younger kid oriented that is really around kind of looking at nature through the lens of STEM and kind of having a fun exploration of the outdoors through kind of an inventor’s perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting thing about STEM. I feel like it’s something when I was growing up, it wasn’t a big huge deal. Well, let me take that back. It was a huge deal in that they wanted to make sure that black people were going into these fields. I remember starting college. I started in a dual degree program. I got into that program because I had high scores in math and stuff when I was in school, and so I initially wanted to do computer engineering because I want it to be like Dwayne Wayne. That didn’t work out. After first semester I was like, “This is not going to work,” and I switched over to math, but it’s been interesting, I’d say within the past 10 years seeing how STEM is represented, I think particularly in black culture. I might be stepping on a hot potato here.

Billy Almon:
No, keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
So I hear a lot about STEM, but I feel like the focus is more so on the T and the E in STEM, not so much the S, definitely not the M. Let me tell you, everybody hates math. Nobody wants to touch math with a ten foot pole.

Billy Almon:
Man, you are not wrong.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that with what you’re doing with this sort of STEM education that people are trying to steer it towards more technical or more engineering disciplines?

Billy Almon:
I think part of that is if you think about where our society is, the iPhone is still the sexy mobile device. I think that whole Steve Jobs era of introducing the iPhone and programs and apps, I think that with that you have a better sales pitch for technology and engineering than you do science and math.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
And I think that’s part of it. I think those are things that you can easily point to and they get the most buzz, they get the most shine, but all of the stuff that underlies that, like the math behind all of that, the physics of that, the science, those are really the two pillars behind the technology and the engineering part, which is kind of ironic about that whole thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Billy Almon:
But yeah, I think you’re totally right. They definitely get a lot more of the shine, but just taking it back to biomimicry, that’s also another reason why I love it, because you get the opportunity to go outside and then just completely kind of deconstruct a leaf, and you get to see a leaf as this power plant, you know what I mean? It’s this chemical, there’s all these kind of chemical exchanges and dynamics at play. There’s structural integrity, there’s fluid dynamics, there’s all of these things built into a leaf, you know what I mean? And so just kind of taking it back to biomimicry, that’s why I love using it as a platform to talk about STEM, because I think the natural world is such an easy way to contextualize some concepts in science and math in a very kind of present way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because then you can just tell people just go outside, look at the world around you and see how that inspires you. I’ve mentioned recently being in LA and one of the things that struck me as interesting was how plants were used as divisions in certain parts of the city. So if you go into Hancock Park or even further North to Beverly Hills or right around in that area, you’ll see a lot of houses that have these sort of protective hedges and topiary, but then if I went downtown, I just saw nothing but iron gates, iron gates, iron bars on windows, and it’s interesting because you see a gate like that and you think, “Okay, I need to stay out. This is clearly for staying out,” whereas the hedges felt more … I don’t know, almost like a privacy screen in a way. It was a really interesting thing. I noticed a lot of interesting kind of architectural stuff in LA, like all the arches and even a lot of the older buildings, although I heard that LA doesn’t really have that great of a culture for conserving old buildings, which was kind of sad, going down Broadway and seeing all the like burnt out marquees and stuff. It reminds me of New York, I guess that’s why they call it Broadway.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, I get that. That’s one of the things, LA’s … I think part of it’s like cultural, which is a huge part of architecture. Architecture in a lot of ways is this kind of preservation of cultural philosophies and ideas of a certain time, and so when you have a place like LA where by and large, a lot of it’s about like what’s the latest and greatest, hottest thing? What’s the latest trend? And all that kind of stuff. I can see how there not necessarily is a great affinity for preserving a lot of the history, even though there’s a lot of really great history. I have a friend of mine who has this company called Mojo, and what they do is they essentially take you on a tour throughout LA and kind of tell you the stories in this really kind of compelling way of the history of these places, so you really get this really immersive flavor for the city and it’s kind of culture throughout time, but yeah, I’m with you. LA is such an interesting place.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like it’s a good place for what you do? I mean aside from, like I mentioned earlier, the proximity to television studios and execs and stuff, but being around the nature that’s in and around the city, is it good for you?

Billy Almon:
Oh, absolutely. I mean one of the great things about living here, and you hear people say this all the time, is having the opportunity to go to the beach and then go skiing in the same day is one of those unique things about this place, and so for me, that also means that there’s all of these different ecosystems that I get to explore. The weather is awesome, but it’s such a great place to kind of just understand … again, going back to what we were first talking about with niches and kind of this diversity of life that you find here, not only just in terms of the people that live here, but also the biota, the natural life of this place. That’s one of the things I love here. I can go to the aquarium and I can talk about octopus with my daughter and then we can go to Descanso Gardens and get all of these different flavors for different ecosystems of our local area. It’s awesome for a lot of the stuff that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of your daughter, do you find that she kind of wants to follow in your footsteps?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. I’m seeing … she’s got the bug. So it’s funny. She’ll be turning five soon, and –

Billy Almon:
She’ll be turning five soon, and I’m a comic book nerd and I didn’t force this on her, but she took a liking to Spider-Man, so her whole room is decked out in Spider-Man stuff. It’s like our favorite movie and she loves spiders. She has no fear of bugs, or we were on vacation recently and we saw a gecko, I picked the gecko up and I had it in my hand and then I gave it to her and she was handling it gently and she was telling me how to handle it gently. So I was just like, “Oh, my baby. She’s got the bug.” Yeah, it was great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s nice. What advice would you give to people that are listening that they’re inspired by your story, they’re hearing about your work. What advice would you give to any designers or techies out there that want to do what you do?

Billy Almon:
I would say this is kind of a big theme and rooted again… Sorry. So, for me it goes back again to exposure, right? The more that you expose yourself to new things, things that maybe even make you uncomfortable to explore, the more resilient, the more versatile you become as a designer, the more innovative you become. It’s going left when you usually make a right. It’s simple things like that. Like challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and learn something new.

Billy Almon:
For me, it starts like take a walk outside. Take a walk outside, and as a designer, breakdown when you see a squirrel climbing up a tree, what is actually happening, right? Or again, when you see a leaf falling to the ground, go and Google anthocyanins and understand how chlorophyll plays a huge role in the cyclical process of trees. I think I’m getting too out there, but there’s…

Maurice Cherry:
Not for me. Remember, my mom’s a biologist. So I’m like, “Yep. I got you.”

Billy Almon:
There’s this poetry to the way that life works. And actually that’s a great book too, The Way That Life Works. It’s like a biology 101 kind of book. But just go outside, start there. That’s the first thing. Go outside, take your curiosity with you and just look around in your backyard and just try to find some connections that you didn’t see before. Just start there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny, I’m thinking back now, like my old days in science classes and stuff, and I used to be obsessed with the Krebs cycle. I was obsessed with it.

Billy Almon:
Oh.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that are listening, the Krebs cycle, it’s basically, I mean to dumb it down very, very dumbly, basically we breathe in oxygen, we consume oxygen and then we exhale carbon dioxide and water and that is converted into energy, like ourselves converting the energy. So we can get what we need for energy just by breathing, and I don’t know if that’s the whole concept behind breatharians, or whatever those people are that all they do is breathe to eat or whatever.

Billy Almon:
Oh, trying to eat. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But I used to be obsessed with that in high school because I was into comic books and stuff too, and I’m like that’s like some mutant power shit. We just breathe in oxygen and get energy from it. Oxygen is everywhere. It’s in full supply. How is this possible? You know?

Billy Almon:
That’s the thing, right? Going back to your last question, I want to share with people, yes, my background is in biomimicry and yes I studied biology, but I don’t know everything about biology. As a designer, that was one of the things that made biomimicry approachable for me, was I didn’t have to right away know everything about biology. When you brought up that term, I didn’t know the term, but I understand the process, you know what I mean? The fact that that’s a chemical process, you know what I mean? There’s alchemy at play in the natural world and our bodies are a part of that alchemy.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. So where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, with the work you’re doing with the television show and Billy Biology and E-Slap, it’s 2025, what do you want to be working on?

Billy Almon:
Man, oh, there’s so many different things. One thing that I’m working on as a longterm thing is I really want to do more workshops in different locations, so I’m currently writing a proposal to different aquariums for being a designer in residence, a biomimetic designer in residence and having workshops at aquariums. That’s something that I’m hoping to do, especially getting a chance to go back to the aquarium in Atlanta. I love that place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I remember when they broke ground on that too. I was working downtown at the time and initially they were doing it because honestly they were trying to keep tourism dollars in the city, but they also were competing with Chattanooga, because Chattanooga has a really great aquarium and we wanted to have something that was a similar draw in the city. I mean, I’ve been several times since it’s opened. For someone that lives in the city, it feels like a hidden retreat. It’s right downtown in the middle of the city. I don’t know. It’s a really great aquarium. It’s a great place to just go and just spend an afternoon.

Billy Almon:
It is, man, it’s so magical. Seeing that whale shark fly over your head in the tunnel and just that huge wall. I mean I just, I love getting lost. You can just fade away, in a way, you know what I mean? Just staring into the aquariums. That’s one thing that I’m hoping to do more of, and then I would love to do another TV show. There’s a couple of, now that I understand the way that wildlife filmmaking works from this perspective, I’ve been working on a couple of different additional show pitches for ways to extend that, that I’m hoping will be picked up in the next couple of years as I work on them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, what do you think about the, so there’s like these, I don’t know if I would call them up and coming, but there are these sort of, we’ll call them aficionados because I don’t know necessarily how professional they are, but there are these nature aficionados on YouTube and social media. Do you see yourself in the same realm as them or is the work that you’re doing on a different level?

Billy Almon:
It depends on which nature aficionados you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
I was thinking of two people off the top of my head. The first person I was thinking of was Brother Nature, and the second person is this guy named, I think his name is Coyote Peterson, I think.

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. I saw some video where he was getting stung by a bullet ant, and I was just like, why?

Billy Almon:
Yeah, yeah. He’s next level. The cool thing about him was he started on YouTube and he wound up actually getting his own show on Animal Planet as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Billy Almon:
So you know, props to him. I couldn’t do what he does. I like to tell people my perspective is as an African American male coming into the world of biology, but my primary lens and my primary approach is that of a designer, right? So for me, my design philosophy is where nature, science and design intersect. When I’m communicating biology, the biomimicry background and my background as a designer and storyteller is what I think is my distinction. Brother Nature, shout out to him, and The Real Tarzann and all of those guys who are bringing people and making nature less intimidating. I think that’s great that they do that.

Billy Almon:
I think depending on your understanding of some of the more technical and academic debates around how you interact with wild animals, that’s a separate topic. But again, for me exposing Latino kids or Latin X kids and African American kids to nature in a way that they wouldn’t before because of them, I’m all for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Billy Almon:
I don’t know about Coyote getting bit by the bullet ant. I’m passing on that one. I got the chance to be in Costa Rica and see bullet ants up close, and, nah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you’re like, I’m good, I’m good.

Billy Almon:
Yeah. What I say when I come across things like that is I’m not there in my biology yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha, gotcha. I hear you. All right. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Billy Almon:
Billybiology.com is the website where I have everything, and you can also find me primarily on Instagram at Billy_Biology, is the handle and yeah, hit me up and look out for a podcast called Nature Be Wildin’.

Maurice Cherry:
Nature Be Wildin’, I like that name. That’s a good name. That’s good.

Billy Almon:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Man, Billy Almon, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s very clear to me just based on the conversation we’ve had and the work that you’ve done that you sit at this really interesting intersection of nature and design, and I guess technology in a way too. You sit at this intersection, and it’s something that we need to see I think on multiple levels. One, because there’s always talk about there’s not enough black people in tech, black people are underrepresented in technology and design. So it’s good to see someone doing that. But then also, there’s all these stereotypes around black people in nature, like black people don’t hike, black people don’t camp.

Maurice Cherry:
Granted, I’m pretty sure there’s probably some, well, I know that there’s racial bias in it because there’s laws that said we couldn’t, back in the day that we couldn’t camp out in national parks or things of that nature.

Billy Almon:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
So I think some of that is certainly an inherited kind of trauma, I guess in a way. But you’re also bucking that stereotype and bucking that trend too. It’s like I’m a black man in nature, showing you how nature works and how you can use it to have a more sustainable future or to use it for greater things. I mean, you’re a visionary. You really are. I’m really glad to have been able to talk to you and to talk about the work that you’re doing, and I’m really excited to see what you do next, so thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.


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Carolyne Hill

Revision Path is back across the pond this week for a rousing conversation with creative director Carolyne Hill. She is the founder of ChillCreate, a lifestyle brand that celebrates creative living and the choice to create happiness where you can.

Carolyne shared her inspiration behind starting the brand, which grew out of her love for Brixton and the Afro-Caribbean culture there. Carolyne also spoke about her time here in the United States, gave her thoughts on diversity in the UK creative community, and talked about her current work as a graphic design lecturer at Ravensbourne University! Carolyne’s creativity shines in everything she does, and I think you’ll agree after listening to this interview!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Carolyne Hill:
Hi there, my name is Carolyne Hill. I’m a creative director. I’m a specialist in branding and I have my own brand called ChillCreate and I’m a designer. I’m an all around creative.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your impetus behind starting ChillCreate?

Carolyne Hill:
So it’s something I’ve always wanted to do from when I was a little girl and I got to a point in my career, I was the director, art director, creative director of a design firm and that was my goal from when I started out in my design career. And I got to this goal and I was just really bored and I wasn’t really feeling the type of clients I was working for anymore. I wanted to do something different. And to be honest, I was even questioning whether I wanted to be a designer anymore. So I went off traveling, I took some time out, explored a bit, went full hippy, went off with a camera and a sketchbook. And when I came back, I just had some designs, some ideas, which were a lot more just completely different to anything else I’ve ever done. And it was a print. I ended up making some fabric and experimenting with a few products, which I got a friend to make for me. And that was the birth of ChillCreate. I basically wanted to start a fashion brand.

Maurice Cherry:
So what is sort of an average day like for you these days with ChillCreate?

Carolyne Hill:
Well, at the moment ChillCreate has kind of taken a back burner because although that’s there, it’s online, it’s ticking away, online sales still happen. Last year, I had to focus a lot more on my branding side of things to actually pay the bills as, I don’t know if you know, but yeah, as a creative, you often have the balance between the work that is your passion and the work that pays the bills.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Carolyne Hill:
So ChillCreate is my passion and the work that pays the bills is my branding work. So I’m an independent design consultant. I help people build their brands, their communications, that type of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How do you go about sort of choosing the types of clients and projects that you work with?

Carolyne Hill:
Well, I’ve been really lucky thus far. I’ve been an independent creative now for three years and I haven’t actually had to go out looking for work. So my way of getting work is through networking. I like socializing. I like being out and meeting people, so it’s really old school. But I get my business cards out, I chat to people, I tell them what I do and I get my clients that way. But I have to say I’m now in the process of actually beginning to think, “Right. How do I now choose the type of clients going forward?” I think trying to find clients which I can believe in what they do is really important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
And I guess they would also have to mesh with sort of, well, if you’re coming to them as a brand consultant and they might, I guess they’re like at the beginning stages of their business or does it really matter?

Carolyne Hill:
I do have people at that beginning stage of their business and that tends to be kind of start-up entrepreneurs. They are super excited and great and have super amounts of passion, but they don’t necessarily have big budgets. So the type of clients that I like to try and work with more are people that are perhaps already on the road with their own entrepreneur side of their business, they’ve probably been doing it for some time and now they’re trying to take it to the next level. They’re trying to step it up so they’ve already got their brand. They’ve already got their philosophies, but they now need time and help to hone in on their key values, strategies and identities.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. At work, we just wrapped up. We just wrapped up and launched a project last month where we use, it was a independent branding agency, I think kind of similar to what you’re doing with ChillCreate, and it was amazing just kind of seeing how precise they were with asking all these questions and really making sure to get to the root of what the brand was about that we wanted to build. It wasn’t just, “Oh, make us a pretty style guide.” It was what are the values and everything that go into it, which I thought was pretty cool.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah, I think it’s so important. For me, it makes the design process easy because sometimes if you’ve got a client who just wants you to make them a pretty logo, something that looks nice, I can go off, I can create a pretty logo. Yeah, but then they come back, “Oh, it’s not quite right. It doesn’t pop.” You know, the classic it doesn’t pop. But if you work with the client and you then start to understand their values, where they’re coming from, who they want to attract, then it really hones in on the actual style, the content, the philosophy, and it then becomes really easy to work with the client developer relationship where you both have an identity or project at the end which everybody’s really happy with.

Maurice Cherry:
When it comes to approaching a new project, what’s your process like?

Carolyne Hill:
I think to start with, it would be to sit down with the clients, have an open discussion about what it is they hope to achieve and I take them through kind of a brand strategy process that I used to use a lot when I was working for these other agencies. It’s where you build up a set of values, you then build up to the next stage. So it’s like a pyramid chart where you build up from the values, to the promise, all the way up to the brand essence. And then once you’ve got these things, you’ve got essentially without the actual design, you’ve got the brand. And then from there we go through sort of imagery search and creative stages of designing, feedback, and then applications. So it’s quite a straightforward process.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any companies or clients out there that you would love to collaborate with?

Carolyne Hill:
Oh goodness. I guess I think for me, I actually asked, I’ve started lecturing recently and I actually asked my students this question just the other day. And while I asked them, I felt myself, “Who would I like to collaborate with? What would be the ideal, the most amazing project?” I think for me it would be, I’ve worked perhaps this year a bit more on my own personal graphic style and then I imagine that, I don’t know, [nightcore 00:08:08]. Somebody comes to me and says, let’s do a collaboration. I’m talking out of this world kind of ideals. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well hey, put it out there in the universe. You never know.

Carolyne Hill:
You never know, right?

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

Carolyne Hill:
I think the hardest part for me is often working solo. I used to be the director, have a whole team, so I would have bosses above me. I had kind of strategy stuff on the left and then I had a whole team that I managed. And so going from that, basically being the boss, the middle person, and the person doing the running around, that has been one of the hardest challenges. And at times I have people to share the work with and other times I don’t. I sort of have to expand and contract, depending on the job. So that’s been quite a major challenge.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s kind of switch gears here a bit. I know just from doing my research that you’re from London, right? You’re London proper.

Carolyne Hill:
Yes. Born and bred.

Maurice Cherry:
Born and bred. What was it like growing up there?

Carolyne Hill:
I have very fond and happy memories growing up in London. I grew up in Brixton, which is South London, I guess the equivalent to stateside, massive might be like Brooklyn or something like that. So it’s a very Afro-Caribbean neighborhood with a lot of energy, a lot of vibe about it. And school and everything for me was great. I loved school, growing up in London was fun.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that art and design were things that you were interested in? Were you exposed to that a lot in Brixton?

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah, I was exposed to a lot from my parents. They were very creative parents themselves. They’re not creatives themselves, but they just have lots of creative friends, lots of artist friends. My grandmother was a painter and we used to go and visit her. She lived in Cheltenham, which is sort of just past Oxford and she’d have watercolor paintings going on the whole time. And I always wanted to be an artist. I think from a very young age, I was really excited when we’d go to galleries and look at art. I remember being about 10 years old and loving Andy Warhol exhibitions that my parents had taken me to. And of course lots of my parents friends were artists. So I’d grew up in this very creative community. So I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an artist or a designer or a fashion designer. And then yeah, I got to school and quite quickly I was kind of told, “Well, you don’t want to be a starving artist, Carolyne.”

Maurice Cherry:
Were your parents and family kind of supportive of you though, going that route?

Carolyne Hill:
Oh yeah, they were super supportive. I never had any problems in terms of convincing my parents that I was going to be an artist because I’d been saying it from when I was, like I said, about 10 years old, maybe younger even.

Maurice Cherry:
But at school you were hearing something different.

Carolyne Hill:
Yes, quite often at school you’re paired up with careers advisor. And I remember the careers advisors saying, “Well, I don’t know really about you being a designer or an artist. Maybe you should be a social worker, something a bit more achievable.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. Can you imagine?

Maurice Cherry:
I can’t imagine. When I was in high school, I had my guidance counselor at the time was always telling me that you need to learn a trade. And here in the States, learning a trade is blue collar work, like a mechanic or fixing air conditioner units or something like that. And now granted, I was valedictorian in high school. I graduated the top of my class. But she was like, “Well, just think about it. You might want to think about learning a trade or something because you never know. One day…” I’ll never know one day what, that doesn’t.

Carolyne Hill:
One day, what? Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah I was the same. I was top scorer in the school. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have been pushed to do exactly what we wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And you went to the London College of Printing, which I said this before we recorded, I was like, “It sounds like a college for printing.” which seems like a very intensive thing to study. But what was your time like there?

Carolyne Hill:
It’s changed names now. It’s the London College of Communication because essentially the printing world is dead or depleted. But yeah, I guess it’s background, the London College of Printing was that it was an arts college, part of the London Institute, which focused on the kind of printing, publishing and arts, which then moved into digital. So I actually studied retail design and business management, which was actually an interior design degree for public and commercial spaces. So it was a mixture of sort of design, but also business and branding was very heavy, was a big part of it. So you had to both design the interiors, brand the interiors, and understand how you are going to make this commercially viable.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That actually sounds like a really modern program. When I think about what a lot of schools try to teach, it’s more so just the design and not the business aspect of it.

Carolyne Hill:
Yes. At the time, I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, the business side is so boring.” But actually, having left university when we only had access to computers one day a week, I kind of feel like everything I learned in university on the creative side was great. But as soon as I started the job, I was on the computer 24/7. So all this hand drawing skills that I learned, I never actually had to use in my job for a number of years. But the business side of things was very informative and I still kind of think about what we did learn and it was very good in that respect.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s really good. I mean we had back on the show, I think it was maybe about… God, I’ve been doing the show for seven years now. I think it’s been about two or three years ago, we had Douglas Davis who wrote this book about kind of the business of design, learning basically what you learned in college, learning the aspect of not just branding, but how do you design towards business goals. How do you keep those in mind while also still creating something that looks nice, that serves the client’s needs but is more than just a pretty thing?

Carolyne Hill:
Exactly. It’s the strategy. I think they changed the name of the course after I did it and they switched it around a bit. I’m not sure if they still combine the design with the strategic side anymore. But I remember there was one book which was really important at the stage. It was called the Design Agenda. It’s so old now, but that was like the course bible and it was basically brand strategy and design management.

Maurice Cherry:
And what did you say it was called? The design what?

Carolyne Hill:
The Design Agenda.

Maurice Cherry:
The Design Agenda. That sounds kind of sinister, but I kind of like it. The Design Agenda. No, I liked that a lot. So what were your first design jobs out of college. You graduated, you now have this not only design skill but the business skill. You’ve got the degree to back it up. What were those first design jobs like for you?

Carolyne Hill:
So my first job I got was designing for Tesco’s, which is one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets and I got the job and I was super excited because it took me a while to get my first job and I said, “Great, thank you. I’ve got the job. Sorry, what is the job?” Because I didn’t actually know what the job I was applying for. They said, “Graphic designer.” And you just heard me say I actually graduated from an interior design degree. And that’s when I said, “Oh great. Yeah.” They said, “You can do that?” I was like, “Yeah.” I was just so happy to have a job. I wasn’t about to tell them that I’m not a graphic designer, I’m an interior designer. So I did it. I learned straight in at the deep end, designing for one of the UK’s largest supermarkets. I had to design buy one get one free messages, frozen food signage, just really boring till messages, anything and everything that you see on the kind of point of sales side within a supermarket.

Carolyne Hill:
That then gradually grew into being put in charge of whole departments, graphics, art direction for photo shoots of frozen food, being in charge of the entire UK’s carpark signage packages. So it was a fast paced agency, it was a massive agency. It was a sink or swim kind of situation and yeah, I went in, front stroke, swimming hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I think it’s good to kind of be in those sorts of situations because it pushes you to become a lot better I guess pretty quickly given how large Tesco is as a brand.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. You had to, you really had to deliver quickly. It was one of those agencies where you would work ’til sometimes midnight, two in the morning and you still had to be there at 9:00 AM. I learned a lot in that company. And I also learned straight away from my experience there that I didn’t want to work at another big agency like that again. So after that, I went to smaller agencies.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing. I feel like the agency experience is universal. No matter who I talk to in any country about working for an ad agency or something like that, it’s the same type of breakneck speed or the same type of huge, just workload. That’s wow.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. I think you can handle it for a while and some people love that.

Carolyne Hill:
I think you can handle it for a while, and some people love that kind of vibe consistently.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think when you’re young it’s good, because you’ve got the energy to do that.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah, and you’ve got the fire to keep fighting and pushing back, constantly delivering. But I think I figured out very quickly that I didn’t really like working for other people.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you were doing these sort of small agency gigs. We spoke about this also before recording, that you worked even here, in the U.S., for a little bit. Just briefly, right? In New York City?

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah, I always wanted to come to New York and, I don’t know, I wanted to be a designer in New York. I came out, I did some house-sitting in Brooklyn, and then I got a really cool gig looking after somebody else’s apartment in the Lower East Side. While I was there I just was trying to find jobs, and it was very difficult, as a Londoner, trying to get into the New York agencies.

Maurice Cherry:
What made it difficult?

Carolyne Hill:
Well, there’s the whole issue of your green card and who was going to be your sponsor, and you had to prove that your service was not able to have been filled by a United States citizen. Agencies, they kind of weren’t really interested in having to go through all that rigmarole, and maybe I didn’t have the right contacts at the time. I was quite naïve in that respect.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s still tough. I have a friend, he’s from India. He went to school in Canada and he was here in Atlanta for a while, but now he lives out near L.A., in California. I remember even when he was looking for jobs how difficult it was, because of those same kinds of issues with companies that wouldn’t sponsor him, or he had to be sponsored on a certain visa so there were only certain types of jobs that he could look for and not something that could really advance him in his career. It had to be something more lower level, so you kind of were stuck at one point because the job may offer you the paperwork that you need to stay here, but it’s not really something you can succeed in or you can grow in.

Carolyne Hill:
Exactly, and that’s where I found myself. In the end I had a great time exploring New York, living the life, doing yoga. I was just hot-desking, going to cafes with my laptop, working on … I was actually working for magazines at the time and record labels from London, so it was quite a fun time. You know, coming out of the big corporate chain of supermarkets, high street retailers for a while, there was me designing cute stuff for record labels and magazine spreads for [Touch 00:20:49] Magazine, which was one of these kind of R&B Hip Hop magazines in London. So, it was fun.

Maurice Cherry:
What year was this, just to kind of put it in context?

Carolyne Hill:
Oh, my goodness. In context, I would say that would have been around, oh gosh, 10 years ago, now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so right around late-2000, something like that?

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Okay. All right.

Carolyne Hill:
I know. Time’s gone fast.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your early career experiences, up to what you’re doing right now, when you look back at those, what do you feel like those experiences taught you?

Carolyne Hill:
It’s been quite varied. I enjoyed being a freelance designer, as well as then going full-time to be an employed designer. The bits that taught me the most were probably the freelance parts, because you got to jump around to lots of different types of agencies and work on lots of different projects. Of course, each time you work on another project you kind of come back and you say, “Well, actually I can charge more.”

Carolyne Hill:
So, it gave me a really good experience across a wide range of types of projects: working with interior designers for a long time, which was great, because that’s where my original training started. I also worked with architects, and did a little bit of work with ad agencies. I worked with TV companies, mobile phone operators. It’s been really random and quite varied, so I think that’s the advantage that was given me, is that now that I’m working for myself, I do have a very varied type of client base. And I like that. I like things when they’re varied.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s one thing I really enjoyed when I was freelancing, too, that I could sort of bounce around and see how I can use my skills with different types of clients. Back when I had my studio, I would … maybe one month I’m doing something for a cosmetics brand, and then it’s pivoting to work for a software company, and then it’s pivoting to work for a solo entrepreneur that’s writing books, or something like that. And so, you find a way to kind of use your skills in these different ways.

Maurice Cherry:
What I think, and maybe this is different in other places, maybe this is unique to Atlanta, but what I found sucked was that once I went out looking for a job, they wanted you to sort of be a specialist. Instead of being a generalist that could take your skill and apply it to anything, they wanted you to only have worked in this particular type of design for years or something, which … I don’t know.

Carolyne Hill:
Is that when you were applying for jobs in big agencies?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I don’t know if they were all big agencies. Mostly they were software companies or tech companies. I think they just wanted to make sure they had someone that understood, I guess, tech. Like, right now I work in a software company. There’s a lot of jargon that goes around that I know probably most designers either don’t know, or don’t care about. I’ll be honest. I don’t care about it most of the time, but I know enough to be able to translate it, and know what I have to know for my work. But it wasn’t something where, “Oh, you have to have had this many years of experience in a SaaS company.”

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like … This is something that I want to explore more this year in general, is that it feels like everything is converging towards tech, every single profession in some way is converging towards technology. Maybe it’s because tech is everywhere, maybe it’s because even in things that I don’t think we realize, AI and machine learning are parts of them.

Maurice Cherry:
Even in the most seemingly low-tech job, like farming or something like that, there’s so much technology in farming. It feels like everything is certainly converging at some point towards tech, so having those singular kind of work experiences almost … I don’t know. I don’t know if that really prepares you for this sort of new world, where everything has to do with tech.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. I don’t know. I do think about that sometimes because I think, like you, I don’t really care for the techspeak and the … I use tech. I love tech. I love new things and learning new things, but I don’t necessarily want to be in tech, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, that totally makes sense.

Carolyne Hill:
I think for me, I would rather … I don’t know. I think personally, for my own creative ambitions, I want to [inaudible 00:25:19] more to the art side of things to step away from tech. Because although I understand a lot, I can learn, but I don’t really want to spend my time having to become a specialist in it. And I think so many people do it so much better, so why should I … I don’t want to make that my purpose. I want to stick with creative thinking, because I don’t think that will ever go out.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Carolyne Hill:
I think it might be short-sighted in the sense, “Oh, you need to be [inaudible 00:25:47] in tech,” but actually, it’s a very different skill to think creatively and to come up with creative strategy and ideas. Tech exists, but it needs ideas to make it functional. So, even if perhaps, I don’t know, maybe in the future I might have to get into tech, but I would hope that I get into it on the ideas side of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see now … You can tell when a solution has been thought up by a group of engineers and there’s no tech people in the room, because it may work, but it doesn’t look good or it’s not user-friendly. Granted, design is a very visual medium, but there’s also UX design, and a lot of that has to do with more psychological things about-

Carolyne Hill:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
How does the user feel about this? Is this word choice proper? Things like that. I know one, this is a project I worked on with … this is with a client years and years and years ago. It was very clear that they wanted to have this new content management system for their newsroom, and the software developers there had come up with a solution. They were like, “Oh, well it works because it does these technologies and this, this, and this, and all this stuff.”

Maurice Cherry:
But the actual user interface was so bad to use. I think it was … God, was it DotNetNuke? It might have been DotNetNuke. It was something super-obscure that 0.01% of companies probably use right now. It’s not WordPress, by a stretch, it’s not something that’s simple to pick up. It’s like if you were making an article, you had to make an article in these blocks, and so you had to think of …

Maurice Cherry:
Say you were writing a piece, and the piece has five paragraphs and two images. Each of those paragraphs is a block, and each of those images is a block, and so you now have to abstract, “Oh, well you just take this paragraph and put it in this block.” Then someone’s like, “What if I want to put a picture next to it?” They’re like, “Oh, we didn’t think of that. Well, why don’t you put the picture underneath it?”

Maurice Cherry:
They’re like, “I don’t want the picture underneath it. I want the picture next to it.” Like a pull quote or something going outside the margin. It’s like the engineers didn’t even think of that. They were like, “Oh, we never considered that use-case.” That sort of thing.

Carolyne Hill:
So, it’s important. I think there will always be room for the non-tech, but in tech.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage in your career, what is the London design scene like? How do you experience it?

Carolyne Hill:
I live and work in the Shoreditch area, which is like designer central. I’ve always worked in and around this area, which is how I ended up living up here. It’s fast-paced, there’s design companies on every corner. It’s big business, some of the worldwide agencies are here. But for me, my design community is perhaps a bit more local: as in my peers, my friends, the sort of creative family, and there’s a lot of crossover in between our creative endeavors.

Carolyne Hill:
Since working for myself, I’m beginning to perhaps work with fellow creatives, but on different things. So, I have people who are photographers, who are artists, who are fashion designers, writers, TV people, all in my circle of friends and associates, and I think there’s a great crossover.

Carolyne Hill:
I think at this moment, especially within the black arts scene in London, it’s a great opportunity and time, because there’s been a lot going on. I’m starting to see some of my peers, people that I’ve known for a long time now, actually reaching sort of great heights of success. I’m reading about them in publications, and seeing friends of mine who are now the artists being featured on packaging for quite famous products here in the U.K.

Carolyne Hill:
So, I think it’s a really good time. It’s an exciting time. It’s like if you’ve got the staying power to just keep going and reaching out to these connections, I think it’s a good time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like it’s booming, if that’s the case.

Carolyne Hill:
I don’t know about booming. I think London is one of these places where you can boom, but you can also bust real quick. There’s opportunity, definitely. There is definitely opportunity to boom, but it’s, I think, probably like anywhere at the moment in our societies. It’s quite hard work, but then you get these little nuggets of goodness and growth and prosperity, which keep you going until the next-

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I know here in the States the conversation around diversity in design, it seems like it’s ongoing. Is that the case also in London, or I guess in the U.K.? Do you find that there’s a lot of conversations around having more people of color involved in the design industry as a whole?

Carolyne Hill:
Yes. Yeah, there’s always this conversation. I think for myself, as a person of mixed heritage from Brixton, London, I’ve always been the only person of color, and often the only woman in the room in these design agencies that I’ve worked for. Working now for myself, I’m just working with all black people and loads of women, and loads of people who are just open to be creative. It’s kind of refreshing, because in my earlier career I’ve always been the only one in the room, so to speak. So, that discussion is going on. I don’t know how much it’s going on within these big agencies itself, because I stepped out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that makes sense. Because a lot of it, what I hear is mostly about employment. It’s not necessarily about all over, general numbers. Here in the States it started from the diversity in technology conversation, which was looking at big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and seeing how their workforce broke down. It started to go over into design, but I feel like it’s mostly been just about design departments at tech companies, and not about these ad agencies, or something like that.

Carolyne Hill:
Well, we’re seeing it a lot in the press. It’s slightly different, but even in the BAFTAs this last week we’ve had, there’s nobody of color that’s been nominated for anything, and that’s just completely shocking. Then you’re thinking, “Well, who’s doing the nominations?” Well, of course, is there anybody representing there?

Carolyne Hill:
But then over in the literary field, we’ve just had the first black woman to win the Booker Prize for her book, “Girl, Woman, Other,” a writer called Benardine Evaristo. Her book is fantastic. I recommend everybody go read it, it’s really good.

Carolyne Hill:
There are sometimes things are changing, but I don’t know. There always has to be the first, and then are there any others? And how do you keep it going? I think it’s a constant discussion and a constant struggle, so to speak. I think at the moment, with the society that I’m in at the moment in London in [Brexit 00:33:09], I feel I just have to get on and do it myself, in whatever that is that I want to do to make the change that I want to see.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like here in the States, it’s similar to that. I think it depends on the industry. We just had the Grammys here a few weeks ago, I think. For people that are listening, we’re recording this in early February, so this is … Grammys were last week. My whole calendar is a blur, so I apologize. But I know the Grammys were recently, because unfortunately they happened the same day that Kobe Bryant passed away.

Maurice Cherry:
There was conversation, I think, around some of the big names in the music industry, black folks in particular, like Puff Daddy, some other folks, et cetera: about how the Grammys are not treating black artists well, and they sort of lump us in these other categories and things like that. I was having a conversation with some people, and the thing that came to me was, why don’t they just start their own awards?

Maurice Cherry:
I got pushback from it, I think for two reasons. The first reason I got pushback was because, how come we always have to make the solution? Like, the system doesn’t change if we just sort of make an alternative to it, which I don’t necessarily agree with.

Maurice Cherry:
But then, the other pushback I got was the value of what that even means. A lot of people in the music industry look to Grammys as some pinnacle of success that you’ve reached in your career. For some artists it means you will get paid more, it opens the door to more opportunities, collaborations, et cetera. That may not be the same case with a perhaps lesser-known award. So, it’s also about, I guess, the value that the industry gives to these types of honorifics. It’s like a whole power structure thing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree with you about, we have to do it ourselves. Because if we keep waiting for the system or keep pushing at the system for things to change, sometimes it changes. Sometimes it does. It can be slow, it can change in unexpected ways.

Maurice Cherry:
But then if we’re able to do these things ourselves, we sort of become the masters of our own fate in that way. We can control and shape the exact message that we want to get out there without having to go through some filter, or gatekeeper, or something like that.

Carolyne Hill:
Yes. I think sometimes if you’re constantly trying to prove yourself in a structure that has no interest in hearing you, you just get worn out and worn down. So, I think there’s a point at which you just brush it off and do your own thing.

Carolyne Hill:
I’m not saying you stop trying. I’m just saying you’ve got to focus on what means something to you and the passion that you have within yourself, creatively. Because the whole system can get on top of you to the point where you lose that creativity, and you lose that buzz, and the inspiration which made you want to enter these roles-

Carolyne Hill:
… inspiration, which made you want to enter these roles, competitions yourself in the first place. It’s kind of like you have to do everything, but for me the priority is you’ve got to focus on your own passion and your own self and your own community.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So speaking of knowing friends of yours that have had these sort of big campaigns and this visibility, you yourself had a popup exhibition at the Tate Modern last summer. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Carolyne Hill:
Yes. That was so exciting. It was a really random opportunity that came my way, and I just said, “Yeah, cool, I’ll do it.” And I had no idea what I was going to do, but I was given a sort of loose topic to explore, and I ended up exploring the question: where do you come from? Because as a person of mixed heritage from London, I’m always asked, it’s the second question, apart from, what’s your name, that people ask you, “But where are you from?” And you say, “Well, I’m from London.” “No, but where are you really from?” You say, “Well, I’m from Brixton.” “No, no, no. What’s your heritage?” You say, “Well, my mother’s Jamaican, my dad’s English.” “Oh!” And so you’ve always got all these layers of questions that come your way.

Carolyne Hill:
So I felt, especially as the Brexit drama we’ve been having, this negative rhetoric about identity, which is going round. I wanted to explore it. So I did some posters, had this exhibition, was up there for a week, and it was just the most satisfying and exciting experience being at the Tate Modern, which is one of my most favorite places in the whole of London.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the reception that you got from it?

Carolyne Hill:
It was great. I had the posters and then I wanted people to come in and ask and answer the question themselves, where are you from? So I had people from all around the world come and make their own versions of my posters, which filled all the walls in this kind of pop-up space. And even this week I had a message on Facebook from a lady from Peru who came and was part of the exhibition. She was a poet and she just wrote me a message this week saying “Hello, I miss the time we had at the Tate Modern.” I was just like, this is amazing. I met so many people. It gave me so much confidence to think that I can be an artist, I can take my design skills, my creativity, and I deserve also to be here in this space at the Tate. Yes, so it was really good fun.

Maurice Cherry:
And I guess, also with taking those skills, you’re also now a part time lecturer at Ravensbourne University. So you’re putting it out there in the community as well.

Carolyne Hill:
Yes, that’s right. I wanted to have the opportunity to give back and to be that inspiration that you see. And like our conversation at the beginning here when we were in college or university, we didn’t necessarily have people that looked like us to necessarily guide us in that direction. And I just feel that my experience as a Londoner would be valid and useful to anyone at university for whatever their background. And so I’ve just recently started, I’ve given one or two lectures, and I’m really enjoying the tutorials and getting to know the kids. Yeah, really it’s quite exciting. It’s very different to my usual day job.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you finding that they teach you?

Carolyne Hill:
Man, they’ve got so many ideas. They’re teaching me a bit about tech. They’ve all got the latest computers and every single app and all the applications. I don’t necessarily have the latest computer myself. So what are they teaching me? Definitely just different kind of thinking. They’re coming from a different place to myself and they’re just ready to explore. They’re at that point of exploration. And I think for me it’s great to see that because it just opens your eyes again to exploring.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing about lecturing and teaching, especially if you’re self taught or you’re entrepreneurial in any way, because you take all these things that you’ve learned from trial and error and now you’re like teaching it to someone else. It’s a weird kind of feeling because, I don’t know, for me, when I did it, I used to kind of feel a bit of imposter syndrome, like, why am I at this place teaching this? Like I taught a brief class at Savannah College of Art and Design, and I was like, “I didn’t go to art school. What am I doing here? I’m just a guy off the street teaching these kids and stuff.”

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s amazing how that, I feel like they want to hear that though. They want to hear that kind of real experience because in a way that’s sort of where they’re at. Like they’re not a known entity or they don’t have these years of experience yet. So they kind of want to hear the real thing. They don’t want to hear the package speech, I guess, about, work hard and all your dreams will come true. Like will they? That sort of thing. So yeah.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. I think they want to hear the sidesteps, the roundabouts, the up and down that you go through. Because I think maybe this generation, they know that it’s going to be quite hard to get a job. They’re seeing it all the time. There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore. And even getting a job is going to be really hard for them. So I think they’re aware of that. And so I just think, I know what you mean about this imposter syndrome by the way, because on the first time I had to get up and speak, I was really nervous. And the senior lecturer, she did her speech, her lecture, which was good. And when she put up on the board all the clients that she’s worked for, I looked at it and thought, “Oh, we’ve worked for pretty much the same clients over the years.” So that’s one layer that dropped off of my insecurity, because it’s like, “Okay, I’ve done what you’ve done.” Her whole experience was completely different though.

Carolyne Hill:
And then the other lecturer gave her talk and she’s, I would say much younger than myself and the other lecturer, I mean, her experience was also completely different. And that’s when I actually became really comfortable because I was like, “This is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m different to these other two. I don’t need to be what they are, who they are or where they’ve been, because I’ve got my own story and my own journey.” All of that imposter syndrome dropped off, and I saw the kids looking back at me smiling, which meant they must be engaged. So I’m good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s so good when you reach that point, because I mean, one, it instills in you this confidence that you know exactly what it is that you’re talking about, what it is you’re doing. Because it’s your experience. Who knows it better than you do? Your own experience. Right? So of course you can speak on that from a position of authority. I think the imposter syndrome does sort of come in when you try to do that comparison to what other people are doing.

Carolyne Hill:
It’s the worst thing you can do, isn’t it?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And it’s interesting because I’ve talked to people lately about, and it’s mostly just been about podcasts and some stuff about design, but they’re always like, “Wow, you’re so confident.” And I’m like, “I’ve worked my ass off to get here. So yes, I am confident because I know what I’ve done to get to this point to be able to talk about it with authority.” So it’s a good feeling once it does go away. So how do you define success at this point?

Carolyne Hill:
I think success at this point means being happy, yeah, success means being happy. If you’re working to pay the bills and you can’t quite make things stretch, are you happy? I don’t know. You need both the commercial success as well as the creative passion success. So for me, being happy means that I’m successful. That means that I’ve got enough money to pay the bills, I can take some holidays, but I’m also creating things that I am proud and happy to work on.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you’re obsessed with at the moment?

Carolyne Hill:
Just music. I’m always obsessed with music, listen to different music every single day. It’s what keeps me designing and keeps me working.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are you listening to?

Carolyne Hill:
Today is a complete mix up of music and tracks. I started off the day listening to, okay, then judge me, it’s going to be really random, yeah?

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Carolyne Hill:
Beyonce’s Homecoming was the first thing to get me out the house, a bit of Curtis Mayfield, then I jumped into some Nina Simone, then I’ve just seen Queen and Slim, so I listened to the Queen and Slim soundtrack. And then this afternoon we listened to some Alfa Mist. I would say I’m very obsessed with Alfa Mist, they’re are kind of UK ambient soul jazz band. They’re really good. I listen to them a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Carolyne Hill:
So it’s a very varied playlist for today.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s actually a really good playlist. That’s really good. I’m into like, so I don’t know, my music taste is all over the place. I don’t even know if this is something I’ve talked about on the show, especially when I was in college and my early 20s I was so, so big into British music. You have no idea. My favorite band was Jamiroquai. I listened to Radio One just on the internet or whatever. So I knew about producers and artists like Alice Russell and Ben Westbeech and Will Holland, and I mean, I still listen to a lot of that stuff. I think Alice Russell has a new album coming out this year, knock on wood, I hope she does. But I listened to a lot of stuff from the UK, a lot of music.

Maurice Cherry:
And I went there, it was the first time I was in London, it was in 2017 is actually, it was the first week that I started this job. They sent me to London for the first week. I was like, what? That was so mad. I did not get to listen to the radio, go to any bars or anything, because it was all work. I didn’t have time and I didn’t know where places were and stuff. I was like, “Oh man, I missed the golden opportunity to really be in the UK music scene or whatever.” But, oh man, I love it, love it, love it. But I’m not going to pull up my music director and everything, but I’m a big, huge British jazz fan, British soul. Oh, all that. Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. Well I listen to a lot, and it’s what gets me designing, and I feel really happy when I’m at my desk. I share a really nice little studio in Brick Lane with two other creatives, and I love it. And we play music all day.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that perhaps maybe not many people understand about you?

Carolyne Hill:
Gosh, put me on the spot there. I think one of the things, maybe not understand, but they don’t maybe realize is, you can very easily put out this persona, especially being like a brand owner, that everything is always going amazingly and ticketyboo. But when you’re a creative working for yourself, that there are often those times which are like major highs and that’s what everyone sees. So maybe people don’t necessarily understand that, me, this big vibrant person who’s very happy to be out socializing, can also be at times a bit of an introvert and can have those moments of self doubt.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because I think now, especially with social media and design, it’s like you always have to be putting something out there for people to see so they know that you’re still doing it or that you’re still out there making work. So it’s hard to kind of, I don’t even want to say take a break, but you rarely see the downs, you mostly only just see the ups.

Carolyne Hill:
Yeah. And I think when you are working for yourself and you’re running your own business, you know, I run two businesses at the moment, you’re doing it all yourself, so you don’t necessarily have anyone to share that burden with in terms of on a business level. And to the outside, people don’t necessarily see that. And well, I think that’s just life at times, but maybe that’s what people don’t see or understand about me as much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you think your life would’ve gone if you weren’t working in design? Like did you have a backup plan or anything?

Carolyne Hill:
I really enjoyed sociology, studying that at school. I think if I wasn’t in design, I don’t know if I would have gone into that kind of social world, but maybe a different type of creativity if I wasn’t a designer, you know? I think stage design, it would be something that I would love to have explored, because it’s so conceptual and fantastical and random.

Maurice Cherry:
And I guess London’s a big theater city, so that would’ve worked out.

Carolyne Hill:
That could have worked out. Yes. I do a lot of work with theaters at the moment, and I really enjoy working with people, helping them visualize their creative concepts.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What do you want your legacy to be?

Carolyne Hill:
CarolYne Hill, creative from Brixton. I don’t know. I think my legacy would just be to be remembered as somebody who was a creative who designed and was here, maybe did a little something to change things.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s it’s 2025, what are you working on? Or what do you want to be working on?

Carolyne Hill:
I would like to think by 2025 my businesses are going really well. I’m perhaps actually running a team, not perhaps, I’m running a team. Things are pretty organized. And those things are ticking off nicely, but I think personally I’d like to have explored my artistic side more and be in the process of creating artwork as opposed to design and designing for other people. I think that would be a really nice thing to aim for for the next five years.

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

Carolyne Hill:
I have a website which is carolynehill.com. That’s Carolyne with a Y rather than an I. My other brand: chillcreate.com

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Carolyne Hill, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really just kind of sharing your journey. I know we didn’t include this in the interview, but the connection that you and I both have is from the late Jon Daniel, who was also on the show, and I know you mentioned him being a big inspiration to you, a big mentor to you. And I think with the work that you’re doing with ChillCreate, I mean, having an exhibition in the Tate, and then really I think just living a proud creative life, I think that’s kind of the dream for all of us, and I know, I really feel like that would have been the dream that Jon would have wanted to see from you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Carolyne Hill:
Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful host.


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