Liz Montague

If you’ve been a regular reader of The New Yorker magazine, then you may already be familiar with this week’s guest, Liz Montague. (But if you’re not, then this conversation is a perfect introduction!) Liz is the first Black woman to have a cartoon featured in The New Yorker, and now she’s an author with her first book set to hit bookstores everywhere in the Fall. Everything’s coming up Liz!

Our conversation begin with a quick life update, and from there Liz talked about starting her comic “Liz at Large” as a college student. She also talked about how she began contributing to The New Yorker, and spoke about representation, how that’s reflected in her work, and her future books (plural!) that are on the way. Liz is proof that self-determination and hard work definitely pay off in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Liz Montague:
Hi, my name is Liz Montague, and I’m an author, illustrator and cartoonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, before we get more into learning about your work and about your journey as an author/illustrator/cartoonist, tell me, how has this year been going for you so far?

Liz Montague:
This has actually been a really good year. I mean, I think personally, it’s been really good year. I just got married. I just bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Liz Montague:
Thank you. In a personal and material way, I guess it’s been super good. I mean, professionally it’s been really good, too. It’s been my first year working on book projects, which is very new for me, having come from the news media world. It was a very tumultuous past few years for everybody, and being on the news side of that was really exhausting. So I think this has been a really calm year, I’d say

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I guess as calm as getting married and also moving into a new house. I’d imagine there’s probably been some stress around that, even just with the pandemic and everything.

Liz Montague:
I mean, it’s less stressful than covering the Trump presidency and 2020, COVID, all of that and trying to do it in record time with deadlines and everything. That was way more stressful than this, 100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. I get that, totally. I totally do. What lessons did you learn over this past year? How would you say you’ve grown and improved?

Liz Montague:
I would say that I prioritized just my mental health. I feel like everyone’s saying that and that people say it so much, it starts to not mean anything. This is the first year I really started saying no to things. And that’s been kind of scary, but empowering, but also terrifying. I don’t know. I’m still learning.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think that’s something that a lot of people are still learning, is to say no. I think the pandemic, of course, forced everyone to not just slow down, but in many cases to just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that we’re at this point, though we’re not completely out of the pandemic, we’re at this point where restrictions are being lifted and rates have gone down to a point where we now have to try to come out of this period with some new normal. And what this time has forced everyone to do is just sort of reevaluate their commitment to work, their commitment to being busy and all that sort of stuff.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And the pandemic and the pause that it caused happened at such a weird time in my life where I was 24, and I’d already been working at The New Yorker for two years and had been doing this work for about two years. And now where we’re at now, I’m 26 and I’m trying to really figure out, “Holy crap, what do I want to be when I grow up?” And I didn’t expect that question to scare me so much. It’s terrifying.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, in your 20s, it is a scary thing. Especially, God, I’m thinking even now with everything that’s happening right now, it can be hard to think about, “What does a future look like?” I totally understand that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Thoughts around that right now is just like, “Okay, so I’m done, what do I want to keep doing? What new things do I want to do? What do I want to try? Is there still time to try things and be bad at them and new at them? Or am I at a point where I’m just supposed to try things and automatically be good, because that’s what people might expect?”

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll say with you being in your 20s, you totally have the time to try and fail at stuff. The 20s are for that, the 20s are your time to do that. Your 30s are sort of your time to sort of refine the process. And then hopefully by your 40s, you have it figured out. I’m saying this now because I just turned 41 recently. But you hope to have it figured out by that point.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:06:02].

Maurice Cherry:
But I can definitely say in hindsight, in your 20s, that’s the time to… I don’t want to say make those mistakes, but that’s the time where you can sort of have those errors and it doesn’t affect you long-term into the future, that kind of thing.

Liz Montague:
Everything feels like you’re one wrong move away from crumbling it all. But I know that that’s not actually true. Even if it feels like it’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go ahead and jump into Liz at Large. For those listening who for some reason have never heard of Liz at Large, can you give an introduction?

Liz Montague:
Liz at Large is a single panel cartoon series that I actually started my sophomore year of college. I was just trying to sort out my own mind to myself. And I just kind of started drawing these cartoons where my dog, my childhood dog, to me would give me advice.

Liz Montague:
And it just started as a super casual thing that I would post on Instagram. And my teammates, because I was on the track and field team in college, would be like, “Oh my God, I love that cartoon. Where’s the next one?” And they would really kind of just hold me accountable to just keep doing it. And I just really just stuck with it.

Liz Montague:
And then eventually after I was out of college, I was working as a graphic designer. I was already working for The New Yorker at the time. I was able to make it into a single panel cartoon into the Washington City Paper, which was a lot of fun.

Liz Montague:
But then it’s a different ballgame once you have deadlines and you need to worry about, “Well, how is this going to print?” And the kind of evergreen nature that it needed to be, because when the deadline is versus when it would print was two weeks apart. So it’s really kind of grown and shifted with me, which is kind of cool to have that to look back on and know where I was mentally when I made it. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to ask, have there been new changes and things that you have introduced to the comic as your life has gone on?

Liz Montague:
Stylistically it’s changed a bit, where I think it got a little bit more fluid as time went on. When I look at the old versions of it and old cartoons of it, it feels very rigid, like I was really afraid of messing up. And then as time went on, I think it got a little bit looser. I think I was willing to kind of play around with environments more.

Liz Montague:
And then it changed even more once it was in the Washington City Paper, because then it’s like, “Okay, there’s a deadline. Okay, there’s an audience that’s actually going to see this.” As opposed to, the internet is kind of a black hole. You’re kind of, sort of thinking of an audience, but you’re not really thinking about, “Oh wow, someone’s going to tangibly hold this in their hand.” And that tangibility kind of made me a bit more nervous.

Liz Montague:
And then I think that the content of it kind of had to zoom out a lot more. Again, because there was that two week period versus when it was due and when it would print. For a daily, local newspaper, you don’t know what could be going on in the world at that time. And then what ended up going on in the world at that time was the Trump presidency and eventually COVID, and we were in the middle of Washington DC. So it was big news there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, I’m thinking during that time, I can imagine everything during that time was about voting, the presidency. Yeah, I could see in DC how that would be really… Well, I’m curious. Knowing that stuff was going on as you were doing the comic, did you sort of feel a need to speak to the times in that sort of way?

Liz Montague:
I mean, it was almost impossible for me to be super responsive in the way that I would be for a New Yorker daily cartoon or something just because I knew, like, “Okay, by the time that this is actually printed a week or two from now, there could be a whole new thing. There could be a whole new something else going on.” I actually ended up zooming in to my own life and making it hyperspecific to whatever I needed to hear, and then just hoping that it would work out for whenever it was printed.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably a really good strategy too, I mean, to just make it more focused on you. I mean, it is called Liz at Large, it’s not World at Large.

Liz Montague:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it makes sense to focus it on you and your life as opposed to trying to make it some sort of regular bulletin about what’s happening in the world.

Liz Montague:
[inaudible 00:10:09] sure, and there was already enough of that. And I was like, “You know what? This isn’t for that. So I’m going to just do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that ends, what was the feeling that you wanted to really capture with Liz at Large?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, it was really just for fun. Just to see what my friends would say, what I would say. But I think as I continued doing it, I realized that the power that emotional literacy could have of just taking a second to stop and think, and think about how you feel. Think about what you need to hear, what I needed to hear and taking the time to write that down, and that could actually have a profound effect on your life.

Liz Montague:
And I think that that kind of really became a big why for me, as far as just emotional literacy matters, the way that especially in… It’s always weird to speak on the Black community, but it’s like how in the Black community, emotional literacy talking about your feelings, addressing your feelings is kind of just an issue that really needs to be sorted out. And how it could just make everything so much better if we just stopped and felt and processed. And I don’t know, just the impact that it have. I hope that made sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, it made sense. I think if that’s something people can grasp from the comic, particularly from a single panel comic, I think that’s really powerful. To that end, there’s so much about Black people that’s reflected through not just the media, but through different types of media, through cartoons, through movies, et cetera. And so if you’re able to not only make it hyperspecific to your life, but then also try to make it unique to the quote/unquote “Black experience,” which is such a varied, vast concept, it’s impossible to do that.

Liz Montague:
I worked in nonprofit at the time. I was a graphic designer at a nonprofit when I lived in DC. And I remember I read research on the racial empathy gap. And about how there’s research on it, about how for whatever reason… I mean, not for whatever reason, we know what the reasons are. But white on audiences have a really hard time connecting with people of different skin tones, especially darker skin tones.

Liz Montague:
Because at the time I was working for a nonprofit that was mainly geared toward and focused on brown people, Middle Eastern people. So it was just wild to realize that this is empirically researched information and that the impact of it is everywhere where it is. Well, why are there so many white leads in these cartoon shows? Why are there so many white leads in these regular movies and books, et cetera? And the idea that it’s harder for white audiences to connect with, I don’t know, different skin tones, different genders.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think that’s more on the forefront now with people talking about the recent movie Turning Red and about how people felt like they couldn’t… Not people. There was one white man in particular who did an interview who said that he couldn’t connect with it. And it was just, “I can’t connect with this, da, da, da, da, da.”

Liz Montague:
And it was because it was about a girl going through puberty who didn’t look like him. And it’s like, “Okay, but we all watched A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille, and I’m not a rat and I was able to connect with Ratatouille, but.” I just totally went on a whole tangent there, I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I’m glad you mentioned the Turning Red thing, because I was thinking about that as you were saying that, that sort of empathy gap. Because as people of color, we are forced to kind of make that gap when we see so much media that doesn’t involve us.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when you have this one thing, particularly an animated thing geared towards children and then some grown-ass white man is like, “Well, this doesn’t represent me.” Well, it probably doesn’t because it’s not geared towards you. It’s not about you. But look how many other things out there in the world are geared towards you and about you. Do you know what I mean? It’s so weird.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Yep. It’s the weirdest thing, but there’s literal evidence on it. And how much can a single panel, or even whatever other cartoons in the world, how much impact can they really have? I don’t know. But I was like, “Maybe if I put these universal feelings with a darker-skinned Black girl, maybe this could help someone close that gap.” Not that it’s Black people’s job to teach anybody how to feel, but I think that that was part of the intent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me a bit through the process of creating the comic. You mentioned having to sort of have it in by these specific deadlines. Does that mean that you sort of batch a bunch of comics together? How does that work?

Liz Montague:
Oh my God. It was the jankiest process ever. I was still figuring things out and working my full-time graphic design job and a million other things. And it was due every Thursday, and it would print two Thursdays after it was due. And I would have to get done the… There would have to be the social media size and then the regular size for when it would print.

Liz Montague:
And I would only submit one each week and I would sit there for, I kid you not, hours and stare at the wall and be like, “Oh my God, I have no idea what to say right now, and I have a deadline, and the editor’s texting me.” It was a mess. It was a hot mess really, but we made it through.

Maurice Cherry:
And you said that there was also kind of the added thing of seeing it in the paper. I’m sure at that point, you’re gaining a whole new audience outside of your friends on Instagram. How did people react to it when they saw this in the paper? Did you get a boost in clients or anything? How did that happen? What happened?

Liz Montague:
Honestly, I don’t really know. I guess I got wider reach, for sure. I think that tangible media, things that you can hold, just ends up in different people’s hands in a way that… There’s a lot of digital noise and people scroll and don’t always really stop and look. And I think that it being something tangible in people’s hands enabled them to stop and look more.

Liz Montague:
But I do know that after, once it was in the Washington City Paper, I ended up getting reached out to by a random blog. And they were like, “Oh, can we interview you or whatever?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then I did that interview, and then through that, that’s how the editor from Random House founded me, and that’s how I got my first book deal. So you never know what can lead to what. So the two things are probably distantly connected.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit. I want to kind of dig a bit more into your origin story. Now you mentioned living in DC, is that where you’re from originally?

Liz Montague:
No, I’m from South Jersey.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. So being from South Jersey and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of drawing and art as a kid?

Liz Montague:
I mean, yeah, I think I was. I think I have a very artsy family. Both my parents went to Pratt. My mom’s an architect, my dad’s an engineer. So I have two older sisters and we were all very exposed to that. And it was super encouraged. And my parents had a lot of friends who had been artists or were artists.

Liz Montague:
But it was always, “Oh yeah, Charlie can be artist, his parents just gave him a brownstone.” It was very clear who could be kind of what you think about when you think of a traditional quote/unquote “studio artist.” And that there was definitely a wealth gap in between that, versus who needed to have a more desk job type artist thing. Architecture, engineering, graphic design, which is what I ended up going into. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So I guess knowing that growing up, you were drawing and kind of having this interest in it… And you said both of your parents went to Pratt, but you didn’t go to Pratt. You went to the University of Richmond.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. Well, so my mom’s from the south side of Chicago, my dad’s from Brooklyn and he grew up in the projects. So they didn’t have traditional four-year college experiences. My dad went to junior college first and then went to Pratt on a basketball scholarship. My mom started out at Hampton and then eventually made her way to New York and finished her degree over a decade.

Liz Montague:
So for me, they were just kind of like, “Well, you run track and your older sister ran track and she got a scholarship, so you’re going to get a scholarship too.” And I was just kind of like, “Okay.” And University of Richmond just happened to be where I got my athletic scholarship. And that’s why I went there. I had fun.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was going to say, there’s actually a pretty strong Hampton University to pipeline.

Liz Montague:
There is?

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say I probably had about… I know I’ve had at least three guests on the show where that’s been the case. Yeah, it’s a pretty strong pipeline. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, that it’s from HBCU to design school in that way. Tell me about your time at University of Richmond. How was that experience?

Liz Montague:
I flipped around majors a lot. I went into college knowing that I liked to draw, but not really… Even with parents who went to Pratt and were in the arts, I had no intention whatsoever of even studying art, minoring it, anything. I was like, “I’m going to get a business degree.”

Liz Montague:
And that totally didn’t work out. I hated it so much. I tried to do computer science, anthropology, English, and none of it worked. And then it was towards the end of my sophomore year and my academic advisor was like, “Listen, you need to pick a major or you might not graduate on time.” And my scholarship was for four years and I was determined to graduate in four years. And then I was like, “Okay, just put down studio art.” And that’s how it happened. I know it’s not the best story, but it’s the truth, so.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program there?

Liz Montague:
It was really intimate, which I think I needed, especially at that time. There were more faculty than students in the major. It’s a very, very small school. I think University of Richmond has 3000 students, which was smaller than my high school. I went to a really huge rural New Jersey high school that had thousands of kids.

Liz Montague:
And our senior year, my senior year, there were five majors, we were all women, and we had six professors. So we were outnumbered by our professors. It just allowed you to have a really one-on-one experience. There was room to just try things and figure things out, and we were given a lot of freedom, which I really appreciated. It helped to really just kind of be self-motivated and not rely on, “Okay, well here’s a syllabus. Do this, this and this.” You’re really able to kind of carve your own path, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, it does. I was going to say, I imagine that’s really super empowering. To have not only that kind of intimate class kind of setting and makeup, but then your being able to kind of work closer with your professors, with people like that. Because I’ve had folks on the show before that have went to larger schools or went to art schools and stuff, and that kind of one-to-one kind of relationship is tough to get.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. And I knew that it was definitely like I kind of lucked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something pretty cool happened. Now you’ve kind of alluded to it a bit earlier in the interview, but something pretty cool happened around your senior year with The New Yorker magazine. Tell me about that.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I was a super brand new 22, felt very old and mature. I had just heard back a graphic design job, was super pumped, I was like, “I’m moving to DC. I’m about to be such a grownup.” And then was at the office for something, I don’t even know what, and was supposed to be working, fully supposed to be not on my phone, but I was.

Liz Montague:
And I was on Instagram, scrolling through, and on my explore page or something, The New Yorker cartoons page came up and I was just scrolling through it. And I was like, “Oh, wow. All of these cartoons are white. Every single character in these are white, it’s all kind of the same perspective over and over again. I wonder if they know?”

Liz Montague:
At the time, my headspace was in brand new, about to start at a nonprofit job in DC where I’ve just been trained on all of these unknown biases that people have and corporate structures and yada, yada, yada. So in my mind I was like, “Oh, they just must not know that they’re using all white characters. Let me just tell them, they have no idea.” And so I just hit the email button and was like, “Hey guys, don’t know if you’re aware, but all of your cartoons are white. You guys should do something about that. Best of luck.”

Liz Montague:
And that was really it. And I did not expect to hear anything back. And then I got an email back and they were like, “Oh…” It was Emma Allen, who’s the editor there. She was like, “Oh yeah, we’re aware, da, da, da, da. Is there anyone that you would recommend?” And I was like, “Oh yeah, me. Yeah, I draw cartoons.” Literally, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, at all.

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, you shot, though.

Liz Montague:
I saw an opportunity and I took it. I saw a window and I ran through that thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, one of my favorite sayings is fortune favors the bold. And I mean, you saw an opportunity, you went for it. And so after you did that, after you pitched yourself and said that, did they reach out to you and say, “Let’s see what you got?” What happened?

Liz Montague:
Basically. It was like, “Okay, well send us something.” And then I think I that night was trying to cobble together some sketches. And it was 50 sketches before I got one yes. Once I got one, I was like, “Okay, so this is what they’re looking for.” And then you get two, and then three, and then four. And then you’re able to start contributing regularly.

Liz Montague:
But there was definitely a very steep learning curve. Because I remember when I first told my dad, “Oh, I’m going to have a cartoon in The New Yorker.” He was like, “What’s The New Yorker?” That was not-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
And he’s from New York, but he’s not from that New York. So it’s just like my frame of reference for The New Yorker was their Instagram account. I had no frame of reference for a physical magazine for The New Yorker brand.

Liz Montague:
But I think that was kind of a really big advantage, to come from the outside. Because I think that a common problem that they have, or a common thing that happens with people who submit is that they’re trying to emulate The New Yorker voice. But I had no idea that there was a New Yorker voice, so.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, and also when I think… I mean I’m in Atlanta, so I don’t know… I mean, I know of The New Yorker, but when I think of that magazine just in my mind’s eye, I’m thinking it’s a maybe more upper middle class audience, white audience that mostly would be paying attention to or reading The New Yorker.

Maurice Cherry:
But then it’s also online and I look at a ton of stuff from The New Yorker online, so. Even in it’s just design stylings, I feel like that’s who it’s trying to sort of cater itself towards. So when you said you have to try to find what that voice was, was it about trying to tailor yourself to that audience, or more so tailoring yourself to what just the editor wanted at The New Yorker?

Liz Montague:
I mean, I think probably a little of both, because this was my first professional art job ever. Kind of straight into the fire, so to speak, where I didn’t have any concept of, “Oh, this is the deadline and if it’s not in by the deadline, it’s not going to print.” And of, “Oh, these are finals and you’re going to keep doing it until it’s right.”

Liz Montague:
And of atmosphere and what skin tones can print and what skin tones can’t print. And will it smudge into the black lines so then you won’t be able to read facial expressions?There’s such a learning curve there in general, and then on top of that… And I talked really openly with my editor, Emma, about that at the time, about, “Well, Black humor isn’t going to be funny to people who read The New Yorkers.”

Liz Montague:
And I remember I said that to her point blank, via email. I talked to her about that, where it was just, what I might find culturally funny might not be able to be in this magazine because of the voice and the audience that you’re targeting. So where does that leave me if what, because of cultural things, because of societal things, I find funny but can’t be published here, what am I… Am I supposed to, I don’t know, put myself in the shoes of if I were middle class and white?” So that was a huge barrier, but I figured it out. I mean, I got some zingers in there. I definitely got some zingers in there.

Maurice Cherry:
I would imagine once people discovered that you were the first Black woman cartoonist in The New Yorker, that probably also expanded who read The New Yorker.

Liz Montague:
I mean, I would get DMs like that where it’s like, “Oh, I read The New Yorker now because of you.” And I’m like, “Oh God, $12 a magazine? Please, spare yourself.” But I mean, I don’t know. It’s such a weird, hard conversation to have, because it’s-

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, let’s dig into that a little bit. What makes it weird?

Liz Montague:
I think because it can be hard for institutions to own that conversation, and then it’s kind of deflected into, “Oh, well maybe there was somebody else, and what about this? And well, we don’t really know people’s racial identity and what…”

Liz Montague:
And then it’s interesting how with these conversations about first and what’s overdue, whatever, it’s like a lot of times the conversation ends up on the individuals rather than the institutions where it’s like, “So why didn’t you guys hire anybody in the last 100 years?” You know? And it’s like, “Am I at 22,” or at the time at 22, “equipped to have that conversation? Equipped to really navigate the waters of this and navigate other people’s identities, navigate the commodification of my own identity? Am I really?”

Liz Montague:
It’s a minefield, and I think that especially right now, where we’re at as a society, it’s just whatever you share is then up for sale and you have to be willing to be not just branded, but then speak on behalf of that entire community, and then have it challenged.

Liz Montague:
And then especially for The New Yorker audience, which was used to a very specific kind of perspective and thing, and then to have me not offer that very specific thing, people didn’t take it very well sometimes. I got some wild emails. Yeah, I think that there’s one cartoon I have where it’s the girl’s hair bit off someone’s hand. They don’t sell it on the Condé Nast store. It’s the only cartoon of mine that they don’t sell on the Condé Nast store.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Liz Montague:
It’s just weird. Did I answer that well?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think you did. Because as you sort of said that, what sort of becomes apparent to me and hopefully to the listener is there’s this layer of activism that ends up getting added to your work that you not only didn’t ask for or volunteer for, but you didn’t include in the original work.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. [crosstalk 00:29:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I mean your cartoons, like you said, they’re about kind of slice of life sorts of things. You didn’t intend to layer some deep social message or anything into it, but that’s how people are perceiving it based on your identity.

Liz Montague:
Yeah. I don’t know. It’s like everybody who’s from a marginalized group is forced into the role of activist. And it’s like, especially having lived in DC, I’m first generation suburban, nobody else in my family grew up in the suburbs. The people are fighting a good fight, but that’s such a thing to just put on somebody, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
It’s just a hard thing to navigate because then it’s like you don’t get a rest ever. And I think that that’s kind of what I realized, especially towards the end of 2020, with everything going on with the police and with George Floyd and everything, where I was just like, “Man, I’m tired.” I was just so tired and drained.

Liz Montague:
And that was the last cartoon I did for The New Yorker where it was, I think the text was, “Oh, my white friends think racism is new.” Or something like that. It just makes you tired.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the feeling. I totally know that feeling. Prior to doing this podcast, when I was… when did I start the Black Weblog Awards? I think it was 24? 23 or 24. I started this event online called the Black Weblog Awards. And this was back in 2004 or 2005, really kind of pre-social media. Definitely pre-Twitter, but pre-social media. Facebook, I think, was just starting to transition out of being only for college students and opening it up to everyone in the world, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I wanted to do, because I was an active blogger at the time myself, what I wanted to do was make this event that would celebrate Black bloggers that I knew of that were doing great things. Because I saw that there were other blog awards out there. There were two that were both called The Weblog Awards, although one kind of shortened their name to The Bloggies or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw with the winners is like, “Well, all the winners are white.” And I know that there’s people of color that are out here blogging, particularly Black people. And what got me was one of the awards had a category that was Best African or Middle Eastern Blog, and all of the nominees were white and the winner was white. And I’m like, “You mean to tell me out of the entire huge continent of Africa and the probably similarly huge section of the Middle East, only white people? I find that’s very hard to believe.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so I started the Black Weblog Awards sort of in opposition, but also to celebrate the community that I knew about that I was kind of a part of. And when I sort of talked about that layer of activism that gets added onto there, just calling it the Black Weblog Awards invited so much criticism and unnecessary hate. And this is, again, this is pre-Obama. So this is this at a time in the world, it’s post-9/11, pre-Obama, where Black and brown people really not really favored that well in terms of the media and such.

Maurice Cherry:
But I did that for seven years, ended up selling it to a friend of mine. And I mean, even as the years went on with it, it was amazing how the reception to the event changed as society changed. So around 2007, 2008, Obama’s running for president and such. Comments I kept getting back about the Black Weblog Awards is, “Well, I mean, we’re post-racial now. Why does it have to be the Black Weblog Awards? Why can’t it just be the Weblog Awards?” And I’m like, “Well, two of those already exist. And I’m only doing this for Black people. So it is the Black Weblog Awards.”

Maurice Cherry:
But as society changed and the way that people perceived the work that I did changed, I even experienced that with Revision Path when in 2015, I did a talk at South by Southwest in Austin called Where Are the Black Designers? And I was about two years into doing Revision Path, managed to land at South by Southwest with a speaker proposal, did a speech to a room of maybe about… the room sat close to 500 people. There may have been 15 or 20 people in there.

Liz Montague:
Whoa. Intimidating.

Maurice Cherry:
Nobody was there. People were charging their phones, people were asleep in the back, nobody was really paying attention, and I gave this talk. And there were a handful of folks there, “Good job,” that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
When I tell you that presentation didn’t pick up traction until five years later during the summer of unrest, when we heard about what happened with George Floyd and the Minneapolis Police Department, then it started to pick up steam. And people were like, “Oh, well this is so great. This is so wonderful. We’re trying to center Black voices. We want to know about this presentation.”

Maurice Cherry:
And in my mind, I’m like, “This is five years old, but the way that people are perceiving it now has changed because the culture has changed.” Like I said, there is this layer of activism that gets added to the work that I didn’t necessarily put it there, but you’re attaching it onto it based on your societal values or what’s happening in the world and how you think you should feel about it because it exists.

Liz Montague:
You just said a word. You just said a word.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a lot. And I mean, I can imagine. I mean, I was going to ask this question a little bit later, but that whole thing about representation, we’ve seen this influx of Black artistic talent with cartoons and animation and fine art and such.

Maurice Cherry:
One, you see all these new Black shows and stuff. A lot of those Black shows also have fine art and they’re from Black fine artists. Now you never hear about those artists, that’s a whole other conversation. But it’s so interesting how all of these things and all these shows and movies and such, and they’re in these different genres, but they all kind of have this layer/burden of having to represent for the community. Do you feel like you have to do that through your work now?

Liz Montague:
When I first started, I definitely did. I definitely felt a lot of pressure. I mean, especially based on where I’m from. So I’m from rural South Jersey. There was a soybean farm behind my childhood house. So very, very rural, very white.

Liz Montague:
And I just remember what we would be told as the few Black people in town was, “Every white person’s opinion of a Black person is going to be formed based on how you act. So you better act right. Or else you’re damning every other Black person they’re going to meet.”

Liz Montague:
And so that was kind of the framework that I had. And I think that I just kept feeling like, “I don’t want to mess this up for anybody else.” In the cartooning world, at The New Yorker, I don’t know, in the spaces that I felt that I was at, I just didn’t want to mess it up for anyone else. So I wanted to make sure that I was saying yes to everything and super amenable and like, “Oh, no worries, it’s fine. It’s okay if you don’t have the budget for it.” Just very overly accommodating.

Liz Montague:
And then I just got sick of it and was just like, “You know what? This isn’t sustainable. It’s just not sustainable.” But I think that also as I got older, just maturity-wise, I just realized the only person I can control is me. I can’t control how I’m interpreted. I can’t control another person’s actions to a fictional future person who may or may not exist. I need to just live as a single human being in this moment and not as every possible iteration of Black person that this person could interact with. I think I was doing that for a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I mean also, I think whenever you’re doing work that has such a large kind of public footprint, and I feel like actors probably do this a lot. You learn eventually what strategies you have to kind of, I guess cope is the best way to put it. But you don’t read the comments, you don’t read the reviews, you just do the work and just keep moving on.

Liz Montague:
I don’t know. I think I didn’t want to not be what everyone expected me to be and then miss out on opportunities, too. Because especially early 2020 when the pandemic was starting, it was like all this stuff came out of nowhere.

Liz Montague:
And I felt really conflicted about it because I was like, “God, am I [inaudible 00:38:00] off of all of this terrible stuff happening to the Black community? Am I benefiting off of the George Floyd shootings? All of the shootings that happen to Black people that aren’t talked about, and just this collective white guilt that’s happening right now?”

Liz Montague:
Where all of a sudden, I’m getting to do stuff for Food Network and the Obama Foundation. I worked on a Biden presidential commercial. I did a Google Doodle. I don’t know. My mom was just kind of like, “Oh, just take it. Just take it and just be happy.” And I was like, “You don’t understand. What are the ethics behind this?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, your mom’s right, just take it.

Liz Montague:
[crosstalk 00:38:40] take it.

Maurice Cherry:
If the opportunity comes, just take it. I mean, there are a lot of us that did have a bit of a come up during that time. And I think that’s kind of a bit of the secret shame around it. I guess you could call it shame, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But the fact that now people are paying attention to the work that we do, but that it had to come at a time of such civil unrest, at the death of an innocent person. That it had to come to that in order for us to be recognized. And there are some people I’ve talked to about it and they’ve said to me, “Is this what it’s like for white people all the time?”

Liz Montague:
Is it?

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m like, “I don’t know. Is it? I mean, that would be interesting if that’s the case. But it is this sort of weird tension, like you’re being recognized because… You know the hard work that you’ve done to get to this point. And yes, you’re being recognized, but the fact that you’re being recognized because of all this injustice and inequity and other things that are happening in the world, it’s sort of…

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know. It is a very weird feeling, but at the end of the day, take the work. Take the work, get the check. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Take the work. So your mom’s right in that aspect, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I get where you’re coming from too, because I had an influx of speaking gigs and a whole bunch of stuff like that. Because I got fired from my job, they cut my whole department right before the summer of 2020. And so for all of this to happen, it’s like, “Oh, well at least I’ll be able to eat for a few more months.”

Maurice Cherry:
But it does sort of come with this psychic weight of, “Yeah, but all this other horrible stuff in the world had to happen. And it was during a global pandemic, but I’ll take it.” One thing Black folks are going to do, it’s make a way out of no way, so. Just take it.

Liz Montague:
Yeah, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So now you’re a full-time cartoonist, you mentioned working at this nonprofit for a while after you graduated. What do your work days look like now?

Liz Montague:
Right now I just finished my first book, my graphic novel, Maybe An Artist. It’s available for pre-order. That’s with Penguin Random House. So that’s just finished, and that was taking up literally all of my time up until a month ago, maybe. And now I’m working on a picture book, also for Random House. And I also have a three book deal with Scholastic for a three book Y-series.

Liz Montague:
So my days are pretty much split between those two projects, with the series grouped together. I’m one of those crazy people who wake up really early and run. I don’t know, I like being out in the sun. So my days just start with me waking up, going for a run, I usually do some kind of HIIT class or something. My husband makes me a coffee, I try not to check my phone or my email because if I do, I’ll get sucked in and then I’ll just be on my phone and suddenly it’s three o’clock.

Liz Montague:
I actually try to get done all… I do a to-do list of everything that needs to get done. Look at chapter one, or finish sketches, the ending or beginning of whatever. So I’ll do those early in the morning when I can rely on my focus, because as soon as it’s lunchtime, all bets are off. I pretty much do that until lunch, and then in the late afternoon do emails, and then whatever else is left on the to-do list. That’s pretty much my day. I usually have the same day every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Are you still doing the Liz at Large comic?

Liz Montague:
I haven’t posted any of them. I still do them sometimes for myself. I don’t know, the cartooning world, there’s just so much going on. And it’s very rare that I even watch the news these days to even… I think that the thing with cartooning, or at least for me back when I was doing it more than I am now, it’s very reactive.

Liz Montague:
And it’s usually very reactive to news specifically, where it’s like I’m looking at the news, I’m looking at social events, I’m looking at what’s going on and then I’m reacting to it. But these days, it’s like I don’t really give my myself things to react to anymore. Because I feel like I learned the hard way in 2020 and early 2021 that there can be a breaking point to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How do you kind of keep motivated and inspired with the work that you’re doing?

Liz Montague:
I think that right now, I kind of just want to see, “Okay, let’s see how far I could go.” That’s definitely part of it, of just like, “Okay, let’s see when the wheels fall off. How long can I really pull this off for?” That’s definitely a part of it.

Liz Montague:
And the other part of it, I think, does go back to even why I started Liz at Large. This idea of emotional literacy and of just seeing Black characters and of providing Black characters in general, and being able to provide Black characters as a Black woman. Because you wouldn’t believe, I mean, I’m sure you would believe the amount of Black characters and characters of color in general that are not made by people of color.

Liz Montague:
And to be able to… I mean, authentic is such a weird word. But to be able to provide a… to be able to showcase an experience that I’ve actually lived, I think, is something really powerful. And something that I’m really proud to be able to do. But I don’t know, it’s also that whole idea of, “If not me, who?” That’s a trap, that’s a total trap. So I think my why is day to day. It’s day to day.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, at this stage, I think we’re all kind of taking it day by day. So I completely understand that.

Liz Montague:
I wish I had some big, “Well, you know…” A reason or something. But I think I’m just figuring this out.

Maurice Cherry:
And at this stage of your life, that’s the time to do it. That’s the time to just try to figure it out, you know? I know that you and I have sort of talked about this prior to the interview about what you want sort of people to take away from it. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Take it day by day, as things happen.

Maurice Cherry:
I think certainly, with what you’ve just described already, you are at a great place in life right now. Great. Great. So take it day by day-

Liz Montague:
I can appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
… and kind of just go through the days and your feelings and work as it happens. Because I’m telling you, I’m telling you, there’s a lot of people at your age that would love to have that kind of just opportunity and work lined up. I mean, a three book deal? A three book deal. That’s major. That’s major.

Liz Montague:
No. It’s just like-

Maurice Cherry:
A three book deal, on top of a book you’re already working on, on top of a book that’s about to come out. Come on now.

Liz Montague:
It’s so weird though, because I feel like day to day is also so solitary. I don’t have coworkers, I don’t know people. I mean, it’s hard because the only people… So I’m comparing. You shouldn’t be comparing yourself to, you shouldn’t be, but everybody does it. And it’s like you end up comparing yourself to your wildest ideals and your biggest insecurities of just like, “Well, you should be doing more. Well, what about this? Well, what about Instagram?”

Liz Montague:
And then that’s a whole other can of worms, because it’s like the social presence, the social media presence part of it. Because I feel like there’s a huge pressure, especially nowadays, to have this very big social media presence to… I don’t know, exist on all platforms, be approachable at all times, be connecting at all times.

Liz Montague:
And I remember I texted my agent Wendy and was like, “Listen, man. I can’t do TikTok. I can’t do it, please.” Yeah. And she was like, “Of course not. You don’t have to.” But it’s crazy though, because these days in meetings and for negotiations, they’ll ask you your followers. And it’s just like, “What? What?” I don’t know. It’s to think about the longevity, the sustainability of this, of such a fast paced world where we’re consuming so much so quickly, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I’ll tell you though, the way to not burn out from that is to focus on the audience and the community that you have. The thing with a lot of social media, and I know this from one, just from being old and being around on the internet forever.

Maurice Cherry:
But there’s so much about modern social media that is about trying to attract an audience that you don’t have. And I think what can end up happening with that is you end up exhausting all of these efforts and jumping through all these hoops to try to impress people that don’t know you, don’t know your work, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
The reality is if the work is good, the people that already support you will kind of do some of that legwork for you. They’ll tell people, they’ll tell friends, they’ll mention you in rooms that you’re not in. So you don’t have to be on all the things all the time. I think probably for a visual media or a visual artist like you are, being an illustrator and a cartoonist, being on Instagram does make sense because it is a visual medium. TikTok is the Wild Wild West.

Liz Montague:
It really is. It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, aside from just the ever-changing and shifting algorithm of the platform, it’s also super toxic. And I know art, I’ve seen artists on TikTok that I’ve had on the show. So I know that it is helpful to kind of get the word out to people. But then it also exposes you to so many just idiots that don’t get it. And they spend their free time trying to instill the seeds of doubt into you so you don’t do the work that people love you for. You know what I mean?

Liz Montague:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t have to be on all the things, because you spread yourself too thin. Focus on the audience that you have and on the platforms that you feel you can at least control and have some semblance of yourself on there, where you don’t have to change who you are or what you do to kind of get your work out there.

Liz Montague:
So that’s been the hardest part lately, is just being like, “Okay, who I am right now, right this moment, not me 10 years from now or me three years ago, who I am right now is capable of doing this work and is enough.” I feel like everyone’s kind of dealing with that. I feel like now we’re in a stable enough place as a country and as… well, I mean as stable as America ever is, for people to reflect on, “In the thick of it for two years, and what happened to me during those two years? What did I lose? What did I gain? Am I proud of what came out on the other side of it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Liz Montague:
I think a lot of people are dealing with that. I think I’m especially dealing with that as just, I don’t know, especially… 30 is looking pretty close coming from this side of 25. 30’s looking pretty close. And I’m just like, “Jesus,” trying to figure it out. We don’t need to figure it all out, that’s not real, social media and everything else, but.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean give yourself some grace, certainly. And realize that, I mean, like I said before, where you’re at right now at your age is great. But I mean, and whatever way you feel is I think the best way that doesn’t take too much out of your regular process. But even just documenting where you’re at in some way I think is helpful for other people so they know that… Again, like you said, we’re all kind of figuring it out. But I think particularly for Black creatives, there’s this strong propaganda to hustle hard and “They sleep, we grind.”

Liz Montague:
Oh, for sure. For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that is not sustainable at all. I get these naps in everyday. Please believe it.

Liz Montague:
Exactly. [crosstalk 00:50:53], oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
I work smart, but I’m sleeping over here, a lot. So once you sort of find what that balance is, I think even just documenting it… Even if it’s just for yourself, not even for the public. But just so you know, “This is how I felt as I was going through this time in life, as I was trying to figure these things out,” I think is super helpful.

Liz Montague:
I mean I feel even just talking about as Black creatives or Black artists or whatever, what’s attainable, I didn’t really think that it was possible to be your own boss for real. Or have stability. Does that make sense? Where it’s like-

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense.

Liz Montague:
And I think that it shocked me more than anyone, that, “Holy crap, I’m a homeowner. When did that happen? How did that happen?”

Liz Montague:
… wild that we don’t even realize what we’ve written off for ourselves because of whatever paths we choose or wherever we find ourselves. And I think that especially for myself, there was a lot that I didn’t think was achievable. And it’s like, “Oh, wow. Actually, this is.”

Liz Montague:
And I think that a lot more Black artists especially need to realize that. Because I think that especially the eat, sleep, grind culture, as someone who lived it, that burned me out so quick. I was like, “I’m never going to draw again. I hate this.” It took a year to come out of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now even with these books that you are working on and everything, do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

Liz Montague:
You know what, speaking into existence now, I would love to work with Disney. Hit me up, I’m a huge Princess and the Frog fan. Beyond that, I don’t really know. I think I’d like to teach somewhere down the line, or even now. I used to teach really fun community art classes when I was in DC, but then the pandemic kind of put an end to that.

Liz Montague:
I think I’d like to teach. Who knows? I swear, every other week I’m talking myself out of going to medical school or something, or becoming a pastry chef. It could be anything at this point. I would definitely love to do something centered around Black mental health, for sure. And diving into that and different ways of just connecting.

Liz Montague:
Because I know that people love to say, “Hold space,” and whatever that means. But I think that beyond just face-to-face talk therapy, which in a perfect world would be accessible to everyone and they would be able to have Black therapists who could understand where they’re coming from, we need to deal with the world that we’re in right now. Where there need to be more accessible ways of connecting beyond just this one way that is very not accessible for most people. And I feel like there’s some kind of world where there’s an art-based solution to that. Or at least in the world that I want to exist in.

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

Liz Montague:
I hope in the next five years, or not “I hope,” I know. In the next five years, I’m going to be spearheading a lot more projects. I feel like up until this point, I really just… people have approached me and I’ve said yes.

Liz Montague:
Whereas especially with the series at Scholastic, that was the first thing that I pitched myself, I came up with myself and that was fully my idea that I’m going to be taking to fruition. So more of that, more of me getting to execute my ideas instead of executing other people’s ideas. I hope a lot more of that.

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

Liz Montague:
My website is lizatlarge.org. I’m on Instagram, @lizatlarge. I’m also on Twitter, but I don’t really tweet that much. It’s also @lizatlarge.

Maurice Cherry:
Liz Montague, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, as I was doing my research for this interview and everything, I was like, “I think I’m becoming a fan of you and the work that you’re doing.” I mean, even the fact that you’ve managed to accomplish this much at a young age is phenomenal. And I’m really excited to kind of see where you go from here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it’s one thing to have these accolades about first Black women cartoonist in The New Yorker and then to have all this success. But being able to sustain that as you go forward in your career is going to be super important. And I hope that this interview kind of has given you something to think about. But then also I’m excited to kind of come back to this in a few years after we see you really blow up huge and do big things. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Liz Montague:
Thank you so much for having me and reaching out to me and just having this space in general. This is actually so awesome. Really. I really enjoyed this.

Husani Oakley

With over 220 million worldwide subscribers across over 190 countries, it’s hard to imagine pop culture without the media juggernaut that we know as Netflix. But how do they manage to distribute and create so much, while also maintaining a top-class user experience for so many people? It’s thanks to geniuses like this week’s guest — Husani Oakley.

Husani talked about stepping into his role as Director of Creative Practices during the pandemic, and shared how his team helps define the art and science of great creative work at a huge scale. He also spoke about how his previous stints as CTO of online investment platform Goldbean and CTO of advertising firm Deutsch NY helped prepare him for the biggest role of his career. It takes a lot of work and nuance to create experiences for global and local audiences, and Husani is the right person to make those experiences happen!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Husani Oakley:
My name is Husani Oakley. I am the Director of Creative Practices at Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a pretty big title. I was going to ask what all has changed since you were last on the show, which was in 2014, you were Episode 40. That’s a long time ago. Tell me more about this new role in Netflix. It sounds exciting.

Husani Oakley:
Well, it was a very long time ago. That’s a whole two jobs in a global panini ago. That’s quite crazy. I hadn’t realize it was that long. Yeah, so my role at Netflix is in a group called Product Creative Studio. It’s a new role, even though Product Creative Studio isn’t necessarily new. We’re part of a team of people that are responsible for launching titles on platforms, so all shows all movies, whether they are Netflix originals or our non-original content that ends up on the platform globally. Everything is related to how those titles appear on platform. Everything from the descriptions, the synopsis that appear when you’re looking for something to watch to the tagging that appears. But specifically the art and clips and trailers that appear in the rows when you’re on the Netflix home page and when you’re on one of our titled detail pages.

Husani Oakley:
That’s the sort of work that’s done on my side of the organization. And my department and thus, my role specifically is looking at that work from a creative perspective, less than an operational perspective. And trying to figure out ways to make that work the best possible work for our members. We really want that art and those trailers and those clips to stand out and give you enough information as a member to let you decide whether this is something for you when you’re going to hit play and watch. We present you that evidence.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, it can be overstated just how big even Netflix has become in the past seven years. I mean, it really was something that was largely, I remember back then, I feel like it was mostly largely just for the United States or maybe for the Americas. But now, I mean, it truly is a global platform, not just in terms of reach of members, but also the content that it offers. I see trailers every week from content that’s in Spain, that’s in Italy, that’s in Nigeria, that’s in South Korea, everywhere.

Husani Oakley:
That’s what is both I think amazing to see from the inside. And then as a member to also experience from the outside that our content is we are a global company, our content is global. The way we create that content is global. But by global, I don’t mean from one location and spread throughout the world, it’s not one to many. It’s really many to many.

Husani Oakley:
Squid Game, I think is a great example that came out of South Korea for South Koreans. It was so great. Everyone on the planet ended up watching it. But the way we think about this global scale and reach, it’s almost like every area has its own Netflix. And the beauty of the platform is that content from those little Netflixes can be seen by members of Netflix as a whole.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you started this role last year. How was it to start something this big during the pandemic?

Husani Oakley:
I’ve got to say I was really scared. I was really scared to start during the pandemic. The role I was coming out of, I’d been in for a couple of years, so I knew everyone I worked with. And then we went into the pandemic and so, you’re on calls all day, every day with people, but you know them because you’ve known them before everything changed. I was really scared about the ability to form relationships with my peers, with my bosses and certainly, with the team that I lead only over a screen. Without having any indication of when the relationships could be built outside of just from behind the screen. I was terrified. If I am, to be honest, I was excited and terrified really, really because of that. But I have to say, this is the largest company I’ve ever worked at.

Husani Oakley:
And from day zero, and the fact that I say day zero gives a hint as to my dev background. We started zero. From day zero, I was impressed by the level of craft and the level of thoughtfulness that went into, not just starting, but the interviewing experience. And then starting, and then the onboarding experience. All of this with me sitting in my home office, having stepped into an Netflix office once in my life for maybe 30 minutes. I was terrified, but after really getting into things with folks who were aiding me along that interviewing and onboarding journey, that fear really went away and I was just able to embrace it.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your team look like? Who are some of the people that you manage?

Husani Oakley:
My team has, I was going to say some of the most brilliant people at Netflix, but that wouldn’t be fair because everyone in Netflix is sort of scary smart. And that’s I think a thing a lot of people say outside of Netflix like, “Oh, the folks in Netflix are really smart.” People in Netflix are really smart. I mean, back to this starting at day zero and how all of those interactions were clearly well-thought out and well-defined. The thoughtfulness is almost the hallmark of what it feels like to interact with these folks on the outside, I’m sorry, inside the company.

Husani Oakley:
My team is interesting because the team itself is new, but the people who are on the team are not. They’ve been in Netflix for an average of five years, four years and maybe. And so, they have such a deep understanding of not just the culture and sort of how we operate on a day-to-day basis. But the relationships with cross-functional partners across the globe. One of my amazing practices leads spent a lot of time and working with our APAC region. And has deep relationships with the folks there. So, they’re really able to bring to me the new person, this rich library of knowledge, which is incredibly helpful.

Husani Oakley:
Now, my folks come from varied creative focused backgrounds, creative strategy, art direction. Some from entertainment. Some from outside of entertainment. Some from marketing and advertising. But they all share a passion for TV and film and a passion for telling stories about TV and film. We tell stories about stories. I say that my team, with apologies to the late great Stephen Sondheim, I say that creative practices focuses on the art of making art. Inside of Netflix, I think that’s really important.

Husani Oakley:
We have these amazing editors and producers and strategists and designers spread across the planet, building out stories about stories, designing the art for our titles, cutting the trailers and clips for our titles. And because my team has experience doing that actual hands-on work, they are able to use that experience. And like I said earlier, use the rich knowledge of all of the cross-functional partnerships that they come to the team with. And elevate the work that our stunning colleagues do to represent titles on platform. I think I’m the luckiest person in Netflix with my team.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember from other people who I’ve had on the show before Netflix, they me that Netflix mostly hires mid to senior career people. You have to be at least kind of five years in to start at Netflix. There’s no “junior.” I’m using air quotes here, but there are no junior positions. Everyone kind of starts at a high level because you’re really in one way expected to kind of hit the ground running.

Maurice Cherry:
But to your point about how global and cross-functional, it is, I mean, you’re trying to deliver this consistent experience across hundreds of thousands of customers. And then Netflix is so unique because it’s a tech company, but it’s also media. And I just know from working with tech startups that try to do media, that’s often like mixing oil and water.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah, it’s hard and it’s also really worth putting the effort in. I think the space in between art and science is somewhere that I’ve spent my career and Netflix has spent its time existing like playing in the space between. I think if you are and I’m really talking about companies that I think I could argue this for really strong creatives as well.

Husani Oakley:
If you are solely focused on the art side, certainly in the medium that we’re talking about here, in digital. If you are focused on the art side, you’re missing out on the abilities and capabilities that are possible if you lean into the science side. But if you just lean into the science side and you don’t have the art, then you’ve got math. And I say, and then you’ve got math knowing, Maurice, what just like in college sounds silly. But I think you’re a great example of what I mean in this combination of art and science.

Husani Oakley:
There is such something that builds upon each other and allows things to build and move and merge. And I think that’s a fascinating place for a brand like Netflix to be, I think from a brand tone perspective, but from the day-to-day perspective of Netflix employees. And I hope that that experience for our members comes across. We talk a lot about our members all the time. We are member centric. We care so much about the member experience.

Husani Oakley:
Also, we are members too. I make this thing with my team in every other weekly status meeting, “What are you watching on Netflix right now? Let’s talk about it a bit.” Because at the end of the day, we’re focused on a lot of the science stuff, but it’s science for a reason. It’s science for the art and that’s just a fascinating space to play in.

Maurice Cherry:
The interesting thing really also with Netflix is it’s become just so ubiquitous within culture, writ large. I mean, of course you can look at the idiom of Netflix and chill and stuff like that. But with Netflix being such an early player in streaming and the rights with so many other streaming services, Paramount Plus, HBO Max, et cetera. There’s all these sort of affordances and things that they’re inheriting from work that’s been done in Netflix around how do we structure the UI? How do we provide a good user experience?

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s so interesting to watch conversation about streaming services on Twitter. Because one thing that I’ve found probably within the past couple of years, and I’ve noticed this, is that content, there are so many streaming services in places for content to land. And I mean, I’m using content in a broad sort of way to describe video. But I’ll watch 10 trailers and it’s almost negligible, which platform they’re on. It could be on IIB. It could be on Amazon Prime. It could be on Netflix. It could be on IMDB TV. It could be on a number of different platforms and stuff, but what sets it apart is that kind of experience of how do I use the app?

Maurice Cherry:
People talk all the time about HBO Max’s, the app. People say they’ve never seen an app that hates their users like HBO Max or I use Paramount Plus. And actually, Paramount Plus is the one service I’ve stopped using because the interface I found lacks the features that I would see on a Netflix or a Disney Plus or something for basic things that Netflix kind of pioneered, like Watch List and favorite-ing and ratings and stuff like that.

Husani Oakley:
I’ll tell you the secret. The secret is this amazing collection of smart people that work for Netflix that are spread across the globe. Just a little while ago, you talked about the level that we hire and you said, I think, the common thought is that folks are expected to kind of hit the ground running. And I’d say yes and no to that. So, I’ve been at Netflix are about seven and a half months and I think it took me about seven months to even understand anything.

Husani Oakley:
And the ongoing internal joke is, “You should spend the first year just soaking up information, understanding things, but we hired you because you’re great.” But your greatness at what you do, you need the information, the context about how we think about problem solving. How we’ve solved problems in the past, who people are and what they do and what they’re good at. You need some time inside before you’re really able to use the skills that you’re walking in with and apply to these sorts of very difficult problems that we are spending 24/7, 365 across the globe attempting to solve for our members.

Husani Oakley:
I hope that that effort or it’s funny. I was going to say, I hope that effort is clear to members. What I actually hope is that it’s not clear to members. I actually hope that it’s a magical experience that you sit down, you grab your remote control. You go to Netflix and you look, there are things that you want to watch.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s effortless. The experience is so seamless across. And I have to say, across a number of different platforms. I mean, I probably think like my toaster probably has Netflix now. It’s on every game console. It’s with every smart television. It’s on every smartphone, like yeah.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. We have an amazing partnerships team that works in a lot of those sorts of situations and they’re just great. You should be able to enjoy this content where you’re at. Whether you’re sitting on a flight and you’ve got your iPad with you or you’re on a train and you’ve got your phone with you. You’re sitting on your cell phone, it’s a television, you’re on a laptop or you’re in the kitchen making toast. We briefly want the ability for you to be entertained because that’s our job.

Husani Oakley:
And I think there’s a huge responsibility in entertainment brands and the folks who, who work at them, certainly at brands as large as Netflix, and with such a global footprint. There’s responsibility in the driving of global culture. And so, you see this a lot or you saw this a lot during the pandemic. I think even more so than pre-pandemic. Life is hard and you’ve had a really difficult day, a difficult week. There’s family stuff. There’s work stuff.

Husani Oakley:
There’s the state of the world, in general. And what we want you to do, what we want to be able to do, what we focus so much time on, on an effort on allowing you to do easily is to sit down on your sofa or in front of your laptop or in front of your toaster, grab a remote. And for 43 minutes, for 60 minutes, hopefully for longer, you are able to take the weight of the world off of your shoulders and immerse yourself in a story. And live in that story and watch all of that story if you want or stop and sort of reemerge back into your life and do some more things and then come back and reemerge yourself in that story.

Husani Oakley:
That is an awesome responsibility that we have. And my team, because we are supporting the folks who make and the processes by which we make this creative work that represents titles on platform, we’re the front door and the last door to those moments of joy. And that’s what I tell my folks to, that’s what they focus on, that’s what we focus on. That’s why we are here at this company to focus on giving members moments of joy.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say, the way that Netflix has sort of expanded in the early 20-teens with not just expanding globally, but then also expanding into original content. The development of original content sort of further kind of lets Netflix seep into the culture in that way, because as it expands out more, now we’re making your own shows. Because there’s a lot of, or I think it’s probably is still this way.

Maurice Cherry:
You have all this platform hopping of old shows and movies and stuff. Particularly, I think with a lot of NBC properties and stuff like The Office, it was on Hulu. Now, it’s on Peacock. Now, it’s on this. And it’s amazing how people will follow a platform for a show that probably hasn’t been online or is still in syndication or something like that. But Netflix now moving forward with their own content as they also expand their global footprint, at the same time, huge. That’s huge.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. There’s real power in that. And you only get to those sorts of insights and then execute on those insights and then continue to execute on those insights with more insights and do that at a global scale. The only way to do that is with stunning colleagues. It’s the only way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To that end, what does a regular day look for you? Does that exist?

Husani Oakley:
Nope. There is no regular day. Well, there are constants, let’s say. And maybe it’s almost like what does a week generally look like? And there’s things that happen in any given week are totally different. I said to someone, I said to a colleague the other day, “There’s never a boring day here is there?” They just sort of looked at me and they were sort of laughing of like, “Yep, no, no, no. That just does not exist here.”

Husani Oakley:
In any given week, I think like many people, we live on video chat. So, I’m on video chat a lot, but the conversations are so different and so rich and meaningful. Remember the days before everyone worked at home? And you might have eight meetings a day, but only three of them were really important. And the other five, you could of phone it in sometimes. Apologies to my previous lawyers who may or may not be listening to this.

Husani Oakley:
You could be with your phone checking Twitter under the table, that kind of moment. Not that I ever did such things clearly. It’s sort of the opposite of that here. So, if I’m on 10 calls, each of those 10 calls, is the most important call that day. And there were pre-reads read for those calls. There was prep work done. There was active participation in those calls.

Husani Oakley:
So, I think in any given couple of days or a week period, I’m having, it’s a really a collaboration session meeting with my team. My team, we don’t call them status meetings because it’s a waste of everyone’s time for all of us to sit on a call and go round robin and people tell me the status of their projects and initiatives. That’s a waste of their time. I think it’s disrespectful to their time. They can send me an email. They can update Slack.

Husani Oakley:
They can also do what they do because I trust them to do it because they’re the best people in the world to do this job. I don’t need to hover over them. So, we take an hour every Monday and collaborate on things. We’ll take a moment to celebrate on the latest content that we’re all or some of us are into. And then we really get into sort of the nuts and bolts collaboration, because these folks do have different backgrounds and different perspectives, different experiences.

Husani Oakley:
And because we’re a little a bit spread out and it’s a new team. It’s not as though we have spent so much time physically together. So, this moment is where you can start learning about each other and what each person kind of bring to this collaboration moment. I do also have a weekly status, also it’s less of a status. It’s more of a big thing that’s going on with my peers and the person that we report to. And we’re thinking of sort of bigger picture, strategic vision and what are the priorities for this year and next and how our cross-functional partnerships are doing.

Husani Oakley:
But a lot of time for me is spent watching Netflix. And I’m just smiling ear-to-ear when I say that. I watch a lot of Netflix. I watch Netflix during the day. I said to my mom, when I started, “I get paid to watch a lot of Netflix and that’s pretty damn cool.” And I’m watching as a member, but I’m also, I’m watching to gauge where we’re at creatively with title representation on platform. Does that feel right? And if it does, how can we do that not once, but twice but 5000 times. And then next year, 10,000 times. And then the next year, 30,000 times. So, there’s a lot of focus on getting content in.

Husani Oakley:
There’s a lot of task forces that are, we’re really big on cross-functional partnerships and cross-functional relationships. So, I’m on a couple of handfuls worth of internal working groups and task forces focused on all sorts of issues and initiatives and challenges to solve. Maybe there’ll be a meeting in that. And one person from the taskforce is going to present a deck or a super long memo about the latest findings from a test. And we debate them and we dissent openly and give feedback about what we’re talking about in these conversations openly.

Husani Oakley:
This is kind of what my life is these days. I watch TV a lot and I talk a lot. Which is for a person who talks a lot and watches TV a lot when he is not working in Netflix, that’s kind of a dream.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging aspect of this new job?

Husani Oakley:
I think maybe the most challenging and the most rewarding, the most rewarding is being able to work with colleagues across the world from completely different cultures and perspectives and backgrounds. And then I think one of the more challenging parts is coordination of the working with amazing colleagues from across the world.

Husani Oakley:
Time zones are a thing. It’s always going to be painful for someone. I mean, it’s either 8:00 AM for me or it’s 8:00 PM for me. It’s certainly when I’m working with colleagues on the literal other side of the planet. And trying to coordinate that with super busy schedules ends up being more challenging than you kind of think. “Oh, send a calendar, invite us all. Fine.”

Husani Oakley:
But our days are so dynamic. They change all the time and these meetings run long and maybe they run short. And then there that’s a company town hall. Trying to keep schedules in that space when there are so many dependent time zone dependencies, it ends up being a significant challenge and maybe that’s a challenge for me. The old school Netflix folks do this with their eyes closed. I’m still catching up and trying to figure out kind of the best way to handle that.

Husani Oakley:
One thing about that, when we have sort of larger meetings, larger department meetings, or all hands in our part of the organization, we do those meetings twice because of time zones. So, if you’re presenting in a meeting and you’ve got a couple hundred people on a call, for me, I’m in those conversations all the time. I’m presenting in those quite often. I’ll have one at 7:00 PM on a Tuesday and then I’ll have the exact same meeting the next day at 10:00 AM, but just with different participants, but I’m saying the same thing twice.

Husani Oakley:
And there’s a challenge in that sort of human communication moment. Sometimes, I feel a little bit like I imagine a politician feels giving a stump speech. And they’re, “Okay, hello, Rapid City.” And they’re like, “You’re actually at Albuquerque.” “Oh, sorry. I was in Rapid City yesterday.” That sort of when you say the same thing a number of times it starts to become rote.

Husani Oakley:
And I think that would be unfair to our colleagues in our various locations across the world. So, trying to keep that stuff fresh to get their excited unique perspectives is also sort of challenging for me sometimes. But you work through it, you work through it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when we had talked back in 2014, I know we’re talking now about Netflix, but I want to kind of go back to really track the progression to how you’ve gotten to where you are now. Back when we talked in 2014, you were fairly new, I think CTO at this FinTech startup called GoldBean. Tell me about that experience. How was it?

Husani Oakley:
Oh, GoldBean. Oh, wow. It’s funny how the perception of time is so malleable and the past two years feel like 30 years. So, really thinking back to the GoldBean days, it’s amazing. I’m watching right now there’s, there’s like what? Three or four prestige TV series about well-known startups happening right now. I don’t know what they’re called, but there’s the Uber show. That’s what I call them at home. There’s the Uber show. There’s this there no show. There’s the Uber show.

Husani Oakley:
I’m watching all of them at the same time. And I just, I laugh a lot when there are moments that they are talked about in these shows that I remember. Like begging for funding, a launch day, getting your first non-direct connected customers and that sort of thing. GoldBean was a blast. It was a massive learning experience. You’d wake up on a Monday morning and you’d think I am right. Our product is right. Our brand is right. Everything, we’re making the right decisions. We are so smart.

Husani Oakley:
And then by lunchtime, you’re like, “Wait, no, actually we don’t know anything. What the hell have we done with our lives?” Then it might change. It might go up again by dinnertime. That sort of emotional rollercoaster. That I think is inherent in startups. I guess when I think back on the GoldBean era, that’s one of the things that’s top of mind to me, that riding that rollercoaster.

Husani Oakley:
So, GoldBean, I was so lucky to co-found GoldBean with a former colleague. She was actually a former boss, truth be told. And we were, you have colleagues, boss or not, you’re close in, and when you’re working together. And then time goes by, you both have different jobs, different parts of industries. You don’t talk again. You drop each other notes on Twitter or LinkedIn. One is a Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday kind of a thing.

Husani Oakley:
I was so lucky to reconnect with her and have the opportunity to build something from nothing. And to think about all aspects during that building of something from nothing. Where it’s not just the product, not just the tech of the product, but the design of the product, the brand, but the brand values. And how those brand values would be expressed through visual design, but also through our own behavior in the marketplace and how we raise the money.

Husani Oakley:
Really all of that coming from a core set of brand values, which is really about, could we have a financial brand that didn’t just focus on straight white dudes? How do you take that kind of a phrase and express it in design and express it in the tech and express it in product design? Solving those challenges was so much fun.

Maurice Cherry:
And you were kind of going back into the startup world then, because prior to that, you were at Wieden and Kennedy before you were at GoldBean?

Husani Oakley:
That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. My career has been startup, ad agency, startup, ad agency. At a certain point, it was like startup, startup, startup, startup. Oh, no. Ad agency. I’ve kind of, I’ve lived a lot in both of those worlds, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And I guess, to follow that pattern after this startup, you were at an ad agency. Right after that you were at Deutsch New York. How did that opportunity come about? Because you were at GoldBean for a good minute.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. It’s a funny story, and I think it was like four or five years at GoldBean. And we did the typical, it’s sort of like the typical startup life cycle. Even though there were all of the roller coaster at any given day if you kind of zoom out from that, there was the typical, “Have an idea. Ooh, that’s a good one. Let’s bootstrap it. Let’s make it. Let’s raise some money. Well, let’s raise some money. Oh, wait. We’re a woman and Black gay man as CTO-led financial technology brand.”

Husani Oakley:
So, we’re raising money and raising money and raising money. I continued that for a very long time before going on to the next part of working on a startup. But we got to the point, I guess, near the end where we had a lovely relationship with a company that ended up buying the GoldBean.

Husani Oakley:
I was having drinks with an old colleague from my Wieden+Kennedy days who for maybe a year or so, she was at Deutsch New York. And she had been trying to for a year to get me to talk to folks at Deutsch. And I kept saying, “No, I have a job. It’s called a startup. Ever heard of it?” I was sort of getting snippy about it after a while. But she was a friend. We finally had a moment in a bar where I knew that, “Hey, we’re actually going to be wrapping GoldBean up soon. Fine. I will talk to your precious Deutsch New York people. Fine.”

Husani Oakley:
And so, she did an email introduction to some folks there. And one conversation with a person who ended up becoming my Deutsch collaborator and then personal friend, one conversation, I was sold. I was excited to join Deutsch specifically because of the people. It’s always about people for me. The culture was much around, “Hey, here’s the thing. Let’s figure out how to do that better.” And that really, really kind of called to me.

Husani Oakley:
It’s funny. Where did we, where you and I spoke at a conference together in Atlanta, what was that?

Maurice Cherry:
That was How to Design Live in 2016.

Husani Oakley:
Wow, 2016. I remember standing on a stage there and I know this happened. I hope there’s not a recording of it. I stood on a stage and I said something like, “I will never go back to advertising.” And the crowd sort of giggles. And I’m like, “No, I’m serious. I will never go back to advertising.” Fast forward two years, I’m [crosstalk 00:32:43]. So, never say never, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some of the things you worked on?

Husani Oakley:
Deutsch work was and is focused on helping brands through inflection points. There’s a product launching, there’s a major change in company leadership and now there’s a new brand tone or value or look and feel of something. But no, I think the specialty of Deutsch was finding those moments of change and developing coms around those moments of change and to support those moments of change in the eyes of a brand consumers.

Husani Oakley:
I think a good example, some work that we did for, for AB InBev. The world’s largest brewer. Speaking of global scale, AB InBev has got it. I was going to say we designed and built an app called Hoppy, but that doesn’t come close to kind of what the project was. That’s what I loved about the work at Deutsch. It wasn’t just the what is the tactic that we’re leaning in on. It’s why is this tactic important? What larger program in an inflection point for a brand is this tactic a part of?

Husani Oakley:
For AB InBev specifically, it was around really wanting all of their employees to have a deep, deep, deep appreciation of, and understanding of beer. And I think that might sound a little silly sometimes, like “Well, it’s a brewer, how do they not understand and love beer?” But at a brewer, there’s a lot of employees. That’s just the folks in the brewery. You got sales people, you got marketing people, you have operations people, you have number crunchers.

Husani Oakley:
And there was a real desire by the heads of AB InBev to internally have every single AB InBev employee be educated about beer. Be able to champion beer and what beer could do from a cultural perspective like throwing people together and having sort of moments of meaning in people’s lives, who work at AB InBev. And how could every employee of AB InBev share that passion for beer to their friends and family and so on and so on.

Husani Oakley:
So, one of the tactics that we came up with was called Hoppy and it was an app, internal only. It has since gone public on the web, I believe, but it was an iOS and Android app that essentially gamified education. And we took a lot of cues from how people use their phones when they’re not supposed to be at jobs. Really wanted a little bite size content. AB InBev has a super competitive internal culture and we leaned in on that in some of the gamification as well. So the idea was, if you log into Hoppy, you read some bite size content about beer, and it’s all different sorts of courses. And from beer history to beer science, to the making of beer.

Husani Oakley:
It was very specifically about beer, not so much a sales tool for AB InBev brands. No. It was about beer. You read this content, you interact with these little games then you would get quizzes. If you answer the quiz, you get a badge. Every badge comes along with beer coin. Yes, I know. Every time I would say it then and said it now is I cringe a little bit. I won’t take up too much time complaining about crypto and my thoughts on that. But the idea was giving the AB InBev employees again from the super competitive internal culture a thing to compete with. We built leaderboards, not just in the app, but around offices.

Husani Oakley:
We allowed managers to create what we called Beer Code, C-O-D like a QR code, QR code. You go into an admin system, you make a beer code and that beer code could be for an extracurricular meeting you were having with your team or a happy hour that you wanted your encouraged your team to show up to. You’d make it, you’d print it, you’d stick it on the wall. Every employee that walks in, they log into Hoppy as they’re walking in, they scan that code. They get some beer coin. They move up in the leaderboard.

Husani Oakley:
All the content could always be refreshed and it was all very beautiful. And there’s this amazing design that the super talented product design team at Deutsch New York created. That sort of deep, deep, deep brand integration coming through via a digital tactic for employees. That’s the sort of work that Deutsch did and does. And it’s work that I, years later, am still super proud of.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at both your time working at GoldBean, which was a startup and working at Deutsch New York, which is an agency. When you look at those two specific experiences, what unique skills do you think you’re able to bring now to your work at Netflix, which is in a totally different space?

Husani Oakley:
The ability to tell a story succinctly, last answer to your question, notwithstanding. You know what I mean? Taking super, super complicated concepts and distilling them down to their essence, not 30 slides, but two. But when you are the digital per person in a non-only digital environment like a big ad agency. And anyone who is in that position sort of understands and I think even folks who are sort of new areas of larger older companies will understand this, you run out of time in a meeting.

Husani Oakley:
You run out of time in a pitch because your part of the pitch is like Slide 38 of 50. I’m sorry. Your part of the pitch is Slide 38 out of 40. And by the time you get to Slide 37, you look at the clock and it’s almost time and all your colleagues are looking at you like, “Okay, you had a whole lot to say when you practiced this pitch, but now you have seven seconds to say it because we took too long to say our part. You don’t have time anymore. Go.”

Husani Oakley:
When you experience that over a career, my ad agency career of being the digital person in these sometimes, non-digital native environments, you get really good at taking 30 pages of really complicated stuff and distilling it down to three sentences. It’s a skill that has come in handy at a place like Netflix where things are so and so cross-functional, and cross-functionally complicated. Cutting down to the essence has really, really served me well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, from what you’re able to share, I mean, you’ve already shared so much about Netflix, what would you say is probably the most surprising thing that most people don’t know about Netflix?

Husani Oakley:
Netflix employees pay for Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Husani Oakley:
We pay a subscription, just like everybody else. And listen, I got to say when I got the message, when I logged in Netflix one day and I saw that my subscription price went up, I did have a second of a gasp. I did have a moment of like, “Hey, wait a second.” Then I remembered that I work there. Yes, we pay for Netflix. I think it’s actually really important that we pay for Netflix. We are members, too and when you pay for something, even if you work at the place that makes it, even if your work is available on it, come at it from a different perspective. It’s much more than empathy for members when you are a member.

Husani Oakley:
We, too, are sensitive to price changes and know that they are done with respect. We too are excited by content. We too are sad and disappointed when our favorite show isn’t renewed. And really being, having that perspective in the product, as expressed by, “I’m paying the same price everybody else is paying,” I think really gives us a strong, strong perspective when we are working on things that are potentially challenging or difficult.

Maurice Cherry:
That is wild. I didn’t know that you all were paying for Netflix. I mean, ooh, interesting. Okay. So, yeah, when those prices go up, you all feel it, too, so I guess that’s a little bit of empathy out there for folks who didn’t know that. How have you changed since we last spoke here on the show seven years ago?

Husani Oakley:
I think I’ve realized what I’m good at. I don’t always know what I’m good at to be, to be fair. But I think I’ve kind of narrowed down what I’m good at and I’ve embraced what I’m good at. And that is living in the space between art and science and leading teams creatively in that space between art and science.

Husani Oakley:
And I think earlier parts of my career, I sort of fell into this in between space. It was never a conscious intentional choice to sort of be in the middle. But I started out way back in the day as a dev, but I was a creative. In my day job, I’m writing code and I just happen to be the one of all the devs in whatever place I was at, at that time, that could have a conversation with designers or creatives. And really understand their perspective and then translate that perspective.

Husani Oakley:
And in the startup world, that was a superpower. I didn’t realize that that was a superpower. And in the agency world, again, it was a superpower I didn’t quite realize was a superpower at that time. And I think as I’ve matured as a human, as I’ve grown as a leader, and I think as I’ve grown as a creative, I’ve understood that as being a major tool in my tool belt and I recognize that it’s a tool in my tool belt. I know how to wield it. And I knew how to wield it back when we first spoke. I think, I didn’t know how well I actually could wield it and I think I’m really doing that now.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you where you wanted to be at in this stage in your life?

Husani Oakley:
Well, listen, having gotten started in my career in the dot-com boom, I thought by now, I’d be retired on a yacht. The yacht would be called the Husani. It would have my face on it, giving the middle finger to everybody as I go from port to port, island to island. Living my retired before mid-40s amazing life. That didn’t happen. It took me a little while to realize that wasn’t going to happen.

Husani Oakley:
But you know what? Yes, I am. I have always wanted to be in a place professionally and personally where my passions for storytelling can have an impact on more than a handful of people and a lasting impact on more than a handful of people. And it’s been a long road. I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I am certainly now in a place where my creative ideas, my creative leadership and the wielding of the in-between art and science tool can really have an impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people. And that’s what I’ve really always wanted and that, I feel like I have that now.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you would love to do someday? I mean, it honestly sounds like this work that you’re doing on Netflix is kind of, I mean, I’ve known you for 20 plus years. But this sounds like the pinnacle of where you are in your career, but is there more that you want to do like bigger dreams and aspirations?

Husani Oakley:
I want to write a Broadway musical.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Husani Oakley:
All I get is a “Hmm?” Wow. Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no. What would it be about?

Husani Oakley:
You’re difficult. Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, but I want one. Look, I discovered a love for musical theater when I was a super, super young kid and saw Sarafina! on Broadway. It’s up to Google what year that was because I really don’t remember. I was super young. And then my love for musical theater was cemented when I became obsessed with Little Shop of Horrors in the late ’80s. And it’s just sort of grown and been there ever since on the wall that I sit in front of when I’m on video chat all day, every day.

Husani Oakley:
I mean, there are a bunch of pieces of art and some things that are meaningful to me. But on one side, there’s a Star Trek poster. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Best film ever. Then there’s also a stylized drawing of the logo of Miss Saigon because that show has had big impact and meaning on my taste in theater and understanding of the interplay between words and song.

Husani Oakley:
And I don’t know what my show would be about. But I would like to before I leave this planet to whatever comes next, write a show and hopefully have the same sort of impact emotionally on people that the work that I love so much has had on me.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re in New York. If there’s any place to write the next Broadway musical, that’s it. All you have to do is get Netflix to give, I don’t know, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a project or something. Find a way for you all to work together and make that happen. I mean, seriously, because I mean, Netflix has, I mean, we’re talking a lot about Netflix because you work there. But just to kind of talk about more with their expansion, they’ve gone into games, they have a book club.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m surprised that they haven’t went into theaters. I know Amazon did that with their Amazon Studios. They bought, I think it was Landmark. I think it was Landmark theaters they bought that chain or they wanted to buy it or something. But I’m surprised there’s not brick and mortar Netflix theaters. I’m pretty sure that’s probably somewhere down the pipeline.

Husani Oakley:
We do own one theater. Hey, here’s another maybe thing that people don’t know about Netflix. We own a theater in New York, a movie theater.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Husani Oakley:
Yeah, the Paris Theater. It’s a beautiful old landmark theater and there are screenings. It’s open. It’s a public, it’s a theater, it’s a movie theater. You can buy tickets and see a movie there. The Power of the Dog was there a couple of weeks ago. There’s something happening there tonight with Judd Apatow. That it’s open to the public as in you could buy tickets like everyone else, but yeah, we own that theater, which is a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from the musical, what is it that you want your legacy to be?

Husani Oakley:
One of my early pre-career claims to fame, such that it is I had a first amendment related lawsuit with my high school in the town I grew up in. And back then, I really wanted to leave behind a changed world. There are a million and one things wrong. If I could change four of them, no one ever needs to know my name. No one ever needs to know that I was the person who changed those four things as long with those four things got changed.

Husani Oakley:
And I guess I’ve gone from then, I’ve run startups, so I’ve been at companies big and small. I’ve done all of this stuff. I’ve spoken on stages. I’ve been around the world. All of this stuff. And I think all I still want to do is change for things on this planet for the better. And so, the people who come after me don’t experience those four things of the million things being wrong as wrong.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing I didn’t even touch on that we focused on your work at GoldBean and Deutsch, but you’ve also done a fair amount of civic tech work in these past seven years. I remember vividly you being invited to the White House, Obama, not Trump, invited to the White House. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Husani Oakley:
Yeah. I was invited to the White House twice. Let’s just be clear.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Husani Oakley:
And so, the first invite was the Obama administration understood the importance of inclusion. And there was a group of LGBTQ senior technology executives invited to spend a day at the White House and put our heads together on the problems that plague our society and humanity. So, of those million and one problems that I acknowledge exists in the reality we live in, could we take 15 of those and solve them. What do we think would be great, great moves to protect against climate change? How can we think about employment and unemployment certainly, in the tech sector, since we were folks coming out of the tech sector.

Husani Oakley:
And that was just a fascinating moment, an amazing experience I’ve developed lifelong friends from that moment. Then it actually then led to the next moment later that year, and it was 2016, I believe. Yeah, it was 2016 because the last time was actually post-election, that election. It was around, “Okay. We made some really good strides in that first summit around digital and technology employment outside.” Thinking about it as not just being an issue in the major cities, but they’re really being huge opportunity outside of the coasts and the major cities.

Husani Oakley:
Now, there are smart key people outside of just New York and LA. Shocker, I know. How can we spread the unheard of in human civilization wealth that has been generated by the internet and digital to technology, IT in general, outside of just those centers from a jobs program and continuing educate perspective. We were worried that with the election having gone the way it did that any strides that we’d made. We had folks from the department of labor involved and a lot of the conversations we’ve had in that first summit, our assumption, a safe assumption, was that all of that was going to get thrown in the trash.

Husani Oakley:
And so the second time, a bunch of us got together at the White House was around, if we can’t ensure that it’s not going to get thrown in the trash, how can we on the outside of being in the executive branch continue kind of driving these initiatives? So, it turns out that continuing to drive those initiatives were one of a million problems caused by that guy. So, I think we all then found ourselves really busy from that date, I mean, through forever now, because the fight against fascist never actually ends.

Husani Oakley:
But yeah, I think when this technology was new, we didn’t know what it could do. A lot of us were naives in thinking that it was all a net good and connecting people was always in that good and base core infrastructure. Technology was always in that good because it didn’t have intention and then over time we learned that that’s not true. And now, we recognize that high AI biased, high moderation on social platforms a big issue, high identity on social platforms a big issue.

Husani Oakley:
I look back at those early times and think about how naive a lot of us were, myself included, about what these technologies would do. And so, now, I think those of us who remain in the space and certainly more so folks that are new to these spaces have a responsibility to use these tools for good and not for evil. An active good, not just being neutral. Technology is not neutral.

Husani Oakley:
That’s a responsibility we have as creatives, as technologists, as creative technologists, as humans, as Americans if that’s what we are. We have these things on our hand, we got to use them right. So, focusing on the betterment of society is it’s clearly, perhaps never far from top of mind for me. Now, actually, my little sister is running for Congress. I think we share a lot of similar perspectives on the need for being involved in the government of the world that we live in.

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

Husani Oakley:
On Twitter, I am @Husani Oakley. On Instagram, I’m @Husani. And if you can’t remember any of that, I’m at husani.com on the web.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Husani Oakley, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show. I mean, as I sort of mentioned earlier in the interview, we’ve known each other for such a long time, so I already knew this was going to be a great interview. But really getting to hear you talk about the work that you’re doing with Netflix, the fact that you’re able to take the talent that you have and be able to apply that across a global scale with a company like Netflix, I feel like this is exactly where you need to be right now. And I’m excited to see what the next thing will be. I hope it’s the musical. I’ll be there. I’ll buy a ticket for the musical if it happens in the future, I’ll be there. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Husani Oakley:
Thank you, Maurice. A blast as always.

Russell Toynes

If Austin, Texas had a contest for “Hometown Design Hero”, I think Russell Toynes would definitely win the grand prize! Russell is the founder and creative director of Studio Dzo, a multidisciplinary design-build studio that works with developers, architects, interior designers, and other business owners to elevate their work and help bring it to life. On top of that, he’s also an adjunct professor covering portfolio development at Austin Community College, and is a core team member of African American Graphic Designers, the largest collective of African-American and Black visual communicators. Talk about being active in your community!

Russell talked about rebounding and rebuilding during the pandemic, sharing how his team adjusted and how he changed his business focus to keep productivity high and focus on his employees’ mental health. He also spoke on growing up in Austin, working as an art director at Dell, and his love for giving back and helping the next generation of designers. Russell is living proof that you can find success and fulfillment right in your own backyard!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Russell Toynes:
My name is Russell Toynes, and I am the creative director and owner at Studio Dzo. I’m also a design educator. I teach portfolio design at Austin Community College. And I am a core member of AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. And I’m a mentor to a lot of either previous students or folks that wish they were a student of mine.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Russell Toynes:
I’m also a dad and a husband, but those things, those are all day, every day. And those are some of the best things that I do. We’ll see. We should ask them.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s 2022 been going so far?

Russell Toynes:
2022 has been good. We’re actually really excited. 2021 was a banner year for us, and 2022 is exactly the same. Our books are full, and the work just keeps coming in, and we have a good team. We had a little bit of an upset in 2021 where we had some folks get, what’s that bug that they caught? The great resignation?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Russell Toynes:
Some of them got some of that, you know? And so that left us in a little bit of a bind. So we had two new team members start in January, and so we’re still training them. So it’s a little challenging with that, with some new team members, but 2022 is starting out great for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you really want to try to accomplish this year?

Russell Toynes:
Really, we have a good processes, but I always want to get right and tight, right? So I really, really am looking at how do we streamline our business? My goal… Well, with the pandemic, we’re really… Before pandemic, we had a studio on East Sixth Street and it was great. We were there for three or four years, and we just moved into a new place. We did a $10,000 build out. We moved into a new place on South Lamar on February 17th on 2020. And then March 17th, 2020, we said everybody, “Hey, so this thing’s going on. We’re going to send you home. You’re going to work from home and we’ll check in every week or two, and we’ll figure out when we’re going to come back.” We were really naive, right? We just didn’t know. And I was scared. And we have a little blog on our website.

Russell Toynes:
And so, I just wrote a blog of just like a cathartic, being a small business owner during a pandemic is fucking scary. And so, I wrote this blog post just talking about like my biggest thing was just thinking about, not only do I have to keep food on my table, but I got to keep food on five other people’s tables also. And so, not knowing what that was going to look like was really scary.

Russell Toynes:
But what I realized was when we were in the studio, we were really locally focused. We did some state, some things outside of Austin. Lots of things outside of Austin, but lots of things in other states, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and places like that. But we were really just thinking, “Oh, we’re Austin, we’re Texas.”

Russell Toynes:
When we went remote, all of a sudden opportunities just started just coming in different directions. And now, we really see ourselves as global. We have done work in Singapore, we have done work all over the United States. We have partners all over the world. So really, thinking about… we just wrapped up a project in Canada… just thinking about what we have done in the last year, it’s amazing that when we opened our minds up to thinking beyond our local borders, what we’ve accomplished.

Russell Toynes:
And so, really 2022 is just about, how do we keep this momentum? How do we move forward and continue to have a global presence?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good to hear. I mean, the pandemic, it’s changed business for so many people. I mean, I’ve talked to several studio owners, big and small, that have all had to really adjust because they weren’t able to come together physically in an office like they did before. I mean, for the team, was it a big shift to make that change?

Russell Toynes:
Yes. So, we have team members of various ages. So we have seven team members. Seven in total. So me and my wife, and then we have five other team members. And they’re all employees of ours, but we call them team members because I don’t like the idea of people being an employee.

Russell Toynes:
So they’re all in different places in life. Some have families, some are single, some have partners. And so obviously, the pandemic hit everybody. So if you’re a family person and you have a spouse at home and children, they’re all affected. And so, that changed a lot for our team member in particular who has kids. It’s just, how do you work when his escape was getting in the car, driving to the studio, spending six to eight hours there and driving back, and having that decompression time and that transitional period?

Russell Toynes:
And now it’s get up, feed, clothe, put them in front of whatever Zoom classes they have, then get in front of his work Zoom and do work. And then their kids, they’re various ages. And so, that was the biggest challenge. Our big thing was, we wanted to focus on their mental health. We wanted to make sure that they had the freedom to take whatever time they needed just to process what the hell was going on. Because for all of us, we just didn’t know. It was scary.

Russell Toynes:
Especially in the very beginning when we just didn’t know what it was, but people were getting sick and people were dying. As time went on, the adaptations change. It went from, “Okay, let me just figure out just how to keep people, my team healthy and somewhat productive,” to this, “Okay, we can’t talk about going back. We got to talk about moving forward.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, it was like, “What do you need to be effective? What do you need to be efficient?” So, the team came back to the studio, we gave them their desk, their sit-stand desk. Then we got everybody… Our designers have desktops. Actually, almost everybody had desktops. And so, we were like, “Look, we can’t say you work remote, but then basically chain you to a desk.” So we got everybody all new laptops, and we were like, “Look, we don’t know what this is going to look like, but you have the freedom to work from wherever you’re at. So if you want to travel somewhere, you can work from there. As long as you’re able to be productive, work however you want to.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, for us, we really just had to figure out what was going to work now that we were in the long haul for this. So really it was just changing our work model. So changing it from in the studio to being remote. But then also from a clock in, clock out like you had in the studio where people come in and they’re expected to be in at 9:00, expect to stay till 5:00, and you had a good culture there. Where now it’s like, “We have to go to dentists, we have to get our car inspected. We have to do all the things while being at home.”

Russell Toynes:
So we switched to this get it done model, where it’s like, you know what you need to do. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, first thing in the morning, we talk about what we need to do and then you just go do it, however you’re going to get it done. So if you want to take out in the middle of the day to hang out with the kids, cool. You know what needs to be done when it needs to be done. I don’t need to babysit you.

Russell Toynes:
And so that’s worked out really, really well, both for my wife and I, Elizabeth, because sometimes we’re just not feeling like sitting in front of a desk. And so, we can sit with our laptop. And plus, we can do a lot of our work via our phone if we’re just calling or setting up meetings or reviewing work. So for us, this whole get it done model has really helped us all tackle life’s responsibilities along with work responsibilities.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you and the team are really able to make a agile shift pretty quickly. Do you think that was just because of your tight-knit nature of the team? What do you really attribute to that?

Russell Toynes:
I was a creative… Oh sorry, I was art director at Dell for five and a half years, and I learned quite a bit of what to do and what not to do. And so, very, very quickly I knew that I wanted everything that we did to be cloud based. And so, I didn’t want the opportunity for someone to have anything on their local drive that we needed, or for a laptop to get stolen and work that I had paid for over months for them to do got lost.

Russell Toynes:
So we were already very equipped to work remotely, because everything was already backed up to the cloud constantly through Google File Stream. And we had been using all the Google suites. So everything from the calendars, to email, to everything. So we were already well-equipped to just work from devices, whether that be iPads, phones, or computers, or something like that.

Russell Toynes:
I think being that we’re a small team and it was seven of us, I think that allowed us to be nimble. And we’ve always prided ourselves on being nimble and being able to fail quickly. So we’ll try something. If it doesn’t work, let’s adapt. But honestly, I attribute it to having just a damn good team who really has a lot of faith in Elizabeth and I to just guide them. And they’ll follow us in whatever direction we ask them to.

Russell Toynes:
And we have an open-door policy. We ask people, there’s no hierarchy other than the fact that I’m responsible for making sure they get paid and everything. Everyone has the opportunity to make a suggestion. Everybody has the opportunity to talk to me or Elizabeth and say, “Hey, this isn’t working, or this could be better, or I ain’t dealing with something.”

Russell Toynes:
And unfortunately, during the pandemic, things happen. People die. Maybe it’s pandemic related, maybe it’s not. And we have to be adaptive to that. And so, we can’t just sit there and go, “Well, we’re running a business here, sorry.” It’s like, “No, we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work.” And we just have a killer team that just everybody has everybody’s back. So it really has helped us move, and shift, and be nimble during this time of uncertainty.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked about going from being more locally focused with your client base to now having this global reach. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Russell Toynes:
So we work with architects, interior designers, and developers, and business owners. We work with everybody, but those are the best. Our ideal client… We don’t call our clients, clients. We call them partners, because this is a partnership. We have to work together. I don’t work for anybody. And so, we are working together to meet a goal and to create an experience. And so for us, we love working with interior designers because, A, they know the budget, and they’re realistic.

Russell Toynes:
They’re not developers who have a stake in how much money the project makes. And they’re not designers who are like, “Oh, I think I know how to design a sign or an installation,” and they have no idea. So when we work with… And architects are good, but architects always hire interior designers, and interior designers love us and we love them. So, they have a vision. We bring their visions either to life, or we just… They say, “This is an area that we don’t know what to do, but that’s where we call you.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, interior designers are great. So we work with lots of different agencies that have wonderful, talented interior designers who rely on us to do what we do well. And the crazy thing is, is maybe it’s the same in design, I don’t know, but there’s a lot of turnover. I don’t know if it’s just like, they go to a place, they’re there for a year. And then they want to just go to somewhere else or they move or whatever.

Russell Toynes:
So like pollinating, we make great relationships with one studio and then five of their interior designers over the course of a year or two go to five different other places. And then those five other places call us too. And next thing you know, we got 15, 20 interior design agencies all around the United States and whatnot that are calling us for project after project. So, I love them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I like that spread effect like that. I mean, I think you mentioned the great resignation a couple of times now. It’s interesting how because the pandemic has forced a lot of people to now work from home or work from remote locations, that a lot of companies before are just having to open themselves up to talent from a lot of other places.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, I think that can be both good and bad. Of course, for the company, I could see the downside of it because now that they’re working with employees from other states, they’ve got to think about, “Well, can we legally hire people in this state and what does that mean?”

Russell Toynes:
Exactly. That’s my wife. We had a team member in Atlanta, and she jumped through so many hoops with the comptroller there in Atlanta to just get this person to where we can offer them insurance and everything else. Yeah, it’s a huge undertaking when you bring on somebody outside of your state, and it’s a new state that you haven’t been in already.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then for the worker, it can be easy because now so many gigs that before were just landlocked to a certain city, now you can work from everywhere. I’ve been working, personally I’ve been working remotely since 2009. And like you, when I had… I had a studio for nine years, from 2009 to 2017. And we did some work locally. We did a lot of national work, some international work. But I’d say for the past two years now, on and off for the past two years, I’ve mostly been working internationally. It’s worked out that I can now take my skills and I can work in Amsterdam. I can work in Paris, which is where my current job is headquartered at.

Russell Toynes:
So how do you deal with the time difference?

Maurice Cherry:
Not well.

Russell Toynes:
I was going to say. I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii in January and I didn’t think that was going to mess me up. But boy, did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Not well. I mean, so when I worked for the company in Amsterdam, I think it was a six hour time difference, five to six hour time difference. Because you know, daylight savings time eventually creeps in. But it was rough because by the time I’d start in the morning, it would be in the afternoon there. There would be some times I would have to be up at 4:00 AM for a meeting. And thank God they were not anal about having the camera on with anything. So I could just be halfway in bed on Zoom, like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” For the current job, it’s not that bad because we’re split. Where my time zone is, eastern time zone is sort of split between where the company is. So we’re between San Francisco and Paris.

Maurice Cherry:
So in the morning I work with the Europeans. My boss is in London. And then in the afternoon I’m working with more of the creative team that’s here in the US that are in California. So my day is split in that way. We do a lot, a lot of async communication just to pass the baton back and forth. But it can be brutal sometimes. Sometimes I am working a 12-hour day from 5:00 to 5:00. Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes it happens, and it’s a lot.

Russell Toynes:
That’s our goal. That’s our goal is… My wife and I, I have a 20-year-old daughter, and so she’s very much into living her own life. That’s something I’ve been trying to adjust to. But we have aspirations to basically be digital nomads. And really set up our team to where we can… We have aspirations to make either a home or a temporary home in Portugal.

Russell Toynes:
And so, it’s the idea of, how do we do this? What would it look like? What time would we get up? What time would we be on? What time would we be off? And really just thinking about that. And we haven’t really put it to the test. The pandemic hasn’t really given us the comfort that we want to travel. Hawaii, like I mentioned, they had a really good COVID response.

Russell Toynes:
So, you have to have your vaccination, you have to have a 72-hour negative COVID test. You got to have everything right and tight or they won’t even let you on the island. And so we felt comfortable with… That was a trip we’ve been planning since 2019 for my daughter’s graduation. So, we did go to Florida during Delta. And so, we’re big Disney fans for the service and the attention to detail. And so we go to Disney World as much as possible. And we went in 2020… Or 2021, August. And that was not a vacation.

Russell Toynes:
That was like going to a neighborhood you know you don’t want to be in. It was like that. It was just, head was on a swivel. Everybody, I mean, Disney did a good job, but people do what people do. And so, people weren’t wearing their masks right. People were just being too close and all that. But it was really dead there. The crowds were nothing like they would normally be.

Russell Toynes:
So, we made the best of the trip, but now we’re trying to get back to the swing of things. And we want to travel more and see what it’s like to work in foreign places and make that adjustment. So I envy you. I might have to call you up and get some tips on how to adjust with jet lag.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I do a lot of… It’s a lot of async communication. It’s a lot of scheduled emails. It’s a lot of, at least for me, and I don’t know if this is probably just like a general tactic, but I do a lot of managing up. So, I have a manager, but then I also manage someone. So for my manager, I give regular, regular updates like, “I just did this. This is what I’m working on now.” Because we may only get… Our schedules only overlap for 30 minutes a day. So we don’t have a ton of time to really get together and talk.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’m always letting him know, “This is what I have to do. This is what I’m working on. This is where I have a blocker or something like that.” And so then he can work on those things when I’m not at work. And it’s kind of passing the baton. I would say also the benefit is that he and I have worked together at two other companies now, so we know how to work together well, as opposed to having to figure that out with someone new.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s exactly. That’s what you were asking, how did we make this adjustment? Our team consists of, like I said, five additional to me and my wife. And so, three of those five… So the two new ones are the newest. But three of those five have been with us for years. One of them was a previous student of mine, he’s been with us the longest. He’s been with us for five years now.

Russell Toynes:
And when you work with somebody that close, there’s a trust there, but also there’s just this ability to understand what needs to be done and there’s not a lot of conversation necessary. And so, that’s why it’s always hard for us when someone decides they want to leave and go to something else is just that, the onboarding time’s a headache. But there’s a lot of just energy and gaining of trust and all that that has to be built with somebody brand new that you can’t do in your typical onboarding window of 60 to 90 days or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And with this particular thing, and hopefully I’m not telling too of much my business by saying this, but he and I, we started working together in 2017 at one startup. And then he left, and then a couple, I think maybe a couple months later they eliminated our entire department at the first place we worked at.

Maurice Cherry:
But then he got a job at another startup and was like, “Do you want to work here?” And I didn’t have a job, so I was like, “Sure, let’s do it.” And then he left there to another startup, which is where he’s at now, and then was like, “Yeah, I need help and I want do these things. Do you want a job?” I’m like, “Sure.” So for him, I mean, it’s just like, “Come on with me and make these things happen.” But also has increased my salary tremendously.

Russell Toynes:
There you go. There you go.

Maurice Cherry:
So for that I am very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
It makes dollars and sense, huh?

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. Yeah. So just to switch gears a little bit, we talked a lot about Studio Dzo. But let’s focus on you, because you’re the subject, of course, of this interview. Tell me a bit about where you grew up.

Russell Toynes:
So I grew up in Austin, Texas. I’m one of the few Austin Knights that are OOG. Not these people that came in from outside or from California. So I’ve seen Austin change tremendously over the last 38 years.

Russell Toynes:
I was born in Houston and we moved here as a kid. I remember the ride here. But yeah, I’ve grown up in Austin, and South Austin in particular, and still live in South Austin. And I have a love/hate with the city, because this is my city. And I say that because I’ve spent a long time more recently just trying to retrace my roots, and you know that can be challenging for us. And so, realizing my entire family is from Austin.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
My dad was born here in Austin. My great, great, great-

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, I was born here in Austin. My great, great, great grandfather was born in Austin and crazy thing was, just recently, a random phone call came to the studio, right? This woman’s like, “I’m cleaning up my property and there’s a headstone with Toynes on it, on my property.” And she was like, “I don’t think anybody’s buried here but there’s headstones here.” And it’s my great grandfather’s headstone. And so, he has a headstone in Evergreen Cemetery so I’m like, “What is this about?”

Russell Toynes:
And so, but we’ve always joked because the headstone in Evergreen cemetery’s incorrect, it makes him 150-years-old when he was dead. So whoever made that one, the numbers are wrong. But this one had the correct numbers with the wrong spelling of his first name. And so it was just all … I don’t know the story behind this but just to reiterate, my family has been here and everything about my family is Austin and East Austin, in particular. And so it’s hard for me to see East Austin different.

Russell Toynes:
It’s hard for me to see it where I don’t know what our black population is but it was 8%, I think, at its highest and it’s three maybe now. I don’t know, but it’s not what it used to be and the communities now are so transient. It’s starting to feel a little bit like New York where you just don’t know who’s going to be here for how long. So it’s been sad for me to accept what’s happening to Austin. And I think it’s also been hard for me to accept that maybe this isn’t my forever place. Even though my family has been here forever, this may not be my forever place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s something a lot of people are realizing particularly over the past two years. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of gentrification, inflation, everything is more expensive. Atlanta is very much a transient city like that, as well. I’m originally from Alabama but I’ve been in Atlanta now for 23 years. I think I came in ’99. So I’ve been here for about 23 years now and even seeing how much Atlanta has changed when I came as a teenager to now being a full grown-ass man and seeing how things have changed, even just different parts of the city.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when I first got here, I’d say maybe I was a junior in college. My first apartment was like$600 a month in Buckhead. That’s impossible now. And then I stayed in another place in Buckhead, it was a two bedroom. One room was my office, one was my bedroom and it was right off of Peachtree Street in Buckhead proper for like $750 a month or something like that. Now those are like $2.5 million condos. It’s wild seeing how the city has changed over the years. So I totally get what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. It’s a hard pill to swallow and then also to see who gets pushed out and who comes in, right? And it’s not like everybody’s just winning, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
So it’s hard. It’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially here because Atlanta, of course, has a reputation of being a city that’s really … There’s a lot of prosperous black people here. A lot of affluent black people here, which is true. I totally don’t think I would’ve been able to accomplish what I was able to accomplish entrepreneurship wise in any other city but Atlanta because I had a lot of support from the black community here. But yeah, rents are getting more and more expensive. Everything is just more expensive. It’s tough to move here now and start out fresh than you could maybe even like 10 years ago because everything is just changing.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. I love Atlanta. Me and my wife, we have friends and … We don’t have any family but we would like to think of them as family. But we have a lot of people that we know in Atlanta and we love going there and it’s just a huge, huge city. People think Austin, they think, “Oh it’s such a cool city.” It’s a small … When you talk about footprint wise, the city is small. And Atlanta, you got like seven lane highways and I don’t even know why you have a speed limit. Let’s be honest, right?

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

Russell Toynes:
Everybody, even the police, man, they’re out there 80 on the highway and it says 65, 55. You’re like, you can’t even legally go this limit. Yeah, and I love what y’all have done unlike Austin, right? What y’all have done with Ponce City Market, how you took an old building and instead of tearing it down like they would do in Austin, you utilized it and I know they’re not at all affordable in any way. But they used to utilize it for housing in a development instead of just tearing it down and creating something brand new, which is Austin’s mode of operations here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, we have a couple of places like that in Atlanta. There’s Krog Street Market. There’s a couple other places probably further outside the perimeter but Atlanta is good for tearing shit down, too, and just starting anew. I tell people, because I used to work in the tourism industry here and I tell people Atlanta’s a city that every seven years tries to find a new identity. It tries to find like what’s the new thing that we can latch on to and really make our thing. Because I was working in the tourism industry from 2005 to 2007.

Maurice Cherry:
And so during that time Hurricane Katrina happened. But when I first started in 2005, Atlanta was really trying to distinguish itself from say, Orlando or Vegas or New York because people like to come to Atlanta. But the reasons that they like to come to Atlanta were not … How can I put this? Family friendly reasons for wanting to come. Like, they’ll go to Orlando because of Disney World, they’ll go to New York City because of the culture. But there was no distinguishing thing that people would come to Atlanta for. At least not ones that you would put on a tourism pamphlet.

Russell Toynes:
Other than the World of Coke and the aquarium.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, we didn’t even have the aquarium then. This was pre the aquarium, yeah. I was at the groundbreaking for the aquarium. But this was even before then, all we had was World of Coke. We had the zoo and Turner Fields. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of places, really. People came to Atlanta back then because, one, it carried over this reputation of being a party city from the 90s but you’ve got hip-hop, you’ve got all kinds of entertainment. You’ve got clubs. That’s why people came to Atlanta to have fun, to have a good time. But none of those things … They’re not going to put strippers on a pamphlet and have that at the airport. Is that a reason people would come? Sure. But that’s not one that the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau would get behind because they’re trying to get-

Russell Toynes:
If Vegas can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well. But see, they’re trying to get multi-million dollar shows to come here. And we had a huge show pull out in 2005 called, Home Builders. Something happened with like, somebody said the wrong thing to somebody and this million dollar show pulled out of Atlanta. And then there was another big show, T.D. Jakes, the evangelist, the preacher. Yeah. He used to do this big thing called, MegaFest and he would bring it to Atlanta. And it was basically like a two week, I don’t know, MegaFest. I mean it had carnival rides, it had speakers and panels and all this sort of stuff and they pulled out, as well. And so Atlanta was like, “Well, we don’t have any reason for people to come here.” Because the other thing was these conventions would all be downtown and downtown is a ghost town after five o’clock.

Russell Toynes:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
People commute downtown and then they leave and the only thing that’s really downtown at night are homeless folks. And so because of that, conventions didn’t feel like they wanted to have people down there because they were getting accosted by people on the street and they didn’t feel it was safe and everything. And so, one of the things that happened was the aquarium opened but then Hurricane Katrina happened and a lot of conventions had to relocate to Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
And so we had a big boom there for a while but then that died out as New Orleans tried to rebuild and conventions went back there. So then the Georgia Tourism Department basically worked with the state to get all these tax benefits for movies and television shows and studios and stuff to shoot here. So now that’s the big thing that Atlanta is for. Atlanta is like quote, unquote, “Black Hollywood.”

Russell Toynes:
I love it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Because you have so many movies and shows and things that are here that people come and shoot for. I mean it’s rare now, well it used to be rare back then, but now it’s super common to watch a movie and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s in Atlanta.” Like I’ll watch Black Panther, that scene at the museum. I used to work at that museum selling tickets.

Russell Toynes:
That’s awesome. That’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I’d look at stuff and be like, “Okay, that’s …” But even now that’s starting to die off because politics, now politicians here have certain views and then that goes against what the companies are here that are giving them … It’s a whole … Atlanta’s complicated, man. Really it’s Georgia, but Atlanta itself is a complicated blue dot in a very red state.

Russell Toynes:
That is, yeah, that is a whole message right there. Exactly. I mean, we’ve even talked about moving to Atlanta and they were like, “But it’s in Georgia,” you know? And I’m in Texas, so I can’t really say anything because both states are sitting in the same spot. But just like Atlanta, Austin is that blueberry in the tomato soup.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
But unfortunately, like you said, the politics of both states have gotten a bad reputation.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, if you’re in Atlanta, it’s so funny. I remember this from, oh, I know what the show is. It was, Sex and the City. And there’s this episode of, Sex and the City, where Carrie and Miranda are double dating these guys. And one of the guys says something about how he’s never left New York and Miranda’s like, “Oh, he’s a weirdo if he’s never left New York.” There’s people here that have moved to Atlanta and have never left Atlanta. They’ve stayed right in the perimeter or right in inside the metropolitan area because anything outside of here is deliverance. It’s a totally different thing, if you go an hour in any direction from the center of Atlanta, like good luck.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, it is strange also. But the thing is y’all can travel for three or four hours, maybe not safely, but you can travel for three or four hours and be in a whole other state. With us, it takes eight hours to get to El Paso.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That’s true.

Russell Toynes:
It’s like, you want to get to the coast, that’s a three hour trip. You want to get to Dallas, that’s a three and a half hour trip with no traffic. And so, Houston, same thing, three hours. And so everything just takes a long time and you’re still in the damn state.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So being from Austin and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of design and everything growing up?

Russell Toynes:
Short answer, no. For me, designer was exclusive to jeans and fragrance. I didn’t know, no one ever told me. I think this just happens to being an 80’s kid. Having someone sit down and point to you in the library like, you see that crappy poster, somebody designed that. You see this book, someone designed it. No one ever did that, right? So you really only knew the jobs that you saw people do, you know? So my dad worked in restaurants and then basically did sales for Circuit City. That’s dating, right?

Russell Toynes:
My mom’s always been in insurance and then pretty much every single person I knew either worked for the post office or for some insurance company or had military history or just worked some random office job. So no one ever sat down with me, ever and said, you could be this. I was talking to my wife and I was like, “The first time I ever met somebody at a career fair or something,” and then that person was like, “This is what I do.” And then I said, “I want to do that.” The very first time that happened, I think I was in fourth grade and it was a lobbyist and I was like, “I want to do what they do.”

Russell Toynes:
I have no idea what was compelling about being a lobbyist. But I think it was the idea of convincing people, right? And so, no. No one ever told me. So design wasn’t ever presented to me. And it wasn’t until I realized when I went to school, that design is problem solving. And that’s all I have ever done as a kid, is I was that kid that woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a problem, right? With a problem that I manifested in my dreams and I had to find a solution. So I was constantly taking things apart, re-imagining things, putting things together, just making up shit for myself to do and I was always solving problems.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve always been a natural leader, too. I just managed to convince people to follow me in some direction. And thankfully I never started a cult but it probably wouldn’t been too hard for me. But I always had the knack of being a loner but having no problem getting followers, but never wanted to be a follower. So I was that kid that was cool with everybody, but really was kind of a loner in a way. Everyone knew me. I had lots of friends but I only let certain people in.

Russell Toynes:
So as a natural problem solver, I just found myself into lots of things, but no one ever gave me the design word to call it. And it wasn’t until my older brother graduated from school from ACC also with a design degree and a degree in politics, that I even understood that designers had software and they did things and it just wasn’t like … I don’t know, it wasn’t a word or it wasn’t painter, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you went to Austin Community College and you studied design and visual communications. How was that experience?

Russell Toynes:
Like a lot of black designers, I had a very unconventional journey into design. So as I mentioned, I didn’t know what design was. So my original entrepreneur efforts started when I was catching shoplifters for four years. And then my daughter was born and she needed round-the-clock care at home. So me and my wife had to decide who’s going to stay at home and take care of her and who’s going to go to work. And she had the better benefits so it was like, “Okay, I’ll stay at home and take care of her.”

Russell Toynes:
Well, money still needs to be had and so I always had aspirations to be a film director. So I started writing little films and things like that, but that doesn’t pay but I had the knowledge and understanding to cut video. And so I started out just cutting people’s home videos, taking people’s crappy home videos and removing all this stuff where mom left it on the table recording nothing and all that and just started doing that. And that led down to a very strange path to me working with lots of people, one being Vanilla Ice and-

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, random. So yeah, I did a really, really crappy music video for a friend. I did it for $6, too. That’s just how you helped your friends for back then. And so, and then a promoter for Vanilla Ice saw it … I’m embarrassed to say that. But saw it and then they called me up and they’re like, “We have a whole bunch of raw footage from a concert in ’99 or 2000.” They’re like, “Can you cut it and put it to DVD?” And I was like, “Yeah.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
And so that got things started. So that got me out of doing the home videos. And then that’s when people were like, “Oh, can you do a music video for me? Can you do that?” And I ended up working on a big project for Text Dots, a training video for them. And I saw the future of me being in this film video game but I had no education. I had no knowledge, I didn’t know anything about anything. I was just doing whatever, how it worked and it worked okay.

Russell Toynes:
But then in 2006, I guess it was 2005, I was working with a rapper and they were less than honest with the people who were giving them money. And then basically, I always tried to operate with contracts. And basically he was trying to get out of the contract and made it quite dramatic. I’ll spare you the details. But let’s just say that, I had to act less than professional because he was acting less than professional, you know [crosstalk 00:39:51]-

Maurice Cherry:
Got it, got it. No, no, I know what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
… when you get grown. And so, I was just like, “I’m done with this shit. I’m done with this shit” And I just woke up January 1st, 2006 and I was like, “I’m a designer. That’s it, that’s it.” I just put that shit out in the universe, right? And so, my older brother gave me a bootleg copy of CS2 and I just started working in Illustrator. I had already been designing DVD covers and things like that for the stuff that I had been doing, but I didn’t know anything about it. And so, but what was crazy was like I said, I have never had a problem getting people to follow me.

Russell Toynes:
I just told the world I was a designer and the world just said, “Okay,” and the world just like, “so can you do this for me? Can you do this for me?” And so I had a nice little nest of construction people and concrete people who were just like, they didn’t know anything about anything but they could just pay me and they’d get their carbonless forms and business cards and mailers and their trucks with vinyl on it and things like that.

Russell Toynes:
And I was doing the worst design on the planet and it was awful, but it was paying barely any of the bills I had. And I was just making it each day. But I thought I was balling, too, I got myself a little … This tells you the time, too. I got myself a little one room office on Burnett Road in central Austin for $250 a month. That’s all it cost.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
So I thought I was balling. I was like, I got an office and this and this. I didn’t need no office, I could have worked from home, but this was just my excuse to give myself the tools to feel like I have arrived. And then I started mentoring young people at LBJ and I had gone to LBJ Science Academy at the time. It was called Science Academy at the time. Now it’s called Liberal Arts and Science Academy. But I started mentoring young people there and they were learning Illustrator Photoshop in design all in one semester.

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, these damn kids are going to take my job. I got to get more education. So I went to ACC and I was 27-years-old. I had a five-year-old daughter at the time. I was divorced. And I just saw that I had a lot of passion, I had a lot of drive, but I had no education. And this just winging it was proving not … I wasn’t going to be able to sustain myself if I wanted to make a life for myself at all in design. So I went to school and that was the best damn decision I ever made in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you went to school and you graduated, what was your early career like? You mentioned earlier, you had worked for Dell for quite a number of years.

Russell Toynes:
You know, I still freelanced while I was in school and I very much have always been a person to take advantage of every single opportunity. And I meet somebody and I’m like, if I want to work with them, I’m going to make them work with me. I just have the ability to just manifest a lot of what I want. And so for me, I stayed very involved in design and design community and everything. And I had a great, great portfolio professor who later became a mentor, Owen Hammonds and, yeah, still is a friend of mine. I mean, I call him my mentor. He says, we’re just friends.

Russell Toynes:
But I still see him as a huge, huge influence to me. I attribute almost all of my success to him and it was honored to have him in my wedding. It was an honor to have him in my life and call him a friend. And we’re both very, very busy, but whenever we get on the phone with each other or see each other, it’s just an honor. So, but yeah, he really took me under his wing. He was my portfolio professor at ACC and he just saw this hustler in me and he was like, “This dude’s going to do it.” And he just plugged me in and just stayed on me and never, never bullshitted me, never gassed me up, always pushed me to be better.

Russell Toynes:
And so right out of school … I’m sure you have them in Atlanta. I’m sure you’ve heard of them, like various talent head hunters, right? Like Aquent or Liaison Resources or the Creative Group and all of them. So Aquent had come to one of our classes and talked about, they’d find jobs for creatives and all this stuff like that. So I just graduated, I mean, literally the day we finished class. So I hadn’t even graduated yet, just the class was done. I just was on in the car driving. I just called them up and I was like, “Hey, heard you can get me a job.” And they were like, “Send me your portfolio.”

Russell Toynes:
And then the next day they called me in. They’re like, “Hey, let’s talk.” And they’re like, “We have these jobs.” And so I started interviewing for people and I interviewed at Dell and it took them a little bit of time to see my magic. But after four months, basically interviewing with them two or three times, I interviewed with them for lunches and all this stuff. And I was like, “You like me, I like you. Let’s do this,” right? Like dating. I got put on at Dell and I started out as a designer and worked my way up to senior designer, art director, senior art director.

Russell Toynes:
And really, I tell people I got my degree in Visual Communications at ACC, but I got my Masters in the Business of Design at Dell. I had an amazing creative director, Tommy Lynn, who really, really, really taught me a lot, gave me a lot of autonomy, really trusted me. And I still see him as a friend and a mentor, even now. And we’ve both been gone from Dell for many years, but I learned the business of design. I understood how to handle clients, how to give them the level of service that brings them back. And I know it sounds weird because I’m was on the brand team, so we only answered to the brand.

Russell Toynes:
We developed the brand, we evolved the brand, but we had internal clients who used our team to create resources that promoted Dell’s brand. So it would be a corporate responsibility team. It really wasn’t marketing, we didn’t do anything about selling product. It was about selling the brand as a whole. And so having both Owen Hammonds, having the education, helped me land Dell but Dell helped me really take this entrepreneurial energy that I’ve always possessed and really, really hone it into-

Russell Toynes:
… kind of possessed and really, really hone it into where my next step was, was, and I didn’t really realize that I wanted to go back to being an entrepreneur, but they set me up tremendously and gave me a fat paycheck to learn over the course of five and a half years. So I’m not going to complain about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there you go. I mean, when you had your time there working at Dell and learning about the business of design, was that the impetus for you to start your own studio?

Russell Toynes:
No, honestly, no. I saw myself like everybody else. You go from one place, you do three to five years, then you go to another place. And honestly, I didn’t see myself going back into entrepreneurship, because I had never had a nine to five salary with benefits and all that. I had basically worked an hourly job until my daughter was born, and then basically just like hustled in the worst way possible to make crumbs doing video and design and whatnot. So when somebody was like, “Here, here’s a paycheck and here’s some benefits and here’s a lifestyle you’ve never had.” I just figured this is it. I’ve just landed the jackpot. But then over five and a half years, you start to realize there is a ceiling, and it depends on who your manager is. It depends on who your executive is, and you start realizing, people start leaving and you start wondering, am I the last ship… Sorry, am I the last rat on a sinking ship?

Russell Toynes:
And so all my team that I had been with over the five and a half years, only one other person was with me. And so we had watched like 20 people over the course of the time come in and out that it was just like, okay, the writing’s in the wall, you either going to be a lifer here or you got to find something else. It was really my wife who said… She’s always been my greatest supporter, and I had talked about owning a business and her father had sold his business and was kind of always envious of design and wanted to do something with me. And so I said, “Look, we’ll do something, but we’ll do it on my terms.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And so after basically I tried to bluff my executive at Dell to give me more money and to give me a promotion, basically I tried to bluff and be like, “Well, I’m going to have to go find something else.” And they were like, “Look…”

Russell Toynes:
So I was like, “Look, I just can’t blow smoke. I got to do this.” And so I left on September 7th. And I thought I was going to take the whole month of September off. And like two weeks later, started the laying the ground work for Studio Dzo. With my father-in-law and mine to be my partner, long story short, we realized quickly we cannot work together. My wife realized that before we realized that.

Russell Toynes:
And my wife was like, “Look, if… Because we were about to get married, she’s like, “If we’re going to get married. We can’t have this. I got to have a relationship with my father. I got to have a relationship with my husband. Y’all can’t be at each other’s throat.” We had very different mindsets of what this business was going to be. So we had a negotiation with him, had a conversation and we said, “It’s time for you to retire. Go and do your own thing.” And, and he’s a restless person anyway. So he had a software business. He’s now able to dedicate himself to that. And so he was with us for about the first seven months of Studio Dzo.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, I guess you didn’t want it to be that much of a family business.

Russell Toynes:
He really wanted that. He only has girls. So he really wanted this family business with the son-in-law and all this stuff like that. And I think he had this idea, but in his head that he really wanted. But yeah, now it’s just me and my wife and it’s good. We have the same interests, both financially and the goal of the business. So we are in sync where if you have different people who have different lifestyles and different households, it gets complicated. It’s like, well, if you’re eating steak, I need to eat steak. Where it’s like now we got to afford two steaks, versus me and my wife having a steak kind of thing. And so, yeah, it’s really complicate when you have different households and the family business is obviously complicated, but me and my wife very much, we have professional backgrounds so we always operate very professionally, at least on camera.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those kind of early days like with the Studio?

Russell Toynes:
Oh man. So really it was… Like I said, I got the business of design from Dell, so I knew what I wanted, but it was scary. I’m not going to lie. But I knew that I had set myself up financially thanks to Dell that if I failed, I was going to fail quickly and I was just going to go and work some at some other place. So I knew what I wanted. And so thankfully I was aware that couldn’t do it all. So I had hired a friend of mine to help me develop the brand. I had hired a student of mine to just basically be like the hands of things. I had really just put people in the right places so that way I can focus on the development of the business. Thankfully, my wife had already been doing books for her father’s business and she’s an accountant, that’s her education in accounting.

Russell Toynes:
And so she does all things like money side. So she’s thankfully was able to do all of that. So all I had to do was basically sell and do the work and that’s kind of what I’m really, really good at. And so it was scary at first, but we also were a smaller team. I guess we were five at the time, but I just didn’t know what it was going to be. But honestly like people have just trusted us and I hate to kind of keep hitting it over the head with it, but I’ve never had a problem with getting people to follow us. So being able to sit down with somebody and tell them what we do and why we do it and why they should choose us wasn’t difficult.

Russell Toynes:
What was difficult was disrupting design business, design industry. So we’re designers who design signage, wayfinding, and physical experiences. But the problem with the sign industry is they’re like the bastard child of construction. So what typically happens is a developer gives their general contractor a budget for signage. And so the general contractor is just trying to find somebody to stick something’s up on the walls so that way they can get their certificate of occupancy. And so no one is ever talking about brand. No one’s ever talking about experience. No one’s talking about that. These sign shops, some of them, not all of them, are just trying to basically put a piece of acrylic with ADA beads on and in whatever default typeface they can in the cheapest way possible. It’s like a race to the bottom. It’s like everyone’s trying to be the Walmart of signs.

Russell Toynes:
And so I knew that I did not want to do that. And after listening to my father-in-law, who owned a sign company for like 20 years and he owned Sign Tech International, which at a time was like one of the biggest manufacturers in Texas. He was like, “No, no people, that’s not how it works. We design it. We sell it. We mark up the price and that’s how we get paid.” And I was like, “So what happens when you design it and then they go and take it to somebody else and they get a lower bid?” And he’s like, “Well, that just happens.” And I was like, “No, it doesn’t. Not here. It’s not going to happen here.” I was like, “We’re designers. We get paid to solve problems. We need to be paid or we’re not going to do this.” And he is like, “You’re not going to get people to pay for design before they see it.”

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, “Well, then we’re going to be out of business real quick.” That was the weird thing is going into people who are used to basically, “Well, show me something. And if I like it, I’ll buy it.” We’re going to walk through this together. We’re going to talk about your problems. We’re going to talk about opportunities. You’re going to pay me up front and then I’m going to show you what that is going to look like. And that’s like I said, me and my father-in-law butted heads quite a bit. It was over that, because he was like, “Oh, I’ve been working with this person for years. We don’t need to charge him for design.” I was like, “No, you’re setting a precedent with everybody if you do that.” So we would butt heads and that’s when he was like, “Maybe this isn’t good for us to be in business together.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s when I was like, “Let’s do it my way.” My wife was already on board and we now have, that’s all we do. That’s what we do. And people know us for that is that we solve our problems with design first. And then if you like what we design, and we’re all done with the design process, we’re going to give you a quote for fabrication, installation. But because you paid for that design process, you can take those files and share them with anybody else. You’ve already paid me for my work. This is now in your hands. So if you want to go out there and get a quote from somebody else, you can. No sweat off my back. I just keep it moving and go on to the next project. But if they do go with us, then we’ll fabricate and we have partners all around the world we fabricate with. And then we have partners both locally and all around to install.

Russell Toynes:
And 90% still go with us. I would say more than that. 95% stay with us to do the fabrication, installation process because we don’t cut corners. And so they know that if we spec this particular material, we spec this particular lighting temperature, whatever, that’s what’s going to be. It’s not going to get in the hands of somebody else that then chops it up to make more profit. And then gives them a subpar product. We don’t do that. And so we have no problem getting people to commit through the whole entire process, but we put those breaks, because some people have to get multiple bids. Some people think that they’re not getting the best deal. And we tell people, we will never be the cheapest, but we’re the best, is what I say.

Russell Toynes:
We do good work. That’s our motto. We do good work for good people with good people. And so first and foremost is that, like I said, I don’t work for anybody. I work with people. We call all of our clients partners because I pick and choose who I want to work with. If they’re not a good person, we don’t work with them. And there’s been times where I’ve had to dig in on somebody just for a second, like they call us up and want to work with us. I Google everybody, and if I find anything that doesn’t agree with our values, I just say, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good fit.”

Russell Toynes:
Because we believe that everyone should be treated equitably, fairly, and that this world is unfair and we’re not going to contribute to that in any way possible. We want to support all those, especially those who are not supported. We want to support the weirdos, the people who are aren’t typically accepted. And we want to support obviously our black community, our underrepresented community. And so we do a lot to make sure that our good work extends beyond what actually earns us money, but also we do a lot of work with nonprofits and we donate a lot of hours and times to people in organizations.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say one of the best things about having your own business is running it exactly how you want it. Like if it’s a bad client experience, you don’t have to work with them. You can fire the client. Or if you have a certain intake process where you know exactly the kind of people you want to work with, that’s the best part. That was the best part back when I had my studio of really picking and choosing the clients that you want to have, knowing that just because any work comes across your desk, you don’t have to take it if it doesn’t feel good.

Russell Toynes:
That’s the freedom. And that’s what I tell people is that I left Dell to have that freedom. And a lot of people think freelance comes with freedom. I say, there’s nothing free about freelancing at all. You have to decide, do I want this money or do I not want this money? And for us we’re not dollar driven. As long as we’re able to pay all of our team members and pay ourselves a salary that we have dedicated, that’s it. Anything extra’s great, and we really typically roll it into the business one way or the other, but I don’t want to have to say yes to every project and know that it’s bad work, but it’s paying the bills.

Russell Toynes:
And so I’m a firm believer that just like free work leads to more free work, same thing with bad work. Crap work leads to more crap work. And so if it’s not a right fit for us, the project’s not a right fit. If the timeline… That’s the biggest thing is some people just don’t understand the process and the timeline. And if they don’t want to adhere to our process and respect our process, that’s a big red flag. So exactly, being able to pick and choose who you work with is really the reward for owning the business. The rest of it’s still work. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s work. It’s not called fun.

Maurice Cherry:
But the best thing you can do though, because you know it’s still work is at least shape your own ideal work conditions.

Russell Toynes:
Exactly, exactly. And that’s the thing too like I said about what I learned about Dell is, I had a great creative director who taught us the work life balance. And I will say that Dell actually has a really good work life balance throughout the entire company. So never did I feel like I had to be… I was on the edge of burnout or anything like that. When it was weekends, no one called you. When it was holidays, no one called you. You didn’t get woken up in the middle of the night having to do this or that. So there was a really good work life balance. So I knew I did not want to take that away from myself. And I didn’t want to create an environment where my team felt that way. We offer 27 plus paid holidays to all of our team members. Doesn’t matter if they’re part-time or not. We just went through the holidays today or yesterday, they get two weeks off at the end of the year. I’m like, “I’m paying them for two weeks?”

Russell Toynes:
But we want them, and that’s on top of their PTO too. They get two weeks PTO on top of the 27 holidays and for us, and then they still have the get it done model. So if they want to travel somewhere and work three days and then be off for two days, then they only use two days PTO. And so for us, we really just want them to have a reason to be with us. And that do good work motto is really what it’s all about is that we want them to do good work, but we have to do good work by them. And we have to treat them fairly. We have to give them a reasonable salary. I can’t compete with the Googles and the Apples and these people who are throwing stupid money at all these people.

Russell Toynes:
I can’t compete with that. We’re a small business. But what I can say is I can give you a work life balance that’s fair, treat you like a human being. You’re going to speak with another human being who’s also a father, who’s also a husband, who’s also an educator, who’s going to understand what you’re going through, and we’re going to make a compromise. If you got to take some days off, let’s figure out what it’s going to work. If something’s got to be moved around, let’s figure out how to make it work, so that way you can be efficient and we can be efficient.

Maurice Cherry:
With Studio Dzo, I mean, of course, clearly you’re doing a ton of great work, but you also do a lot of community work as well. And one organization that you work with is one that our listeners, I’m sure, know about. They’re probably members of it. And that’s AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. Tell me about that. How’d you get involved with them?

Russell Toynes:
So it’s funny. So [Owen Hammonds 01:00:55] had kind of twisted my arm. So I’m a designer, I’m not an artist. And I make that very, very clear. I don’t express myself through art or at least through design. I don’t. I doodle, I do some things to be creative, but I’m not an artist. But Owen kind of put me up to this challenge. They were doing a gallery thing at [St. Ed’s 01:01:16], and he kind of said, “Hey Russ, I want you to participate.” And like I said, he’s a mentor of mine, so anything he asked me to do, I’m going to say yes. So he was like, “This is a self-portrait gallery and you have to basically draw or create an image of yourself.” And it was like the worst project ever for me to have to do.

Russell Toynes:
So in there, we’re presenting our work at the end and it’s a gallery opening and everything. And [Terrance Moline 01:01:42] was also part of that gallery. And so I hear him talking and he’s from New Orleans and he tells a little bit about his story and all that. I, like I said, I’m kind of a person who just says, I’m going to make this happen. I immediately looked at him and I was like, We’re going to be friends.” I’m going to make this man my friend. And so I introduced myself and he told me a little bit about AAGD, I think we followed each other on LinkedIn or on Facebook or something like that. And then we just kind of bumped into each other a little bit off and on. And I was really, really interested. And I think I pinged him a couple times about it and asked him about it.

Russell Toynes:
He had had the Facebook group for a couple years. I think 2006 is when he started it, maybe. Katrina forced him to move to Austin. So he had had it for a while, but it was just like a social thing. It was just a community based thing that was more about sharing the work. But he had visions of it being kind of a business model, but didn’t really know where it was going to go. So I guess probably 2019, he really started doubling down on it being a business model and creating more benefits for its members in exchange for a membership fee. And so pandemic hit early 2020, and I don’t know how we kicked off, but we just like, we hit the ground running. He was just like, “Hey, you’ve been really involved in AAGD like with me, I’d love for you to look over some of this stuff and just tell me what would you do?”

Russell Toynes:
And I had been involved in AIGA, quite a bit. I was the vice president. Owen Hammonds being the president at the time, too, when I was vice president. I had kind of understood like basically AAGD is kind of like a black AIGA. So I understood what was working for AIGA, also what wasn’t working for AIGA, and what I saw could be an opportunity for AAGD. So we just kind of like together just worked on how do we build this out to be a membership model. So another core member is [Dave McClinton 01:03:40]. And me and Dave met at that gallery too. And I looked at Dave and I was like, “We’re going to be friends,” too. So Dave got really involved. So it was just one of those things, like these two gentlemen that I met one night, and I said, “I want to be friends with them,” fast forward a couple years here we are we meet every Tuesday. We joke around. We hang out, and it’s just it’s an absolute honor to call these very, very talented, passionate creatives friends of mine.

Russell Toynes:
But then meeting all the people through AAGD, that I’ve met, it’s just amazing. It started up with just the need to create community for himself because transplant from New Orleans to Austin, not finding the black community that he had New Orleans wanting to find those, he needed to find it online. Now to this international organization that the one thing that we have in common is that we’re all black in some varying degree and that we are all creatives. And the creativity spans from film, digital UX UI, all across the board. And just as a design educator and as a person with my experience, I am constantly sharing my knowledge about both the business of design and then also helping them empower them with the confidence to charge more or to get contracts or to understand this idea of freelancing sounds great, but you have to set goals or you’re just going to work yourself to death.

Russell Toynes:
You got to set a salary. You got to tell yourself this is how much money I want to make. And then divide that up by 12 and then divide that up by a day and figure out how much money you got to make every single day to make that salary. So a lot of people don’t understand that right off the bat when they’re like, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” And then unfortunately too, a lot of black creatives don’t see themselves in the work space. And so they think entrepreneurship is the only path for them, because they’ve never seen anybody like them at a major creative agency. And so, a lot of them have no understanding of the business of design, because they’ve never worked at a agency, they’ve only done it freelance, they’ve only done it their own way.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to meet them where they’re at and share with them both my experience from Dell, but so my experience as a owner of Studio Dzo, and just try to tell them, if you are finding these challenges, these are some of the solutions. So AAGD has been a great endeavor of Terrance’s and I’m just honored to be trusted with some of it.

Maurice Cherry:
And so kind of bring it back to education, we sort of alluded to this before we started of recording the interview, but you’ve talked about being a design educator. You also now teach at where you learned design, which was at Austin Community College, that you’ve kind of had this full circle moment. Talk to me about that.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. So really, again, I’m no stranger to anything. My whole life has just been like this one long story of, surely you’re going to be a designer, but I have always taught in some capacity. So while I was freelancing back in like 2005, I needed additional income because freelancing wasn’t doing it. And so I started working with an organization called No Kidding, Straight Talk from Teen Parents, which was funded by the Attorney General’s Office, which was a nonprofit organization that basically utilized the stories of teen parents to use a teaching tool for middle school and high school students. And so I technically didn’t fall under the category of teen parent. I was 20 years old when my daughter was born, but we had a very unique story. My daughter needed lots of medical care. And so my story was unique in the sense of as much as you thought you had everything planned, plan for the unexpected.

Russell Toynes:
And so I go to middle schools and high schools and give presentations and talk and that ended up putting me on national stage at the National Child Support Conference. So I’ve always had presentation and teaching opportunities. And then while I was in school to supplement my income, I used to teach defensive driving. So I tell people, if you can take a room people and for six hours and make them enjoy it, you could do anything. Because they don’t even want to be there. They bought tickets to a show they don’t even want to be at. But everything I do, I do 113%. That’s my motto. And so no matter teaching defensive driving or talking to young people, I just pour my heart into it, because I’m just kind of one of those people that just, I can’t half-ass anything.

Russell Toynes:
And so it was just only natural for me to see myself as a design educator, but really what it was, and I attribute this 100%, was Owen Hammonds. To see another black man teach and to be passionate and understanding at the same time, but also pull no punches and really give it to you straight and push people to be the best designer they can be. He gave me that vision of like, “I could do this.” And so I made it my goal after starting at Dell, I said, “In five years, I want to teach,” like that’s my next rung. And it only took me three years later after saying that, that I started teaching. So I started teaching in 2015, I think, 2015. I’m like, man, we’re going up on seven years now. I can’t bel-

Russell Toynes:
Man, we’re coming up on seven years now, and just I can’t believe it’s, yeah, 2015, I started teaching, and I started teaching Portfolio. I have been teaching Portfolio for seven years.

Russell Toynes:
I started a new course because I was finding that my students had no knowledge, including myself. When I left school, when I graduated, I started at Dell, I never knew what a project manager did. I thought they were just like the pretty people who sold our designs. I didn’t know what they did.

Russell Toynes:
Then when you get an amazing project manager who has your back and is that buffer between you and the client and really helps elevate your design and keeps you on track, but keeps them focused and not, “Oh, I want to see this. I want to see that.” When you have a really good project manager, it just changes your life as a designer. So at Dell, I had the whole kit and caboodle. I had great project managers, and I had terrible project managers at various times.

Russell Toynes:
So I was finding that my students were getting into Portfolio, which is a capstone class. They graduate after my class with no knowledge that there were other roles other than designer and creative director. For some reason, they all know creative director, but they didn’t know like associate creative director, senior art director, art director, senior designer, junior designer, production designer. They didn’t know anything about those. Those roles didn’t even pop up in their heads.

Russell Toynes:
So I had basically harassed my department chair that I’m, like, these students have no idea the various areas of design that they could find themselves in, and a lot of the project managers, the best project managers I ever worked with, all had degrees in design. They just didn’t have either the passion or the skills to hack it, but they understood design, which makes a really great project manager.

Russell Toynes:
So along with Rachel Wyatt, colleague of mine, we wrote this course called Studio, Design Studio. Basically, it’s a simulation course where students come in, and they play the role of a project manager, or an art director, or senior designer or creative director, or something like that. They change roles throughout the course, but it gives them a real-life experience. Then they have three projects over the course of that semester, and all those clients are real clients so they have to deal with somebody not liking their work. It’s not about the grade. It’s about did you solve the problem? Did you meet your client’s expectations?

Russell Toynes:
I remember the first time I taught that class was 2020. We wrote this course during the pandemic, and we delivered it in the fall of 2020. I had two teams. I have eight students, and I had two teams of four. One had their presentation buckled up, and it was right and tight, and they knocked their socks off. Then the other team, they just couldn’t get their shit together. They presented, and it was just falling apart and everything, and it was all over.

Russell Toynes:
I meet with them, the teams, and I was like, “How are you feeling?” And they’re like, “Shit, this is an awful feeling.” I was like, “Remember that.” I was like, “Get your shit together, get it right and tight. When you’re presenting in front of a client, this is the opportunity for you to sell your design. This is everything. You’re building trust and all that.”

Russell Toynes:
So this course is really doing what it’s designed to do is to give them that experience. That way, when they go out and get their first job at an agency or at a studio, these roles, these requirements, these things that they’re going to be asked of aren’t foreign to them that they’ve like, “Oh, I presented my work.”

Russell Toynes:
Because a lot of designers aren’t forced to present and sell their work. They just hand it to a project manager or to a creative director. They don’t actually get to engage with the client and be able to talk of about and articulate their design thinking. Instead, they’re just like, “Do you like it or do you not?”

Russell Toynes:
So I explained to my students like, “You have to be able to sell your work,” and so by the time they get to Portfolio, they’re able to talk about their work in a much better way because of that Studio class. Now we have Studio One and Studio Two, which just is kind of a repeat, but just more responsibility and more expectations.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Russell Toynes:
Man, patience. But, honestly, like I tell them, I get paid to learn from them. They teach me more than I could ever teach them.

Russell Toynes:
What I’ve realized more than anything is that we often only see life through our own lenses, and you asked me how did I get started in design? Did I know about designing? I didn’t. To this day, I meet people in 2022, who they’re the first person in their family to pursue a creative career or got college degree, and so I meet so many people from so different backgrounds.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve had students as young as 19 and as old as 65, and what I’ve realized more than anything is that age, experience, life experience makes you a better designer. You can be these 30 under 30s, or these kids that are just like designing the heck out of stuff and are just killing it, and these young guns, and I think there’s like a whole young guns thing or whatever. I can appreciate that.

Russell Toynes:
But if you just haven’t seen enough design solutions, if you just haven’t been around the world enough, no matter how talented you are with the software, you just can’t be a great design problem-solver without that time. You’ll get better every single day, but it’s the people who are older in that sweet spot of like their late 20s, early 30s, early 40s, new collars who are going back to school that I’m starting to find out they have just enough life experience, they’ve seen just enough shit to say, “I don’t want it to be like that.”

Russell Toynes:
But also I’ve learned quite a bit from them of just the resilience. I’ve had students who school was the only safe spot for them. When they went home, they had to deal with outside real-world problems, whether it be addiction, whether it be homelessness, whether it be a number of things and school was a place for them.

Russell Toynes:
So it really taught me to kind of understand that we are all coming from different places, but we all have the same goal, and that is to be financially independent, hopefully, but to pursue a career in a very scary, scary realm where I tell my students, “You have the greatest job in the world. We get to create something that never existed, and we get to solve problems.”

Russell Toynes:
But it’s scary to pick a career where it’s like, “I’m going to do something where every single day I’m going to be judged, judged by people who have no education in this, judged by the masses.” That’s scary as hell, especially if you’re an artist who’s trying to pursue design.

Russell Toynes:
I tell them what makes me feel comfortable as a designer and not an artist is that I can objectively defend all of my work and all of my design decisions. That’s kind of my security blanket is that as long as I know why we did this, as long as I know the problems that we’re solving, I can defend that all day long, but it’s the subjective. It’s the stuff that just because I like it, because it feels good, because it’s me, because of this stuff, that’s the stuff that’s hard because it’s just judgment, and you have to accept that somebody just doesn’t like it.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to help them kind of create a bigger gap between those things and I said, “If you don’t want people judging your art, don’t put your art into your design.” Leave that for the special people that you choose to share that with, but use your design as a tool and do your problem-solving objectively. Then if you want to add a bit of your spice on it, do that, but understand that they may not like it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a word. That’s a word right there, that last part. I hope people caught that about if you don’t want to be judged for your… What’d you say? Say that again?

Russell Toynes:
Judged for your art, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I think that’s the thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but a lot of people get into design because someone told them that you’ll never make a career out of being an artist, and so they hear the word design and they think that. So I got a lot of artists in front of me every semester, and I’m like, “Separate your art from your design.” So that way you can be a better designer, and you don’t have to worry about changing who you are as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
Something that I think I realized kind of early on with my studio was that a lot of designers design for other designers. Like, they’re not necessarily designing for the client. They’re designing because they want to be featured on Brand New, or Under Consideration, or something. Like, they’re designing for awards. They’re designing for accolades for their peers when the client may hate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, I’ve seen, oh, God, I remember, especially in like the late 2000s, there was so much design that was just the client hated it, but I did blank doing these kind of wild out-of-the-box stuff. And yeah, if it’s not in service of the client and that’s what the actual thing was for, like, yeah, it is arts that you’re kind of trying to put out there and then you’re putting this design sheen over it in that sort of way.

Maurice Cherry:
But that’s a word right there. When that clicked for me, that’s when like, honestly, the business and the work just became so much easier because it’s like just design for what the client is looking for. It may not look the best, but then that client is going to keep hiring you, and you’re going to keep getting paid, and your studio is going to stay in business so you kind of have to like… It’s a compromise in a way. I mean, I think once you get that relationship working, you can then sort of add a little something here and there, but it’s tricky. But that’s a real word right there about judging.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, you hit it on the head. Designers, especially in school, start designing for the approval of their peers, and they want to get these awards. They want to get recognized in design community, and at what cost? At the cost of, like you said, the clients or the vision?

Russell Toynes:
Sometimes if you’ve ever had to do something like wedding invitations, doing your own wedding invitations is the hardest damned thing. I went through like a whole existential mental breakdown designing my own wedding invitations because I started designing them, thinking about all my design friends that were going to be at the wedding, and what are they going to say when they get this in the mail, and you start really questioning yourself. I had to stop for a moment and just realize, “You’re designing it for you and your wife on this moment and this day. This is what you’re capturing. You’re not trying to get the approval of somebody else.”

Russell Toynes:
But you’re exactly right, and the problem with that is, is that if you forget who’s paying you. It’s not in that way of like, “I’m going to do bad work because this person’s writing me a check,” is “Are you solving their problems?” If you’re not going to bat for them and you’re only going to bat for yourself, then it’s art, and you’re doing it only for you. It’s selfish, and you’re asking them to pay you to do something that makes you feel good at a disservice to them.

Russell Toynes:
So, first and foremost, you have to serve. Like I tell people all the time, design is a service. Just like waiting tables, just like anything, we have a duty to serve them with the best solution possible, and sometimes it’s telling them that they shouldn’t have something.

Russell Toynes:
I give the analogy, forgive me for the crude analogy, but it just works, I tell people if you owned a restaurant and someone came to you and said, “I want a shit sandwich,” you wouldn’t serve them a shit sandwich. Not because you don’t make shit sandwiches. It’s because that if they ate a shit sandwich and you know it’s going to taste bad, they’re going to tell all their friends that you served them a shit sandwich and what people won’t know is that they asked for that.

Russell Toynes:
So the same thing goes with design is that if your client ask you for something that you know isn’t going to solve the problem, but you just give it to them, they’re going to blame you for when that problem still is there, and you just took their money. Where if you sit down with them and you say, “Hey, let’s go back real quick. Are you hungry?” And they go, “Yeah.” “Well, we serve a lot of other things. Have you tried this?”

Russell Toynes:
So I try to always reiterate to my students and my team and to anybody that we, as designers, have a duty to serve our clients, first and foremost, and to solve their problems. Sometimes that means pushing back on them and some of the design decisions that they want, and then sometimes it’s swallowing our own pride and realizing maybe this isn’t what we want it to be, but it still does solve the problem and in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at where you’re at now in life with the studio and everything, is this how you imagine your life would look like when you were a kid?

Russell Toynes:
No, it’s way better. I am making 13, 14, 15-year-old Russell just, I mean, I’m just killing it. Like, 13-year-old Russell is like, “Dude, who are you? Who are you?” And I never would’ve saw this life for myself because I never saw it, to be honest. We grew up in a middle class-ish household, played with financial illiteracy and a lot of things that unfortunate that I never saw anybody doing the things that I do, living the life that I live so I couldn’t even have imagined it.

Russell Toynes:
So to look at where I’m at now… My nephew, today is his 13th birthday.I called him up and I said, “You remember what I told you when you were little, I said what happens when you turn 13?” And he goes, “I get to go to Disney World?” I said, “Yeah,” and he’s like, “You remember that?” I was like, “Yeah. You think I was just bullshitting?” I was like, “You know what I mean when you can talk about it, you can be about it.” I was like, “Yeah. It’s still pandemic right now so we got to figure out a date when we all feel comfortable.” I said, “But, yeah, you’re going to Disney World.”

Russell Toynes:
The fact that I can do that for my nephew and the fact that I can take my daughter and my wife and… We just went to Hawaii, and I took my whole family, 10 of us to Hawaii, and me and my wife, we were very appreciative of all the work that we have done and all the support of our family to be able to do this for them. The life that I live now and the team that I have and the work that I’ve done and the amazing people that I’ve met and the opportunity to teach and the opportunity to get up every day and create something new, I could have never imagined it, and I am so very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
I honestly attribute it all to design. Design, literally, saved my life and made my life. Like I said in the very beginning, going to school at ACC, literally, was the best decision I ever made. It set the trajectory of my life and set so many things in motion that, had I’d never gone to ACC, had I’ve not had the people in front of me and had the mentors and the educators in front of me, I would’ve never gotten to where I’m at now. So yes, in short, no, I would’ve never been able to imagine this life and, yes, design, I give all of it to.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing either through the studio, or personally, or anything like that?

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I don’t want to work, but I have plans and, hopefully… I love teaching. I really do. I think that I’m a natural educator and a sharer of information and experience, and so I hope to continue teaching on a wider scale.

Russell Toynes:
I mentor a few people now, and I’ve toyed around with the idea of professionally mentoring and offering those services on a regular basis. Right now, my mentees, I feel weird taking money from them so they just pay for my coffee. So I’m like, now it’s pandemic so they just send me… they’ve been owing me money for coffee.

Russell Toynes:
But I think that I have a lot to share with young professionals and budding entrepreneurs. I mean, designers, I think that through a longer relationship, a mentor relationship that I can help really guide people who might feel like they haven’t received the education and knowledge of the business of design and where to go and how to capitalize on opportunities.

Russell Toynes:
Then with the studio, as we were kind of talking about this kind of international work model, me and my wife have goals of finding a place that’s a little less tumultuous for people of color. Where that place is on earth, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think we found Wakanda yet, but we don’t know if the United States is necessarily our forever home. But our goal would be to really take our business global, honestly, so wherever we end up being, creating a team there, a local team there that would continue to do the work that we are doing and then have our current Studio Dzo team basically lead that team.

Russell Toynes:
So that would be less of a requirement of me and Elizabeth on our day-to-day, and then take this very seasoned team that has been with us for five years and turn them into leaders to guide maybe this international team to create the good work that we’ve been known to do. So that’s where I hope to see ourselves in five years is where I have five or six other people somewhere else in the world who Zoom in with my team here, and we’re just cranking out the same good work, both night and day. One team’s working while the other one’s sleeping.

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

Russell Toynes:
Well, you can always find us at studiodzo.com. That’s studio, D as in dog, Z as in zebra, O as in Oscar, the D is silent, and you can find us on Instagram, studiodzo.

Russell Toynes:
You can follow me on Instagram, Russell Toynes, that’s Russell, two SSs and two Ls, never trust a one L Russell, and you can follow me on LinkedIn.

Russell Toynes:
Please, please, please check out aagd.co and see all the good work that we’re doing for our community there.

Russell Toynes:
Check out Austin Community College also. I know community colleges get a bad rap, but I have personally hired more designers from ACC than any other school from UT, from Texas State, from St. Ed’s. ACC, hands down, has a better design program and the designers come out stronger. So if you’re curious about that, if you’re looking to change careers, ACC might be an opportunity for anybody who’s local to the Austin area.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, Russell Toynes, T-O-Y-N-E-S. There’s only a few of us out there. So if you just Google that last name, you’ll be sure to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Well, Russell Toynes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I’ve heard of you for years. I probably didn’t mention that before we started recording, but I’ve heard about you for years, just like you were saying, my name has been kind of bandied about in the design community. I’ve heard about you for years. I was really excited to do this interview and really just kind of hearing your story, hearing your passion for design, and really even just your passion for just giving back to the community that has given so much to you is just super inspiring.

Maurice Cherry:
So I hope people, when they listen to this, they really can kind of feel where your passion comes from with this, and also see how they can maybe pay it forward in their own communities as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Russell Toynes:
Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it, Maurice.

Kevin Carroll

Can you believe we’re almost a quarter of the way through 2022 already? I think now might be a perfect time for a creative tune-up, and this week’s guest is a true instigator of inspiration — Kevin Carroll. As a founder, author, and public speaker, Kevin’s words and his work have influenced hundreds of thousands of people all over the world to tap into their creativity and accomplish epic tasks.

Our conversation touches on a number of topics, including success, longevity, curiosity, and perseverance. Kevin talked about growing up in Philly, being a linguistics expert in the Air Force, his time at Nike, and talks about how you can find your own “red rubber ball.” Kevin’s words were just what I needed to hear right now, and I hope they will encourage you as well. Trust me, you’ll want to listen to this episode multiple times!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Carroll:
Kevin Carroll, author, speaker, instigator of inspiration. I get an opportunity to spend time with co-conspirators and storytelling, creativity, innovation, human performance, and advancing the human condition in a good and positive way. So I get a chance to do that on a regular.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like a dream job.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily, you know, it’s so funny, one of the things that I tell folks is I don’t really have a job per se. I’m kind of like Tommy from Martin Lawrence’s show. So my friends always say, what do you do, what do you do? Because like you’re always here and there and there. And so, I think I just have discovered that folks see a talent or a gift or skill that I might have that would lend itself to a project or an idea or something that they’re trying to advance.

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t really see myself as having a job in a traditional sense, a J-O-B. I really do think that I have this career portfolio, I actually was reading an article about that, why you should build a career portfolio, not a career path. And so I think I have a series of experiences. So I have more of a portfolio than a career path.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Kevin Carroll:
Surprise and delight and expect the unexpected, that’s what’s been happening so far this year already. I’ve been really blessed and count my blessings. We’ve stayed healthy this entire time. I think that’s allowed me to double down on optimism and positivity and to put out in the world some good energy. And that good energy is being reciprocated and reflected back. It’s been really wonderful some of the different projects that I’ve been invited to be a part of, find opportunities, to do a little bit of travel already.

Kevin Carroll:
So, some really fun locations. I was at the University of Oklahoma recently where I did some work with students on campus, but also student athletes on the campus there, and also in the community of Norman, Oklahoma. So that was really exciting. And then I literally just got back from an event where I spoke to 5,000 people, a live event, and that’s the first time a large group like that has been together was in DC.

Kevin Carroll:
And I was telling a friend that I got a chance to see the African American Museum, the National African American Museum of Art. I had not seen it like sitting on the, as you drive by it. Most of the buildings, if you’ve ever been in DC, Maurice, I don’t know if you spent much time there, most of the buildings are white. And here’s this building that’s this beautiful bronze brown, and it just stands out, and it feels so warm and inviting. And so, I got to see that yesterday, actually, I got there on Sunday and we were driving through and it was a sunny and it just stood out, and I was so inspired to see that.

Kevin Carroll:
That event with 5,000 people was actually in DC. So, I think that was a great sign for me to realize that wonderful things are coming this year and that’s a great source of inspiration to see a building like that and to think about all the voices and actions and impact that black and brown folks have been making, and I want to join forces with that. So that’s my goal, is to keep advancing that kind of intention that you would find in a building like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s definitely great to come across that sort of realization like that, especially during Black History Month.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Right? It fell right on the last two days of Black History Month, so it was great timing to see that building. It wasn’t something that I was unaware of, I was paying attention to that. I also talked about the importance of being where your feet are and being present. I think that’s what a lot of folks don’t do a great job of is being present, so that’s something that’s really been helpful for me is being present.

Maurice Cherry:
I guess given that, what do you want to achieve this year? Did that kind of put like an idea in your head about what you want to do?

Kevin Carroll:
I don’t ever really have like a I want to grow my business X percent or I want to, I don’t have those kinds of metric measurable per se. My whole thing is just at the end of the year, can I reflect back and see that I advanced the human condition in a positive way, and I had in some way that really will reverberate. That’s a thing that I always look at is like, what were some of the moments, what were some of the things? And so, I just want to continue to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
A big thing for me is I’m chasing significance, not success. That’s what I’m chasing> success is attainable and you can have a measure of success at any age, quite frankly, but significance takes time, and that’s the long game, and that’s the collective measure of all the impact that you’ve had. And so, that’s what I’m pursuing. This year is just another part of that mosaic, of that journey and chase to significance.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re doing so many things, as you mentioned, at the top of the show. You’re an author, you’re a speaker, you’re an instigator of inspiration. And I’m curious, what does an average day look like for you?

Kevin Carroll:
Probably not an average day. It can vary. There’s always some structure to what I’m trying to accomplish each day, and I do like to make sure that I feel inspired at some point. I’m always looking for opportunities to connect with folks. I have a very curious spirit about me. I think a typical or average day can be captured in this quote by Albert Einstein, “I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious.” So I like to be passionately curious each day.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, whatever that unfolds or brings my way, that’s what I’m about. So it could be doing three virtual keynotes because we can do that now. [inaudible 00:08:20] necessarily got to get on a plane, to working on a collaboration with a sports program or sports team or university, or doing some reverse mentoring with my godson, where he actually teaches me art or Legos or something, and I’m learning from him, and he’s nine years old and he’s brilliant. I enjoy doing that. I just think that every day that’s my end goal is, was I passionately curious today or not?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I definitely think that the way that these past few years have been, in many ways, it’s opened up a lot of different avenues for people to try different things, to just pursue different types of work and stuff like that. I like that idea of just being curious and kind of seeing where things go. For me, at least I can’t say it for the listener maybe, but for myself, that feels super aspirational to be able to have that kind of freedom to do that. You’ve been doing it since 2004. What’s been the key to your longevity with this?

Kevin Carroll:
I think it’s relationship building. And my attitude is, if you shine, I shine, and I don’t want to be transactional with you, I want to be transformational with you. And so, that means we’re building something, we’re building something. And you’re in the business of seeing what you can get from me and you want to be transactional. We probably won’t build together. But if you’re about building a relationship and connecting on a deeper level that I can help you shine and in turn, it’s going to reflect back and maybe not right away, it could be five, 10 years from then. But that’s all good, and that’s all love, and that’s the way that I’ve looked at it.

Kevin Carroll:
So relationships have been really, really key and critical, because what I’ve discovered, and I think it’s one of those really wonderful, unexpected things, is I’ve been meeting people. When you think about all the public speaking that I’ve done, I’ve done public speaking since early 90s, I’ve been doing that. “Formally,” I’ve been doing it since 2002, but I’ve been meeting young people, meeting individuals where they are for decades.

Kevin Carroll:
Those individuals have grown up and guess who they remember put them on back in the day? Me. So now they’re in positions of influence and decision makers, and I get these notes on LinkedIn, Twitter, DMs on Instagram, hey, you might not remember me, KC, but you spoke at my school. My mom got you to sign this book. I happened to be at this conference. And now I’m with this company, this business, I’m doing this, I’ve started mine. And I thought of you when this idea came up, when this project came up, when this conference came up, and I immediately put your name for it. That’s what’s been happening for 18 years.

Kevin Carroll:
And it’s been gaining more momentum, which has been really magical when you think about it. But I didn’t plan it that way. It’s just been organic the way it’s all played out. My wife always points out, she said, “You put all those seeds out there not knowing that they would grow into oaks.”

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of, I guess, peel the curtain back a little bit, you asked me before we started recording, what’s your end game with this, this of course being Revision Path and this podcast. And the way that you just expressed that I think maybe ties into what I guess I could see the end goal of Revision Path being, in that there’s all these stories about black designers and developers and creatives and such that people can learn about. And to me, my hope is that this helps inform as many people as possible, we’re out here, we’re a creative force, we’re doing this work, in terms of planting those seeds as you mentioned.

Kevin Carroll:
You know what else, you’re creating a time capsule, you’re creating a time capsule that’s going to be a way finder for the next generation. So you need to realize that. I know we talked about you creating some kind of other creative effort off of this. You know exactly what I just said, I know you wrote it down.

Maurice Cherry:
I did.

Kevin Carroll:
I know you did, because look, we did our little prep call, convo before this, our warmup, and this just came to me. This is a time capsule. And imagine if you’re a young person trying to find your way and we can only envision ourselves in a position if we see ourselves there, well, they get to hear ourselves, they get to hear these voices. So you’re creating this audio time capsule. Come on, man. That’s fire. That’s fire. I’m telling you, first one’s free, Maurice, first one’s free right there. There you go. Receive that bro. Receive that.

Maurice Cherry:
Before striking out on your own and doing your own thing, I think people probably know you well from your work that you’ve done at Nike because it sounds like it was a very, very unique experience for you. Talk to me about that.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, you had a couple other guests on here that are Nike alums, Jeff Henderson and Kevin Bethune, those are two of my partners in crime and positivity. So they’re good brothers and we’ve done some fun projects together. My time at Nike, I always reference it in this way that Nike let me fly my freak flag. Nike let me really stretch my wings creatively and to discover things about myself that I didn’t know or that were lying dormant because of other experiences, and I didn’t get encouraged to express it. And Nike gave me permission.

Kevin Carroll:
And in doing so, unlocked a lot of my creative energy and my creative confidence. And so, I think that’s been something I’ll always be grateful for at Nike. I think I reciprocated with creating a more sense of belonging and connection there at Nike and Nike at large, at the other locations around world. And so yeah, I got an opportunity to do lots of different projects and work in lots of different areas from footwear design to special projects with Tinker Hatfield and his group to being a director of internal communications, working there.

Kevin Carroll:
So Nike really gave me an opportunity to tap into a lot of my gifts and talents, and they saw value in allowing someone to have all these experiences. And remember I said, I don’t think I have a career path, I have a career portfolio. Nike was a place that let me put more arrows in my quiver of that portfolio, if you will, of that career experiences. And so, yeah, I’ve always felt that Nike was this amazing living lab for me that I got a chance to do and try lots of different things and discover a lot of things about myself.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember listening to an interview where you were talking about how Phil Knight, who is the, I think he still is or maybe he was, the CEO of Nike, but he kind of referred to you as the mayor of Nike.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. Yeah. He’s retired now but he was the co-founder, CEO and chairman at the time when I was there, 97 to 2004. He caught wind of some of the creative capers I was doing on campus and the impact I was having. And so, he asked me to have a regular meeting with him monthly and to discuss with me the people and the culture and how things were going there. He kind of coined that term for me, said, I might be CEO and chairman here, but you’re the mayor here and you know this place.

Kevin Carroll:
So, I would give him information and share how people were feeling, what was going on, and being that bridge for him, being an executive, you’re not necessarily privy to that. So I was giving him that insight and visibility to how the people were feeling, what was going on, and opportunities for him to continue to further advance the culture in a positive way.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to switch gears here a little bit. As I mentioned to you before I listened to some interviews and things, you really talk a lot about how like your personal story can be a catalyst for someone else to kind of chase their dreams. So I want to dive a little bit into your personal story. Tell me about what it was like growing up in Philly.

Kevin Carroll:
Listen, Philly’s grimy. I love Philly that way. And we take a lot of pride in that with our city and everything. My childhood was challenging because of circumstances that we were navigating as kids, me and my two brothers. And so, addiction and abandonment, upheaval and uncertainty, dysfunction and disappointment were the norm because my parents were addicts and my grandparents rescued us.

Kevin Carroll:
The thing that I think my grandparents, maybe not necessarily realizing it but because of their age, we had a lot of freedom as kids to make a lot of decisions that probably shouldn’t be making when you’re a kid, but we out of necessity and just they couldn’t keep up with us that way. So, we had a lot of freedom. And so, I discovered a playground in my neighborhood first that was kind of the epicenter of our neighborhood, but it was this place where I felt I belonged first.

Kevin Carroll:
And so sports was a big thing in our neighborhood and I realized that very quickly. And so I dove head long into sports and played every sport you could imagine, whatever the season I was playing it. But it was never for trophies or first place or medals, it was always for belonging. I loved being part of a team and connecting and being a part of that.

Kevin Carroll:
That was I think an unlock for me was being part of a team and finding a place to belong. And it was a positive way for me to channel a lot of the questions I was having as a kid because of the decisions my parents made. And so, sports really was a great outlet and a great coping tool for me to manage that. And then public library was another great place, I loved learning and reading. So I went to the public library a lot.

Kevin Carroll:
And then my best friend’s mom became my mom in many ways, Ms. Lane. And so she poured into me as much wisdom as possible every day. I had a key to their house since I was nine, still have that key to their house. Ms. Lane was the cheat code, if you will, for me. She gave me all of the different ways to unlock possibilities and potential. I always say it was just two words that she would speak to me, why not. And she would always answer any of my, like Ms. Lane, Ms. Lane, I got this idea. She’d always say, well, why not? But then she’d always follow up with, don’t talk about it, be about it. Lots of talkers and very few doers, which one are you? So I learned about action And accountability from her.

Kevin Carroll:
But also someone who was unconditional in their love and just hoped for me to be successful. And Ms. Lane was the person who poured that significance idea into me, that you are going to be successful because you’ve got intellect and smarts, but I want you to chase something bigger and grander, I want you to chase significance. So that’s where that all stems from.

Kevin Carroll:
So that childhood started off difficult, but I found a way to rise above it and didn’t do it alone. I think that was one of the key things for me was when I talk about relationships earlier, that’s where I learned relationships and the importance of them. And it served me well all the way through me being on my own now for 18 years. Relationships stem all the way back to my childhood.

Maurice Cherry:
It takes a village. Like you said, you were staying with your grandparents and then you had Ms. Lane, you had your sports teams that you were a part of. So you had all of these different influences as you were growing up.

Kevin Carroll:
And these crazy people at the playground, because playgrounds, they got some colorful folks that are up there. I tell people, I’m a mosaic of many people, drug dealers, abusers, and war veterans, and ain’t quite right folks in the head folks. Just all kinds of people were there, other kids’ parents, food service workers, custodians, they all poured into me. And my brothers. I know that I’m a mosaic of many people.

Maurice Cherry:
So, after you graduated high school, you went on to college, and then after college you went into the military, you went into the air force. What was behind that decision?

Kevin Carroll:
I became a young dad. So, I didn’t even finish college, I was in my junior year, became a young father, I was 20 years old. And I came home and my grandfather said, “So what are you going to do about this?” He said, “You need to do the right thing.” And he said, “You need to not repeat history and be an absent father.” And so that was a loud message from my grandfather. And so these are his sensibilities.

Kevin Carroll:
So I made a decision to join the air force, not go back to college. I figured I could finish it while I’m in the air force, but I wanted to provide for my family. So I went in the military, my uncle was in the air force, so that’s why I chose the air force. I told people, they said, why’d you pick the air force? I said, my uncle always was smiling, so I figured he must be enjoying it. So, that’s why I picked the air force over any other branch. And joined the air force.

Kevin Carroll:
That was first time I ever been on an airplane was going to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. And landed in Texas and had no idea that I would end up really enjoying the air force and learning so much about myself and discovering I had other gifts and talents that had not been discovered yet. I had a language ability in the military discovered that and ended up becoming a language translator in the military and working with a top seeker clearance and doing all this clandestine work, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, kind of crazy stuff. So I speak a bunch of languages, and did that in the military.

Kevin Carroll:
And once again, more relationships, I’m still connected to a lot of people that I met when I was in the air force from 1980 to 1990. So 10 years I was in there, I’m still connected to a lot of those people too. So, we go back to that, what’s that through line for me is relationships and the importance of it and not being transactional with people being transformational.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t want to gloss over the language part because I think that’s something which is super interesting because when you were in school, you had started to learn Spanish, but you dropped out, is that right?

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah, I dropped Spanish actually. It was five minutes. It was an amazing five minutes, Maurice. I thought it was a silly class, so I walked out of class, but the funny thing is I never forgot that five minutes. [Spanish 00:23:32], literally that stuck. I was a bit of a knucklehead and young, and I didn’t realize I had a gift then. And the military, they test you and it’s smart, they test you in everything just in case you have a talent that hasn’t been discovered. And lo and behold, I passed this language test in the military in basic training. And that’s how I got uncovered.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I end up learning Serbian and Croatian Czech and German and become fluent in those and do that work in the military. But yeah, that’s how it ended up happening. But I can always reflect back to the fact that I actually always had it in me, I was just a bit of a hard head back in the day. So yeah, had I hung in there, I’d have Spanish in my repertoire. I’m sure if I put some time to it, I can learn that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you know German, German’s a romantic language. I think Spanish might be not a total one to one, but I feel like you probably could pick up Spanish pretty well if you know German.

Kevin Carroll:
They’re in that family. Germanic is a little harsher than Spanish. Germans, you wouldn’t necessarily equate that like romance language, it’s a little harsh, a little strong. What I’ve discovered is once you learn a language, you are what I say language curious, if you will. So you’re just open to hearing what people are saying and how they’re using their words and what does that word mean. I use Google Translate all the time. I really am fascinated with what was that language and what was that I heard.

Kevin Carroll:
I think that’s the thing that really helps you. And a lot of folks that are American aren’t learning other languages. And I think that’s a big misstep here in the US, because you go to other countries and people are fluent in other languages because they’re just open to that, and they’re also raised that way. So I just think it’s so important. You’re not going to learn a language only taking the class twice a week for 50 minutes though. It’s not going to happen. That ain’t working.

Kevin Carroll:
Oh yeah, I took Spanish in high school. Yeah, how often did you yeah, oh, twice a week for 50 minutes, I said, how much do you remember nothing? Nothing. Yeah, because you got to be immersed in it. So I think that’s the other thing too is you have to be curious about it and want to keep learning.

Maurice Cherry:
French was my language. My mom had, French is her first language. But she also studied French and stuff in school and everything. And so I remember being a kid, she’s a retired biologist, but she had all her college level French books at home. So, I started learning French in second grade, and then basically learned it from second grade all the way up until I graduated college.

Kevin Carroll:
You were around it all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s true.

Kevin Carroll:
Practice it. See that’s the problem is that if you don’t have a way of actually exercising and using the muscle and using the words to gain confidence, that’s why people fall off from their language learning. So you had a built in tutor, you had something there, you were immersed in it, you probably had either magazines or periodicals or different things you could read in French, all that stuff that immerses you, that’s what happened in language school in the military, it’s like you are fully immersed. I can sing Roll out the Barrels in Czech and all these other things.

Kevin Carroll:
We’d get dressed in cultural clothing and different things, so you really understood what it was you were learning. So full immersion is the key. That definitely had the right kind of environment to get really fluent in that language.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so interesting when you kind of say it that way, especially about the Spanish part, because when I got to middle school, seventh grade, I wanted to take Spanish so bad. It was the first language elective that had filled up super quickly, because I was like, I didn’t want to take French because I already knew French, and I felt it wouldn’t have been fair for me to take French when I already knew it. Everyone else was learning it and I would be like, yeah, yeah, yeah, [French 00:27:51], whatever. I would already know it. I was doing good in French, I ended up taking French, but I did want to take Spanish.

Maurice Cherry:
I can kind of understand a bit of Spanish now, but I mean, even with French, I can listen to French music, I can read French books. I can understand it. It does, like you say, knowing another language does kind of make you language curious and opens you up to just more culture I think.

Kevin Carroll:
More culture, which is never a bad thing. The world is flat now, we have access to everything from everywhere. You do yourself at a disservice if you’re not curious around these opportunities and things to broaden your viewpoint and outlook on everything. I’m so glad that you have languages in your life. Maybe that’ll be the takeaway from our conversation is get some language in your life. Foreign language, not just English language, foreign language.

Maurice Cherry:
You had 10 years in the air force. After you left there, what was your next step? What were you thinking about doing?

Kevin Carroll:
I got my degree while I was in the service. Got a certification as an athletic trainer, I was actually working some NFL summer training camps when I was in the military, did armed forces sports program. I was actually the only certified athletic trainer in any branch of the service, so I got a chance to travel in support of armed forces of sports program around the world while I was still in the service. So I decided I was going to do athletic training when I got out of the service.

Kevin Carroll:
So I left after 10 years, moved back to Philadelphia, actually was a single dad then, so raising my boys. And started working in high school as an athletic trainer and a health teacher. Then I got a job at college level as an athletic trainer. And then I ended up in the NBA as only the first black trainer in the history of the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers, and the third in the history of the NBA. In 1995. And did that for two years.

Kevin Carroll:
That was the springboard. And my languages were the springboard to me actually getting noticed by Nike. So when I was with the 76ers, I actually got encouraged to use Serbian in the middle of a game to insult a player from the former Yugoslavia, [inaudible 00:30:19]. My coach told me to start saying something about his family when he’d run by because he wouldn’t expect it from our bench and distract him a little bit to save a time out. Literally that’s what my coach asked me to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So I start cussing at this dude every time he runs by and he’s seven feet tall. So I’m mumbling, whispering stuff every time he goes by our bench, and he can’t figure out where it’s coming from. So when he turns in the middle of the game and says, who’s insulting my family in Serbian over here, and the coach points at me goes that little guy right there. And Vlad is like, there’s no way. And I [Serbian 00:30:54], and he’s like what? And after the game, he came and approached me, and you’re going to love this because you’re based in Atlanta, he asked me to join the Yugoslavian National Basketball team for the 96 Olympic games in Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, I joined them as the sports medicine liaison and their translator.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Kevin Carroll:
Black dude from Philly working with the Yugoslavian national basketball team. I got this crazy old school Polaroid picture of all of us. I’m the only raisin in the milk, I’m the only raisin in the milk. So it’s this really great candid picture of all us from a Polaroid from that moment when we were doing the pre-Olympic tour. That’s how folks at Nike actually found out about me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Languages really did unlock something for you. I mean, of course you kind of had the interest in sports, so, being an athletic trainer I’m sure it kind of was almost like a fulfillment of a wish that you kind of had as a kid, I would imagine.

Kevin Carroll:
Well, it’s so funny, I thought I was going to be in the NBA as all kids play sports, I’m going to be in the league one day, as a player I’m thinking. I didn’t think that my intellect and my ability to learn and then the understanding of games and then learning the science behind injuries and all that would actually propel me to that position.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I actually got to the NBA, I paused and really thought about like, whoa, I never thought it would be like this, but I made it to the league. How about that? And then of course, them haters from back in the day that told me it wasn’t going to happen, as soon as I got that gig, guess who was calling for tickets, Maurice? Yo Kev, hook us up with some tickets. Nah, remember that thing you said back in the day. I remember. I kept the receipts. No tickets for you, no tickets for you, no tickets for you. So yes. But I ended up getting to the NBA, which was a roundabout crazy way, unexpected way, but yeah, made it to the league.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, man. Then like you said, that sort of opened you up to end up doing work for Nike and you started your own business. You’ve lived like four lives. With all these different careers and the way that they’ve all intersected, that’s fascinating.

Kevin Carroll:
It doesn’t make sense now when I say that it’s not a path, it’s a portfolio.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you decide to start writing?

Kevin Carroll:
So, Ms. Lane, my best friend’s mom who’s like my mom, she was the one who kept bugging me. When I got to Nike, she kept saying, when are you going to write a book? When are you going to write a book? And I would always push back, Ms. Lane, [inaudible 00:33:37] for? And she was persistent. I want to say for at least five years, she kept bugging me, bugging me, bugging me about it.

Kevin Carroll:
And then finally I said, “Ms. Lane, who’s going to read it?” And she said, “Well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible. That’s who you should write it for.” Bet. That was the moment I went, okay, bet, I’ll do it. But then I went, I don’t want it to be like a regular book so I’m going to use all this creative energy I’ve learned at Nike and all these things, I’m going to create this proposal that’s going to be so amazing that they’re just going to clamor for this book.

Kevin Carroll:
And I put together this proposal that was unique and different, crickets. Nobody wanted do it. Rejection. In fact, one publisher said it was over-designed and too creative. And actually told me to dumb down my idea, and maybe they’ll consider doing my book. And then I made a decision I’m going to self-publish it.

Kevin Carroll:
So I started the process of self-publishing it in 2003. We got it done by 2004. And it took off, we sold 11,000 copies in nine months. I didn’t realize that was determined to be a successful book because in the industry, if you sell more than 8,000, which is basically getting beyond your friends and family, that’s a successful book. We had done that with just word of mouth, no back table sales. I wasn’t pitching it on stage or anything.

Kevin Carroll:
And someone at ESPN happened to get a copy of my book and they were starting a books division. And I got a call out of the blue from ESPN, they wanted to sign me to a book deal. And I was still at Nike when all that happened. And so, I signed a book deal with ESPN and Disney while I’m at Nike, and that really starts this great opportunity to write more books and everything.

Kevin Carroll:
But Ms. Lane was the person behind the decision to write a book, well, the indecision, but lovingly shoved me towards my destiny kind of moment and stuff. But I’d always loved books. The public library was always a really special place for me as a kid, so I’d always loved books. And I’m always surrounded by books. But I never envisioned myself being an author. That was never anything I imagined or thought of even in my quiet time. Now that I’ve done four books, I’m quite proud of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you self-published first, and then the success from that is what sort of ended up having publishers kind of coming to you for are doing more books. I love that part.

Kevin Carroll:
Yeah. And I think that sometimes you have to know what you’re writing it for, what’s the end game, let’s go back to that, right? What’s the end game. And when she basically said, well, there’s another you out there that needs to know it’s possible, oh, okay, bet, I’m going to do it then.

Kevin Carroll:
So until you kind of have that in mind who you are doing it for, and then we just talked about this time capsule, I know for you you can see someone opening up this time capsule, if you will, figuratively and literally, with all of these gifts and they’re unearthing these voices and these stories. That’s the spark for you then, that’s catalytic. And so, she was that catalyst for me to share a story. Then I made kind of that like, well, I’m not going to do a regular book. Having that attitude.

Kevin Carroll:
That decision actually was so interesting with the book it won over 23 design awards, my book did. Working with a great design team and then working with a great print team that did the self-published piece, and ESPN didn’t change anything in the design when they signed me to the book deal, they just put their logo on it and that was it. And so, that book’s been in print with them since 2005 and still in print, and I think there’s over 400,000 in print now.

Maurice Cherry:
Katalytic with a K.

Kevin Carroll:
Yes. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Now the metaphor of the red rubber ball comes up a lot in your books. Of course people can sort of check out the books and know what that’s about because you literally have one book called what is your red rubber ball. How would you suggest that listeners out there find their own red rubber ball?

Kevin Carroll:
So, it’s a metaphor, the red rubber ball, it’s literal for me because of sports and play, and the playground being the first place that I felt a sense of belonging and connection. But for most people, it’s more about the metaphor. What are you chasing? What gets you out of bed in the morning? What inspires you to go after it? And so, I think that’s a fundamental question. You need to know what inspires you to get out of bed every single morning. You have to have something.

Kevin Carroll:
And that became even more evident during this pandemic, because this global traumatic event broke a lot of people who didn’t have that clarity of purpose and passion and intention, and they felt lost. It derailed a lot of people. It broke a lot of people. And then there were some people who had this discovery moment, and they doubled down on the thing that they cared about, and they learned more during this pause.

Kevin Carroll:
And so I just think that the red rubber ball is about what are you chasing. What inspires you to get out of bed in the morning and that you want to chase it every single day? And then if you can be blessed and fortunate enough to find a way to blur your passion and your play, that’s great. Maybe you don’t necessarily, your work isn’t your play, but you can always know that this is something I’m chasing, this is something that inspires me and I want to keep that close. That’s the red rubber ball.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all of your life experiences that you’ve had, is this how you imagined yourself as a kid?

Kevin Carroll:
Never, never. I never imagined myself like this, honestly. When I first went to college, after high school, when I went to college, here was my job career idea. I was going to be in public relations in a bank. How random is that, dude? How random is that? But Maurice, this is how this got in my head. So, when I would ride the trolley, the trains in Philly and out on the main line, I would always see these men just dress sharp with briefcase. And so, I envisioned in my head, oh, they must work in a bank because I always see people dressed nice going in the bank. So, maybe they’re in there doing, I don’t know, public relations. I don’t know where I got that idea of public relations. So I said, I want to do that.

Kevin Carroll:
So when I went to college and people would ask me, so, what do you hope to accomplish? Oh, I want to work in public relations in a bank. I would spit that so fast, public relations in a bank. And people would always look at me curiously like, well, that’s very clear what you want to do. I was about them fits. I loved how cool they looked and clean and [inaudible 00:41:04], briefcase. And I obviously was interested in stories, public relations. But I didn’t have the word storytelling. And so, that’s what I thought I was going to do.

Kevin Carroll:
There’s no way in my wildest, wildest, wildest dreams, could I have ever imagined doing what I’m doing right now. Zero chance. The NBA thing was probably the only thing I might have spoke out and got laughed, basically just laughed at. And that squashed when I was a kid and my attitude was I’ll show you, you watch, I’ll show you. And then I end up in the NBA. That might be the only thing that I had an inkling of an idea. But of course, no one believed that would happen. But other than that, there’s zero chance I imagined what I’m doing right now, zero chance.

Kevin Carroll:
I just knew that I needed to be around a ball, so sports and play. Books, around education and enlightenment and just raising your game and elevating your game to learn more of the curiosity piece. And betterment. So people bettered me, and so, how can I better others? And so, those are my three Bs that I look that, the ball, books and betterment. And that’s kind of how I’ve always been about. I recently got that clarity, but those are three things that have been consistently in my life and a constant for me.

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

Kevin Carroll:
There’s another one out there that needs to know it’s possible. Ms. Lane. So I made a promise to her before she passed away, it’s been eight years now, and I told her, I’m going to be the next you, Ms. Lane. I’m going to be that encourager for the next generation. I’m going to use technology and all these things, I’m going to have greater reach and impact, but I’m going to be the next you, and I’m going to remember what you said, there’s another you out there that needs to know what’s possible.

Kevin Carroll:
So that’s what gives me the passion to do this each and every day, that there’s someone that needs to hear from me, see a project I’m working on, maybe collide with somebody that I’ve already impacted, something like that. But I know there’s another one out there. So that’s what I do the work for on behalf of them.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked earlier about significance versus success. I’m curious, what does success look like for you now?

Kevin Carroll:
It’s happening. I’m doing it and I’m proof that you can find success. Your circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny, you can rise above that. Got to have that passion, purpose, and intention, and that clarity around what it is that you want to chase. So, that’s success, I have that. Significance is what I’m chasing. So I can point to, like you said, I’ve had four or five different lives, they’ve all been successful. Easy to point to that.

Kevin Carroll:
But significance, I haven’t reached that yet. I haven’t gotten to that point where I’ve got this really amazing platform that I’m impacting lots of people on a regular basis. I’m doing it kind of in piecemeal now. I’m hoping, I mean, speak it into existence, I want to have a TV show. I want it to be a Saturday morning show, where I’m inspiring young people, and they’re seeing themselves in me. But not to be the host or anything, but seeing all these journeys and all these experiences that I’ve had, and know that it’s possible for them.

Kevin Carroll:
And so, how can I introduce them to all these different careers and show them this wonderful multicultural expertise that’s out there so that they can see themselves in these roles that maybe they quietly imagine themselves doing, but not speaking them into existing or letting anybody know that they really want to do that, because they’ve not seen themselves in that role. So how can I be that unlock? How can I be that way finder? How can I be the plug for folks? How can I be a cheat code? That’s what I want to do.

Kevin Carroll:
So, that would be the end game for me, is this programming of some sort, traditional, Saturday morning or on a digital platform, but have the reach an impact so that I can be that Ms. Lane for the next generation, that CEO, that chief encouragement officer.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see a Netflix series in your near future. I totally can see it.

Kevin Carroll:
That’s what’s up. See. That’s what’s up. Right? Your lips God’s ears. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s do this, Maurice. You’d be one of the people on the show, I’d be talking about you. We’re now interviewing Maurice Cherry and how he created a time capsule of black and brown voices to encourage people to go after it. See, there it is, it’s already happening. Episode five, limited series. Or it might be like season nine.

Maurice Cherry:
You dropped already so many pearls of wisdom in this conversation. It almost feels a bit selfish to ask this, but what advice would you give somebody that wants to sort of chart the same kind of I guess path, to call it that, how can someone follow in your footsteps? How can someone be like you?

Kevin Carroll:
Do you. Be the best you think is the advice that I’d love to give folks. I’ll go back to the original thing I brought up. I have no special talents, I’m only passionately curious. And I think curiosity for the win, FTW. Curiosity, that’s going to unlock, that’s going to help you stay in beta as a human being, always updating, always improving. I say this all the time, we’re so quick to update those apps on our devices and our computers, but what about ourselves?

Kevin Carroll:
We’re the greatest app ever created, Maurice. There is no app greater than us. We’re so quick to update those apps on the devices, update yourself. That starts with curiosity, that starts with wanting to raise your game. And that’s going to unlock all kinds of possibilities and potential because you stay in beta, you’re always in this mindset of improving, of getting better, of leveling up. And that’s the key. And so, that would be my advice, that would be the thing that I think would really make a difference for someone, to chart their own path to significance, and to have a career portfolio of lots of amazing experiences. And to go beyond just a path.

Kevin Carroll:
We go into a super highway, that’s what we want, super highway of experiences. I think it’s available for everyone and it doesn’t, I’m proof, circumstances don’t have to dictate your destiny. I’ve seen it all over the world, I’ve seen people do a lot with very little, we’re resourceful and resilient well beyond our circumstances, but we got to surround ourselves with the right other mindset and people who believe in the same things. Haters are your motivators, they’re going to be out there and they’re real.

Kevin Carroll:
But find people who are like-minded and about the same things and keep them close. Keep those people close because they’re going to be the ones that help you when you’re really struggling. It’s not a clean, straight path. It twists and turns and challenges you. I always say this too, Maurice, doubt is success testing you. When doubt appears, when doubt comes into your mind, that self-talk that you’re not good enough, this isn’t going to be available, this is never going to happen for you, are you ready to dance with doubt? Are you ready to fight the good fight on behalf of that hope, that dream, that aspiration that you have? Then you ready to battle, then you ready to dance.

Kevin Carroll:
And that’s the key. Are you willing to fight for this when it’s not going to be easy, when there are challenging times? That’s the key, because that’s going to unlock things that you never thought were going to be possible.

Kevin Carroll:
One of the things that’s clear, my journey, expect the unexpected, because there’s a lot of unexpected stuff that’s happened. It continues to happen in my life, and just expect that, and respect it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Kevin, I mean, again, you’ve given so much in this interview, my God, where can people find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Kevin Carroll:
Just @ me, @ me, @KCkatalyst with a K, that’s easy. K-A-T-A-L-Y-S-T. Yep. So KCkatalyst. @ me. You’ll find you can find me on all my socials, is that, and it’s easy to find me linked in that way. You can find out more about me that way. And if I can be of service to the next gen especially or the young at heart, and folks that are just trying to advance something, I’m happy to do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Man, Kevin Carroll, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I had an idea I think how the conversation went, because as I mentioned to you before, I’ve been listening to your interviews all day prepping for this, but I mean, the unexpected twists and turns that are just a part of your stor, I think what anyone will take away from this is that you are someone that embodies curiosity and really just a passion for learning that is definitely taking you to where you are now. The fact that you’re also still paying it forward to so many people is astonishing.

Maurice Cherry:
I see that Netflix series in your future. It may not be Netflix, maybe it’s Hulu. I mean, there’s like a dozen streaming services or something now. But I see it happening because this kind if message, it’s an important message, but I think especially right now, it’s so important because of what’s happened over the past few years. I think a lot of people have just kind of felt stuck, and this period of time has caused them to think about, well, what’s the next thing going to be. They need that catalyst, they need the KC Katalyst, that’s what they need.

Kevin Carroll:
My buddy would call me the hope peddler, he said, you out there peddling that hope. I’m like, that’s right, I got what you want, I got what you need. Come on. Let’s go. Hope will not be canceled, my man, hope will not be canceled as long as I’m out here.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Carroll:
My honor and pleasure, man. Time capsule, I’m just going to leave you with that, Maurice Cherry. Time capsule. This is what your program is going to become, there you go.

Rob Martin

Running your own design studio is no small feat, but design professionals like Rob Martin make it look easy. As the founder and creative principal of Majorminor, he and his team have done branding and digital work for a number of clients for over a decade, including ICA, Complex, and Sony. On top of that, Rob is a talented musician and producer who goes by the name RCA. That guitar you see in the photo ain’t just for show!

We started our conversation with a quick 2022 check-in, and from there Rob talked about the ins and outs of running Majorminor, working with clients, and the types of projects he wants to branch out and tackle. Rob also spoke about growing up in the Bay Area, attending Sacramento State University and working for a few companies before striking out on his own. We even chatted about his music and his upcoming gig at SXSW this year! Rob is proof that being true to yourself is the real key to success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rob Martin:
Hey, so my name is Rob Martin. I run a studio called Majorminor. We’re based out of San Francisco, California. I act as the principal owner and a creative director here. Yeah, we do branding agency work. We do brand strategy and graphic design identity systems for a different range of clients. B2B, small local bakery or some more enterprise-level international enterprise. But basically we work with clients and people that are really trying to do something good for people. So we try to do good work for these people at the organization to support them and their vision.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Rob Martin:
It’s been doing okay. Definitely not a banner year for us or me in person or anything, but it’s one of those years where we’re looking back so we can see how we can move forward, right? It’s a lot of reflection on how we’ve been running the company, our past clients, what we can learn from those experiences and start to implement things into our workflow, our processes to make it better for us to work, whether it’s a work-life balance kind of thing, or even just how we’re serving our clients. How can we get, “Better clients?” We just work less to do more.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because you just hit the 10-year mark not too long ago, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. I think 10 years was… I forget what year that was, but I think we’ll be turning 13 this year.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, it was 2019. So yeah, it should be 13 years. 2009, we started.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And then yes, we should be 13 this year. July 20th is our birthday.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Congratulations.

Rob Martin:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s been a long ride.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the design studio Majorminor, which first off just for those that are listening and might be wondering, where did the name come from?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the name actually goes back when I was in college in Sacramento State, our last class was a portfolio building class. We actually have a portfolio to use once we got out of school. I took it upon myself to actually treat it as if I was doing a studio for myself. Actually, since I started school at Sacramento State, one of my friends in school really put me on all the cool studios like Pentagram and Turner Duckworth out in San Francisco. That was my first real exposure to something like that. Even the idea of owning a business, something I’ve always wanted to do as a kid, but that was like I was a kid in the ’90s, so it was going to be a store, a 7-Eleven/import video game studio or a store/rollerblading store.

Rob Martin:
It was a very juvenile idea. That has always been inside of me. So once I had the idea like, “Hey, I can actually run a studio. I’m really passionate about graphic design. Here’s my chance to kind of get that idea realized.” So in this portfolio class, we start coming up with names and I’m really digging into myself about who I am, how that reflects my work. And it actually came from the parallels I see in design, in music and also even just myself. So I’ll kind of explain the names. I think it’s really interesting. This will help me make sure that it still makes sense years later. So basically when you have a visual, right? There’s a rhythm between light and that contrasting that creates the form, right? So you remember doing line studies in your first graphic design class. You’re doing these strips and then see how this black and white can make rhythm or how it can make a form.

Rob Martin:
And then even with sound wave, it’s a up and down wave. But the contrast between those ups and downs and the speed that they’re going at will make it sound. So those parallels are really interesting to me too. And then even thinking about myself. People thinking about different people like, “Oh, that person is X, that means they like Y.” I feel like I was in the middle of all these things like, “Oh, you’re a black dude, but you grew up around South Bay around a bunch of Asian folks. So you don’t fit that mold in that way.” So I always kind of saw myself in the middle.

Rob Martin:
And then bringing it back to the whole music thing, Majorminor the way I see it as being in the middle of these ups and downs and kind of existing there, even again with the whole balance between form and my shape and color, all kind of making these things. That’s kind of where I came up with the name Majorminor to then represent myself and the practice that we have at the studio.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me about the Majorminor team.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So the Majorminor team currently, our core team is there’s three people; myself, my producer, Vincent, and then my other project manager, account manager, Michelle. One of the cool things about Majorminor is that everyone at kind of the leadership-level, you want to call it, they’ve always been people that I considered my best friends in life. I’m very lucky to have people that I call my best friend or a best friend that I could then actually work with and work alongside with in a really healthy, non-toxic kind of a way.

Rob Martin:
And this current iteration they’ve been on the team for the last, two years now. During COVID I took a break. I had a really bad panic attack in 2020, I think it was right before COVID hit. So I took off pretty much that year from COVID or the year that we first had the shutdown. When we started to come back together or when I decided I was ready to get back to work, I brought them along to kind of reshape the team and move forward with a more healthier feel.

Rob Martin:
And it’s been great so far. They’re really, really sensitive to that kind of stuff. And just paying attention to that for even our clients. How are they feeling about this? How are we feeling about everything? Making sure we’re not working too much, but know that when we do need to pick up the pace or something, we’re doing that in a way that’s not toxic or berating of anyone. Really considering, “This is about the work and not the person, but the people here, they need to be in a certain place to able to do their best work.”

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Rob Martin:
I’d say our best type of client is and this is something that we’ve only recently started to identify maybe in the last year, maybe even two years, but really kind of taking a hypothesis and trying to see if that actually makes sense, which it has. But basically, it’s a company that has some kind of product they’ve been able to vet their business. They’re probably making at least a million dollars a year revenue, but they don’t have a real brand system or even a strategy. They’ve just been just doing their thing. And they want to become competitive on either a larger regional stage or a national stage.

Rob Martin:
And so usually that means most of our clients have never paid for a design or worked with a strategic design team before. So we already know there’s a lot of education that comes with that relationship and a lot of handholding, but not like… It’s just like, “Hey, this is the process. And it might feel unintuitive to you in certain ways, but let us walk you through it.” And we’ll explain why we’re doing all this stuff. So we kind of see ourselves as being the stepper for them to get up the mountain. Sometimes people climb mountains, but they never climbed ever. So they need someone that’s done it before, see how they move and then bring them up the mountain in a way that facilitates their best experience.

Maurice Cherry:
So when let’s say a company or an individual then contacts you about a new project, what does that process look like in terms of bringing them in, working with their idea? What does that look like?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So first off, I guess we get some kind of initial email from them, “Hey we’ve got this project we’re thinking about, we got referred to you by whomever.” We’ll just hop on a really casual conversation and just talk to them. They can say, “We need a new brand system. We like this and like that.” But again, this is their first time actually working with a strategic team. So we want to uncover what that really means for them. And then help them understand what that really is for them. They might need an identity system, but how agile are you expecting it to be? What places will the main touch points, the core brand expressions actually be? And then once we have those conversations, it enlightens them onto what they’re actually about to get from us, what they actually need. And just the whole thing, just more are detailed and articulated for them.

Rob Martin:
Then from there, we’ve kind of uncover all those things. We call it a discovery session. Once everything is uncovered during that discovery session, then we’ll actually go and write a proposal with a number in there for them, go back and forth. Maybe they can’t afford it, or maybe they have to get more money, but then we can cut things out of it, put things in there that might have been revealed to them during some kind of board review of the proposal. And then from there, everything is sign the dot line. And this is actually something we’re about to do, to have a second session after the contracts are signed, going through all the terms of the engagement with them very clear. So everyone’s on the same page on how the process will move and why we only want you to have six stakeholders and no one else can chime in, why we’re doing that because we don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen.

Rob Martin:
People giving feedback out of context, or even giving personal feedback that isn’t irrelevant, but it then messed up the flavor in the pot. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Rob Martin:
Really trying to get… And not to be strict, but just say, “Hey, if you want this to move efficiently, when you want to get done, then we have to move in this way.” It serves both of our parties, not just us, not wanting to deal with other people. But for us to get that product for them, we need to make sure we’re all in agreement with the way we all have to move. It’s like I sign a disclaimer for you to jump out of a plane or something like that, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from clients and everything you mentioned that’s been going on now for 13 years almost, what’s been the secret to keep the things going?

Rob Martin:
I don’t know if there’s a secret, if there is, I’m still trying to figure it out. So if anyone hears anything from the stuff I’m saying, please feel free to pull my coat. Let me know what the secret could be. I think if anything, it is really just building. I think the biggest part of it is building and maintaining relationships because people the best way word-of-mouth or word-of-mouth is the best way I think, to get new projects. And even I feel like people see your work, that’s not what they’re buying necessarily. So if they come to you like, “Oh, that was really cool that you did that.” And their whole traction leads off of your work. It’s usually, you got to turn that back around because they’re not really paying for the work.

Rob Martin:
While the work is obviously important as the product that they’re getting at the end of the day, the relationship and the way that you both move, how the designer leads you through this, I think is what really, the biggest thing is. If they’re efficient, they’re working right, they’re being professional, they’re hitting their timelines. Those are the things that I think you’re really paying for because you get anyone to do any kind of design work. That’s why I don’t get hire people like, “Oh, I can just go on Fiverr and get someone to do this.” I’m fine like, “Fine, if that’s what you want to do go, but it’s going to be a way different experience and end product than what you’re going to get from us.” And that’s fine. If you want to go there, I’m not mad at you because that’s probably stuff I don’t want to work with if they’re going to have that kind of mentality.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
Or maybe they don’t really know the difference. I have to educate them to show them the value of what they’re actually getting versus a different studio or even another designer or even a Fiverr guy.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean that education part is important. One, that’s kind of in a way what they’re paying for, hopefully they’re paying for the education because they’re paying you to do something that they can’t do. So the hope is that you’ll be able to kind of show them like, “This is how it should be done.” But then also, they’re also paying for just your expertise. If you’ve been doing it for this long, clearly you have a track record for knowing what you’re doing. So it would take, hopefully I’m thinking on the client end, it would take me less time to hire a professional than for me to hire someone on say Fiverr or some marketplace that I may have to do a whole bunch of explaining towards, I don’t know the verbiage or the terminology to really talk to them the way they did in order to do the work. It ends up becoming just a lot more work that way.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. And that part, especially with the clients that we have, where it is their first time paying for this large of an effort strategic with design, they don’t know what they’re getting into. And there’s actually even a moment I want to say it was about a year ago where this woman approached us for some work. We already knew we didn’t want to work with her because of her tone of voice. But we still took the time to let her know, “You have no idea where you’re about to get into and this is what it should look like. And that’s why it costs X hundred thousand dollars.” Just because you don’t think it’s worth that much. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth that much. If anything, you really need to understand what you’re about to get into because you’re going to have a world of hurt as you try and do everything you’re trying to say for $15,000.

Rob Martin:
And we’re not trying to be mean, it’s just like, “Yo, this is actually how it is.” If anything, it should probably cost more because you’re going to be one of those people that don’t get it and don’t want to get it and it’s going to make more work for everyone. So yeah, I’m sharing information because I want people to understand what we actually do and take the veer off because it’s kind of… If you’ve never done it before, it’s kind of nebulous, what it really is and you learn along the way. And that’s the kind of the fun part about it for our clients too, is them seeing and having those aha moments and say, “Oh, that’s why you guys wanted to.”

Rob Martin:
One thing that we do that we’ve been doing for the last few years and we do identity systems. We don’t just do the logo and then the colors and then the tie, we do the whole thing at once. So they see a very good representation of where we want to take this direction for the system. So they’ll see the logo, some colors, it’s a very detailed mood board. And we even mock up like, “Here’s a poster or a campaign idea within this.” So it might only get two directions, but these two directions are thought out and vetted all the way to the point where they can just say, “We like that one or we like this one or maybe can we try this one with the other colors?”

Rob Martin:
And we cut down a lot of the really big reviews because we’re not doing everything one at a time. We’re showing everything in context. So if you can see this image that we’re trying to create for them, what the system looks like and how agile it is, how it can scale, what other pieces we think might need to be invented. Maybe they didn’t think about, “Oh, we never thought about doing this thing because we never saw the need for it. But we do see the need for it in this image mock up that you’ve done for us.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Like I said, that education is really important for them to kind of see what goes into it. Because oftentimes they don’t really know. Especially like you said, if they haven’t hired someone before, they don’t know what the creative process looks like. They just think you go in there and punch a few buttons and there you go. There’s the logo. But when you show them all the thought and the care and the psychology and everything that goes behind it, the hope is that they have that appreciation.

Maurice Cherry:
I had someone contact me recently that was like, “Oh, I need a logo for my organization.” And usually the first question I’ll always ask is, “What’s your budget?” Because for me that can be the indicator as to whether this is going to be a good project or a bad project. I hate to say it, but that’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
And so they had a pretty low budget and I said, “Well, you probably would be better off going to a marketplace just based on what you are willing to spend on this.” And it was pretty much a full brand identity for a nonprofit organization. They’re like, “We need a logo and this and that and the third.” Because I was like, “If you really try to hire the services of a designer, it’s going to be much more expensive than that. And I don’t know how much more expensive, it’s definitely going to be more expensive than your budget.” So you kind of have to ask those qualifying questions and stuff too. And especially when you’re starting out on your own, you may not know that. You may take those low gigs at first just to kind of have some skin in the game and you realize years and years later, you don’t do that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah. You know what’s even kind of crazy about that. They’re not crazy, but another piece of that is like, this is what I learned a few years ago too, was you might bid the pie and the sky project for them. But really they might not even be able to support that. It might be just be too much. And they spend all this money after you’ve educated them on it and they can’t even support it, and the identity just falls apart. Sometimes you’ll see this new brand comes out there, they wouldn’t be on brand new or something like that. But you’ll see the whole, “Oh, this is really cool. This is really great.” The way it’s represented on the designer side looks awesome. Then you go back a year later and it looks nothing like that because the internal team on the client side could not support something like that. Either their designer that they had in staff was whack or the brand guidelines you made them were trash.

Rob Martin:
But you also have to be able to make something that people can actually use and support over the length of however long they need it for. So that’s part of it to consider too. So they might be able to get the money for, but if you don’t think they have the support system to use that work and make it of even more value for them, then it’s kind like that’s another place you got to pause and be like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe we can just do a smaller scale of this or you should just to go somewhere else and just do something basic until you have the infrastructure to do something more. Just do something bigger to get you to that level, but I don’t think you’re there yet.” That’s something we’ve had to do a couple of times, but it’s a good thing to be able to identify as we’re kind of going through the bidding process.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes a lot of sense, actually. I didn’t even think about that. You can do this big identity and things for them, but if they can’t support it moving forward, then it’s like, “Do they really need that? Are they going to contract you to do that work for them?” There’s all these other questions that end up coming into play.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. And because just me personally, I to do the most and that always nips me in the bud a lot. So I’ve had to temper myself with trying to do everything I want to and would like to for them to what they actually need, what can they actually use? So that’s been, I guess, more of a learning for myself but that has been for other people. But we’ve had multiple times where we’ve had to encounter that and make a decision.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve mentioned doing a lot of branding and identity projects. Are there other types of projects that you want to do in the future through the studio?

Rob Martin:
Retail stuff is always really interesting because even getting into the graphic design. I remember my mom, she worked at, I don’t know, some place. It was a big white building called Sintex or something and over by Stanford in California and she would go to work every day and then come back and tell me what she did, it was data research or something. But there’s never any physical thing to show for it. And I also thought it was weird, at least for me because even as a kid, I liked to make stuff. I was either drawing or arts and craft, lanyards kind of shit. Everything I did, I had something to show for. Even when I was playing video games if I beat the game, I then make a drawing of the game as a certificate for myself like, “Hey, I did this thing.”

Rob Martin:
So for me, having some kind of artifact of your accomplishments or things that you do has always been really important to me. So the retail kind of thing, having a product that we then get to design and then package and someone I can point to it on a shelf like, “Yeah, me and my team did that.” That’s always been a really important to me to do more stuff like that. But even with websites, “Yeah, we made that thing.” But the physical thing is actually really interesting too. So even with the music that I put out, I put that on vinyl. So I have a record, literally a record of it and-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Rob Martin:
… it’s like a piece I can look back on. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s pretty dope. I want to definitely talk more about your music. We’ll get to that I think later in the interview. But let’s switch gears and talk about your origin story. You mentioned, or you’ve alluded to that you’re from in and around the Bay Area, is that right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. So I grew up in Sunnyvale, California, and that’s in the South Bay Area of the Bay Area and that was really cool being out there. Again, it was a cool mix, melting pot being around all these different people, even the tech and stuff out there. I really would say, I am a product of Sunnyvale, really into video games. Nerdy kind of guy, but cool enough where I could still get around and not get punked or anything. It definitely had an impact on the person I am in good ways, I think. I’m very proud to be from there.

Maurice Cherry:
It definitely sounds like you got into art and design and stuff pretty early on. You mentioned sketching the video games after you beat them and stuff like that.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. Video games was one of the gateways into art and design. Skateboarding was another really big one too. I was never, ever good at skateboarding, but I always like the art on them, the culture and the way people dress. That was a really big part of it for me. And then even with skateboarding, getting into punk rock music, I played in punk bands and stuff when I was in high school, sky bands, metal bands. But all those things, they all kind of… One thing I got into took me into something else, took me into something else. But they all stemmed around the art and the music part of it and the culture too, just the people that built it, seeing how they operate.

Rob Martin:
And especially even thinking about, I won’t say there was a counter culture necessary, but there’s just alternative lifestyles, the way people get down in there. Some of the crusty punk dudes, I used to kick it with. I would never want to live like that, but I respected the fact that they wanted to live that way. That’s what they did. And there was very authenticism or authentic part about it. They’re being themselves, doing what they want to do and whatever you’re “supposed to do,” they weren’t really worried about that because that’s what they wanted to do.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that design was something that you wanted to study?

Rob Martin:
Well, so I’ll say this, I always wanted to do graphic design, but I didn’t really know what graphic design was from a theoretical kind of practice until I got to Sacramento State.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Rob Martin:
Before that, I really just wanted a job where I didn’t have to do any math and I got to sit in front of a computer all day. I guess I wanted to be a production designer at that point. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just wanted to make stuff on the computer and not have to stand all day.

Rob Martin:
So once I got Sacramento State, the first class was all about theory again, how we’re seeing light becoming sense of the form and color. I was like, “Oh, this is actually kind of dope. There’s a whole science to it.” Even the degree that we got from Sacramento State was a Bachelor’s of Science, not an art degree. I really like that they fought to get that kind of definition around the program because this is all theory. Yeah, you are making something. You’re making a “beautiful thing,” at the end of the day. But there’s a lot of science, psychology, anthropology, even that goes into the foundation of the algorithm that we used to make whatever we make, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now prior to Sacramento State though, you started out at a art school, right? At Academy of Art University.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. So I don’t know if you knew this, but in the Bay Area where Academy is based out of, back in 2000s, they would run commercials late at night when all the anime stuff was on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Rob Martin:
Show, “Hey, if you want to draw anime, you can come over to art school over here and we’ll help get you a job and all this.” It was very romantic in that way. Trying to play up getting an art degree. That obviously looked very attractive to me. It was very expensive, but I like, “Mom, I really want to do this. Can you help me get there?” So we worked over the summer to get me signed up over there. It was a pain in the arse to get signed up there. And I was still living in my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. So getting up to San Francisco to be there for four days a week, a little bit of a stretch being… I don’t know how old I was, so I think I was maybe 20 or 19 then.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you driving or were you taking Caltrain?

Rob Martin:
So I’d stay at my friend’s house in Berkeley. He was going to UC Berkeley and I would stay up there for a day or two and then take BART across and then come back on the weekends.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha.

Rob Martin:
So I could work and just be home.

Maurice Cherry:
Because that’s a commute from South Bay to get up to San Francisco. I remember I interned out in San Francisco for a summer when I was in college and I was like, “It’s a trek.”

Rob Martin:
Yeah, yeah. If I had a good car, it wouldn’t have been that much of a problem, but just the logistics. So I’d be there till 7:00. I had to get there 9:00 AM, be there till 7:00 and then have to do homework. My friend was like I could just stay with him for a little bit.

Rob Martin:
Yeah, so I started school there, just the whole commute thing, the amount of stuff I needed to buy, the work I needed to do. I wasn’t ready for it. I think I dropped out halfway through the first semester. It wasn’t what I thought I was going to be. I wasn’t ready for that. It wasn’t what I expected it to be, which it ended up being more or the theory stuff. They start you out with all these foundational drawing classes, which are important.

Rob Martin:
But in hindsight, I don’t think that was absolutely necessary for the type of designer that I ended up being. So I’m glad I didn’t stick with that, especially for the amount they were charging. It was incredibly expensive.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. I was going to continue with the little bit, the origin stuff, right? So I dropped out of there and I went back to community college and I decided, “You know what? I’m going to go to a state school. I would like to get out of the Bay Area slightly.” So I started working towards going to Sacramento State, doing some painting and drawing classes at the end of community college and then went to Sac State. I think I started in 2003 there and I was at Academy, I think 2002. Yes, maybe like a year. I had an in between just because we had to sign up for the whole school transfer and everything to go to a state school from any other school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like Sacramento State was just a much better environment for you overall.

Rob Martin:
Oh, across the board. I swear I’m so lucky that this worked out for me because it was like one of those things was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t do this, I have to do something like this because I actually got diagnosed with ADHD a few years ago. And in hindsight that explained my whole entire life up to that point. And because usually if I’m not in it, I’ve been saying this thing recently. If I don’t fuck with you, I don’t fuck with you. And that’s kind of, if I’m not into it, then I literally can’t do it. My brain won’t let me. It won’t be stimulating enough for me to engage with it at all. I didn’t know that was an ADHD thing until recently.

Rob Martin:
But looking back, I told myself, I was like, “Yo Rob, you got to make this work.” Luckily the program at Sac State is top-notch. I highly recommend it to anyone trying to save money, but still get a very solid design education. I think their education there is better than Academy’s. It’s all theoretical. Although the professors are super Swiss old school trained, but they’ve been able to be agile and keep up with the times in a way. That really shows how much the theory and the practice of the foundations like becoming sensitive to the way you’re looking at things and having a critical eye and not personal preference or anything like that. They’re able to shape someone that’s maybe not naturally good at design and get them to a place where they can’t be competitive in the workplace.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your early career. So you graduated from Sacramento State, you’re getting out there in the world, working as a designer. Tell me what your early career was like because you were kind of working at a few different places here and there, right?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Actually, so maybe I should take a little step back. So before I graduated, I went to Dallas for a student design competition and I won my first award there, but I also met a lot of people. I met Armando Simmons out there. This guy, Matt George, I was working at VSA in Chicago. I almost actually ended up working at VCA a few months after that, but I wanted to graduate first and they were trying to get me to get over there before I graduated. I’m like, “I got to get the degree due. I’ve been working on this for three years. I can’t leave a month early and not get the degree.” So passed on that. And then I graduated and then I think immediately after that, I started sending out stuff for internships and I was able to land one at Chan Design in San Francisco, one of my favorite studios.

Rob Martin:
So back in the day, they were very influential on me. I was back again to commuting. So I’d be taking the train or driving to San Francisco from Sacramento at least three days a week for this internship. Super long commute.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
And eventually it was a pain, but for me it was worth it because that was a place I always admired and I really looked up to. So for me that was worth the commute. Plus I got to listen to podcasts and music all day on the way up and down. So those two and a half hour drives weren’t too bad back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Rob Martin:
And then from Chan, I was able to get a full-time designer spot at Volume. I was there for about a year, I think. For the first half of that, I was commuting every day now, but this time I take the train, which took longer, but at least I wasn’t driving so I could sleep on the way there and back. I did that get commute for a little bit then I moved back to my parents’ house in Sunnyvale. I just drove from San Francisco every day to back home. Then from there I got a spot at this place called Duarte Design. They’re the PowerPoint keynote specialists for Apple. They did Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth stuff. They’re a heavy player. They are the PowerPoint people. You there’s no one else that’s messing with them in any kind of way.

Rob Martin:
And I was there for a little bit and this is where my snobbery and the me thinking I was hot shit really came into play because I didn’t really… Cool. Working on PowerPoint stuff but I didn’t know I’d be working a Windows machine. I got really uppity about that. I think just culturally I wasn’t a good fit there and we all knew it, but they were trying their hardest to make it work just because they’re investing in the people and everything that they have. So I guess they kind of short, I am getting fired the day that Obama was elected.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Rob Martin:
But yeah, I saw it coming, but I get a little more symbolic on that day of all days. So I left there and I worked at Punchcut for a little bit and then I got laid off there because I was right when Obama got elected was when the recession started to hit. And it hit pretty hard right after that. So I got laid off there and then I was like you know what? I was going to start my studio. I’m living at my parents’ house. I said, “I need to make a little bit of money,” so they let me pay for food and gas and hang on the weekends. So I’ll be able to do that while I’m kind of getting my whole process together and actually figure out how I’m going to do this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to interject there for two things. One, when you were at Duarte, I’m curious. Do you know Jole Simmons? Does that name sound familiar?

Rob Martin:
It sounds familiar, but I don’t have a face.

Maurice Cherry:
He’s a presentation designer. I don’t know if you and he worked at Duarte at the same time, but you mentioned him. And that made me think of when I interviewed him a while back.

Rob Martin:
Oh, you mean Armando Simmons or Jole Simmons? I said Armando.

Maurice Cherry:
I know Armando Simmons, Jole Simmons, J-O-L-E Simmons, Hampton grad. I think Joel is still out there in the Bay now, but he does a lot of big presentations like Apple, Microsoft, et cetera. So you mentioned Duarte and I was thinking, “Oh, I think I know him. I don’t know if you all had crossed paths or not.” But it sounds one interesting parallel that kind of came up to me as you were mentioning that is you left right when Obama got elected, like you said, that was kind of symbolic. And I remember I was working at AT&T right at that time as a senior designer and I quit my job the day Obama got elected. I was going-

Rob Martin:
Because of that or just you got hyped up?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think I just got hyped up. It was all in the moment because I’m not going to get too much into it. Folks who have listened to the podcast have probably heard this story. But I was working at AT&T, I was a senior production designer. It was just a lot of work. And they were scaling things to the point where we were doing… All the work that we did had point values to it. And so they would lessen the point value of the work and increase the number of points you had to hit every week to make your goal or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on top of that, I was also getting paid less than other senior designers there, despite the fact that I had more experience and I had sort of lobbied to not my manager because I was a contractor working there, but my contractor manager telling her what happened and she managed to get all of my back pay. There were six months of back pay that was owed to me and the back hit that morning because I remember I went to go vote. I came back to the office and my contractor manager pulled me into her office, told me that the money had hit and everything like that. So we should be all squared away and things like that. And it was like as soon as she said that, and then a little bit later on we were watching the votes and everything in the office and stuff like that. And we had a big team meeting near the end of the day and I just quit. I quit in the team meeting.

Rob Martin:
Yo, props for that, though. Even during the team meeting too, that’s a hard mic drop thing.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m curious for you, you had kind of these short stints at these different design agencies and studios and stuff, what was going on during that time. Did you just feel like you weren’t fitting in anywhere or what was going through your mind then?

Rob Martin:
Yeah, this is actually kind of a personal thing for me, right? Again, with the ADHD thing, I didn’t know I had that until later in life. So first two spots to Chan and Volume just being contract designers out here, you kind of come in and out, that’s just how those worked out. At the same time, I think the person I was, my social skills were not where they are now. I’m way more socially inept or I’m better as a social person. I fit in with people. I can talk to people now more comfortable with doing that. Before I was really shy. I’m very awkward on top of me just not being into certain things. At Duarte, I just looked like an asshole pretty much I think to people. Not intentionally, but I was though.

Rob Martin:
Again, in hindsight I could see how the way I was behaving would look to someone for me outside in. And then even just starting Majorminor and having to now get in of people and sell myself, that really helped with all this being comfortable and being able to approach people, being able to talk to people in a certain way. All that really helped and it started to happen once I started getting my feet on the ground, started campaigning to get work and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So that feeling was kind of what made you want to start the studio?

Rob Martin:
Well, I wouldn’t say that feeling necessarily, but I guess that was a part of it was just, I need to be able to do things in my own terms in order for me to do them at my highest level. Just like the personal investment. Do I really want to do this? Do I care about it versus kind of what you were saying with AT&T just throwing stuff in front of you and you’re just trying to churning it out. I can’t do that necessarily, at least for a sustained amount of time, after a while I just start to drift off and daydream in my head and think about other stuff I’d rather be doing. So I figured why did I just do that stuff in the first place so you never have to feel like that or make someone feel a certain kind of way about you because you’re treating their work in a certain way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What were those early years of Majorminor like?

Rob Martin:
Very interesting. I’ve ever encountered anyone else that had this kind of path, but I didn’t have any clients that I brought with me or anything like that when I left any of these places or even freelance clients. I literally just went on Craigslist every 20 minutes and refreshed a page and sent out my little cold email to all the people that were looking for stuff. Sometimes it’d be a little $150 logo. Sometimes it’d be like, “Hey, I need a magazine done or something like that.”

Rob Martin:
That experience was really critical because it helped me to build my process for any actual real work, getting my contracts together. Having that experience is where things go wrong, and I now learn not to do certain things. Understanding how to approach people and not just say yes to everything, but like, “Hey, I can do this, but I can do this. Well, you only have this amount of money. Well, I can’t do that then, but I can do this for you.” The negotiation thing, being able to meet people where they’re at with what they’re trying to do and really understanding and hearing them and what they’re trying to do and not just be a factory.

Rob Martin:
The beginning years of just chilling on Craigslist was pretty, pretty significant that way. I didn’t know that at the time, but looking back that was my master’s program was the first two years of Majorminor, just trolling on there. But the thing is once I was doing that because I started off solo, right? So I’m doing this just on Craigslist as often as I possibly can, looking for other avenues to get work without having any work to show or any other contacts that could put me in front of someone else. It really built me up in that way and got my process to a place where I can actually run a business.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you said that because I think that way of starting out is a lot more common than people think. I know that-

Rob Martin:
Yeah, I hope so.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, serious because that’s how I started out. My first year after I quit, I didn’t have… See, this was my thing. I thought I would have clients lined up. I had been telling friends of mine like, “I’m thinking about starting my own studio or something like that.” And they’re like, “Yeah, well you got such and such. I’ll have some work for you.” And I quit. And those first, I’d say probably those first three or four were lean. I mean they were rough. I wasn’t necessarily going on Craigslist, but I was definitely taking super low paying jobs, anything just to get something in the bank account.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to a lot of meetups because meetups were big. I’m in Atlanta to kind of give a context. But here at Atlanta, meetups were pretty big in 2009 or so. So I would go to all these web design meetups, which I quickly found out is the worst place for a designer to try to get a job because there’s other designers that are trying to get jobs. So you all are all competing for the same scraps essentially. Everybody’s trying to get something. It was rough those first few months.

Maurice Cherry:
I had went to one meetup and some guy had contacted me. He was a business graduate from UGA, this white dude. And he was like, “Yeah, I’d love to meet up with you. I have some questions about design because there’s this project that I might be working on and I’d like your help on.” And I was just like, “Okay, fine. If you buy me breakfast.” Because at the time I was like, I got $5 off to my MATA card. I can take the bus up there and then walk back to the station and take the trains, so I don’t have to pay twice or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
I went up there. It was a Panera Bread up in Buckhead for folks that know Atlanta. Went to Panera Bread, met this guy and he was telling me, “Me and this other friend were thinking of starting this business because we’re trying to… ” They were basically trying to cash in on the, it’s funny because Obama kind of ties into this, but trying to cash in on the trend of politicians now wanting to run their campaigns like Obama. So this is early 2009. Everything Obama did in his first run for presidency with social media and graphic design and stuff was really unprecedented.

Maurice Cherry:
And so this is one of the first slates of municipal races after that. It was like the mayor’s race essentially. And so everybody running wanted the Obama sheen to their campaign and it’s like, “Well you can’t hire the Obama folks because now they work for the administration or they’re going to be super expensive.” So he had knew this guy and they knew a candidate that was running and they were basically going to put a company together to pitch to that candidate. But they were like, “We need a designer.” And so he’s asking me to basically tell him how to design. He’s like, “Should I learn HTML or should I learn Dreamweaver? And I’m like [crosstalk 00:40:09]. I was like, “You know what? I’m sympathetic to your plight. I really need work. Let’s just kind of do this as a trio.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so the three of us had met up and we came up with a name for the business and we had ended up getting onto the campaign of this woman. She was the city council president and she had ran for mayor. She dropped out because her parents got sick and she was about to jump back into the race. So we’re talking to her campaign manager at this lavish mansion. And I was like, “This is the fanciest shit I have ever seen in my life.” I knew people in Atlanta were rich, but I was like, “I have never seen no shit like this.” Huge-

Rob Martin:
Yeah. Rich, rich.

Maurice Cherry:
… 10 foot round solid marble table that we’re meeting at like King Arthur. And we meet the candidate and she’s told us about we’re running for everything and she’s like, “I like the three of you all,” because two of us were black and one of us was white. And she’s like, “I like the three of you all. This is real diverse like Obama. You got you a white guy? This is real diverse.” Because she was black.

Rob Martin:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so she kind of was, ask us about where we went to school and all this kind of stuff. And so is like, “Yeah, I’ll take a chance. I’ll take a chance on you.” So we ended up becoming the new media team for her campaign essentially. She got back in the race and ran from, I think April of 2009 to November. She didn’t win. She came in third place. But that whole experience set me up basically to continue running my studio for almost 10 years after that. Because if I didn’t have that experience of that campaign, I wouldn’t have been able to meet other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And honestly, like you said, get your process together. The crucible of working inside a political campaign is rough. It reminded me a lot of working as a production designer. You got to crank out stuff really fast. You got to respond to things quickly. There’s no time to kind of sit and iterate. You got to really come up with something super quick. It was a lot, it was a lot. And actually that’s where I first met Stacey Abrams because that was who our campaign manager was.

Rob Martin:
Oh, okay. Cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so that was pretty cool.

Rob Martin:
That’s what I said. They all comes around full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Those early years, I mean kind of to the point I was saying earlier, you kind of have to get out there and scrap. The hope is that you’re going to have these clients and people that come over. But the reality is, it’s a jungle out there. I’d say probably even more so now than that because the learning curve to design, I’m using air quotes around design, is so much shorter now because people can learn stuff on YouTube and they can take these courses and stuff. And there’s people half a world away that are doing this for pennies on the dollar. And how can you compete with that?

Rob Martin:
Yeah. It’s just all the bureaucracy that goes into that, everyone’s looking at it, everyone’s got something to say, but you still got to make it in two minutes just really quick. And did you even have a system that you were working with or were you just making stuff on the fly and [crosstalk 00:43:09]?

Maurice Cherry:
No, I was just making up stuff as I went along. I had no problem process, I had nothing. And like you said, it takes a few times you get burned by… I was fortunate that with the political campaign, everything worked out as it did. But even the clients I had after that, I didn’t have a contract. I eventually learned about AIGA’s design contract and I sort of used that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a client that was a lawyer who used to work with the campaign. And so I bartered my service with him. I’m like, “I’ll do design work for you. If you write my contracts.” And so that’s how I got good contracts, proposals, templates and stuff. I started thinking like, “Who do I need to do work for to try to upgrade how I do my business?” But that process had to come along through a lot of trial and error. Nobody was sitting me, I didn’t have a business mentor or anybody that sat me down that was like, “You have to do this.” I was out here fucking up and just trying to recover from it.

Rob Martin:
The contract thing’s actually kind of funny. So we’ve always had problems with people running late or not paying us. Actually, we had a really bad one about a year ago. They’re still paying us. It’s been a year since the job was over. I’ve actually found the contracts to be kind of ineffective because if you don’t enforce them, whether it’s like, “Hey, this happened according to our terms, this is what’s supposed to happen.” If you don’t enforce them, they’re not going to.” If you do enforce them, you might not get anything. It’s kind of like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
So yeah, the whole contract thing, we’ve been trying to figure that out. Yeah, we have a good contract here. It is “legal” because they sign it. But, “Okay, cool. They’re not doing anything. Do we now want to spend the money that we don’t have to pursue the thing legally?” We can’t just flash the piece of paper in their face and like, “But you signed the contract.” “All right. I still don’t have any fucking money for you. What are you going to do?”

Maurice Cherry:
The one thing that I would do with clients is I would never let them sign the contract alone. So I would set up a contract meeting with them and we would go over each clause in the contract and make understood it and then we’d sign it together. And then they knew kind of moving forward, this is what you’re being held to.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was lucky that even with the lawyer that I had, he wrote the contract in pretty plain language. So it wasn’t a lot of PR24s and the party of the first part and all that kind of stuff. It was pretty straight forward. But I would always have a contract meeting. I would never let them sign it alone because one, the client’s never really going to read it. They’re just going to sign it so they can try to get the project started.

Maurice Cherry:
And the hope is that they read it. You hope that they read it. I’m like, “No, we’re going over this like you’re five years old. We are going over it clause by clause so you understand what this means. This is what scope creep means. This is what a termination fee means. This is what a kill fee means. I hope we never have to institute these things, but if it gets to that point you know because we’ve had this meeting.” I would sort of point back to that meeting if things started to go a little wonky during the process like, “Well, we had the meeting and you said this and we signed it together.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay.”

Rob Martin:
I think we are going to start doing something like that now. But I think even more so signing it in-person versus talking over the phone, which I think is what we’re about to do, but that was actually really good. I like hearing that. That was really smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something that you had mentioned to me before we had started recording was the parallels in your design career and your music career. I’d love to hear more about that.

Rob Martin:
Oh, yeah. So I think more of that is just around the process of my approach. So I feel like all these things are kind of the same as far as the way that they’re made, right? You have layers in Photoshop and your music software, you have layers of instruments of tracks, right? The way you’re blending them, the way you’re using levels or curves or whatever. The same thing you do with mixing EQ, adding saturation to something, even the words, the semantics are similar in some cases.

Rob Martin:
So historically I’ve never done both of them at the same time up until maybe the last few years where I’ve really taken the design and my music career as seriously as I am. But even outside of the actual creative part, you got to start making relationships. The way you’re talking to people about your design work and trying to sell them is a similar kind of passion and trust is being built when you’re trying to get gigs or just talk to people about your music.

Rob Martin:
I’ve noticed as I do one more, I get better at the other one too. So they kind of lift each other up in separate ways. Well, separate ways, but they do the same thing. When do you do outreach or something like that, you’re campaigning yourself or your music stuff. When you start doing that in your design field, it’s a similar process. You’re running business, the concept of running a business is the same everywhere. You don’t need to know how to do that certain thing to operate the business so that you can scale it, right?

Rob Martin:
I never realized that until recently, but just all that stuff it’s very similar, even if you know how to use Final Cut, you probably know how to use Ableton or Logic or something like that. But the way they use softwares and the process, the workflow to use them are all very similar.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rob Martin:
The buttons might be a little bit different, but if you get the concept behind how to use it, you’ll be able to apply it elsewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. The thing is for those graphic tools, a lot of them borrow their UI from music tools. So the layers [crosstalk 00:48:26] and all that sort of stuff. Yeah, it’s all the same. So what is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? What keeps you going?

Rob Martin:
I guess there’s a couple things, I guess first off, just my personal interest. I love what I’m doing. I love the fact that I can make money from my first two passions, even starting Majorminor and becoming successful with that. I feel blessed I’m able to do that because I need to be able to do something like this to wake up in the morning, and not become bored or anything like that. So I’m glad I’m able to be self-sufficient as a man, as a person in society doing the thing that I love.

Rob Martin:
So I used to tell people, “Oh, I got my second dream running the studio and we’re good.” But now I want to get my first dream and that’s to have a successful music career, at least doing music to a certain point. I don’t want to become famous or anything like that. But just being able to release music and work on it and have people make memories to it. I always have this idea where someone sees me on the street, “Oh, you’re that dude RCA. Hey, you made that beat. I met my girl that almost playing at the club or whatever. And we listen to it all the time, it’s a memory of ours now. I just want to say, thank you for that.” I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know, man.” But that makes my day. It makes my whole life right there, hearing stuff like that. That’s from a personal kind of place. So my personal drive, that’s where that motivation comes from.

Rob Martin:
I think the other part of it too specifically to design, and this is funny because this has changed a lot over the last, since I’ve been a student, but just having see another black person run a studio. I think a lot of times people just like the diversity and design. There’s people out there’s doing everything. But in certain places, I only know maybe three or four other studio heads that are black. And I know there’s more than that, but just personally know or have actually seen on the wild. It’s just good to see that because I’m always surprised when I’m on a company’s page and I see career director, black dude. Oh, cool. If we’re getting out there, not just as a team designer, but doing strategy or being the leadership part of the team.

Rob Martin:
When I was a kid, I saw none of that. I was always the only black kid in my class historically. So it’s cool seeing all that change, even just giving back to the community in that way. Just being, not like they need to be the face of anything, but just having people see me in certain ways always feels really good. So that’s a big motivator too. And just doing kind of talks for kid’s school or portfolio reviews. I always try to show up to those whenever I can just to give back in the first place, but also represent that we’re out here like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have any mentors or other peers that helped you along your design journey?

Rob Martin:
Not so much. I could call it mentors, but Armando Simmons, he was the first black student I had ever met. I was still in school and we talked a little bit after I met him when I was in school, but I wouldn’t call him mentor, but he definitely was a source of inspiration, just like, “Oh, shit. He’s doing and he’s been doing it for a minute too. And that stuff’s tight.” I don’t know, that was the first glimpse I got. And he was always really nice to just hang out and talk or whatever.

Rob Martin:
But as far as mentors, not really. Maybe my professor’s like Gwen Amos and John Forrest at Sacramento State, they were really positive to me in that way. I always tell them whenever I see them, “You guys changed my life. If I hadn’t met you, I don’t know what I’d be doing. I’d probably be working at Target or something like that.” They put the effort, they saw the effort I was trying to put it in, and they put the effort back into me and they knew there was something there. So I really appreciate them taking the chance on me like that and just pouring some of my extra effort into someone that they felt was deserving of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Is this how you imagined your life would look like when you were a kid?

Rob Martin:
Absolutely not. And I’m glad because when I was a kid, my later life, I was always very nervous to get older because I had no idea what I was going to do. And that’s even from being a small child. Like, “I don’t know what I want to do. I just want to make stuff, I don’t know what that means, making money, being a person in society and all that kind of stuff.” But then even as I got closer to becoming an adult, I’m like, “Oh, shit. I need to figure this out. I’m getting to a point where I’m going to be 20 years old. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Rob Martin:
So I’d say maybe actually in the first time in my life, in the last 10 years, I’ve actually felt like, “Cool. Things didn’t work out the way I thought they were as a kid.” I’m super glad I’ve been able to do that for myself. And now it’s just sustaining that. What’s going to keep me going? What’s going to keep me excited in the same kind of rhythm that I have now, be able to do the things I would like to, and then still be able to make money from it, but then also add to other people’s lives? I can’t do this all on my own, so I hope whatever people that do get on the ride with me, they’re getting something out of it and are doing it not for just money, but there’s personal investment. That’s why I usually end up hiring a lot of my friends that are really close to me because they seem to be into what we’re doing. Yeah, it just feels good being able to contribute to their lives because they’re contributing back to me in that way by team and up.

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

Rob Martin:
That’s a good one. That’s what we’ve been talking about internally with the team and just even me thinking about it myself. One thing I’ve actually been doing, this is kind of like I guess one of the parallels with the music and the design stuff is doing more concert visuals. So I’ve been working on my own personal show, learning how to do visuals whether it’s a video synthesizer or software synthesizer or with after effects and premier and integrating that along with the music, whether it’s programmed and able to live or it’s just a movie that plays in the background or something with Resolume. And I guess that’s kind of the marriage of my two passions, as I’m saying it out loud is how can I bring these things together? And then also now start to offer that as a service and be able to do it for myself as well, too.

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

Rob Martin:
Yeah. The best place to go. And we’re working on this now we’re on a new website, but you can find our stuff at majorminor.co. There’s a little bit of work on there, but if you’d like to see more, just feel free to email me, rob@majorminor.co. As far as the music stuff, you can go to rcawhatsgood.com. All the links are on there, IG, YouTube and just see what we’re all about and what I’m all about. The music stuff too. I think there’s a lot of parallels as far as the aesthetics and just how we approach design. You can see both those things on there. But yeah, if you have any other questions, feel free to hit me up on any of those platforms too. I’m always very responsive. I love talking to people.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Rob Martin. I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. We kind of had talked a bit before we had started recording, but it’s amazing how much our journeys as entrepreneurs and even kind of as musicians in a way have kind of paralleled each other. I think it’s great that you’ve really been able to carve your own way and find your own way in the design industry really through hard work, luck and determination and just doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
As a musician, it’s always about practice makes perfect. We always hear that. But with business, oftentimes you don’t have the opportunity to do that because especially for your own business, everything that you do has to be contributing hopefully towards progressing the business. But it really sounds like with Majorminor going for 13 years now, you’re doing something good. You’re putting out good things out there in the world. You’re supporting the community as well. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to tell your story. So thank you for coming on. I appreciate it.

Rob Martin:
Right on. Thanks, Maurice. And just for you too, thank you for doing all of your past stuff. I remember we talked a lot back on the Slack channel. I don’t know if this still exists or not, but that was really great for you to support or just put out there for the community and everything you do. I’ve always seen it from afar, but I really got a lot of appreciation of what you do and just the fact you’ve been doing it for this long too, so right off for having me. I really appreciate it. I’ve been waiting to be on this for a minute too, so it finally happened.