Michael Collett

“A better world is possible if we approach our work with a class- AND race-aware lens.” Michael Collett was dropping gems like this, and we hadn’t even started recording! I have followed Michael’s work since 2016, and I’m glad we finally finally got a chance to talk on Revision Path about his career and his overall philosophy to life.

We talked about his involvement with Greenworks and Design To Divest, and Michael shared some of his origin story growing up between The Middle East and the United States. He also spoke about class awareness and politics among the Black creative class, working in San Francisco, and the one piece of advice that has stuck with him over the years. We need deep thinkers like Michael in the Black design community to keep us all honest and accountable!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Michael Collett:
My name is Michael Collett, and I’m a multi-disciplinary designer based in San Francisco, California. I’m on the steering committee at Design To Divest which is an organization that seeks to center and uplift black creative talent wherever we find it. And I’m a partner at a company called Greenworks and our slogan is tender loving care for plants and people. Thank you so much for having me today, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no problem. Wow, it’s so formal. My goodness. This is a night live.

Michael Collett:
I hit my ribs real quick. [crosstalk 00:03:24].

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

Michael Collett:
It’s still 2020, right?

Maurice Cherry:
In some ways, yeah, it feels like it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. I mean, not bad truthfully like still walking around, still freelancing and keeping as busy as one can. San Francisco conspires to be approximately 60 degrees while the rest of the country is boiling, so I suppose I should just be grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right. Just so folks know we’re recording this right now where there’s like this massive heat dome over the Northwest United States, like it’s crushing most other cities, but San Francisco seems to be like the ice cube in the middle of all this.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, they’re joking that even the heat can’t afford rent here, yes. Understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has San Francisco been like now that I guess the state and everything’s opened back up?

Michael Collett:
As a San Franciscan, I hold the right to criticize my city a lot, but I will say that the pandemic and broadly reopening has been handled halfway okay. People were generally pretty willing to put masks on, San Francisco is very, very dense, we all sort of live on top of one another and quite literally.

Michael Collett:
And the mask rate was really, really high, people have and myself included quibbles about particularly things like outdoor dining and the way that that’s come to pass. But we’ve mostly reopened the cases aren’t really spiking touch wood. I don’t think it owes much to our political class so much as just our citizenry though.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s been weird how like Atlanta and Georgia, for the most part, it’s largely been open since, I don’t know, like May of last year.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I have friends in Atlanta who say the pandemic never happened.

Maurice Cherry:
It really never felt like it happened. I mean, certainly there were companies that had closed down like movie theaters and such, and even the city itself went through this whole reopening phase. Right now we’re in phase four of five of the city fully reopening, but it never really felt like the city closed.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, traffic’s been the same going out and about is largely been the same. I think there might’ve been certainly a time in early April where it felt like, “Wow, this is going to really affect the way of life here.” And then everyone was like, “You know what? We’re good.” They just kept going.

Michael Collett:
We just kept going hard and fast here by American standards for sure and the city, and much has been made of the exit is from San Francisco that the numbers don’t really back up, but definitely a lot of boarded up shops that quickly got covered with graffiti. I don’t know, I liked my city with a little bit of an edge to it. San Francisco in the last five years particularly had gotten to be a bit of a Disneyland, so a little more bite to the town always, always suits me.

Maurice Cherry:
So you think it’s sort of changing that way now that there’s been that Exodus?

Michael Collett:
We’ll see. Like I said, the Exodus is I think a lot more hyped up than real, like maybe some of the folks who were pulling down six figures and never really cared to be here other than for the job itself are in the East Bay now or somewhere deeper into the valley, but there’s still just roughly the same 800,000 plus people here.

Michael Collett:
I think what has sort of been interesting to see is that we all, for the most part, looked around and went, “Okay, I’ll put this mask on and do what I’m supposed to do.” And it broadly sort of worked, I think of criticism that I’ve had of everybody throughout the pandemic, both presidential administrations to governors and mayors, and everybody.

Michael Collett:
As citizens, we’ve been left to our own devices to figure this out, and it was pretty cool to see San Francisco by and large sort of figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I finally got to see you speak at this year’s where are the black designers confident. For folks that don’t know, I knew Michael, when Michael… Is Michael Collett still-

Michael Collett:
Michael.

Maurice Cherry:
… working Michael?

Michael Collett:
I probably shouldn’t say that it’s still my email address, but yeah, it’s still my email address. It was a numb day brand or whatever you want to call it for a while. I’m mostly using my full initials as a professional mark these days, but I’m always working on something that was why the name existed to begin with is because what are you doing or I’m working.

Michael Collett:
Back in the day, it was a lot of black collar work service industry stuff and that kind of work as much as graphic design. So it was an homage to being on both sides of that fence, but these days it’s mostly just graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but seeing you at this year’s conference and getting to hear you speak on that panel, I was like, “Wow, this is dope.” I was the whole event for you.

Michael Collett:
Pretty seamless, I tuned in, I was out and about on Saturday on some personal business, but tuned in and watched a session before on Sunday. And much as Zoom we’ve grown to joke is and Design To Divest is pretty notorious for glitching out whenever I get too political. The technical part of it was seamless, and then I don’t know if you stuck around for the online little after party, but there was just a wonderful sort of sense of community in particularly like the slack rooms and the chats that were going on.

Michael Collett:
I’m always impressed that people manage to produce anything resembling a human connection when it’s just Zoom screens and chat windows, to organize a real event. And then I’m somebody who grew up on Okayplayer message boards, and the old BB boards days, and that kind of stuff.

Michael Collett:
So I know it’s possible, but the idea of like running a whole conference just digitally, still strikes me as really impressive. So I was just blown away by all of it. The branding I thought was really, really nice, just some lovely illustrations and all the way through to the Zoom backgrounds for presenters, really well thought through. You know how designers can be, God, we’re so nitpicky, but I felt really touched to be a part of it and to be asked to be there. So that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I gave the second day keynote for the conference, and that was something that I mentioned was now more than ever we have, of course, like these physical groups of people that got together, pre pandemic, we have Bay Area black designers, black designers of Seattle, and other kind of similar groups.

Maurice Cherry:
But then like the number of events that sprung up over the last year, because someone, like you said had a Zoom account, they’ve got a Slack room, boom, put it together. You’ve now got a conference venue where you can bring people in and they can give talks. And like the technology has progressed to the point that allows us to sort of spin this up pretty cheaply and pretty robustly which is great to see.

Michael Collett:
And credit to the organizers, I think particularly of this year is where the black designers, without naming names I’ve been to some other things that just felt like workdays, you’re just in Slack and on Zoom all day and I’m like this doesn’t… Whereas like designers this year did not have that feel, and I think that’s the real secret sauce, if you will, is being able to take these tools that let’s be clear have been built for business purposes and to use them for something that is deeper and beyond that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that just like black folks though?

Michael Collett:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
Making something out of nothing. But yeah, the amount of different events and things that have come on and I did some of those events last year and it has varied wildly, some of them have been super easy, super smooth, and then others have really felt like work.

Michael Collett:
The first versus, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right, right. Yeah. So like you mentioned, you’re a partner at Greenworks, talk to me like…

Michael Collett:
Greenworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that. What of work are you doing?

Michael Collett:
Tender loving care for plants and people. So Greenworks is a fun story, I was up in Sacramento in December looking after a family member who had some medical work done. And while I was just trying to calm my nerves, I started flipping through a shelf full of books and posting on my Instagram. And when I found cool typefaces, just mindless research type of thing you do when you’re twitchy about something.

Michael Collett:
And a buddy of mine, Mohammed Sillerman in New York saw one of them and it was this old ’70s plant care book called Greenworks. And it had that one of those classic ’70s wobbly font types, you can sort of picture it in your head. And the tagline was tender loving care for plants. And he joked and he said, “That would make a great T-shirt.”

Michael Collett:
And I said, “Oh yeah, tender loving care for plants and people, why don’t we do it?” And so we dove immediately into the print on demand T-shirt economy. And the more we kept trying to type set the words, tender loving care for plants and people on a Gildan T-shirt the more and more it felt like we were just really fucking up. It was just this fundamental disconnect between what we were saying and how we were doing it, because look like Gildans and the cotton T-shirt economy in general is not a fantastic one.

Michael Collett:
And we wanted to do more than just add another T-shirt to the world, right? Like in what way were we improving on not doing anything? And so we stepped back and my buddy Mo realized that he had a friend Anj in Seattle who had worked with all kinds of different manufacturing and was currently working in the legal cannabis industry there. And that we ought to reach out to her about how to take this T-shirt thing on.

Michael Collett:
And so there was a particular design detail that we wanted to do, and we were having a hard time conceptualizing it. And so we reached out to Anj, and Anj not only had already solved for that design detail but immediately picked up on the problems that we were having with the quick turnaround print on demand object universe. And said, “We’re at a point now where we cannot do this.” And we all said, “Yeah, why don’t we not do that?”

Michael Collett:
And so Greenworks now is a research company more than anything else. And what we’re trying to do is provide as holistically as possible solutions to problems that we encounter as designers. So with T-shirts, for instance, rather than running immediately to a 100% cotton blank that you don’t know how it’s produced, but you probably can guess, we’re searching out looking for and working with people who grow hemp and use recycled cotton, and who are looking at the water impact and waste diversion from what they do.

Michael Collett:
So rather than simply treating the T-shirt and the thing that goes on it as the design problem, we’re looking at as much as we can, the whole thing from stem to stern. So we’re in the process right now of developing a line of houseware solutions since we’ve all been inside this year and nobody needs really another T-shirt, but everybody could use a new pot for some plants or a blanket for their couch or an ashtray to burn some incense in, or a nice water bottle. And there are ways to produce those that are in keeping with our ethos.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When I looked at it initially, and this I don’t know if this was an intentional comparison in general, but when I thought of it and looked at it, it sort of reminded me of what Seth Rogen is doing with houseplants with his brand.

Michael Collett:
There’s definitely I think some similarity there, I would admit that we are perhaps similarly aligned about various kinds of houseplants if you will. But what I will say is that rather than approaching things from a hype beast standpoint, we’re really interested in products as the result of design solutions rather than products as ends in and of themselves, if that makes sense, we were just having a conversation about this yesterday.

Michael Collett:
One of the things that we’re really interested in doing as we produce objects is being really transparent about processes because what we’re interested in is tender loving care for plants and people, and that extends to the people that are making the objects that we’re designing.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s a new, maybe not a new challenge for designers, because if you go back through industrial design history, there’s certainly that awareness of it. But when we think about the holy grail for us as graphic designers is passive income. You make T-shirts, skateboard deck, coffee mugs, that kind of stuff. And people buy it because they liked the design of it and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Michael Collett:
But that stuff isn’t without its own cost and it isn’t without its own ethical problems. And the challenge I think for us as designers now is to look at not just the object, but the process as the design challenge. So that’s what we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like that’s an ethos that has started, I think, in some aspect to creep up now because the pandemic because one thing certainly that this period has done is that it’s really exposed supply chains and how fragile they are.

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when it comes down to people trying to create new sorts of products or things like this, hopefully they’re looking at more ethical ways to do it ways that won’t be a big tax on other resources and stuff like that.

Michael Collett:
And selfishly ways that won’t get stuck in the Suez Canal for a month, like there’s also just the fundamental functional problems of hyper globalized manufacturing in that, your stuff is literally on the other side of the planet until it’s not. And I don’t know, I’m a designer I’m picky, that seems like a really bad way to have as much control as possible over what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the designer way, isn’t it? To nitpick over the details and to really create something that is, I think more towards art, particularly with physical works. I’ve had so many designers over the years where yes, they may be digital designers by profession, but in their spare time they’re doing pottery or woodworking or something, they’re making something tangible and they’re doing it with the amount of care and precision and such that they probably would with a digital design.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Oh, well, I mean, I think once you look at the world that way, it’s hard not to do that in every part of your life. I bet you are very, very intent on how your onions get chopped, even if you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Collett:
And that’s I think partially how I was raised both my parents are landscape architects and I grew up around them and not only in their professional peers. And so I’ve long believed that every moment is an opportunity to bring a design sensibility to things which to paraphrase Minari, I think is just a planner with an aesthetic sense. So if you’ve got a plan and a sense of taste then you’re halfway to a design. And even if that’s just chopping onions.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you mentioned that about onions. I remember reading something, this was years ago, about how an onion will actually taste differently depending on how you cut it.

Michael Collett:
That’s exactly the point. Yes, that’s exactly it, right? Like sometimes you want the long slice, sometimes you want the diced onion. Sometimes you want to put it in before the garlic, sometimes you want to put it in after, sometimes you don’t want to put them in together at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, good point. Yeah. You’re also on the committee for a collective that’s called Design To Divest. Talk to me about that.

Michael Collett:
Design To Divest. I am just so full of love for these folks. So Design To Divest started in the context of the pandemic and the summer protests last year by a designer creative based out of Brooklyn named Vanessa. And they reached out to their network and extended black creative networks, initially for people to essentially for graphic designers to lend their skills to existing social justice organizations who needed design help.

Michael Collett:
And we quickly became a little bit of a running crew, speaking of assembling community online and in virtual spaces, it’s definitely sort of how that came to be. And over the course of, I guess, now the last year and a half, we’ve gone from hosting regular weekly meetings for black designers and allies to pulling back a little bit from the regular grind of the digital ecosystem and trying to be really, really intentional in the work that we’re doing.

Michael Collett:
And so we’re about to release in collaboration with San Francisco print shop a butt whole press that’s beauty, W-H-O-L-E, for those listeners with sensitive years. Our first Dezeen, our first publication that’s going to grapple with critical race theory and Afrofuturism and all kinds of things that are imminently topical right now that we’re only just fringe ideas six months ago when we started talking about this.

Michael Collett:
And broadly we are immersed in the process of trying to create something that I mentioned during our panel discussion last weekend, like a walled garden for black creators. And this is something that is not only, I think, a priority for me with Design To Divest, but is also a priority with my work with Greenworks.

Michael Collett:
I fundamentally believe that keeping up with particularly the Instagram algorithm for creatives is an inherently toxic and losing game. And I think anything that we can do to literally just provide a space for black creatives and black creators to develop outside of that really consumptive and extractive digital space is something worth doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And with Design To Divest and you all sort of coming together and doing these things, I guess, where do you want to see this collective grow into? Are there larger things also that you’d like to accomplish?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, we’d like to divest from white supremacy in design in general. Yeah, that’s the large goal and design as broadly as possible and divest as largely as possible. We are I think, I’m going to say today, disgruntled optimists, as much as anything else about the possibility.

Michael Collett:
It’s cliche for designers, like design can change the world, but the world is designed. So yeah, I mean, sort of, right? And that’s not to say that like any one poster is going to solve racism, but there is a level at which we can be looking to develop spaces, institutions, cultures that are not based on extraction from black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about that notion that you said of divesting from white supremacy and design, because one thing that I’ve seen probably over the past two years now is just how much more political, I guess I would say black design initiatives have become, that they’ve been largely steeped in these concepts of decolonization, divesting from white supremacy, et cetera, because it makes sense like you have to sort of strip that away in order for us to really get back to what we hope is the root of what it is that we do, because it reminds me of an essay that the late Sylvia Harris had written for Stephen Heller’s at the education of a graphic designer, where she talks about how black designers have fallen into this pattern of imitation rather than innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
And that the work tends to mimic what they might’ve been taught in schools or whatever around like the Bauhaus or like Swiss Style or something like that, and it’s less about their own kind of cultural touchpoints. And that’s not to say necessarily that that cultural touchpoint is a direct line to Africa, like a tribe or a country or anything like that, but just like where you come from. I mean, as African-Americans have a very unique culture in this country that is ripe with inspiration for so many things…

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Brent Rollins on the show for episode 400 and I mean, just the shit that he has created out of his experience is so uniquely like African-American, but also is hip-hop and film. And I mean, the man made the logo for boys in the hood for poetic justice when he was like a teenager.

Michael Collett:
That’s very much I think the point. When Design To Divest first came together, I remember we had a conversation, somebody on the call had lamented the fact that there wasn’t a black graphic design tradition that they could call upon in school. And I was like, “What are we talking about? What are we talking about? Absolutely not.”

Michael Collett:
When it comes to the combination of text and image in terms of its resonance in our culture, black designers are without par, but we just don’t consider that graphic because it’s not Swiss School publications, poster, nominations. I mean, has the AIGA ever recognized Pen & Pencil Studios?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think so.

Michael Collett:
Then they are not talking about graphic arts in this country, because Pen & Pencil Studios is a Seminole, Pen & Pixels, Pen & Pixel Studios is this Seminole studio when it comes to not just the African-American, but the American graphic design tradition, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks, right?

Michael Collett:
Whatever kind of design you want to focus on, but as graphic designer, there’s a huge black graphic design tradition that we don’t even think about because it’s so denigrated. And so when we talk about decolonizing and divesting, that can get really heady. But what I mean is that like, we should be in the same way that so much of the Bauhaus and Swiss School is about, so the Swiss poster thing, that’s about wheat paste posters that the Swiss put up on the street for advertisements.

Michael Collett:
That’s what that’s about. That’s the root of the Swiss poster and all this other thing, it’s street advertisement. So if we’re in thrall to street advertisement, then let’s go find those iconic street ads for hip hop records, for clothing lines, for all of the representations of black American culture, which has been the primary driver of American culture since time immemorial.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
And so when we talk about like, what does that walled garden look like? What we’re trying to do is to coalesce and to ideally produce and publish this knowledge and make it available for people. It kills me to see it’s definitely a common refrain among folks, take us off the mood boards and put us in the creative directorships.

Michael Collett:
We are already as black people inherently creative because you have to be fly in the face of systemic oppression. And then our creativity is never what is compensated, while it is what drives all of the cultural engine. You can find discreet examples of that like the young woman who created the concept of on fleek, has the millions of dollars worth of advertising that have used that word in the last, I don’t know how many years, provided a dime to her.

Michael Collett:
But it’s so symptomatic of the extractive nature of our social media platforms, I think in particular where so much, especially now during the pandemic of our culture is not only consumed but creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s interesting. As you mentioned, kind of social media and the algorithm, like there are people now that I don’t want to say that they’ve come up, but what you’re finding now is like this new instantiation of a designer who is more curator than creator. It’s less about what they may themselves be making it more about what they can pull together from what others have made, because there’s so much noise for lack of a better term out there, that they’re the ones that can say, “Okay, here’s the good ship that you need to pay attention to.” And like, then that person ends up being like a tastemaker or something in their own right because of that.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Well, and the ability to manipulate the algorithm has now been passed off for creative direction.

Maurice Cherry:
True, true that.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s okay, sure, it is creative direction, but it’s creative direction in the service of what? And so for me, the at all opportunity is trying to turn away from the algorithm as a driving factor in the work that I’m creating, is a big point for me these days.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I’m curious to know about the Michael Collett origin story, where did you grow up initially?

Michael Collett:
I was born here in San Francisco, and like I mentioned before my parents are both landscape architects. And in the late ’80s the Bechtle company was hiring lots of landscape architects to work on a project in Kuwait.

Michael Collett:
And so my folks being relatively young and fresh out of school-ish, first couple of jobs said, “Hey, pay looks good, live abroad for a couple of years. We’ve got this kid, they’ll pay for his English school out there. Sounds great.”

Michael Collett:
And so I want to say mid-’88, we packed up here in San Francisco and flew off to Kuwait and planned on being there for, I think at least four or five years. Oh God, the timeline escapes me. But the summer of the first Gulf War, before it was the first Gulf War, we went on vacation to Cyprus to visit my godfather in Scotland and to visit some family in New York.

Michael Collett:
And when we got to New York and got settled in, in our hotel, and these were of course, the days before cell phones and people had to know where you were going and call ahead, there was a message from my aunt saying to turn on CNN and that she hoped we had packed winter clothes because Iraqi Republican Guard had not only entered Kuwait, but had set up its command center in our apartment building.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh shit, wow.

Michael Collett:
So what was the vacation very quickly turned into, I guess, we’re coming back to the states now. And we returned to San Francisco, but from there we bounced around a bit. I mostly grew up in Davis, California, which I will mostly hold my tongue about. There’s some very nice people there and some less so people there, I’ll put it that way.

Michael Collett:
But then I went to a few different schools, first University of California, Riverside. Then when my mother got a job at Penn State, I went to Penn State main campus, that was a bit of a culture shock. University of California at Riverside was the first minority, majority UC school. Penn State main campus was 85% white when I got there and it snowed in October.

Michael Collett:
And like I said, I’m from California and not built for that, but I met some wonderful people at Penn State in spite of it being occasionally a pleasant villi in the horror. And then came back to Sacramento, having not finished and then went moved to Philadelphia outside of which is Penn State Abington in order to finish my education there.

Michael Collett:
That was sort of a choose your own adventure degree, I had originally started studying political science and bounced around and did a bunch of stuff. As the child of designers, I definitely did not want to join the family business for a long time, or at least I thought I didn’t. The punchline to that story is I’m currently now enrolled in school for architecture. So obviously I did not want to do it that badly, but you know how kids are great? You know how to get [inaudible 00:34:30] against everything, I’ll go be a lawyer. And then I realized that was a horrible idea.

Michael Collett:
So by the time I got to Penn State Abington, I definitely needed to write some very persuasive essays to convince these folks why all these disparate classes from three different schools about to do a degree, but we did that. And then I ended up back in Sacramento twiddling my thumbs. I worked a traveling salesman job for a Mormon windows heating and air conditioning company just as the economy was cratering in 2007, which was weird, definitely got chased off of some Stockton front porches by the sound of cocking shotguns, et cetera, et cetera.

Michael Collett:
Surprised I didn’t get turned into a hashtag, although I don’t know if they had those then. And from there, I realized that because I could passively photo edit in Photoshop and export to PDF that for boomers, I was essentially a computer Wiz and could pass myself off as a graphic designer to people who didn’t know any better. And then I quickly realized that I was in over my head and needed to go learn a bunch of stuff, which I spent the next 10 years doing, and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of your early design gigs was there in San Francisco. You were working for Mule Design Studio, which I think for people that are listening to this show that know about design and probably heard of Mule Design because of its proprietor, Mike Monteiro. How was that job? I’m just curious. How was it like working there?

Michael Collett:
Mule was a really, really interesting gig. Mule has since shuttered and I think both Mike and Erica are consulting and mostly doing speaking and writing gigs now. But Mule was a really educational experience for me as much in terms of design as it was in terms of how to deal with clients and I think particularly about the politics of design work.

Michael Collett:
And I say politics in a lowercase sense that I mentioned that I studied political science in school. And one of the things that early, 101 political science courses talk about is this idea that politics isn’t just party A, party B, big national election. Politics is the struggle for power in any group of people larger than one.

Michael Collett:
And when you look at it in that lens, particularly client work is a lot of political reading and handholding of the organization that you’re performing the work for. One of the things that we used to talk about at Mule that I find is such a great metric for things these days is that the main navigation bar of any organizational website will tell you so much about the politics of that organization, if you know how to look at it.

Michael Collett:
An organization that has a very succinct and easy to understand top menu bar, top level nav particularly, is one that… I mean, might have its internal problems still, but at least has a proper delegation of powers, like a hugely overcrowded main nav is a symptom of something organizational and much larger than just the design.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s as much, if anything, the key that I took away from Mule, is that design is a reflection of the organizational priorities and politics of whoever it is in question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Now, I’m thinking back at the last two places that I worked before my current gig and how design was… It was a reflection of internal politics, like the first company I remember starting at it, started out as… or at least when I started there, it was just sort of small, stable, fairly well-known software company. And their design was pretty basic, off stare, nothing that’s like winning awards, nothing mind-blowing, but they were also very well-funded and stable and all their employees loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
And then we switched to becoming the startup overnight and the branding was so… I use chaotic in a good way, but the design was like, oh my God, I’m really trying to accurately pinpoint how weird this was. There was like late ’90s, early 2000s like Murakami anime style, where it was certainly trying to like push a boundary.

Maurice Cherry:
And this is a tech company, like trying to push a boundary, but then it’s also like bordering on juvenile because I mean, honestly we were a young company, we had went from being this old company to a startup overnight. And that really reflected as the company went on, the people that attracted, the way that we sort of did business, unfortunately the internal politics as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And then the second place I worked at was this very stoic Eastern European tech startup, and the design very much reflected that it was just black. I started, they had a logo and they had black and two shades of gray, and that was the brand. And that very much reflects the monoculture of the company like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Wow. That’s a really good perception there.”

Michael Collett:
Yeah, that I think was one of my big takeaways from Mule. The other one, and this was, I think, credit to Mike Monteiro where it’s due, was that it’s just websites. I think a lot of our industry, a lot of our profession is beset with a really inordinate amount of stress and anxiety and pressure.

Michael Collett:
Some of which are self-generated, some of which is client-generated, some of which is generated by the fact that we live under capitalism. But at the end of the day, like it’s just websites, like everybody needs to take a deep breath.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something that I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep in perspective throughout my career because I started designing websites. God, this is date… I started designing websites in 1997.

Michael Collett:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, this is basic SHTML geo cities, Athens Roads 1130. You know what I’m saying?

Michael Collett:
I thought those sites could still run, I bet [crosstalk 00:41:17] probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, they definitely could still run. Absolutely. I’m pretty sure if there’s a geo cities archive somewhere in my old website with my full address and phone number at the time.

Michael Collett:
Oh God.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s probably still on the web somewhere.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah, but the privacy fails, we all committed in those days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. And I remember when my mom found out about it and I mean, she chewed me out, like, “Why are you putting that? Why are you putting that address on the internet?” I was like, “Nobody’s going to find it.”

Michael Collett:
Strangers on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
“Nobody’s going to find it,” like come on. Like, yeah, there’s going to be some hacker in Stockton, California that’s like, “I can’t wait to get to sell my Alabama and find…” That’s not going to happen. But I say that to say, like having been on the web, building things on the web for such a long time, all of this shit is so ephemeral and like, it’s going to get redesigned and over it, which is why I never really sweat or stress web design in general. Like some people really like live this shit like Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets. And I understand-

Michael Collett:
[crosstalk 00:42:20] fake my eyes, I just don’t get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, and I understand that, but it’s like, I’m like, “Dude, in 10 years, all of this is going to be like sitting on a hard drive somewhere. None of this is going to matter.”

Michael Collett:
Not only that like, I hate to break it to web designers, but your cookie acceptance banner takes up half the goddamn page to begin with, so I don’t know what you’re looking at to start with.

Maurice Cherry:
The speed at which that has taken over every website in the past two years.

Michael Collett:
GDPR killed mobile web design and I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you go to a website and there’s like three success of pop-ups, there’s a full-page modal to subscribe to their newsletter with some snarky dark pattern. No, I don’t want to save 20%, and then you’ve got the cookie banner and then something else pops up. I’m like, “I just wanted to read this news article. Oh, wait, it’s behind the paywall, damn.”

Michael Collett:
Oh, reader mode. There we go.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Michael Collett:
But I’ll just go find the tweet and read it on reader mode because you’re not getting my eyeballs for this, but I mean, this is where we’ve arrived. This is the world we’ve designed ourselves into, or that has been designed around us, because I mean, I’m not responsible for the GDPR modals, but it does, I think come back to again that pressure that we have, not pressure necessarily but the potential that exists for us as designers to unfuck some of this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
Hopefully, I mean, I don’t know what can be done about Shell oil or whomever, but at wherever we can there’s that potential to sort of rest things towards not sucking.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned that about Shell. We’re thinking, God, it might’ve been earlier this year where Exxon’s shareholders have to come to them and say, “Look, you all have to do something else besides oil.”

Michael Collett:
I mean, dissolve, like what else does Exxon do besides oil? I don’t know, I feel like that’s like walking up to the Fox and being like, you’ve got to eat something other than chicken I mean-

Maurice Cherry:
Diversify.

Michael Collett:
… not Wu-Tang Financial like it’s Exxon. And if anything they should be held liable for crimes against humanity and dissolved, but like, what are we talking about? Shareholders aren’t going to vote for that, but I’m sure they’ve got some crack in diversity initiatives going right now.

Michael Collett:
I’m sure there’s a bag for somebody waiting at BP to stand there and be the blackface of their diversity equity and inclusion extraction initiative.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. The higher, most likely. And I hate to say this, but it’s only because I’ve seen it as a pattern, but they’ll hire a black woman to do it.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I know. I know. And run her out like Google did to…

Maurice Cherry:
Tim Nutt?

Michael Collett:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I was just, I mean, it’s a shameful practice that particularly, I think a lot of the techies are very guilty of. We had brought up previously an article I had written a while ago, but there’s another one I had written this also a while ago now. But I think when I was at Mule, because we had a day in the office laughing about Google, having spent a quarter of a billion dollars trying to solve their diversity problem over the previous five years, and somehow not having solved it. And my immediate question was, “Well, have they tried hiring black people?”

Michael Collett:
And apparently seemed that nobody who took their $250 million suggested that to them, but then they do that and then they do how they do. So it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been wary of. And I’ve taken, I mean, in like speaking of where are the black designers, because we talked about that earlier. When I did that presentation initially in 2015 and I gave a very reluctant updates to that presentation in 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say that because when I gave it, and I mentioned this in my keynote, but for people who didn’t hear the keynote, I got so much shit for that presentation after I gave it that it pretty much tanked my studio. I had to go out and get a job because like all my business stuff had dried up just because I said.

Maurice Cherry:
The answer to that question of where the black designers should not come from black designers, it has to be from a coalition of people from organizations and businesses and schools. And quite frankly, black designers create the problem, so stop asking us, and so…

Michael Collett:
That’s not an answer people want to hear.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but like I say, I reluctantly gave an update because I let it, I recorded it, I put it up on YouTube, and it’s been up there since like March of 2015 with like no comments or anything. It wasn’t until last year, like in the wake of people getting on the streets and protesting and companies saying, “Well, we want to uplift black voices and share black voices and such that people found the presentation were willing to give me money for,” and shout out to reparations.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about it now in this new light to this honestly now newly perceptive design community that was willing to hear it and was like, “Oh, this is actually good advice. Why didn’t anyone take this advice five years ago?” I mean, who knows? But I gave that reluctant update.

Michael Collett:
Obama had been president, what more do you want?

Maurice Cherry:
And listen. But I gave them a reluctant update to it because one, I was like, I really don’t have anything else to contribute to the conversation, first of all. And secondly, not much has changed. Now, I think some certain statistics around it have changed, like when I talked about the percentage of black students at schools, but I also spliced in economic data.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Look, white households in this country have like 10X to 13X the net worth of black households.” And so if you’re looking to these high tuition schools to try to find black designers, it’s going to be hard to find when black families largely can’t afford them. But also saying that companies need to stop building pipelines, because when I hear a pipeline, I think of something that strips resources out of a place and transfers it to another place.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s always a talk about all the pipeline, there’s a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, there’s a relationship problem because what’s happening is these companies are looking at HBCUs and black design groups and such as like this fertile soil that they can keep harvesting from, but not planting seeds. And it’s like you keep…

Michael Collett:
Mentality is totally extractive, it’s totally extractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s totally extractive. I’m like, if you’re not also helping buy, like for a school, for example, maybe offer to embed an employee there as a teacher or help to get their curriculum up to the point where harvesting has… I don’t want to say harvesting, Jesus Christ, but like pulling students from those schools makes more economic sense in terms of getting them up to speed with what’s in the market and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I said, “Look, I’m not giving another update to this presentation, like this is it. This is it.”

Michael Collett:
Well, and the truth is, is I don’t need another pipeline, there’s a gentleman on the steering committee with us at Design To Divest, Aziz Ali. And he has a great quote he says, “Black people are over mentored and under resourced.” And I really love that as… It’s one of our organizing principles at Design To Divest, we know what we’re doing, just get off the money. At a certain point, pipelines and internship… No, just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Pay your taxes, pay your ties if you’re a credulous person, but just get up off the money, because that’s what it is. And whether it’s a pipeline, or some other kind of extractive relationship with black communities, it’s not the way forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve just come up off the money, write the check, or as a Tiffani Ashley Bell put it, I think she said, “Send the wire, make the hire,” or something like that.

Michael Collett:
Exactly. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m probably butchering that quote, but it’s something to that effect, yeah.

Michael Collett:
Send the tracking number and we can get on the flight, shout out to Larry June speaking in San Francisco. At a certain point, like there’s black squares and, oh, look at, we were so sad about the way we treated all those folks in the past.

Michael Collett:
Well, have you paid them out? Are you paying us out now? Like what are we talking about? For stringently, capitalist and profit focused culture that we live in, all of a sudden everybody’s real touchy feely, talking about platitudes and emotions and shit, when all of a sudden it was the quarterly report and making sure those metrics worked.

Michael Collett:
I certainly don’t want to hear about emotions from tech companies whose whole thing is that we make data-driven decisions. Well, your bank account is data, drive it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Just go ahead and make that detour.

Michael Collett:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Seek that exit, yeah.

Michael Collett:
I mean, it’s not even a detour, because like speaking of San Francisco and particularly the way that companies behave extractively, we’re not just when we talk about the algorithm on Twitter on Instagram, and we’re not just talking about that in terms of extraction, but these are companies that have fermented and precipitated huge amounts of displacement in San Francisco who have gotten sweetheart deals from local politicians going back multiple administrations now who have never paid their fair tax share who in the state of California for companies like DoorDash and Uber, have been instrumental in demolishing worker protections in labor law just to pad their own bottom line.

Michael Collett:
So when we talk about extractive stuff and especially where design is concerned, that really covers the whole industry in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that you mentioned, wanting to talk about, and I think it’s probably tangential to what we’re discussing now is about class awareness and politics among the black creative class. So I want to open up the floor so we can talk about that, and so you can go more in depth with that topic.

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it ties into some of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. When we talk about particularly like, are black people capable of appropriating from other black people? Are black people capable of being gentrifiers? Are black people capable of behaving in these extractive ways?

Michael Collett:
And the example that we brought up on the panel was the Michael B. Jordan now untitled again Rum brand that had run a foul of people who are deeply invested in the history and traditions of carnival. But there’s any number of examples with that, I know for black southerners and for people who are invested in the south.

Michael Collett:
The attention that Tulsa has been getting, for instance, there’s been a lot of discussion around who’s right it is to tell this story who benefits from the telling of it. And these are questions that involve the black creative class. If we’re in the business of telling stories like that’s who we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, listen. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So let me tell you about how black people can gentrify other black people.

Michael Collett:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay? When Selma, the movie happened-

Michael Collett:
I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
… Selma, the city did not have a movie theater. I didn’t grow up with a movie theater. My first movie theater I went to I was 17, 18 when I first moved to Atlanta. But I say this to say like Selma… And I’ll let you get back to what you were saying, but when you said that, that’s really stuck out to me like, I just remember during that time and my mom telling me about how so many celebrities are coming through the city.

Maurice Cherry:
To me I’m thinking, “Okay, well what’s going to happen when they leave? Are they putting resources and things back into the city?” Because I know when I go home, downtown is boarded up. Selma is still like one of the most violent cities in Alabama, probably the number one most violent city in the state. There’s parts surrounding Atlanta. I’m not Atlanta, oh shit.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s parts surrounding Selma that the World Health Organization has classified as bad as third world countries, like you want to talk about how black people can gentrify and take from other black people. Why is Selma always a political stop? Obama and them come through and march across the bridge and then what?

Michael Collett:
And drive right out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right out.

Michael Collett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry. Sorry.

Michael Collett:
No, no, no. That’s exactly my point, right? Is that as designers, as people who deal in symbols, we need to be critical about how symbols are used. And that’s something I think that is often missing from, and the class awareness of that, because like not only is Selma this major political stop, but it remains a bastion of entrenched generational poverty there.

Michael Collett:
And the way that the black political class, the black celebrity and entertainment class, but also the black intelligentsia and the academic class and those of us, myself included, in the creative class treat not just Selma but other places and parts and people in our culture as symbols to be pointed at, as opposed to people to interact with.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s something that is often that I find, I’ll try to be as sort of politic as possible, but that I find is often missing in some of these larger conversations. And when we talk about extractive, we were joking about the diversity and equity and inclusion at Exxon, but I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Uber in that regard.

Michael Collett:
I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Facebook in that regard. And it’s one thing to go get a bag and I’m not trying to call anybody out for that, but I do think that in getting a bag, we have to make sure that we’re not continuing to enable things that are detrimental, not only to communities that were part of the larger ones.

Maurice Cherry:
So back in 2014 you wrote this piece called “Now is the time for a Black graphic design”, and there’s a line at the end, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But there’s a line at the end where you say, “A black data processing associates have organized to support one another.” Why can’t we? Or maybe the better question is who’s going to stop us? Do you still feel that way?

Michael Collett:
I mean, honestly, yes, now more than ever, I want all working people to organize whether we are white collar workers, blue collar workers, black collar and service workers. As working people, we have much more in common with one another than we do with our bosses. As black creative workers, I think it is incredibly important on us and imperative for us to organize in some way or another. I am blown away, speaking of black creative talent by the TikTok strike.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Michael Collett:
Just got out the TikTok strike because I am too old to have it on my phone, but I see it come through my social feeds. And I know that they got those white dance thieves heartened right now, because they are not putting it together for it. And I think that is maybe it’s for jokes, but I think it’s really serious. And that is very much what I’m talking about by when I say, resisting the algorithm, the commodification and the extraction of our culture, because TikTok has turned some of these offbeat as white kids into millionaires.

Michael Collett:
When the people whose dances they’re stealing are still working with cracked phones. And it’s like, I think now the hidden upside, if you will, of our digital era is that so much of what’s already been going on for generations is now not only visible but hyper compressed.

Michael Collett:
It took 20 years for Elvis to get famous from stealing from black artists. But now these kids are doing it so fast that you can still see the people they’re stealing from, and I think there’s something to that. So yeah, I absolutely believe that black creative workers of all kinds need to organize and need to unite because we are, and continue to be the driving cultural force in this country and massively, massively under compensated for it.

Michael Collett:
And that’s whether you’re talking about music and dance, entertainment, production, but also graphic design and the way that design influences popular culture.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Michael Collett:
I mean, a lot of things. The thing that I’ve been getting really into at the moment is, is something that we’ve been working on for Greenworks which is 3D printing with ceramic.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m fascinated by a lot of the potential for new materials production and new ways of doing micro industrial production, and thinking about how to rest the utility of a lot of the new manufacturing and production methods back towards more artisanal or like small run kind of production things. But I mean, I’m obsessed with lots of stuff, man, how much time we got?

Maurice Cherry:
We got time.

Michael Collett:
The other thing that I’m endlessly passionate about is the history of the city of San Francisco. It’s partially just being a unrepentant homer, but in a lot of ways I’ve always felt that San Francisco can be a bit of a bellwether for the nation, particularly both politically and economically.

Michael Collett:
This has always been a bit of a neoliberal hellscape from the gold rush onward, of course. And if you learn to read the history of it, as much as I suppose the history of any place, it becomes very clear why what’s happening now is what’s happening. And I think especially as a designer, as somebody who’s admittedly very online knowing the… And it’s also, like I said, it’s my hometown. So knowing the nooks and crannies and the how we got here is very important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively at this stage in your career?

Michael Collett:
No, never.

Maurice Cherry:
Why is that?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, there’s projects that I haven’t even finished coming up with the ideas for yet. I may have mentioned it offhandedly, but I’m also currently beginning to go back to school now for a license for architecture. The built environment, of course, having landscape architects for parents has always fascinated me. And the license to change the built environment, which is what an architectural license is, feels like a real sort of Mario Star for designers, right? Like oh, you can make a website, you can make a chair, but this is the thing that sets off the theme music and lets you do literally whatever.

Michael Collett:
So no, I’m nowhere near creatively satisfied because I feel like there’s just all kinds of things I could be sinking my teeth into. At 35, I finally feel like I’ve got my feet under me. A decade in the industry has shown me a lot and shown me as much of what I don’t want to do as what I do, but the things that are possible.

Michael Collett:
And I think especially now like what the possibilities between… The one thing about Greenworks that bears mentioning is that we’re all on separate coasts basically, Anj it is in Seattle, Mohammed’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, and we’ve created a company and got up and running without ever all being in the room at the same time.

Michael Collett:
Which I guess in the context of the pandemic is a little less remarkable, but to me that’s still kind of wild that you can do something like that. And I’m really excited to explore the potentials that as much as I was poo-pooing global supply chains, the potentials of global networks of communication and idea exchange to me are just incredibly exciting when it comes to creative work.

Michael Collett:
And then potentially the idea of like I was talking about with 3D printing, being able to empower people to create things for themselves to take part in what had previously been seen as sort of enormous isolated industrial processes at a real personal level.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back over your career and where you’ve worked, the type of work that you’ve done, et cetera, people you’ve met, what advice has really stuck with you over the years?

Michael Collett:
Oddly enough, I would probably have to give another shout out to Mule here, particularly Erica Hall, who is one of the partners there. And Erica was the one who was broadly engaged in a lot of the really naughty kind of personal one to one facilitation that enabled the graphic design work to run as smoothly as it did.

Michael Collett:
And she would occasionally come back from a tough session and flopped down on the couch in the office and let out a sigh and say, “Humans are fascinating.” I think that phrase and just that sense of not necessarily like emotionless detachment, but a professional detachment from our work that as engrossing and as occasionally anxiety inducing as it can be that it’s just websites, and people are fascinating.

Michael Collett:
And we’re very, very lucky to be able to do the work that we do in a lot of ways. And if we can keep that in mind, even in the roughest moments, there’s still something to be gained out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you see yourself doing? You’ll be 40 at that point?

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I suppose I will.

Maurice Cherry:
What kind of work do you…

Michael Collett:
Thanks for reminding me that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, I just turned 40 this year, so I’m well aware of the change.

Michael Collett:
Right. [crosstalk 01:06:16].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Michael Collett:
Having undertaken now via, and now set it on a podcast. So I’m really fucking responsible for it. The effort to return to school for an architecture license, I would love to be working in the field in five years in some capacity or another I’m not really… I mean, between my politics and everything else, not super interested in going to work for the big firms.

Michael Collett:
I think again, the attraction is being able to alter the built environment in small and measurable ways myself. I’ve got some dear friends that go way back with who are in the construction business. And so pie in the sky, just a small little design build firm to take on particularly affordable housing, adaptive reuse. Like I said, both the city of San Francisco and the idea of being able to work on the built environment are both very important for me.

Michael Collett:
And so I think there’s ways to alter that and to encourage that change that ideally are possible.

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

Michael Collett:
The best place to start is probably the Instagram account at greenworks.earth, because all of the stuff that I’ve been talking about throughout this podcast will be slowly starting to dribble out there over the next few months.

Michael Collett:
I’m on Twitter at either __mclc or mclc__, I can never remember which. And hell, I guess I said my email at the beginning of people do want to get in touch on workingmichael@gmail.com. I don’t keep much of a web presence as is in keeping with a lot of the things that I’ve spoken with you about here today. But I do maintain a small portfolio of some work at HTTP://whatifitoldyouihadnoweb.site.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I’ve been there and it’s like a little, it’s a presentation, it’s pretty dope actually.

Michael Collett:
Thank you. Thank you. It is, as the presentation that is linked there says, now is not the time for portfolio sites. Now is the time for a black graphic design as it was in 2014, it’s still the time for black graphic design. And that’s I think what I’m focused on as much as anything else.

Michael Collett:
And also find Design To Divest @designtodivest on Instagram, which is probably the easiest place to get on our website. We’re also on a wonderful platform and I’d like to shout them out, the folks at Are.na. A-R-E dot N-A. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m on Are.na, just regular old MCLC, that’s probably the easiest place to find out what’s going on in my brain these days because it’s where I collect a lot of my shots.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Michael Collett, man, this conversation I feel like has been a long time coming, but I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show, so much for sharing your wisdom, your perspective. I mean, I knew when I first encountered you years and years ago, I was like, I feel like you’ve got something to say, and I don’t know if there was maybe a reluctance to talk about it, but just to see how much you have been doing over the past few years and even, like I said, hearing you’re at the most recent where the black designers conference like I want to hear so much more from you, just like your work and your words and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I hope that this interview in some way can be a catalyst for that. But yeah, thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Collett:
Maurice, thank you. Absolutely. I really, really appreciate it. I think what I will say is that, I probably was trying to, I mean, this may be easy to exchange opinions over a Skype call, but in the same way that where the black designers may have thrown you for a loop, I haven’t won a lot of friends with a lot of my takes when it comes to design and politics in my career.

Michael Collett:
And so I think maybe all those years ago, I was probably still trying to play it safe, but at this point they haven’t killed me yet. So I might as well just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s a morbid way to put it, but I totally agree with what you’re saying. If there’s ever a time now to get it out, this is it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. No, this is the time to be living as authentically as we can.

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

Michael Collett:
Thank you, Maurice.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Ron Bronson

If you’ve had any sort of interaction with government services on the Web, particularly at the national level, there’s a pretty good chance your experience in some form was designed or conceived by this week’s guest — the one and only Ron Bronson.

Longtime fans will remember Ron’s first appearance on the podcast seven years ago, and our conversation starts off with a quick recap of what lessons he’s learned over the past year. From here, we talk about his career shift from education to civic tech, the emergence of consequence design, and even a Finnish sport akin to baseball known as pesäpallo. Ron’s story is a testament to the power of reinvention, and hopefully it convinces you that whatever it is you’re imagining, it’s possible!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Ron Bronson:
Hi. It’s Ron Bronson. I’m based in Portland, Oregon and I’m a design director in civic tech in the government.

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

Ron Bronson:
Interesting. Obviously, we’re all coming out of COVID slowly. So that’s obviously been a thing. And ascending to this role, I’ve been a manager of a team of seven before and now I’ve got over 30 direct reports, obviously some managers who report to me, but there’s the whole department now. So that is definitely a different set of expectations and challenges. Trying to work on a book, trying to stay involved. So 2021 is interesting to try to remap all the stuff that you lost from being in the house for a whole year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn in this past year? When you look back, how do you think you’ve changed?

Ron Bronson:
Wow. I think momentum doesn’t necessarily have to stop. I thought last year was, in my mind, when it started and things started to shut down, I was like, “[inaudible 00:03:38] a wasted year,” all the stuff I had mapped out for myself, career-wise, thinking about work, and it turned out that wasn’t true. Opportunities still came and I was still able to do things and write stuff and read stuff and speak at events, obviously virtually.

Ron Bronson:
So that was interesting to me and surprised me, but I think maybe I got a better sense of the things that motivated me a little bit. I don’t know that I necessarily … Like I said, I was operating with my outlets … not autopilot, but kind of just doing stuff and taking for granted that every day was going to be, “This is what you do. You go to these events and you go to nonprofits or you go to work and you see your friends,” until have all that taken away and realize that some of those things fueled you, that you liked doing that stuff or it inspired you in some way. To not have that is crystallizing. It also means you appreciate it more. So it taught me a lot about myself. Maybe the times when somebody calls and says, “Oh, let’s hang out,” and I’m like, “No,” now I’m probably like, “Hey, yeah. We should hang out. Let’s do it.” So it’s a big lesson for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s been interesting how … I’ve noticed this trend among friends of mine, even from guests that have been on the show. I feel like we’re at this point where everyone is reevaluating what their next step is. We’ve been in the house or in some form of lockdown or restriction over the past year and a half and, now that things are starting to open up again, everyone’s like, “Well, let me think about what I want this next thing to be. Do I still want to go ahead in the same manner that I have with work or with my schedule or do I want to change things?” I’m seeing that everywhere now, which I guess is a good thing.

Ron Bronson:
I think so. I think it’s cool that … not cool, but I think it’s important to have these conversations because we weren’t really able to take stock of them before, been able to see the world for what it was maybe a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Now, I know you can’t talk directly about the work that you’re doing because it is a government agency, but can you give just a broad overview about the work that you do?

Ron Bronson:
I think, at the core of the work I’ve been doing, for years, really, even before I became [inaudible 00:05:49] in federal service and was working in state government, is trying to identify problem spaces that exist, working collaboratively with teams to identify problem spaces, big problems, small problems, murky problems, and trying to operationalize a way out of those problems and doing that in a way that’s sustainable.

Ron Bronson:
It’s one thing to go into a place and say, “I’m going to help you solve this,” and then solve it and leave. It’s like, when you break something and you fix it, you don’t know how they fixed it. So now they’re gone, so you’ve got to call them every time, instead of doing it where you’re like, “You’re going to help us. You’re going to work with us. You’re going to be our eyes and ears [inaudible 00:06:26]. You’re going to be part of the team that helps us figure this out.” And the way, you know how we did it so that, when we’re gone, you can do it. And not only can you do it, you could teach other people to do it, too. And so I think, at its core, that’s the work that I do, that we do, and it’s pretty rewarding. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
What makes it rewarding?

Ron Bronson:
I think it’s fun to see a murky situation that doesn’t necessarily have an explicit answer. And maybe a thing I learned from, say, when I started to now, is where I identified a problem, like, “Oh, I know exactly what the problem is here. Do a little research and we’ll just confirm what I knew the problem was. You get on this team and you work together to answer … Do some [inaudible 00:07:07] research, talk to some users or stakeholders and get some answers.” It turns out, not only were you wrong, but what they asked you to do was maybe the wrong [inaudible 00:07:16] problems. Now you need to revisit it or you got a prototype of a thing or idea and you talk to the people who actually use the thing and they say, “No, no, no. You’re missing the point. What you actually need it something completely different,” and now you’ve got to revisit and reboot and rethink.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to go through that, not initially. What’s fun about it is, if you can go through that and you do it in this way that’s thoughtful and you bring [inaudible 00:07:39], bring the people along, then at the end of it, the end result of what you get is more sustainable and it’s fun to see the fruits of that labor. I know, gosh, you build things. Some people who build stuff … It’s one thing when you build a thing and you’ve got to do all the work yourself or your work on a team and then, when you go away, it collapses, but it’s fun, even at my non … I started Indianapolis Design Week and then, when I left, somebody else took it over.

Ron Bronson:
It’s cool when you can see a thing that you started, somebody else takes it over and they put their own spin on it. And that’s sustainable and it has a legacy. And so to have that in my professional work, as well, is super rewarding. Even if it’s, like I said, a longer process to get there, it takes a long time, it’s nebulous, the answers aren’t as clear, that’s super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I like that part about you saying that it’s sustainable because I think, certainly if you’re a designer or a developer at … I’m just naming companies here, like a Dropbox or something like that … No shade to Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but if you’re at a product-based company, the work that you do may really not even be seen. It can easily be overwritten. It’s kind of ephemeral. And also, you don’t really know if your service is going to be around in the next five years, 10 years or whatever, whereas the work that you’re doing, you know that it has a home, almost.

Ron Bronson:
Exactly. 100%. Yep. And I think that … You talk about public sector, working [inaudible 00:09:05] or working in, say, civic tech where maybe you’re adjacent or something. By being able to do work that you know … Again, it may also be [inaudible 00:09:12] and no one will see it, but at least you know, at the end of the day, who you’re working for, either for the people in front or the folk behind the scenes [inaudible 00:09:20] people in the front. And I think that’s a cool cycle of life to have.

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

Ron Bronson:
It varies. It varies dramatically. And it’s varied, obviously, when you talk about being in sales, for instance, leadership in this situation versus maybe when I was [inaudible 00:09:35] contributor or even a couple years ago when I’m working at, say, local or state situations, but I’d say that [inaudible 00:09:41] we have a lot of meetings, obviously, but it’s a lot of content switching. So there’s meetings, obviously, to deal with just the things you would deal with in any kind of leadership role. There’s also kinds of some project-related stuff that happens, as well. In my case, right now, lots of strategy and trying to figure out how to build resiliency into teams and supporting people where they’re at, but it’s really variable. Other than, say, there’s a lot of meetings, I don’t think any two days are alike.

Ron Bronson:
The content of each day is very different because it’s so responsive to what’s happening, not only in the world, but individually or organizationally or whatever. So it can be really very variable, which is cool. Obviously, if you’re a control freak, not that I am, but maybe a little bit, it can be a little discombobulating because sometimes you don’t know what’s coming, like, “Oh, what’s going to happen a month from now?” I don’t know. It could be anything, but as long as you can relish in and embrace that sort of mystery, it’s kind of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
How have your responsibilities changed over the years? I guess, aside from going up to the ranks to where you’re at as a director, but how have your responsibilities really changed since you’ve been there?

Ron Bronson:
The scope and the size. Actually, when you talked to me years ago, I was a director then, too, but I had [inaudible 00:10:57] only a few direct reports and I was leading statewide strategy, but it was a different sort of … scale was different and also the purview is different, the responsibilities are different. And then I go to a smaller government and, obviously, I don’t have any of that kind of responsibility, more principle designer kind of work.

Ron Bronson:
And then, over the last couple of years, going from IC and doing more information architecture and content strategy work, but [inaudible 00:11:19] more strategic work, in general, to leading projects to staffing people to projects to, again, now just trying to shape an entire … figuring out how you move a team forward in an industry that wasn’t really a thing, designers working in the public sector, much less entire teams. Maybe it’s one or two people, okay. We’ve always been around, but to have the scale of, let’s say, a small agency of design type people and [inaudible 00:11:49] definitely alike. It’s a lot of making things from scratch, trying to invent it as you sort of fly the plane as you build it kind of thing.

Ron Bronson:
So for me, I think the work is similar. I think I’m doing similar kinds of things, a lot of similar kind of thinking. I think it’s just, over the years, playing a video game and going to different levels and taking the coins you get from level three and now you use them at level six because you’ve got a lot more coins in your pocket or you got [Selixir 00:12:14] on level four and you put that in you and now you’re on level eight and you’re like, “Oh, I’m ready. I got that. That wizard gave me that thing.” I mean, it’s a funny metaphor, but that’s kind of what it is. I don’t feel like it’s that different. It’s just that the other experiences prepared you for, A, more meetings and it prepared you for nebulous things and having to answer questions that are not …

Ron Bronson:
Also, you get to choose sometimes the things that you get to decide. You’re working with other people, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you, at a certain point for certain things. And that’s weirder than when you’re … I joked before I did this with, oh, well, it was really cool being the person that you could talk to people about the work and the problems, but it’s like watching your favorite sports team on TV and being like, “If I was the general manager, I would do this, this, and this,” and then now you’re the general manager of the baseball team. Turns out there were things you didn’t know about the problem space he was in. You didn’t know that the budget was here or you need to do this or do that. So that metaphor, I think, matches very well to my existence now, where it’s the things you just don’t know until you’re in the seat and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I was wrong about that other lens I had before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has it changed, I guess now with things being more remote? You’ve always been remote in that role. Right?

Ron Bronson:
I’ve always been remote. So for me, no, it has not changed anything about anything. I think the scope of the work is different, maybe a little bit, but no, it’s the same. Nothing changed in that way at all, which is great. I mean, I’d say this, that across government, across public sector, civic tech, whatever, it was definitely a sort of … especially when you get down to state and local levels, certainly a resistance to remote work to this kind of thing for a bevy of reasons. I know when I worked in local government, we had a heck of a time trying to get even a day where you could work remote. Well, they had to change that last year [inaudible 00:13:56]. Right?

Ron Bronson:
And so I think that, now, you deal with people and you see this and now people have a level of … it’s not savvy, but they certainly have more experience with it now. So the resistance they used to have isn’t there like it used to be because folks have had to adapt to this new reality. And so I think that takeaway has been great because it was such a difficult thing before. I think, again, you get down to these lower levels or certain, whatever, agencies, whoever [inaudible 00:14:23] maybe. I don’t know. So that part has been, I think, great to see, is just people’s comfort level with it changed in ways that you never saw before.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think that an interest in civic design has changed over the years?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. I mean, I was actually talking to a friend about this, a friend who left the country for awhile and wants to come back to the country and was like, “What should I do?” And I’m like, “See, when you left, it was really just a few things you could do, a few places you could go, [inaudible 00:14:49] digital service or an ATNF or something or places like Code For America.” [inaudible 00:14:55] New York City, but you didn’t have the options.

Ron Bronson:
Now, there’s tons of cities that have these digital service teams, different states like Colorado that have them now. Local governments are starting these. San Francisco has their own teams. There are lots of private sector companies, of course, that are doing this that built in very similar models that use a lot of the same tenents. And so I think that, yeah, there’s a ton of opportunity for people now to be able to get involved in using their skills for good and for helping move things forward and helping accelerate conversations that maybe were harder before. You wouldn’t have gone to work for the IT department in your local town before. You wouldn’t have wanted to do that, but now maybe you would because of all the different ways that civic tech conversation has elevated and proliferated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few service designers and designers working in government on the show over the past few years. And I think, certainly, all of us have seen how design and technology can have a profound effect on how people process information. I think we can clearly look at the last five years and see how that has been the case.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
If you had to give a pitch to say, I don’t know, current designers and developers now about going into civic tech, what would that look like?

Ron Bronson:
So I think people [inaudible 00:16:14] to a lot of the other things that I work on, personally. It’s one thing to be upset about systems and structures and processes and things not working well. It’s another thing to actually try to figure out how you can not only leverage your skills to make things better, but to be on the inside, at least to see … You’re not going to do it forever, but at least to see how it operates, see where the problems are, see where the issues are, see how you can solve those. Don’t just complain about the problems. How do we fix some of the problems? And you’re not going to fix all of them, but you can fix some.

Ron Bronson:
And also it’s a nice proving ground for being able to leverage … especially people who are hybrids. You’re an interaction designer who likes research or you’re a service designer, but turns out you’re really good at product design. To be able to leverage your content strategist who also does PM stuff, to leverage those sort of skills because, in a lot of [inaudible 00:17:04], especially the lower you get down in government, they’re not going to have these massive agile teams. So you’re going to deploy those multiple skillsets. I did that when I was in local government. I really liked it, personally, because it gave me a chance to sharpen some skills. My [inaudible 00:17:17] skills got way better, being in that situation, because they had to get that way. Maybe in a bigger place, that simply would never happen.

Ron Bronson:
So I think my pitch to people who are considering this kind of work is that, if you care about community, you care about your technologists who cares about the work, it’s good way for you to give back and be involved, but also to grow skills that’ll serve you well moving forward, beyond where you are in your career right now.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re all digital citizens, in some way.

Ron Bronson:
Agreed. 100%. Yep. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, that even, in some way, we totally are all digital citizens. With social media and such, you really can’t escape it.

Ron Bronson:
So true, so true.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you and I first spoke back in 2014, and you’ve alluded to this earlier just now, you were in Kentucky, I believe. What do you remember from working back during that time?

Ron Bronson:
That job was [inaudible 00:18:08] all I want. That job was the state headquarters for the community college system. And so it was higher ed, but it really wasn’t. And actually, that was the first job that I’d had that wasn’t on a campus, at that time. So for me, it was a little weird at first to be in this [inaudible 00:18:25] higher ed, but what it really was was a government job. You’re a bureaucrat and you’re making policy and you go to 16 different colleges and you’re setting digital strategy for the entire state and working with an internal team. A lot of the processes and things didn’t really exist before we built them, when I had that job.

Ron Bronson:
So it’s why I’m here, frankly, in many ways, even though I don’t know that that was my favorite job, but it gave me a great glimpse and lens of how to manage a big team. How do you manage people who don’t report to you, but you still set policy for them and your decision impact your work? I had to learn that and develop that skill over time. How to develop training for a massive internal team, public-facing stuff. So it was a great trial by fire. People [inaudible 00:19:11] what you see on Twitter a lot. Folks will say, “Oh, if you’re qualified for a job, but you’re not sure and you’re nervous, apply anyway because you might learn something.” Well, that job is [inaudible 00:19:21], but you feel a little in over your head, a little bit.

Ron Bronson:
I wouldn’t recommend that all the time, but in that situation, the pros for me in terms of what those lessons taught me after … And a lot of them were bad lessons. It was people-related lessons, but still … So I remember that time very vividly. I’m not going to get into all of it, but y’all have to DM me and I’ll tell you all the dirt.

Ron Bronson:
But any case, the positives of that were the lessons that I learned really allowed me, moving forward, to be a much more incisive designer, a much more compassionate leader, better communicating, to own what I know. So yes, there were some really great lessons from that time that have served me well, even to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you first entered into civic designer just right after you left Kentucky, went to Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
You were principal service designer for the City of Bloomington, Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it a big shift going from education to now civic design work?

Ron Bronson:
It wasn’t, partially for two reasons; one because, again, that job in Kentucky was pretty much a state job. I mean, it was state related. So everything we did was bureaucrat-level state stuff. That job and my job now, they’re different, but it was a lot of the same kinds of economies of scale. So that prepared me pretty well for being sort of in a faceless situation. Local government was fun. I really enjoyed it, especially at a sub-100,000 size city level. In a big city, it’d be probably similar to what I do, but in a city where [inaudible 00:20:56] 80,000 people, folks have problems with the website, they print a thing out and bring it to City Hall and say, “Ah, I went to this page. It didn’t work. Can you fix it right now?”

Ron Bronson:
I really enjoyed that. I thought that was really cool. You go to parties and folks tell you that they found a thing. So much of the work that we do as technologists in any part of the space that you’re doing, and I’m being very broad about this, you don’t really get to … You interact with users in user interviews or stakeholder things, but you’re not dealing with your users in this very retail way. The same ways that, if a thing breaks, I can go take it back to the store.

Ron Bronson:
You can’t do that with a website, but in local government in a city of that size with the team that we had … That was an amazing team. I want to shout out Bloomington, Indiana [inaudible 00:21:37] open source development team. All the stuff they had built was in-house. We transitioned the site from our in-house CMS that we had to Drupal. So it was a whole process, multiple things that went on there, but it was really, really cool, actually, to get to do that.

Ron Bronson:
So no, the transition wasn’t weird. I think the hard part for me was going from being director and doing a lot more leadership stuff to going back to being hands on. I did that on purpose. It was a deliberate decision for me to … I was in an IT shop, so doing a lot more front-end development and doing design and building the design system initially, but also doing a lot of service design stuff. I did all the service design. They never had a service designer before.

Ron Bronson:
All the user research … [inaudible 00:22:20] was a collaborative effort with some other folks, but leading that UX design, writing tons of content, so wearing a ton of hats, but I wanted that experience. I missed it. For me, it was really great to get to do that while also doing strategy, while also shipping an actual, physical thing. They needed a new site app. It had been 10 years old and we shipped it. So I loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, through the work that you’ve done, there’s this phrase that you’ve coined I’ve seen come up called consequence design. Can you talk about how you came to that idea and what exactly does consequence design entail?

Ron Bronson:
I used to always joke with anybody who asked me about consequence … I feel like I have a better answer now, but I feel like every interview I do about this [inaudible 00:23:00] changes. So you just [inaudible 00:23:02] all us together at some point. We’re going to figure this out together, as a community. But really, what it is is … I feel like consequence design is really born out of a lot of the conversations that are happening right now around … I think there are several conversations. There’s some that are around any patterns or dark patterns, for instance, which I don’t like saying, but people know what I’m talking about when I say it, so I just say it, or [inaudible 00:23:26] some of the hostile patterns that you see online.

Ron Bronson:
And I feel like a lot of these conversations, well, one, they’re not calling a spade a spade. We already have words for what deception is. We already know what … something that’s fraud, but we don’t want to call it that. So instead, we call it, “Ooh, it’s a dog pattern.” No, this website is trying to scam your grandmother. That’s a scam and we should call it what it is. It’s fraud. We should call it what it is.

Ron Bronson:
But through doing talks about these topics over the previous couple of years all over the world, people would ask me, “Okay. Well, what do I do about it? I’m just a junior designer at a bank. What am I supposed to do about this? How do I fix it?” And so I felt like all the conversations that we have around ethics and ethical design and so forth is a philosophy washout. I didn’t like those conversations because, one, they triggered me to thinking about [Hagel 00:24:18] and not doing great in philosophy. And I’m being funny right now, but also … which is true. I didn’t do great at that.

Ron Bronson:
But the other reason I don’t like it is because it takes the agency out of the hands of individuals. Yes, you’re not going to fix certain structures and systems, but there are things that you can do, that you can impact at your level or have a conversation about with your colleagues and eventually impact through glacial change, through iterative change. So I wanted a term that was, how do we take the areas [inaudible 00:24:48] policy, service design, the user experience, how do we merge these things together and how do we take real-world experiences, things like kiosks in public spaces that have really terrible UIs? That’s not divorced from the work that you and I do every day, but people act like it is, how we foist these experiences on people.

Ron Bronson:
And so I wanted to bring all that together to have an industry-wide [inaudible 00:25:12], practitioner-wide conversation around, “Let’s identify these are problems and let’s talk about how we might be able to fix some of these things.” First, we need to identify that they’re actually problems. And I didn’t just want to keep talking about the individual pieces of it. I wanted to be able to have a way to encapsulate it. And that’s how I got to consequence design as an idea. It’s still very fuzzy. The book is not out, will not be out until next year, but I’m trying to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s right. You are writing a book. I saw online-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:25:41] very slowly.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw parts of what you’ve been putting together online and we’ll link to that in the show notes so people can take a look at that, but it’s not your first book that you’ve written. You wrote a book back in 2017. Right?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. That was really more of … You know how people do … when you write your blog for years and you put all the blog posts into a book. And so that’s what that was.

Maurice Cherry:
That counts.

Ron Bronson:
The web management guide. Yeah. It was fun to get all that stuff together, mostly because all those blogs are dead now. So I’m kind of glad I got a few of those things together into a piece, but this is going to be the first time I’ve published a real print book. We did that online and you could go on GitHub. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but this will be a real thing you can put in your hands and, hopefully, use the reference guide. So I’m pretty excited about that. I’ll be more excited when it’s done, but I’m excited about getting further down the path.

Maurice Cherry:
So I read Web Management for Regular People because this was right around the time I was sort of … I mean, I was coming out of doing Lunch. I was coming out of doing my studio and looking for work, looking for something else, and really was trying to almost brand myself more as a strategist and less of just a designer because I had been a designer and I had done the studio for so long. And honestly, having a team that did the large part of the actual building and construction meant that I sort of fell behind in my skills. Yeah, I could still get in Photoshop and whip something up if I need to, but I’m nowhere near the production level work that I used to be in terms of speed. I wouldn’t say in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of speed. I’m nowhere near that.

Ron Bronson:
I hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Not to mention, with even web design, I mean, all the stuff that went on in the mid-2010s around CSS preprocessors and stuff, I was like, “Okay, now you’ve lost me. Now that you’re introducing JavaScript into CSS, I’m out.”

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember reading parts of your book because I was really thinking of how I would rebrand myself and eventually ended up doing that as becoming a digital strategist. And even where I work at now, I’m a content strategist, but reading what you had to say about strategy and how to design a strategist and things like that … I’d even talked with other people I’ve had on the show, like Douglas Davis, really helped me to form an idea of where I wanted to take my career next. So I want to just thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that. That warms my heart. That’s really cool because I didn’t know anybody cared, but I appreciate it. That’s why when you asked about it, I’m like, “Oh, right. I don’t want to talk about that,” but that’s really cool. That’s really, really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s something that is certainly important now. It’s funny, I see so many strategy roles now that I certainly didn’t see a few years ago.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there definitely weren’t any back then. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think, initially, they kind of were more in the purview or the domain of advertising, but now tech startups are looking for strategists and different web agencies are looking for strategists. They’re looking for someone that can sort of bridge the gap, I suppose, between the design and the business or at least has been in the trenches enough, I should say, to be able to give an overview of what should be done, where we should go, what pitfalls we should look out for. But yeah, strategy is an interesting field now in design because you’re kind of a professional generalist, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
So true.

Maurice Cherry:
And certainly, at a time in the industry when things were so heavily skewed towards product design, and I would say they probably still are-

Ron Bronson:
Still are, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… to a fault. Strategists occupy a really interesting role in the design industry. So yeah, I want to definitely thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that I’ve noticed, looking through your history and everything, is that coaching is a really big constant in your life. It’s something you’ve done since you were a really young man, a teenager. Mostly tennis, but you’ve coached debate, as well. What does coaching do for you?

Ron Bronson:
It’s really fun to, especially coaching tennis because you just see it … I mean, debate, too, but it happened then, too. That moment where somebody goes from a thing you talked about, oh, same thing you keep telling them over and over again … You’re like, “Look, you’re going to build on this.” I remember it happens every season, all the time. These kids, you start them off early and it’s really hard, whatever it is you’ve got them doing. Maybe you’ve got them playing people that are better than them because that’s what you need them to do that week or maybe [inaudible 00:30:07] and they’re not doing as well. And then, by the end of the year, there’s this moment when they play and it comes together for them and then they win something that you didn’t think they’d win or whatever and it’s always fun when …

Ron Bronson:
I was the worst player on a really good team in high school. There were four D1 guys on my high school tennis team. I was definitely not D1 quality. I played D3 tennis, but seeing how good players prepare, seeing how they work, and also trying to figure out how to fit in in that environment. My way to fit in was to basically be the second coach. I was a scout. So I could tell my guys, “Oh, yeah, the number one guy. Yeah, Kenny, you played that guy last year. You beat him two and one.” That was really useful to him. He appreciated that information. And so it’d go from them being curious about me saying that to them to, “Hey, Ron. Hey, did I play this guy? How did it go? Calm me down. Help me out.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m in high school and I’m doing this. I’m a high school junior, I’m a senior and I’m doing this for my better players because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be on the team. And so, as I got older … I didn’t like practicing as a kid. I liked to work on my own, but I didn’t really enjoy the way practices were set up. So I’m like, how do I create an environment where players want to get better and they want to come, they want to belong, irrespective of where they are in terms of their talent level? All you need to do is be hungry and excited about it.

Ron Bronson:
So how it ties to my everyday work is the same kind of thing. You come in with energy. You come in excited. I come in trying to help you get better and it’s not transactional. I’m not trying to make you better to get something out of it for me. I mean, we benefit from it, but I don’t care about that. If it means you getting better, it means you leave and go make more money, shout out to you because you did that. You made that happen. I didn’t.

Ron Bronson:
And so coaching is that and it’s fun over the years. I’ve been to camps over the years. I’ve been coaching high school tennis now. To have this arc of seeing kids from 1998, the first time I coached, to this year … I mean, I’ve taken years off, of course, but I coached this season. Basically, in theory, there were kids in ’98 who probably could have kids now, who could be kids of mine. Right? I’ve done a generation of this, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to be a little relevant over the times and you get to see how people evolve and grow and change and how you need to adapt your methods to resonate with a different generation. I’m almost washed, but I’m not quite there yet. I’m getting there. I’m not going to be coaching at 60. Then I’ll be super washed, at that point. So I’m not going to be one of those coaches you see, like … Oh, no, no. I’m nearing my end, but it’s been really fun and it’s … You work online. As somebody who spends a lot of time on a laptop, a lot of time on a computer, it’s very, very nice to have a time where you don’t do that and somewhere you’ve got to show up and be accountable to people and not just a … to be somewhere every day.

Ron Bronson:
And it’s different than a nonprofit or something. This is different. It’s in-person. It’s every day. There’s an ebb and flow. It’s pretty simple, but it’s not. You build the culture, but you’ve got enforce the culture. It’s a lot of lessons in it. I learned so much just from this season of coaching. I learned so much. And it’s stuff that I think applies to my everyday work. So it’s super, super cool.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now.

Ron Bronson:
Oh, man, Finnish baseball. I mean, it’s true. Pesapällo, Google it, friends, but I really want to know what’s next. People tease me, friends of mine. Even second-tier friends will tease me about, “Oh, your Twitter bio changes all the time.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m just AB testing,” but also I just want to [inaudible 00:33:28]. But one of the things I always put in there … It’s not in there right now, but it may be after we hang up, “Thinking out loud about a post-service design world.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m really obsessed right now with thinking about, as it relates to the work, anyway, is thinking about what does a world look like that doesn’t involve always just expecting folks to get on the treadmill? How do we build experiences that then involve people getting off? How do we build humane experiences that allow people to say, “Well, you used the thing, but you’re not using it anymore. Thanks for using it,” instead of guilt tripping them because they were going to unsubscribe from your stupid newsletter. I wonder about that. And I think COVID has helped a little bit with that, but I still think we’re still very embedded in the CRM, always be closing mentality of every … It’s permeated everything that we do.

Ron Bronson:
So I’m really obsessed with how do we … especially in terms of human-centered design, what does the next thing look like? How do we ideate paste this world that is very dominated by selling and buying things? Because I don’t like it. I just don’t. So I’m very obsessed with trying to figure that out, not because I want to invent something. Maybe I want to absolve my own guilt for being involved in this, tangentially, but that’s what I’m obsessed with, other than Finnish baseball, which I’m very obsessed with, is this topic.

Maurice Cherry:
Please go more into Finnish baseball.

Ron Bronson:
Long story short … This is your 90-second version of the story. [crosstalk 00:34:53] play a version of baseball. It’s the version they play now, since the 1920s. It’s a really cool design story, Finnish guy. He’s a Finnish Olympian, actually, in track, though. They played a bat and ball game in Europe that, basically, it was one base, whatever. He came to America twice and saw some baseball games. It was like, “I like this, but I can make it better.” So he went home and over 20 years, partially because of the way Finland became a country 100 years ago and so he was able to do this at the time when the country was becoming a country. So they sort of build this national pride over their own sport.

Ron Bronson:
And so he was able to iterate this sport called pesapällo, which is basically a Finnish version of baseball. There are nine players, there are four bases, there’s a bat, there’s a ball, there’s a field. Everything else is different. The rules are a little bit … It gets weirder. I found it online years ago … I invented a sport years ago and so I found it in the midst of doing that, but it wasn’t until about 2016 or so that I, through the internet, through magical Twitter, sort of went mini viral in Finland. It was an article about me in a newspaper. I ended up at the Finnish Embassy in New York. I’ve been to Finland since then. I’ve been on TV in Finland. It’s a whole thing.

Ron Bronson:
So anyway, I just enjoyed the game. I think it’s a really cool design story. It’s mostly a rural sport. You get more nanoseconds. It’s mostly a rural sport. There are some city teams, but it’s evolved into being a pretty rural sport. There are kids that play it from when they’re little. There are adults that play it. I just love the community and the culture around it. It’s a very specifically Finnish thing and I just think it’s a fun story to me. I think it’s been really fun to get immersed in it and you can … Now, I can watch all the games online. Back in the day, when I used to get into this, you couldn’t do that. It was three-day-old videos and there were no commentary and you didn’t know what was going on.

Ron Bronson:
Now, I just think I [inaudible 00:36:42] podcast. So it’s been a really fun way to get immersed in another culture through a thing that we all … many of us appreciate sports. Right? So, yeah, that’s the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m looking it up now and I like that Wikipedia calls it a fast moving bat and ball sports.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. It’s way faster than baseball. It’s definitely not boring. It’s not boring. A baseball game, you can go get a hot dog, come back and you won’t miss anything, maybe. In pesapällo, you would do that, you might miss a lot. It’s pretty great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it played here in the States or is mostly just a European-

Ron Bronson:
No. It’s literally only played in Finland.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Ron Bronson:
It’s literally only played in Finland. I mean, there are a few pockets of places where Finnish expats have brought it. So there’s a small community in Switzerland, there’s a small community in Germany, there’s a smaller community in Sweden. There are probably eight people in America that might play it. And as it turns out, the outreach that they were doing, it’s actually a community of people playing in Bangladesh in India, weirdly enough, and Pakistan. So there’s a [inaudible 00:37:48] trying to go … not global, but a little bit, some growth going on.

Ron Bronson:
There’s a major league for the men’s [aliment 00:37:55] sport for both, but it is entirely a Finnish exercise right now. So yeah, nothing in the States.

Maurice Cherry:
Fascinating. I’m looking it up as you’re talking about it. I’m seeing all these articles and things about … I’m going to have to watch some pesapällo on YouTube. I’m interested now.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there’s some good stuff on YouTube and Twitter. You go to Superfaces, you can look it up. You follow me, unfortunately. You could see my [inaudible 00:38:23]. You can unfollow me after this, but it was a good run we had. It was a good run we had, but you can see all my annoying tweets about it in half Finnish, half [inaudible 00:38:32]. [inaudible 00:38:32] at Finnish. I’ve gotten better, but it’s still pretty bad. But yeah, it’s some really fun stuff, just to highlight. They’ve gotten way better at social media in the past 10 years. So you can actually follow the game fairly well online. It’s pretty neat.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What advice has stuck with you the longest, throughout your career?

Ron Bronson:
I don’t know that it’s specifically advice. I think it’s more modeling. Having had so many good bosses over the years, good managers, people who … or even people that weren’t managers, who just looked out for you. Having that model so much in my life has made me [inaudible 00:39:07] level of empathy and care and consideration that I never would’ve. I think it’s funny how you actually talked about 2014. The lesson is is that that experience taught me that, if that had been first job and that had been my first situation with a manager, my entire career would be different, and not for the better. And so it’s wild how one person or one situation can completely change the trajectory of your situation. So you need to choose carefully the places you decide to start your carer, move your career or whatever because people, unfortunately, have an outsized impact on where you go and how you move forward and how you get to brand yourself and so forth.

Ron Bronson:
But it made me very appreciative for the people before that in ways that I wouldn’t have that. It made me so appreciate for people that looked out for me, who empowered me, who propelled me, who gave me the room to fail, who gave me chances, helped me grow and put me in positions to be successful. And so I just try to pay that forward all the time, anyway I can, because I’m just so grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I look at your past interview and then, of course, when talking with you now and just seeing all the things that you have accomplished in life, aside from career-wise, you also just have very interesting personal pursuits. You’ve sort of glossed over inventing a sport, but you’ve invented a sport, you’re into pesapällo, you’re doing all these … You had a T-line for awhile. I remember the T-line.

Ron Bronson:
Dude, yeah. You go way back.

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

Ron Bronson:
I do stand up, too. That was cool. I got that out of the way. Never doing that again. It was fine. It’s just you can’t … I want to win a state title next year. That would be cool, if we can do that, only because my high school coach never got to. My high school coach meant a lot to me and then we never got to do it. Through the way schools work, a lot of the players who train end up going to private schools. So we were good, but I wouldn’t have been on a high school team if we had the players that should’ve been on the team, but we were [inaudible 00:41:06] of our state title. So I’d love to win one for him. So that’d be cool.

Ron Bronson:
Besides that, I don’t know. It’s actually a good question and I don’t have a good answer for it because I’m not sure. It’s a question I’ve wondered, myself, is, “Cool. You’ve gotten pretty far. You’ve done some stuff. Wow. What a run you’ve had. What’s next?” Getting this book out would be cool, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ron Bronson:
I’m really curious to see, myself, what the next bucket of milestones and goals, myself, are. I’m not sure. A lot of my work right now is focused on trying to build a better world, I guess, which is hokey, but it’s true. And personally, I’m not even sure. Honestly, I really don’t even know.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess this is sort of a related question to that, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Ron Bronson:
I want it to be intentional. I want the next chapter of my story to be intentional and I want there to be a level of care involved in it. It’d be cool if I could get out of America for awhile and go live somewhere else for a good while, maybe not come back. That’d be rad. That’d be the end of that. So [inaudible 00:42:14] embassy, call me, but something like that would be cool. I think maybe, as it not relates to that, thinking about the work, it’d be cool to see what other kinds of stuff I could do. It’d be fun to help a state scale up their own digital team and go run one of those. I love fixing [inaudible 00:42:33] problems and solving them. And I’ve got some longevity in that now. So I really enjoy that kind of work. So it’d be fun to find a bigger problem space and solve it and help [inaudible 00:42:42] work with a team of people to fix these problems and none of this stuff is done alone. So that could be fun to set those kinds of goals.

Ron Bronson:
I like being behind the scenes. I don’t need anything super, super visible. I don’t want to aspire to anything ridiculously visible, but I like solving problems that other folks don’t necessarily want to solve. But I think, much like when we talked seven years ago, I didn’t know what the future had in store. I didn’t know what my stealing was. And I think that, if I wanted people to get something from this, if you get nothing else from my interview, other than [inaudible 00:43:15] pesapällo, which is amazing, you should all love it, is don’t put a governor or a ceiling or a cat on your potential. Don’t let your own imposter syndrome or something your parents said when you were 11 or something a teacher said when you were 22, don’t let … or a boss said to you when you were 30, don’t let those things, those individual, isolated situations put a cap on where you think you can go.

Ron Bronson:
Obviously, you have to do the work. Obviously, you’ve got to show up. Obviously, you’ve got to have some luck, but if you can position yourself, the opportunities can come. The things can come. You’re patient, but you’re also doing the work. And be willing to reinvent yourself, but I think that that’s the biggest lesson from, say, when we talk to now and thinking about the future, is as long as you don’t put a cap on it prematurely, then who knows what doors can open, what ceilings can be there because I don’t know. I didn’t predict this. I didn’t see this coming. I really didn’t. I’m past where I thought I was trying to go, which is really cool, but also kind of frightening.

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

Ron Bronson:
Definitely always at Ronbronson.com, definitely on your Twitter machine. Your Mileage May Vary There at Ron Bronson and also Consequencedesign.org. I’m trying to throw things up on there, as well. And since Maurice encouraged me to do this, I’m probably going to take that [inaudible 00:44:40] and stick some of that stuff on there, too.

Maurice Cherry:
The strategty book is really good. If people want to check it out, I can link to it in the show notes. It’s a quick read and really I came across it at a time when I needed to think about what my next step was going to be because I had sort of wound down my studio and I was doing interviews and, I mean, the places I was interviewing at, I was like, “I don’t want to go and just be a designer. I can bring more to the table than that.” And so reading just what you wrote about strategy and everything really changed my mindset going into all this. So hopefully, people will check it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Ron, as always, thank you so much for coming on the show, for really giving us an update on what you’ve been working on. It’s been so great to hear about all the work that you’re doing, helping out our government, as whole, with the work that you’re doing. I know we’re not going directly talking about stuff, but just being able to-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:45:39] [inaudible 00:45:39].

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, that’s true.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. Y’all can look and see. You’re smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I think just, one, being able to do that work and then also how you’re encouraging and paying it forward to other people, whether it’s in civic tech, whether it’s coaching or what have you. I can definitely tell that you have that sort of spirit of paying it forward, which I think will take you very far. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ron Bronson:
Appreciate you, too, always for all the work you’ve been doing and doing these thankless tasks. It’s a lot of work and a lot of energy and amplifying people, especially back in the day. I’ve given you your flowers while we’re on the show. I was just a guy buried somewhere and I think I tweeted at you and you were like, “Yeah, come on the show.” That is seriously the coolest thing in the world. You didn’t have to do that. You could’ve been like, “Ah, all right, buddy. That’s fine. I’ve got a long list,” and you did. So super grateful for you, not only for this, but for all the things you’ve done over the years, your different projects you’ve put on and amplifying black designers, specifically, but also people of color and just really … not just talking about the work, but doing the work and being intentional about that, and inspiring others to do that, including me.

Ron Bronson:
So just as much as you just said, “Ah, whatever I did,” it goes back to you. Your body of work speaks for itself. So super grateful for you, for now and always.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

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Maxwell VanHook

“If you have a vision for yourself, go for it.” When Maxwell VanHook told me that before our interview, I knew that he was about to drop some serious knowledge. And he did not disappoint!

We started off in an interesting place — the home — and he talked about how newlywed life and how he’s been re-evaluating the concept of work and code switching in this current age. He also shared a bit about his work as an associate creative director for Amazon Devices, and his role as co-host of the weekly IG Live show Designing While Black. For Maxwell, trusting your voice and values has been key to his success…and I definitely agree with that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I am Maxwell VanHook. I am from Baltimore, Maryland, currently. In my professional life, I am an associate creative director on the Amazon devices team. That basically entails anything that has Alexa in it, but it also involves the devices that Amazon makes. You can think about your Echo Dots, Echo Shows, Kindles, emerging platforms like Amazon Luna, which is cloud gaming. Outside of my professional life, I am a music lover. I’m also the co-host of Designing While Black along with Bekah Marcum. That comprises who I am. First and foremost, I would say with all of those things, I like to show up as a friend. I’m just a friend, support system and a champion of other people’s dreams. I like to see people succeed. I’d like to see people win.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
The year’s been good. I’m not going to lie to you. When COVID hit, I think that I had some psychological and emotional barriers. No, just in terms of shifting my schedule. I had a routine. I would get up every day, probably around 6:37 o’clock, do whatever I need to do for the morning, get dressed, go to work, probably get coffee when I went to work. And so it gets monotonous. All of that broke down once COVID hit. And so now, I’m at home. Now, I’m with my wife and I’m with my cat. Nobody’s really going outside. And so I had to create new routines for myself. I had to learn how to work out within at home, I had to learn how to run within my home, I had to learn how to make sure that I was keeping my mind active outside of my day-to-day work. I also need to figure out how to keep myself emotionally and mentally stable.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so it’s been good because I learned a lot about myself. I really had to scrutinize what I wanted from life and it allowed me to be still. I know that there were a lot of things that came along with the pandemic. But now that we’re somewhat out of it, I actually appreciate it because it allowed me to sit with myself and really be introspective about how I wanted to move forward in this next phase of life. I just turned 31 not too long ago. And so I feel like I’m at a crossroads in terms of who I want to be. This has been good for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think a lot of people now, especially peer in the states who have hopefully gotten their vaccines or they’re seeing now that just restrictions are being lifted like nationwide and in many places, I think a lot of people are at that point of reexamining and reevaluating where they’re at now that they’ve come out of this and trying to figure out what moving forward looks like, because I think there’s been this big push to get back to normal. You got to get back to normal. But it’s almost impossible in many ways because the world is just a different place. We’re different people now that we have all collectively went through this extended trauma. It’s hard to just snap back into what you used to do before all of this.

Maxwell VanHook:
Now, it was important for me… I realized, especially like on a work-front, there are certain conditioning that you go through in terms of how you show up that especially in physical spaces, like when you walk into a corporate office and you’re not the dominant culture. And so things like code switching, dialect altering, I was with… not too long ago, we had someone that we interviewed and they used the phrase telephone voice. These are things that I feel black and brown people use every day to survive in these spaces. I just had to do a deep conditioning because when I was at home, I was way more relaxed. And then I realized that I’m not in the physical space with you and I’m not going to become someone different when I’m outside of my home.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I had a conflict with myself, like internal conflict. This is the space where I am authentically myself, this is the space where I can be free and open and now I’m bringing work into that space. And so I like, “No, I flipped that on its head. Anywhere that I show up, that’s how I’m going to be.” And so working at home actually allowed me to do that, getting on the phone and not really caring how I’m phrasing things, not really caring on what type of vernacular I’ll use because I was just embracing fully who I am. Especially when you put it in the context of the pandemic, you realize, “Hey, life can be snatched at any moment. It’s up to us to live use the agency to own your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. You’re like reevaluating… it’s funny… well, not funny, but I like that you said that you’re looking at home and how you bring work into it, because certainly for a lot of folks, having to work from home, it’s been tough, I think, for many people to really make that delineation between like, “This is work, this is home.” Even if you’ve got a dedicated space, you’re still bringing a totally foreign thing into your sanctuary. Home is where you… That’s where you sleep, that’s where you let your hair down, that’s where you let your defenses down. But now, it’s also your workplace and your gym and your daycare and all these other things now. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, all those things converged. When they converged in that manner, I just started to look at how I was showing up and then also how I was relating to people. I think you discover things about yourself throughout life because I believe that we’re fluid beings in that way. And just being able to sit at home, knowing that this is my space and I own it, I couldn’t even access any form of code switching or altering, if I wanted to, because it just wouldn’t sit right with me. And that just ultimately led me to say like, “Why was I doing it in the first place? Also, who told me to do this?” And that was another thing like, “Who told me to do this?” I was like, “No one told me to do this? This is a decision you made and you have to break and work to get out of this.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so if there is a danger and not code switching, that’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with, but I would rather live my truth. I feel like most people should live their truth in that sense. There’s so many people who stay away from their unique sensibilities or their unique form of expression because of how other people will perceive it and that stops you from that expansion. That’s the goal. I’m trying to expand, I’m trying to try as many things as I possibly can. With curiosity comes failures sometimes. I don’t even look at failure as failure. I look at that as a lesson, a learning lesson. I want to fall as many times as I can. I want to show up in any form that I want to show up in. Yeah, I just want to own my space. I’m trying to walk away from conditioning that may have happened beforehand.

Maurice Cherry:
Does Amazon foster that kind of exploration for you as an employee?

Maxwell VanHook:
I don’t necessarily know if Amazon fosters it. But I will say that when I came to Amazon, I was met with some very real confrontational energy in terms of the people that I was interacting with. I know there are horror stories about Amazon. I do not believe that the majority of them are true, just not in my case. But there was this presence of trying to be A type, trying to be the best, trying to always be on. And for me, there was the double whammy of walking into a social environment inside the building where nobody looked like me, and then also outside of the building, nobody looked like me. And so I don’t necessarily know if there was a support system there. I’d argue that there wasn’t and they’re trying to build it now to foster that individuality and that freedom of expression, but it forced me to build my own.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so in that way, I would appreciate the experience of coming to Amazon, being able to live in Seattle, because it put me directly in line and maybe come face-to-face with who I am as a person, as a designer, especially as a man. And so it was like a forcing function. If I was half stepping in in who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up, I couldn’t really do that there. And so there were a lot of things that I just started to think about differently life-wise once I started working at Amazon. More specifically, like my wellness, like self-care. I didn’t even get a therapist until I came to Amazon, which is odd, it’s super odd. That shouldn’t have been the case. I probably should have always had a sense of reflection or someone to help me process, but that stuff did not happen until I came to Seattle.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. We’ll talk about what brought you to Seattle and everything later, but I want to focus now on the work that you’re doing at Amazon. You said you’re an associate creative director when you’re working on Amazon products, devices I should say, Amazon devices. Amazon has been in the device game for a minute. I think everyone knows about the Kindle, but now there’s Echo, like you mentioned, there’s the Fire TV, there’s the Fire tablet. Amazon has also acquired other electronics companies. And so there’s wearables, there’s the ring security system, all this sort of stuff. There’s a lot that goes into devices at Amazon. Just like as broad as you can, and if you want to go into specifics, that’s fine, what are some creative considerations that you have to think about when it comes to Amazon devices because you’re really working with an entire ecosystem of tech here?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I would say at the center, there’s a leadership principle called customer obsession. Really without getting into too much jargon, essentially at the epicenter of any Amazon product or any Amazon device is this human focused, this human lens. Always creating product and always creating innovation with your audience in mind. And so anytime that I am getting ready to create a campaign or I’m getting ready to market a product, I always think about the audience that I’m trying to serve, because if I’m not thinking about that, then I’m probably being a terrible designer.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I would say that one is that audience, but then also balancing that as you go through and you’re innovating from device to device, realizing how these technologies may create tension points. You want to look at like Echo Dot, for instance, the way that it functions is it very much so has to record. And so it’s constantly listening. It’s pinging to see if it’s being called every so often. And that’s why when you say the key phrase, Alexa, it’ll activate. And so how do I humanize technology like that? How do I humanize emerging technology to show people like, “Hey, this is new, this is novel, but it can fit within your day-to-day lifestyle and it can be a benefit to you”? And so that’s how I think about marketing any product with Amazon. What is the human entry point? What is the human lens? How does this product help serve the customer base and how does it help enhance their lifestyle?

Maxwell VanHook:
I worked on a product, a service within the Alexa app not too long ago, which is probably one of my proudest projects. It’s called Alexa Care. Essentially, it’s for the more senior, elder loved ones in your life. It allows people to stay in touch with those loved ones without infringing on their day-to-day lifestyle. Imagine you have a grandmother who’s 75, 80 years old. She lives by herself at home and you live maybe in another country or another state. How do you stay in touch with her? And so those are the types of products and that’s essentially how we would want any of the Amazon devices to show up. It needs to be a benefit, it needs to enhance, it needs to be brought into the life of our everyday customer and improve. If it’s not doing that, then we probably won’t make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now that you mentioned, I’m thinking of other kind of Amazon devices. I think these might’ve been some that were discontinued. I remember at one point there was a… I think one was like a camera or a camera wand or something that went with Amazon wardrobe that would analyze your outfit. It reminded me of Clueless, like the opening scene in Clueless, where Cher is picking out her outfit on the computer and the closets got the dual conveyor belt curtains, or whatever, or the rods, or whatever, but thinking about like, “Is that really a benefit? Do I need to do all of that if I’m getting ready in the morning?” Probably not. I think Amazon discontinued it fairly shortly. But when you put it in that way of like the devices need to be a benefit, then I see why Amazon has made such a, I think, deep strides into the home with their devices.

Maurice Cherry:
The Echo is something that easily can blend in with your decor. The Fire TV it sits behind your TV, it’s out of sight. The ring it’s literally outside the house. You don’t really even see it. But the benefits that it adds, whether that’s security or extensibility or smart home functionality, stuff like that, it’s interesting how all of that still works together under the Amazon brand because now it, of course, ties into the services, it ties into Alexa, it ties into purchasing, or whatever that you want to do on the website.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. It’s really important to look at the ecosystem of devices that we have. I don’t even think there’s a lot of things that Amazon tries. I would say a year-over-year, we’ve increased our device output like 10 fold. I expect it to continue to grow and grow. Really, I think the goal is to provide through Alexa a service that can be personalized to the end user and can function in a way that benefits them specifically. I imagine a world… And these are not conversations that I’ve had with anyone in terms of how Alexa functions. But I imagine a world where there are no devices and potentially Alexa is integrated into the home itself.

Maxwell VanHook:
I could imagine like seeing a tiny home, it could start off there and it could just have Alexa integrated into. You don’t need to have these one-off devices in order to have it function. Imagine it already being built into the smart appliances, imagine it already being able to interface with your computer. You don’t need to have a suite of devices that ties into the Internet of things in order to function efficiently. That’s what I think is going on with most AIs. I think the overall goal is to arrive there and the device is just to open up new spaces and open up how customers relate to the voice assistance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I imagine you get a ton of data with just seeing how people talk to Alexa, how they interact with the different devices, and then you can use that, of course, to upgrade the experience. But then as you said, you can venture off into greater implementations. Like I know there’s the Amazon Go store, which I think started in Seattle. I’m not sure if it’s started to spread nationwide yet, but it’s almost like a person list convenience store. You can go in, pick up what you need and walk out. As you’re doing this, you’re automatically being rung up, like the things that you’re buying are being tabulated, you’re charged when you walk out the door, and you don’t have to interact with a person. You just go in, do what you have to do, walk out.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think, if I’m not mistaken, not too long ago, and you probably find this online, they just opened up a full fledged grocery store here in Washington.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I’m going to have to go check that out. Even like that concept, it’s interesting because it’s not like we haven’t tried that in history before. I look at the, on a smaller scale, like a lot of the grocery stores already have some form of self-checkout. But even the human psychology behind self-checkout, you look at it, realistically, if you were to assess how long it takes you to go into a store, get what you need and then go through the checkout line by yourself, it probably on average takes you a lot longer rather than having else. But it’s the thought that you are going to be a lot faster than that person who may be checking you out in line, which is interesting. But also even seeing Amazon try something like this and be relatively successful has a lot to do with studying the human behavior. But yeah, that’s not the first time in human history that we’ve we tried that before. [crosstalk 00:21:10].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, no, I’m thinking specifically of the automat, which has been around since like the late 1800s. When Amazon is doing at least in… if you look at from the automat to the Amazon Go store is essentially taking that same concept and almost treating the store like a vending machine and just having this layer of technology that handles interactions throughout the entire process.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, it’s crazy to see. I remember the first time that I actually went into… because I work in Day 1, and for anyone who doesn’t know what Day 1, it’s one of the buildings. I believe it’s actually the building that Jeff Bezos is. And so within the verticals and the business orders that he cares about, they all exist in that building, with the exception of AWS, Amazon Web Services. I remember when I first went into that store and it was such a weird thing. It was like coming from where I come from, just be able to use an app, walk in and walk out, and I stopped myself and I was like, “Am I like really…” It’s almost like you feel like you’re about to steal something like, “Am I really allowed to walk out with this?” Yeah, but it’s interesting in that I think as they become more successful with the rollout of the stores, yeah, you’re going to see a lot more of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see Amazon coming out with like the Amazon house of tomorrow. You know what I mean? It’s almost like those old Tex Avery cartoons where you got all the machines and robots doing stuff. It’s so interesting because these are concepts… Just this whole thing about home automation, for example, we’ve been fed that for like 50 years now. The Flintstones and all those little animals and shit doing stuff for them in the cave, we’ve been fed this whole thing about having the house work for us instead of us working in the house for such a long time. And so now you’ve got a company like Amazon that’s able to really do that through their devices. Other companies have gotten on this too, but I feel like Amazon was really one of the first to really do deep penetration into the home largely because I think it was tied to commerce.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, I also think it’s so interesting to see the exponential growth of technology and the rate of change and the rate of innovation and technology. I’m sure that you’ve watched Black Mirror.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. And so I remember the first season and I was like, “Oh, some of the things that are happening in this series, like the grain, the grain where you can run back all your memories, that’s super far away.” And then season-by-season, I think I realized by the third season, I’m like, “No, these are things that can happen now.” And so I’m looking back because I always feel as though like art imitates life. I think we seed ideas within the consciousness of society and then some person out there will have the goal or have the genius to make it. And now, I think we’re at a crossroads where it’s like, “All right, you put that into the world, I can make that tomorrow.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so yeah, I think you’re 100% right. We’re going to look probably within the next few years, there will probably be some sort of smart home that will have all this integrated tech. I think we’re at a stage where that next technological revolution, if it’s not already here, it’s getting ready to come underway. It’s pushing up against our beliefs about identity in how we think about ourselves. Going back to Black Mirror, that episode about VR and video games, I forget the actors that were in it, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Is this from the latest season, the Striking Vipers?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yes, Striking Vipers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
That was so interesting to me because it introduced a new topic, because that technology is not far away. It’s right around the corner. I want to say not to get too graphic, but there are streaming websites that people probably sit or shouldn’t be going to that get a lot of data and they have invested and have given seed money to companies who are creating bodysuits that can sense like AR/VR touchpoints and mimic haptic feelings throughout the body if you’re wearing these suits. And so, yeah, like seeing an episode like that and knowing… because I pay attention to angel investors, I’ll pay attention to what people are doing in the market, knowing that there are websites who want that technology and are spending money in order to make it happen means that that conversation may not be that far down the line. And that to me, it’s somewhat terrifying, but it’s also really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, I totally get what you’re saying. I didn’t even think you were going to go that way with it. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see that. I was thinking more so about like now how… A couple of weeks ago I had this guy on the show, Brandon Groce, and we were talking about the metaverse and about how there are online personalities, YouTubers, podcasters, et cetera, that have a virtual realish avatar, like a VTuber or something like that. We’re starting to see it on YouTube, for example, people that have these online-ish identities that are getting some level of fame. There’s Dream, there’s Corpse Husband, there’s probably a few other folks. It’s like these are real people. No one knows who they are, what they look like, but they’ve presented this digital 3D avatar of themselves. They’re able to use that to, I guess, be themselves online in some sort of way. But to go back to what you said with the Black Mirror portion, I do see how that’s not too far away at all. Between augmented reality and things of that nature, it’s pretty close.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Even what you just said, I love to unpack that even more, because in a sense, it’s the most ideal version of yourself. That’s what I think in a real way because I’m conflicted about social media and how it’s used, but you curated. A lot of people do not give this holistic presentation. It’s not like a direct one-to-one to your everyday life experiences. Yeah, you just amplify that and then now I can actually physically choose what I look like. If I want to be part animal, part human, or if I want to be a cyborg, I can do that. And now, we’re all in ready player one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maxwell VanHook:
I can imagine that that’ll happen. Yeah, not too long from now. I feel like I’m watching kids now and at least my… I have a godson and he constantly in his video games. If he’s not in his video games, he’s watching streamers. I hear you on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about your work at Amazon. One of the other things that you do is that you are a co-host of a show on Instagram called Designing While Black. Tell me about that.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think Bekah and I met in my first year at Amazon. And so Bekah is my co-host. What we realized is that internally there were no spaces for designers to come together, meet politic, learn from one another, and generally just have a social bond that feels like support. We wanted to change that. And so we got together. I want to say one day, we went to a mini golf session and we sent out a blast. We expected like five people to show up. I think like over 30 people showed up. So now, we realize like, “Oh, there’s a community within Seattle that we really, really need to access.” That’s where black designers of Seattle came from, just trying to create a space where black designers who may feel other, who may feel like there’s no one who shares the same interest or even walks in the same spaces that they do. There is a social circle out there that they can access.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so a lot of the times like when we were starting to have these gatherings, we weren’t talking about design at all. We were just having fun. We would go, pick a place, we would eat, and we would just fellowship. And then we slowly started to shift that and it became a little bit more educational. We started to bring people in like Tim Allen, I believe you had Tim Allen on your show.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), from Airbnb, yup.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We brought in Jessica Rochelle, Timothy Bardlavens. And so we were bringing in these different people who were really able to share knowledge, share their experience, and uplift the designers within our community. And then we were getting reached out to from agencies or other bigger tech companies because they wanted to host us in the space and then the pandemic hit and then things started to take a bit of a low. We try to figure out how to navigate the new world and the new situation that COVID presented to us.

Maxwell VanHook:
One of the things that we thought about was having a Zoom. But then outside of that Zoom, because we were specifically talking to designers within Seattle, we were really, really interested in being able to reach a larger audience. And within that larger audience, really speak to emerging designers. People who are either in middle school, high school, college, and wanting to walk in the same spaces that we’re currently walking. And it’s like, “How can we reach out to them? How can we give them content that can encourage them and allow them to know that there are people out here who look like them and are doing this work?” Because I firmly believe like if you don’t see yourself, then you may not believe it’s possible.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so that’s where Designing While Black came from. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, scrutinizing it, trying to design out the materials in the brand and a bunch of different ways. One day, Bekah and I just sat down and like, “We’re just going to do it, do it. We’re going to get out within a week, we’re going to bring on…” I think our first guest was Alyssa Johnson, “and we’re just going to keep going every week, short form content, bringing the people that we know and make sure that this gets in the hands of the right people.” And so uplifting those stories and disseminating them to the people that can access those younger folk who want to be creative and want to do design professionally, that’s our main goal.

Maxwell VanHook:
As COVID restrictions start to lessen and we get back to peopling again, our goal is to get right back into those physical spaces and those physical venues, and then maybe we can start to do those shows in a more brand way. But that’s where it started. I think her and I really, really believe in education and we both stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us. Like I specifically, one of my design mentors was in my church. I know that that’s not like a common story to have a professional graphic designer who can talk to you at the age of 14, 15 and guide you. But I want to give back to other people what he gave to me. That was the overall goal of just doing the IG Live show.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned since starting the series?

Maxwell VanHook:
One, I’ve learned that there are some magical black folk out there, real like, “You start to like.” You’ll sit down with some people and you think that you have a full understanding of everything that they’ve done. And when you sit down and you have a conversation with them and you really have to assess and dive deep into their life and their work, you start to realize like, “Yo, there are black people who are innovators in every single type of design that you could think of.” And that’s really encouraging to me, especially in the spaces that I travel. But I think the biggest thing is that like, “Yo, we’re killing it out here. We’re killing it out here, and not just when it comes to being like a director or a VP or an executive.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I met a young woman the other day, her name was Kiwi. She’s currently in school. But she was a producer on MasterClass. Yeah, and she has spent time producing for films. She just completely shifted and decided that she wanted to become an instructional, or she wanted to become not only like an instructional designer, but industrial designer more so. That’s probably like the most amazing thing like being able to meet people who have had just so many different types of experiences in life and aren’t afraid to try new things. That probably is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. I do want to ask you, as you were building out your platform, what probably is the biggest roadblock that you faced just in terms of making sure that, one, it was reaching the people that you wanted it to reach?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good question. I think it was two things. One was really me trying to get out of my own way. I think I certainly was trying to do, especially early on, a lot of partnering up with other entities to try to reach an audience that I just didn’t have yet. I should have been spending that time really cultivating the audience that I did have, like the ones that I knew were listening and were leaving reviews and stuff. Instead, I would try to talk to another design podcast or another design organization and see if there’s ways that we could work together and do some stuff. Oftentimes the answer to that would be no answer. It just wouldn’t go anywhere, even though I’m reaching out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably been a big roadblock. To be fair, I’d say money is a continual roadblock. But in those early days, there wasn’t really a whole lot that I really needed that money for in terms of I think I wanted to have it as a status symbol to myself that I’ve created something that companies will pay me for. And of course, I would use it for operational resources and stuff like that. But I spent way too much time trying to chase sponsors and chasing audience I didn’t have and I should have been really focusing inward on cultivating the audience I do have and making them really rabid fans of what I’m trying to do that can see the vision that I see. I would have done that. Because yeah, in those early days, there was… I’ll say this, it was certainly not as progressive as it is now, not by a long shot.

Maurice Cherry:
When I was reaching out to people in 2013 and 2014 there was a lot of, “Oh, we’re post-racial, we don’t do this sort of stuff anymore, et cetera, blah, blah, blah,” which then just made it difficult when people ideologically feel that the work that you’re doing for some reason is racist and it’s not. It’s like, “Oh, well, I don’t see why you would think that.” The tenor of the design community was not as open and accepting and as, I’d love to say the word woke, but it was not as woke now as it was back. Back then, people were really closed off to like, “No.” Now, it’s a lot more open. I think there’s a greater consideration and a greater perspective for what black designers are doing and what they can bring to the table and their voices and such.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I want to think back to when I first discovered your podcasts. I think, for me, especially I was young. I was fresh in the design game. And so you don’t see a lot of examples of people have had robust careers. I probably didn’t meet too many people outside of my actual mentor who had decades worth of experience in design. And so being able to access your podcast reassured me that like, “Not only can I have a long career in this, but I can aspire to do great things.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so, yeah, I just wanted to I appreciate the platform that you built in that sense because it does not only spread knowledge, but it also reinforces some things identity-wise within a young designer to know like, “Hey, there are people who are out there and there are people who are great and they’re killing it.” And so, yeah, I was really, really, really excited when I found the show. I don’t even remember how I found it. I can’t even remember how I found it. I may have been searching online. It probably was like Facebook back then. Yeah, I would just check in, listen and use it to build not only my knowledge of self and what was happening in these different spaces, but also to explore new territories.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’m certainly glad that you found it. It’s interesting because like I said, I’ve been doing this for such a long time. And oftentimes, it’s probably different with what you’re doing with Instagram because you have a live audience. But with podcasting, a lot of this is pretty solitary. I don’t really know how it’s being received unless someone leaves a review, or they write me an email, or they send a tweet, or send a DM on Instagram. Other than that, I’m just pushing episodes out into the void. I can see that they’re getting listened to and downloaded, but I don’t get that direct feedback. And that could just be honestly because of the medium. But yeah, no, I’m glad that you found Revision Path and that it was able to serve as an inspiration for you.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I feel like we should give people flowers again maybe on the internet. We don’t do the best job of that, especially when you look good like the vacuum that is Instagram in the light system. But as I live and breathe, I just wanted to let you know that… And I definitely share your podcast with young designers and people that I mentor because I don’t want people to think it’s just me out here. I’m tired of that narrative. I’m tired of the narrative of being like, “Oh, I was the only one. I’m the only black designer that I know, I’m the only black designer for 100 miles.” Is exhausting. I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t want to hear it anymore.

Maxwell VanHook:
I also want to change the narrative in terms of how people of color relate to design because I tend to think that the way that you think about something has to be vastly different than the way that another person thinks about something. And the way that you will build something is going to be vastly different than the way that someone else will build it. I think inherently, black people are designers. Even thinking about systems that were placed on us and how we’ve navigated around them, we’ve organized. We have created structures, we have created innovation and process to be able to by step roadblocks that have been placed in front of us.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I think that that’s a part of your heritage, that’s a part of your legacy. I think if you want to be a designer, you can do that. It’s just a matter of sending your mind to it. And so I tell people that all the time, especially younger folks like, “This is a part of your ancestry, bro, you’ve been creating long before you were in existence. It’s in your blood. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of ancestry and going back, I want to go back to where you grew up. You’re originally from Baltimore, born and raised. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. Did you feel like you got a lot of exposure to art and design as a kid?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Both my parents are like… We’re really supportive of the arts. My dad, he forced me to take drama classes oddly enough. He came to me one day after school and was like, “You’re signing up for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. You have an audition two days from now.” And then my mom would make sure that during the summers and after school, I was doing some sort of arts and crafts. Baltimore has this program called TWIGS. It’s attached to this high school called Baltimore School of the Arts. And so when I would leave my middle school, I would just take a bus there. And so I’m learning foundational principles of traditional art. And also from year-to-year, I’m switching off. Maybe one year I’m doing more traditional art practices and then the next year I’m learning how to act.

Maxwell VanHook:
And then that evolved. As I started getting a little bit more focused, my mom would take me to MICA. Even in middle school, I was able to get a lot of exposure to institutions that existed within Baltimore that solely focused on art. And then when I went to city, city is… I’ll say it’s the best high school that exists within Baltimore, but they have a program called International Baccalaureate. That allowed me to get a little bit more focused when it came to how I was telling my stories through art.

Maxwell VanHook:
I had some teachers who were just really, really helpful and set the foundation for how I wanted to express myself. And one day, one of those teachers came up to me and was like, “You know that you could do this as a career.” I was like, “Huh, I didn’t really think about that.” This was just something I would do when I was just chilling or late at night or when I have free time. And so once he expressed that to me… because I was going to go to school for communications, which would have been really, really bad. But I had made the connection that what you’re probably passionate about, you should follow that. You should figure out how to do that as much as you can.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so what they saw in me, they really, really poured into me. And then I talked to my mentor and he opened up that lens a little bit more and he was like, “Hey, you could go to school for graphic design. But I see something different happening in the space. And so you’re going to need more than one skill when you graduate from school. He’s like, “Don’t do graphic design.” He’s like, “There are programs out there now that will teach you those principles, but you need to be more in the digital space.” That’s how I ended up majoring in multimedia and I got crazy amount of exposure to different things.

Maxwell VanHook:
I want to say we were doing physical computing. I was messing with Arduino boards, trying to figure out how I could trigger light within a physical space, doing sound production, messing with middies, a bunch of stuff like video production, pretty much all the different types of design and art forms that you could think of. I just had so much freedom, I think. Out of all the majors in that school, we had the most electives. It was wonky. I want to say like three to four years after I left, they shut it down. Yeah, they just rolled it into graphic design.

Maxwell VanHook:
But even that was indicative of the fact that graphic design as a major or as an industry had changed, and we were using new terms and I had no idea what a user experience designer was, but also those lines hadn’t been defined yet. But to go back to Baltimore, that’s my heart and soul. Even though I’m in Seattle right now, the goal is to always return back to it. It’s taught me a lot, is where I get my grip from, is where I get my perseverance from. It’s the place where I learned to be me. And so me and my wife, we’re here in Seattle now, but the goal is always to go back home.

Maurice Cherry:
Now growing up in Baltimore and everything and with what you’ve just described, when did you know that this was something you really wanted to do for a living? Did it click at any point growing up?

Maxwell VanHook:
When did I know that this was something I wanted to do for a living? It’s really odd, but it was probably my senior year of college because I wasn’t really sure how viable a design career was. I was going back and forth and as I was starting to get closer to graduation, I was having some apprehension. It was like, “Do I just go get a master’s degree?” Both of my parents have master’s degrees and they’re both educators. I just thought that that was the path. And then my senior year, I had a teacher… It’s interesting. He led our whole program. I had him like freshman year and he leaned on me. He’s like, “You don’t understand any of these programs.” He’s like, “You have great vision, but you can’t execute on any of your visions because you don’t have the technical knowledge.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then I had him again in my senior year and he did the exact same thing, except it was a different message. He was like, “You could be so great.” He was like, “You could be so, so great.” He was just yelling at me. I could see this passion in his eyes. I’m seeing all my other classmates and they’re walking in with projects that are half thought out, or they did the night before. He’s just letting them come in and out, come in and out. What you said to me is like, “You’re not the same as them.”

Maurice Cherry:
In a good way or a bad way?

Maxwell VanHook:
In a good way, in a good way. He’s like, “That’s why I’m yelling at you.” He’s like, “I can see you doing this for the rest of your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so that really set you on that path. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
It set me on that path because I woke up and was like, “Oh, do I need to get a master’s? Why am I going to get a master’s degree?” I lit fire within me because I didn’t have that confidence yet. There was nothing saying that I was meant to do design full-time, there was nothing saying that I was going to work at Under Armour, there was nothing saying I was going to be where I am now. And that teacher, yeah, it came full circle. Like first year, lit a fires like, “Oh, you got to learn these programs.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then it was like my last year. I still remember this man. His name’s Chris Garvin. Yeah, just leaned on like… just yelled at me and would not do it to anyone else at all. But I think I saw him maybe like five or six years after that because my brother ended up going to that school and I thanked him, because there’s a level of care. You need a support system of people who are going to hold you accountable, but also people who see you as greater than what you see yourself as. That was important for me. But yeah, that’s when the switch turned. That’s when it turned and I was like, “Oh, I can do this, I can do this. I can see myself as a designer professionally.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And speaking of which right after you graduated, you ended up working at Under Armour and you stayed there for what? Six years pretty much?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. That’s an interesting story. I want to say I was up late at night once Saturday evening, probably like Sunday morning, around twelve o’clock in the morning. I’m on Craigslist. I’m just applying for anything. I have my busboy job. I’m like, “I got to pay off these loans quick as possible. I’m working as many shifts as I can. I’m not trying to live in my parents’ house forever.” And so I’m like come across this ad that says, “Oh, we have a contract position for a designer working with a sports organization within Baltimore.” I’m like, “Hmm, what could that be?” I was like, “Could it be the Orioles? Probably not. Could it be Baltimore Blasts? I don’t know.” I was like, “It’s not going to be Under Armour. They would just have it posted on their site.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Got a call probably… I’m in church. I got call around nine o’clock. Someone leaves a voicemail. It’s like, “Hey, we want you to come in tomorrow, take a test.” Still don’t know what it is. Go in, fail the test. Yeah, failed the test. There’s an old version of Photoshop that I’ve never used before. Completely different set up. I think around that time it was like CS3. There might be like CS1 or something like that and they still send me in. They send me in. I’m at the door. At this point in time, my parents are telling me like, “No, the only way you get the job, dress up suit and tie, blah, blah, blah.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I have a suitcase on, I have a suitcase, Maurice. I have a suitcase. I pull my portfolio out of a suitcase. This a woman, she comes and she gets me. The first thing that she says to me, she was like, “Don’t worry, you got this.” The person interviewing me, comes like, “You got this.” I don’t know what she saw in me. She was like, “You got this. This is yours.” This is as someone else’s walking out. I know that they’re interviewing other people. But yeah, I ended up getting the job. I walk away from that interview, by the time I catch the boat back across the harbor in order to go home, I get a call and saying, “Hey, they want to bring you in.”

Maxwell VanHook:
What started as a contract position evolved into a six-year career with Under Armour. They were a fledgling team. I worked on the e-commerce team there, really supportive people. It was a blessing because I got a lot of experience that typically contractors don’t get. I was able to work in their custom CMS. I got to see how you grow a business, how you grow a platform. We essentially went from just supporting ua.com to looking at the whole digital consumer journey. It was like ua.com and then now all of a sudden it’s emails, it’s social paid and organic, it’s apps. I’m looking even at designing for touchscreens within retail stores.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was only like 23 years old. And then we go from there and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, we got all these different channels that we need to marketing now. The brand team can’t support all of these. You all need to figure out how to extend these stories.” That’s when the art direction experience comes in. And so now I’m in studio and I’m internalizing these products and figuring out how to craft stories and narratives around them that are compelling, and not only tell the technology story, but then also give that emotional and aspirational lens to the product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m started off in studio and that was a really good experience, and then now all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, can you go on location? Can you scout places? Can you work with athletes? Can you put them through training regiments?” I got a lot of crazy experiences from that. I got to meet Steph Curry while I was working at Under Armour. I got to work with him on set. That was key for me. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because that’s where I learned how to really fly in, like really be a leader. They allow me to pitch ideas. No, they didn’t accept all my ideas, but they allowed me to take chances there. I really appreciated that.

Maxwell VanHook:
No matter how many times things may have not gone perfectly, they always gave me another chance to push my ideas. And that also gave me a lot of confidence. I probably wouldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t worked there and worked around the people that I worked around. There was a lot of black leadership. When I was there, there was a lot of black leadership at Under Armour. Like Adrienne Lofton, she’s a black CMO, Julian Duncan, he now works with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a CMO, but he was a director, Thomas Harden, Ernie Talbert, he works here at Amazon with me, Tai Foster. These were the people giving me the opportunities. These are all black people. Like that, that matters. Looking back on it, that was a blessing for me. That was really, really key because I would say the majority of designers who enter into professional workplace don’t get that level of support.

Maurice Cherry:
No, absolutely not. I’ve had a number of folks here on the show and like… There are some that will go into agencies and agencies may have some kind of apprenticeship type setup or something like that. But it’s rare to go into a real corporate design space, like I’m sure Under Armour was, and still feel not just that supportive, but then also to have that many black creatives around you supporting you as well.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and opening up the budget for you to fully realize your idea. It wasn’t until I left Under Armour that I realized how special that environment was, kind of like when we were talking about like, “Yeah, I hold that near and dear to my heart,” because I realized that that’s not the case for everyone. I cherish that moment. I still have relationships with those people now.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what prompted you to move out to the West Coast because you went to school at the university of arts in Philly and it sounds like this opportunity was it, like this was the reason you moved out there?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I had always wanted to live on the West Coast. Nothing’s like Baltimore. Baltimore is always… will be my home. I love it like I said earlier. But I feel like when you put yourself in new spaces, that’s when you learn new things about yourself. And so I like being uncomfortable because I firmly believe that it leads to expansion. And so a part of going to the West Coast was about not falling into this sense of like comfort and familiarity with my environment. I just knew I got to a point probably when I was like around 26 where I was like, “This feels amazing. I feel like I know everything. I’m starting to feel like at work. I don’t have to try as hard. I don’t have to exert myself as much.” And that’s when I knew I had to go.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was like, “I made a plan.” I was like, “I have to go. Because if I stay here, there’s the potential that I plateau.” And so I set up a plan for myself. West Coast was the ultimate goal, but I teared it out. It was like, “Getting to California, number one. Number two, we stay at Under Armour and then we go to Amsterdam.” I lined that up. Number three was going to be like even moving to Virginia. Yeah, because I was just like, “I need to have some new experiences.” That’s really what drove it, having new experiences, being in new environments. Living in Philly gave me a little bit of a taste, but also both of my parents are from Pennsylvania. My dad is from North Philly. Then Philly was like a second home to me.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so even though I was away, I wasn’t ever really away. I wanted that experience, I wanted that moment. That’s ultimately like it landed me in the bay with Athleta, which is a part of Gap. But yeah, I didn’t even stay… I loved Athleta. They had a wonderful environment, completely different than Under Armour. They were way more focused on empowering women. And then also it was more so from like a wellness lens, but then I got that opportunity you with Amazon. Once again, it was someone who believed in me so much so that a position that I did not even apply for, they wanted me to come and work with them.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I got a call from… He’s not my hiring manager anymore, but I got a call from a man named Kay Tran, a Vietnamese man. He’s like, “I know that you exist as a designer right now, but I think that you could be way bigger than that.” It was like a costume theme within the experiences and the interactions that I’m having. He was like, “I think you can be an art director.” He was like, “I think you can lead these projects. I know that you have no experience in tech, but I’ll support you and I’ll work with you.”

Maxwell VanHook:
He held true to that. He held true to that. I owe a lot of my success here to the support that he provided me initially at Amazon. And that also set the foundation for me wanting to create the spaces with Bekah that we’ve created so far. But yeah, and he reached out to me, called me, told me to come up here, gave me the lowdown on how it would be. I remember that one of the first calls that we had, he was like, “I used to live in the Bay.” He’s like, “Seattle is not the Bay at all. So be prepared for that.” I think it’s worked out for me, it’s worked out for me, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It certainly sounds like it has. I can tell. When you look back at your career and you’ve dropped a few names throughout this interview, but who are some of the people that have inspired you? Any mentors or colleagues?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. First and foremost, one of the people that inspires me the most, I’ll go to my first mentor, that Sean Cunningham, the man that I met at my church, a professional graphic designer over 20 years. He worked in agency life and he really, really took me aside. He would spend time with me on Sundays, on the weekends showing me how you craft a portfolio. Because I think a lot of times, kids can think that they’re putting their work together and they have a bunch of pretty pictures, but they don’t have any story behind it. There may not be any depth. And me having access to him, he started to mold me and shape me and pull back the curtain. He was one of the people that really blocked down field for me, because if he wouldn’t have spent that time with me, who knows if I’m in the same space that I’m in? Sean Cunningham would definitely be a really, really big one for me.

Maxwell VanHook:
In terms of other mentors, definitely I have to give… My parents are really, really keen and influential in my life. And so a lot of the principles that I have… I do think that this relates to the design as well. My parents are extremely empathetic. I don’t believe that you can be a good designer if you do not have empathy. If you’re just out here making decisions and building products and doing work solely because you think it looks good or solely because you think you’re making the right decision and you’re not considering the people that you are doing it for, then it’s all for nothing.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so one of the sayings that exists within my church is, “It’s all about relationship or ain’t about nothing.” My parents are the embodiment of that. And so they pass that empathy along to me and that’s how I like to show up. And not just in how I think about my work, but also how I relate to people. Those would probably be my key mentors. Of course, like all the people that I currently fellowship with now, even though back in [inaudible 01:04:11] like relatively like the same age, I think being in contact with her has been a form of mentorship for me. John as well. John has been huge for me, especially in these past couple of months, just in like owning your agency and owning how you want to show up for people and making sure that you do it with a spirit of service. Those would be my mentors, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Maxwell VanHook:
Okay, this is a side thing. I’m absolutely obsessed with how the market is changing currently, like how it’s peered into the social conscious of millennials specifically. I’m seeing this stuff that’s going on with AMC and hedge funds and Citadel. And for whatever reason, that really interests me. It’s like this story of fighting against the man and government agencies and little people banding together. Outside of that, I’m really, really, really into vinyls. I’m copying a different vinyl every other week. I’m searching, going in different spaces. That probably consumes a lot of my time. I’m trying to look to see if I can get a new credenza soon. We were just talking about getting rid of furniture. That’s going to be a big purchase for me. I don’t even know if it’s like 350 anymore. We’re probably approaching over 400.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, I got more [crosstalk 01:06:01].

Maurice Cherry:
You got storage for it and everything?

Maxwell VanHook:
No, man, I don’t even know. Yeah, I had a credenza and I thought it’d be big enough and then I filled it up. So there’s probably about 150 of the vinyls that are either in the crate or they’re on a shelf. I need to create a storage space specifically for it. But even past that, I have to go home and probably grab like another 500 or 600. My dad called me because I think it was a little bit of a test. They allowed me to go into the storage and grab my uncle’s records because that’s really why it’s important to me. It’s kind of twofold. It serves as this design inspiration. You look at these covers and the sleeves and how they put everything together, is like a master’s class in design.

Maxwell VanHook:
You look at some of the type, the color palettes, the photography, and the composition, it boggles my brain. You don’t know all the people who have done these things. Some of these people are hard to find, they’re dead. You can have someone in present day who can say like, “Oh, that was my great grandfather who did this cover for The Spinners.” That’s really interesting to me because you’re actively discovering things with a sense of duality. Not only from this perspective of looking at it as a creative, but then also musically. Not just like discovering new sounds, but like, “I am learning things about my family and my uncle Candy, specifically, in terms of his tastes.” I’ve never met the man, almost like him and I are having a conversation through the music and I can take that to my dad.

Maxwell VanHook:
For me, it’s been really good, especially in contrast to what you get with streaming services because this is way more passive with streaming services. They serve it up to you, they give it to you and you just consume it. I know that you have to be active. You got to look through it, you have to touch it, you got to look at those songs, you got to look at their artists and then you have to put it on the turntable. And then once that side A is done, you got to flip it over to that side B. There’ve been fascinating things that have shown up in that vinyl collection. I’m like, “I got an original test pressing of a snake fundraiser concert.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, it’s wild. I got to figure out how to… Yeah, I got to figure out how to get that into the right hands because I feel like I personally shouldn’t own it. I feel like it should be in a museum somewhere. But yeah, it’s a part of my family history and I want to keep it intact and establish a library around it where I can give it to my kids, God willing.

Maurice Cherry:
Something like that ends up being really like a family heirloom, but it’s something that you keep continually adding to and diversifying and curating and everything. That sounds amazing.

Maxwell VanHook:
It’s been a good discussion starter, or just catalyst for how I talk to different family members because a lot of them have at some point in time come across this collection or have contributed to it in some way, shape or form, like even the snake record that I have, which has a speech from Jesse Lewis on it, and that original test pressing came by way of my aunt’s old boyfriend because he used to help him disseminate those vinyls and sell them for the fundraiser. I can talk to her and then get the background and the story behind that and then also get her other stories. She used to work for the Schomburg Center. She used to be a part of Freedom Rides citizens. And so that’s what these vinyls have done for me, where it was like, “All right, this is a really, really interesting piece. Where did this come from?” And then all of a sudden I’m getting a story around like how it was made and then all the experiences that are connected to it. And now, I’m learning more about my aunt, Roberta.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I think in the short-term, I’ve leaned more into the visual side of design. There’s a people focused in that, especially working for Amazon. Data is super key. But I want to get more into the product side. Especially with what I’m seeing in a lot of the technology that’s being created, there are inherent biases that exists. And so when you’re designing, you have to design with those problems in mind. If the room of designers that you have are largely white, the same issues that exist within society and exists within the world, probably going to exist within that product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m like, “Hey, maybe we need to take a step back from visual design and get more into product and user experience. And with that, get a better understanding of how people are interacting with the products and how these systems are set up, how we can decolonize those, in a sense.” I have a lot of different thoughts about how we think about accessibility. All right. Traditionally, accessibility is like people who may be hard of hearing, people who may not be able body. But I also think that race may be a component of accessibility as well. And so I don’t fully understand why we divorce those things. And so I just want to do more of a foray into that space so I can figure out how to set up structures that will be more encompassing of people who look like me.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. You can find me on Instagram @maxwellvanhook, and you can also find me on Instagram as well @designingwhileblack. Either of those, feel free to follow me, feel free to reach out to me also. If you are looking to get into design, if you want to politic, or if you just want to share your passion about design and your experience, I’d love to connect with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Maxwell VanHook, I want to thank you so much, one, for coming on the show, but two, I think it’s obvious from anyone that’s listening up to this point that you bring such a deep level of passion and introspection to your work. You’re a very thoughtful designer that really takes a lot of considerations into account when it’s not just about the work that you’re doing, but also the impact that it’s going to have on people and on communities and such. I think this was just such a great interview, such a great introduction of you to the Revision Path audience. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Maxwell VanHook:
No, thank you for having me. It was great actually being able to talk with you and, yeah, meeting you. I feel like I’ve listened to you so much over the years. Finally getting down to talking with you has been somewhat surreal. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share this space with you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Jeffrey Henderson

Being confident with your creativity will take you far as a designer, and this week’s guest is a perfect example of that. Jeffrey Henderson is the founder of AndThem, an NYC-based creative collective that focuses on building creativity and business within Black and brown communities.

We started off talking about plans for the summer, and then Jeffrey spoke about his innovative agency model and how he uses it to help give back to the next generation of creatives. We also talked about his 15+ year career as a footwear designer for Nike, Yeezy, and Cole Haan, and how he brings that knowledge to his current work with creating his own footwear designs. Thank you Jeffrey for being a shining example of what it means to use your talent to bring the world to your feet — literally!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I’m Jeffrey Alan Henderson I’m a creative based in Harlem, New York, team of about 10. We take on, everything from product design to content creation.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, the year’s actually been pretty good. And we actually had a nice growth year. Not in terms of state business, business has always been pretty standard even when we went through trials and tribulations of COVID. But I think I brought in some young folks for the first time and made it official kind of last year. And so we had some growing pains in terms of people just learning how to be creatives in sort of corporate settings and non corporate setting. That was very new to a lot of us. And having an agency built like that this year has been a, I think, an extension of that. But now that everything’s opening, the team is definitely more seasoned, so a lot more exciting because of the things I know we can take on. So it’s been pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m pretty sure people listening can hear the birds in the background. So, it sounds like you’re hit like some idealist spot right now, which is good, which is good. I think after the year. After, after the year, I think all of us have had a little bit of a mother nature’s is gladly welcome at this point. Do you have any plans for the summer with the agency?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Oh, this summer where we’re trying to get back together during, I guess January of this year, we had pretty much all 10 folks in Harlem, essentially, about five of them stayed in, we have a studio here and apartment that we actually rent out as an Airbnb, but when we don’t, it’s actually our studio. So everybody was sort of working together. And that was, I guess, when the world was still kind of closed. And so we’re going to try to do a little bit out of that again, since we can’t really travel to the places we need to travel to get work done, we’re going to just come back to New York, settle down and keep growing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with And Them and sort of the changes that have happened over the past year. I mean, you said business has been pretty steady, and I know that you do a number of different services. Can you just talk a little bit about what And Them is and how did you come up with the name And Them?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And Them comes from when I was a Nike employee in Japan. I had a lot of free time in the mornings where I would have to work with the team that was in the U S. And so during those phone calls every now and again, I’d have an hour in between and there was a creative by the name of Kevin Carroll who’d just left Nike, he’d written a book, Rules of the Red Rubber Ball. So he became sort of internet famous at that point, hired a team, he had about six people doing everything from PR to creative, strategy. He had been working with them for about three, four months and it just wasn’t clicking. He ended up calling, I think, myself, Jason Mayden who’s now at Fear of God Athletics, D’Wayne Edwards who runs PENSOLE. And he’s like can you like, just sit on these meetings and help me out, but I don’t want to threaten my team. He started introducing us as you know, was just Jeff and him. It was just D’Wayne and him kind of nonchalantly. And so the joke was, we just became an them like this [inaudible 00:06:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
I just kept it. Kept the name because it also represented the fact that when we work with, whether it’s Yeezy or FC Harlem or local restaurant around the corner, we’re not trying to showcase our brand we’re trying to showcase your brand. We were doing something with Revision Path, it would be Revision Path and them. It’s just us trying to help out folks who sort of need, I think, a boost. I live right down the street from Harlem Hospital so there’s always a siren now and then.

Jeffrey Henderson:
In the last year we definitely picked things up because what really happened was this is probably three years ago now I was working on a project, launching Everlane’s new footwear line that they put out the tread. And while I’m working on it, Michael Price with the CEO, he keep asking me like, how do you do X, Y, Z?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I’d be like, oh, you just call this person. And it’s like, I just saw him asking questions. And he kept looking at me like you have all these people, why don’t you set up an agency? And I was like, yeah, nah, that’s too much responsibility. Like I did all that. Like at Nike you have a report. Like it was all just too much. But a year later it was like, okay, all these people who, and it sort of came by, honestly, in that people who were working on teams individually, when I got there, they just sort of were like, yo, can I do a project with you , you have anymore? So I just kind of brought them with me. So they kind of became my and them. So I just, if we want to call it, I’d be like, yo, why don’t you sit on this call and won’t you take this and if there’s money left on the table, we’ll split it. So that’s sort of just evolved to the fact that I just had a few really talented young folk who probably weren’t either seasoned in corporate or had already tried corporate and was like some just wasn’t feeling right about it so they were like, I’d rather hang out with you, work on projects. So I became normal. So we’ll be doing a lot of product design and graphic design. And then one of my best friends, creative director, who he taught himself to be sort of art director holding the camera. He was doing, working at a not-for-profit basically counseling kids and got a camera. And we were coaching his basketball team together and he said, you know, my dream is I want to shoot the NBA in the Olympics. And he’s like, that’s my longterm dream. That’s what, that’s what I want to do in life. Three years later, he ended up doing that. Like, it was all sort of like this whirlwind of like, he worked for the Nyx, he shot for FIBA in Brazil, the Olympic basketball games, like, oh, I should’ve made my dream a little bigger than that. And so he sort of come on with his team. So all together, we tackle soup to nuts, anything from product creation, manufacturing to content creation. So that’s kind of where we are and what we do.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it all kind of came together pretty easily. I mean, since you had already this network of people and you had creatives that were drawn to you because of your work, it sounds like it didn’t take much to kind of build a team.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it really goes back to one of the things that happened In my old Nike days, it was very much this thought of you kind of were put on a track or plan to be a design manager or design director. A lot of times people would be put in design manager roles so they could kind of learn the procedures, the processes, the operations part, so that when they became a design director, they at least know what those things were as we started looking at bigger picture in terms of product creation. So I kind of took a big tune to what the operation side was. I was, I think, I learned from some really great people who just knew how to grow and manage people because I needed a lot of that because I was literally making up as I went, I didn’t have a design degree. So anybody who could help me, I was in their office, left and, trying to figure out how I screwed up. I just took those lessons and while I was working on the creative side, building all those other kind of tools and components taught me how to get the most out of people and how to help them get the most out of themselves. When I ended up in random spots, I wasn’t just worried about is the color right, is the engineering proper is the functionality working, is the design modern. It was also how you doing as a person? Are you doing the right thing? And so it really like became, I didn’t realize it was that obvious until this young woman, Lauren Divine who’s great material designers, [inaudible 00:10:18] This is probably the early days we were over in some broken down office building And I was probably in and out of LA for maybe a year and then one day, I guess I didn’t show up for three months cause I was either doing something else I didn’t didn’t need to be there and I got there, she came and gave me a big hug and she’s like, finally, you’re back our manager I was like, your what? I was over here, drawing shoes what do you mean? She’s like, no, no, no, we need like this set up and this meeting organized and this, that and the other, and this is what you do. I was like, okay, honestly, didn’t sign up for that, but the reality was I did sign up for that. I mean, I just became a mentor to a few people who just sort of needed the ins and outs every now and again, it wasn’t like I was their manager manager, but I was, I don’t know, helpful in helping them get things straight when they needed it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Especially if you weren’t in a traditional corporate environment where people were set to be your manager or mentor. So that sort of turned into an easier way to then run this sort of organization that we just pick projects and started out really me just no one, some people who were like, yo, you want to do this project? Yeah, I got nothing better to do, but I mean, it’s real. Like I ended up falling in love with things that I know nothing about just because it’s different. Like we have a project now with a friend of mine, she’s CEO at this wellness brand, wellness and beauty called ASA there and it’s all about circularity, sustainability and reality is like, I walked to the conversation, going to look, I’m not like a big sustainability dude, that’s not my thing thing. I kind of know about it and I’m more interested in it because I have learned over the last, I think two years, how much it affects black and brown communities first.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have a little bit of interest in it, but I can’t say it’s like, I wake up everyday like, oh, I care about this. But ever since being in this project, like now I’m like forced to like, oh, this is real and I’m going to the grocery store I see tons of plastic and I’m like, oh, how do I fix, how do I help? How do I like live here to these compensations? So it just becomes a, I don’t know, we find ourselves in new conversations that are helpful because I think it’s, it helps us to become creative, but it also lends we have a skillset that we were using somewhere else that now we can apply it to something that we all care about.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s, especially when you have a, a collective like that that’s, what’s important is that you’re able to bring your expertise and the mind trust of the people that you’re working with to a project or to a brand it’s not necessarily that you’ve done it before, but the collective knowledge is enough where you can go into the project and still know what needs to be done.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think that’s very true. I think our, I don’t know, collective unit is hard enough. I don’t know questions, concerns. We’re not people. I think some of the more senior folks on our team, like we’ve heard it before. It’s very enlightening that we have sort of like these 22 year olds who chime in knowing that look, I don’t know everything, but here’s what I’m thinking and it sort of like it brightens up our eyes to go, oh, never would have occurred to the old crowd in the room as to think about things like that because like we’re not digital natives or we’re not focusing in certain places. We don’t go to certain parties. We don’t hang out in certain worlds and I think they ended up bringing something new to the table while absorbing what we offer them so when they get to touch base and go, oh, let’s see what Lowy Frames is like a place that does fine art restoration and gilded frames. That is a new conversation for all of us. But the young folk, they don’t realize it’s new to us they just, everything is new to them. It’s kind of eyeopening to watch them grow.

Maurice Cherry:
And you know, and one thing that is really important to note here for people that are listening too, is that , these are young creatives and you’re giving them the ample space to make these sorts of decisions or determinations or comments or observations. It sounds like in a safe environment, if they say something that may not go over well with the client or something, they’re not immediately asked, I would imagine like it’s sort of a, they have a space to, to fail, which I think as a young creative is probably important to have because there can be so much out sort of like outdo pressure placed on black and brown creatives to kind of be brilliant right out the gate and not make mistakes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think it is sort of, I mean, the conversation we were having before we got on here about the, I think understanding of what it means to be black in any corporate environment to be brown in any corporate environment, the idea that this is like a second culture, a second language that you have to bring to the table and learn, I think often the idea of assimilation or the idea of fitting in or not making people uncomfortable. Like it was so ingrained and in the reality is I think I was trying to be part of that in the nineties, I was just, wasn’t really good at it because I was trying to go, okay, I know your music I noticed that. And I really didn’t because I really wasn’t listening to it. But I think there’s this innate need to sort of like, see if you could fit in and our group is like, we don’t really have that as much as like, you need to know this part of the culture in order to do the job. If you don’t, don’t sweat it. I mean, if you make a mistake as you’re going through, because it’s all different and it’s all new, pay attention. And I think that’s the part where I, from all my failures of walking into situations and not knowing my first days, going from Nike to cohort where it was like, I wasn’t making sports shoes and that’s all I knew to oh, now we’re making a small number. Like Nike, the minimum you could do in a shoe with like 30,000 pairs of shoes, I got the cohort and I was like, oh, we did 30,000 pair. They were like, we’ll like, I’ll be celebrating with 30,000 pair it’s just a different mindset. I didn’t know. And I think I kind of have this, I’m happy to open my mouth and sound dumb 10 times out of 10, just because let’s get it out the way cause I don’t want any assumptions of me walking out the room, not really knowing, I think having my team, watching me say stupid things all the time and I do it for almost for their entertainment. I still call it tic-tac, I still talk about things, old guy, just so they know, I’m not afraid to sound stupid in the meeting and you should be okay because as long as you know, which is supposed to know and you do your homework, you’ll be good. And I think that’s, it’s really, uplifting to see these young black and brown folk be able to hold their weight and going to conversations as well as watching whoever the client is kind of go, oh, y’all know what y’all doing. Like yes we do. That’s all good.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s, I mean, honestly just for me as, a designer, as a self-taught designer, that’s just even great to hear. I mean, I’ve had other studio owners and such that have been on the show and I’ve even talked to like just studio owners through AIGA and other design organizations and it’s true. Sometimes if there is a leading creative at the head, like you would be with, with And Them, there’s almost this need for them to come off as the creative expert. Like they have to be the captain of the ship and you are the captain of your ship, but at least what you’re showing is that you’ve built enough camaraderie with your crew. So you all can come together and work on things and it’s not just you dispatching people to do work. You know what I mean?

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, it’s definitely I think, and you talked about it, getting people to come in and do podcasts I think there’s, on top of being black or brown in the industry, I think the conversation around being a creative also comes with a certain expectation. You may actually be an introvert or you might actually just get put in boxes and the sales team and marketing team be like, oh, well don’t talk to them till you want to have something creative and cool. But then when to drag the cool out of them. And I think to me, that’s what kind of puts folks in a box they’re afraid to talk there’s like a lot of this, that and the third. And I think I was lucky enough to be placed in environments where I like for real in the last two years, that’s when my friends laugh all the time. I don’t want to be on podcasts, I don’t want to talk, I never want to hear myself talk, but it’s just what it is. But I also know that folks are like, I learned something from you can you do that more often? It’s like, all right. It’s just easier if I can’t call everybody on the phone so here’s the podcast and I’m just going to ramble on, I think for hours at a time. But I think the idea that someone can offer you an opportunity to stand up in a meeting and give your options. And I was at Nike and I do believe I should have been like not fired, but somebody should have, could have reprimanded me over and over but they were like, yo, this is, this is how you grow and these are the bullets you take, you just come in and like, say something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think there was quite a few people like who were Nike like, oh, didn’t say it but I kind of felt that like, oh, like Jeff’s getting run cause he’s black. Or he used to go in there. Like I could be completely wrong, but yo, that’s how I felt like thinking that. But I also know some people were like, yo he’s in the room cause he was bringing something different and all y’all had the same skillset so even if it’s not what you think is the right answer, we’re going to let them go and if it doesn’t work cool, but if it does work, it’s going to work in a much different way than you guys. And I think I was given enough room, like the fact that I went in to quit when I was at Nike, because I was feeling like this wasn’t going the right place and they sent me to basically run for [inaudible 00:19:29] in Japan. And I was like, okay, it was wild. But I think that it’s a case where there were the right people in the right rooms who were talking about this a lot, like the difference between mentorship and sponsorship and I’m kind of back in mentor mode, but I think having the idea and notion, I started understanding once I got at a higher clip at Nike that I didn’t have to be somebody who’s mental, I just need to go into rooms and be like, why aren’t you highlighting this person’s work. And basically looking at people like they were wrong, if they didn’t, I didn’t know whether they were doing good work or not I was just asking them and if they feel guilty about it, that should probably tell them something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But I think that level of sponsorship became important and even though the mentoring was there, but I think having, and I know people who did that for me, it was either told them he asked her or I sort of knew, or I know that I would get no, no, no, no, no, then it get quiet for about a month and then next thing, Hey, we think you should do this opportunity. When somebody says something, clearly somebody says something so that I think is a part that seeing more of that from folks in or outside of corporate work, it’s just kind of important.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, And Them does a lot of different things. It’s hard to, I guess sort of pinpoint exactly what you do. Like if you go to the website for example, and click on FAQ it’s questions that sort of allude to the services that you could provide, like developing products, designing products, shooting actions, shooting commercial, shooting style, making logos, these are all services that we can do as long as you’re asking the question on what is it that we can do for you for your project.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, I love you. You do all your homework. So reality is our main strengths, if we have people who help build Nike product, Yeezy product, Everlane, especially footwear, that’s our main bag. Then I kind of went out of my way, when projects and apparel came out, I was like, I need people who know how to do this. And I just saw that I literally went on LinkedIn and was like black and brown people who do apparel, please check here. The funniest joke about a member of our team, Shauna K is I was in the line at FedEx on 125th, and in walks behind me, Dapper Dan’s assistant Ashley. I look at her, she looks at me and she’s like, what do you want Jeff? I was just looking at her, like I wanted some, I was like, I need a black woman and she was like, I know who you need.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We didn’t discuss exactly what I meant by that. That could have gone a thousand different ways. But I was like, I want a black woman creative who is just starting out because we need to round out this team and we didn’t have that on a team. And she was like, you need to meet Shauna K, just finish FIT, she’s looking for work, getting a bone that was probably on a Friday. Miss Shauna came on a Tuesday, W]we had our first meeting to work on a Friday. That’s how quickly it went. But I think that’s the part where we knew we had product creation folks. I wanted more folks to kind of round that out. Then John Lopez on his side, again, shooting the Olympics, work for the NYX’s he’s dragging me around like, I just rented this $70,000 camera for a day Jeff let’s go out and have some fun, like, okay, I don’t know what that means. So being able to do those big, specific things were important, but we had both worked at meaningful places. Then we brought in Brie La Bossier who is sort of like, keeps us all saying as a kind of design manager, project manager, kind of everything. So what ends up happening people like, can you do this, can you do that and it’s like, well, I remember when I first left Cole high, I was sort of like free to do anything. I was like, I am not designing shoes ever again. That was my thing I wanted to do since high school, I was going to design shoes. So I had a good 15 year ride of doing that. I was like, yo, I’m going to do everything else I’m done to wear shoes, like start my new life.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like I’m going to do branding, graphics, marketing, whatever it is, I’m not going to do shoes anymore. Two months after that, I was on a plane to go do Yeezy, it was just ingrained in me. But in those two months I started writing more. I started this random e-comm site with a bunch of my friends just to sell t-shirts, basically to ourselves, called Good Things. I was learning how econ works. I was learning a little bit about SEO and digital and all these other pieces that just started to round out. As I started getting deeper into conversations, I was like, oh, once you get through that first layer, you kind of know enough to be dangerous. Then we thought I’d taken on projects. And like our learning path really came with working with kind of nonprofits and small businesses because I didn’t know how to make a website or do anything.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But there was a restaurant that I ate at pretty much, three times a month, 4 times a month. He was like, yo, I need a website. Okay. Let’s build it. Let’s figure out what that looks like. Let’s figure out all the pieces behind it. And so working with people to kind of figure out and small businesses and nonprofits to kind of learn at least the lingo, how it works, sort of brought us to the stage of, oh, now with our knowledge of, anything from Nike to the New York NYX and NBA and Yeezy, oh, okay. We can start taking this to more people in different ways and definitely either being the conversation we were having before, intentionally this is going to be a black and brown group of people working on stuff. And so you can hire us intentionally cause you want black and brown.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You can hire us intentionally because you want a diversity where you’re just hiring us because we are good, we don’t really care. We’re going to come in and it’s going to have like we jokingly laugh, we had to do a photo shoot and we’re like, who knows somebody, wait. Like we can’t just because it was for a brand. It was this wasn’t a, like we’re trying to cross over, it was like, it was literally for a brand that has, I mean, all the founders are white and it’s like, yo, we don’t want them to look like they’re doing black face by, oh, everybody in their ad is black, a brown, like this should be pretty diverse. But in order to be diverse we can through some white folks in there, like we look across the room like who do we know? But it was this funny game of like, we don’t know, no white folks, but.

Maurice Cherry:
I just have to pause there. That is, to me, that is hilarious because the inverse of that probably happens in every creative studio at least once a week. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we are like the exact opposite. And one of the things that’s like amazing is we had a basketball shoot and this happens pretty much with every client, especially in color. And some say it like, and they even say a day one, or they say it, at least when they get to a photo shoot a week or product on the table is that one of the models came out. We had a shoot that was supposed to go from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM in the park. We had some gears set up or got to shoot when it got dark. We all showed up one time at two o’clock we’re getting shots in and eight o’clock it was pitch dark. This was fall. That was probably like nine o’clock. We’re still out there still shooting good night shots. One of the models, like he was leaving on a bike.

Jeffrey Henderson:
He was like, yo. And I had to record him saying, he’s like, yo, like I’ve been in shoots before. And sometimes it’s your homeboy and it’s cool. We all hang out in the end product is like, okay. Sometimes I’m at like these professional shoots and it’s all good, we all know each other and we’re good but you know, in and I’m out cause work to do. He was like, this was like the party with real work. He was like, y’all onto something. And it’s that vibe that again, we’re doing things like in ways cause we don’t know any better. We’ll do it professionally, we’ll have the call sheets up, we’ll have all the emails and testing codes, all the protocol, new we’ll look up at Brie because she’s worked at like startups and stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You will look up and Brie, because she’s worked at like startups and set up organization, things like, oh, you got to sign your paperwork. They don’t do the insurance. You want to showing up. At the same time, we’ll be out there enjoying each other’s company in a way that’s relaxed and a barbecue sort of atmosphere, which a lot of folks look at, like, I don’t know, but then what ends up happening? Like we laugh, cause it’s like the young crew, they’re like, yo, they go get an internship somewhere else. And they’re like, this is not we doing over here. And I’m like, okay, well we get some more projects and we can tackle some more work for you. So we’re doing something to have a little fun, but it’s definitely, it’s definitely the other side of the coin in terms of it’s just black and brown and it’s kind of what it looks like.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean what it really sort of boils down to, I think is two things. One you’re introducing to these creatives, at sort of the beginning stages of their career, a new possibility for what work can be, which is, or for what creative work can be, which is that it’s infused with play. We’ve had a lot of people on the show that are in the advertising industry and such, and they always talk about the long hours and the shoots and none of it sounds fun. They’re able to be creative, but it doesn’t sound like they’re really enjoying the job, you know? I think the second thing is that you’re inviting in this new tradition of this is what creative work can look like. So you’re saying yes, you can do this and also it can be fun. It doesn’t have to be stuffy or bureaucratic or anything like that. Yes, there are certain protocols that have to get done, but the magic and the environment that you’re able create is how you get your best work.

Jeffrey Henderson:
This was probably midway through dependent. It was maybe three months in and the team was feeling a certain way cause we had just, well, we had set up, I was looking for a full studio for us to work out of. This was probably end of 2019. Because I wasn’t finding exactly the space I wanted I sort of was feeling a little grumpy about it, at the same time I was working with the spot on 118th Milbank Children’s Aid Society. And it’s a afterschool program set up in Harlem basketball courts and swimming pools kind of have everything. When Zion Williamson lost his shoe, he did it on the algebra courts of Milbank, but it also has these classrooms, they actually have a onsite nursing office. So it’s pretty well-developed. And so the classrooms needed a little update. So I went to the folks there I’m like, look, tell you what, instead of me paying for a regular lease, I’m just going to update one of these classrooms.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we’re going to work here in the mornings until two, when kids show up. Would that work and they, before I could even finish, they’re like done show up whenever. So we put some big screen TVs in, we put some tables, chairs, we were getting prepared, then COVID hit. So we kind of got locked out like everybody else. So the team was still in a certain way cause they had gone to two or three meetings and would just get to know each other and they were liking the vibe, but we shut it down from soon. Brie, our project manager, also runs a community kind of center for creatives. So she was like, we gonna have book club. So Saturday mornings from nine to 11, like one Saturday morning, Saturday mornings, we started meeting and having book clubs. What was happening was there were elements that were going over the young folks head just in terms of here’s things you ought to know whether it was in design or government or sales or e-commerce, whatever things that need to be had, or we need to discuss we’d discuss it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so she set up these meetings and buy a book. It was more like here’s an article to read or a the Netflix video to watch. And so we discuss it and three or four in, I was like, we’re taking away from their Saturdays. I was like, maybe we should turn it down a little. So we took a week off. They complained like nobody’s business. And were like, yo, why are we doing book club? Okay. And some of this was because everybody was sort of quarantined. Everybody was locked away. And so I thought, okay, we’ll do this bit because everybody’s locked away. Once we all get to go out and see the world, we’ll slow it down, did not stop. It just became this thing that everybody did together had conversations that were sort of like, this is serious and this is a safe space.

Jeffrey Henderson:
By then, we all got to know each other. So we give each other grief like nonstop, but it’s sort of a safe space for creatives to kind of, we show our work on Wednesday, Wednesday afternoon. That’s when we talked about work, work, work. But on Saturdays, and it’s not mandatory. Some people want a squad, like they’re like, no, I don’t need that. Cool. But the other half they show up religiously and the other place they go, well, let me see what the topic is. And then I’ll drop off. There was definitely this added piece of like, there’s just a conversation that, especially for creatives, especially for black and brown folks, being able to, I think, chop it up in that that sense is special. I mean, you kind of have to make space for that.

Maurice Cherry:
I liked it. There’s a section it’s not on the And Them side. I think it’s on the good thing site. That’s called book club where you sort of have some writings and things. I want to talk about that later. And I know we spent a lot of time talking about And Them, but let’s kind of shift the focus here because really this interview is about you. You’re originally from Ohio. So where you grew up, what was it like there?

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’s funny cause my wife and I laugh about this all the time is that my, wife went to stolen. So it’s a big deal. She’s from Philly. She went to Spelman. So she definitely talks about HBCU and what it meant. And it was never like my sister went to Wilberforce, going to HBCU was never anything that felt like I needed to do because, and I credit, this is like, we’re looking at 30 year anniversary. Or what is it? Yeah, 30. I graduated from high school, 30 years ago and 91. And I graduated with, out of the hundred kids in my class. It was 96, black folk, just black. Like one side of Baden was, is black, black, black, black, black, like just all black. And so, and I would joke with people like, I didn’t know, white people until I got to college, like literally, like I knew white people from the folks that went to our school weren’t that many or I saw them on TV.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I would joke like white people were kind of imaginary. Like, it wasn’t a real thing. I learned about cultural and all that, it just didn’t really exist. And I never met anybody who was really like that. And so there’s a certain confidence that I had of being… Only having to worry about my culture. And so when I got to college, when I got to Purdue, it was very much like, oh, here’s another culture. I was like, okay, cool. But now I just care about engineering. Like, all I want to do is get into design and Nike and I’m supposed to study this so I’ve never worried about embracing anything of them, I’m just going to focus on school. And so after two years of that, I actually, at the one year I was like, yeah, I’m done would be in the middle of nowhere. Let’s go have some fun.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I moved to Atlanta, nothing but black folk. And so that became a thing. And I think when I left and went to Nike, it was a strange sort of weird balance of me trying to figure out what was, what, and I honestly try to, and I don’t even know how to put it, I was trying to fit in, but I guess I wasn’t really trying that hard cause like everybody I knew was basketball, sports, marketing, brand Jordan. Like it was just all the black and brown people like it was. And I kind of hung out with whoever, but that’s just where I’ve found myself, other people who, I don’t even know if it was like, I found them as much as they were like, yo, we’re doing these things. You want to come hang out. And they were the normal things, like whatever, if it’s a barbecue or whatever.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was like, cool. I don’t know that I went out of my way, but it was this confidence that none of us really settled in until I moved to Harlem like three years ago. And when I got to Harlem, I was like, yo, this feels just like, they know how this feels just like being in Atlanta. And one of the things that kind of brought it up. So we did this project with the Apollo and it was about sneakers. And about education and someone had, was like we have to tell people why we’re doing something at the Apollo around sneakers. And I was like, no, we don’t, we don’t have to tell anybody. Like, if you ask somebody about sneakers and they’re black, the culture kind of says, they’re going to tell you something about it. They will tell you they couldn’t afford something.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they going to tell you that knew somebody who had it. They going to tell you their own personal story, but we don’t have to have a conversation about why. Cause you’re the Apollo like is blackity black, black, black, black, like it’s just there. And I think that part, going back to Jefferson township, they know high aware, like our Italian immigrant history teacher went out of his way to make sure we understood that Lincoln didn’t free the slaves because he liked black people. He went out of his way to make sure like, nah, like this is what you need to hear. And that was just a school we grew up in. So like when I got to other places, like really that’s what y’all are. Whether they were black schools, white schools, like we learned it a hundred percent the way I think is discussed now. It was never a question for me or any of my friends going up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I would say it’s a wild ride for me. It was the best place to be from, a little too small for me. Definitely getting out to the rest of the world was meaningful, but I would not replace. Oh, by the way, they know how it has its own sort of history with crime, drugs, sneakers, and everything else to where the most prominent sneaker mall in all of America was the little mall on the west side of Dayton that had the best foot locker sales, period. When I got to Nike, sales people were like, Salem mall. They did a lot of business. If you track east St. Louis, Dayton, Ohio or Memphis, it’s where underground railroad, there were a lot of stops, three major ones. So it’s why Wilberforce the central state are there. It was a lot of black folk who work there. When drug money started coming and drugs started working their way north, those were the same three places that folks stopped. They know how it kind of grew, music and drugs. It was a big thing especially in the late seventies, early eighties.

Maurice Cherry:
We had one other person on the show from Dayton. hannah Beachler she was episode 300 back in 2019. You said that initially you kind of like said it really quickly. I was like, wait a minute, what else do I know I’m going to show has been from Dayton. Cause I remember at least one or two other people. But her specifically, I remember because of that episode, but were your parents really supportive of you going into design? I’m curious, you know, you said before, if you ask any black person about sneakers are kind of, they’re going to kind of already have a cultural connection to it. So I won’t ask you that specifically, but were your parents kind of behind you going this route with your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
In no way, shape or form based on this. My mother was a teacher and the reality is she didn’t care what I did as long as I tried my best and did my best, she was a person who, no matter what it was, she put that art on the refrigerator because you did it and you worked really hard and she was a middle school teacher. So she kind of had that in her, you can do whatever you want. I believe in you, yada, yada, yada, to the point where you almost didn’t believe whether she meant it or not. Cause she said it like everyday at all times, but you always had someone who was in your corner. So I think my mother wanted it to happen because I wanted it to happen. But you have to realize like this was 1991, sneakers weren’t a real thing.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it was sort of a side conversation to the point where it wasn’t till I got to Cole Haan where the question is why does Nike own Cole Haan? Because it wasn’t making any money for Nike, the brand. And it was because an ADA still Knight knew that the industry common thought was if you wanted to make money and sneakers, you had to sell brown shoes, sneakers didn’t make money. And so he bought Cole Haan in order to make money. Well, fast forward, he and a few other people made sneakers like the regular topic. So sneakers weren’t a real thing and the reality is my father, who I didn’t have like the best relationship with, he didn’t say anything, he watched because I was getting this engineering degree from some prestigious schools and I had a co-op, I had an internship with AT&T and he was like, oh, Jeff is set.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So he didn’t say a word. He just let me be yada, yada yada. And so I graduated with a degree in engineering with three years of internships with AT&T. And at that time AT&T was one of the biggest design engineering companies in the U.S. And I did not pursue going to AT&T. I took a job doing blueprints in Beaverton, Oregon, and my father didn’t say a word. He didn’t say a word. The only reason I know, I mean, I know he didn’t say a word, but maybe three and a half- four years later, my parents come out to Oregon. I think by that time we had maybe had like a first kid Draymond was like a year old and they’re watching Draymond. So I come home after work and my father had come to, I don’t know if you know anything about that campus, but the Michael Jordan building is, that it’s not center of campus, but it’s middle of campus.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And right next to it is this track under the trees and there’s basketball courts right next door. And so my father ran track for university of Michigan. So I was like, you can go work out and on the track, just pull up the car and tell the guard you’re there. And no one will care. And so I guess he did that. And then when I get home, after that day, my mother’s laughing and I was like, what’s so funny. It’s your father finally gets it. And I was like, what do you mean? He gets it now? He had never said anything to me. He never complained about me working at Nike, nothing. I would sit there and shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
that’s probably why he wasn’t complaining.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, he, I kind of saw it, but again, he was like, my son has an engineering degree, took his first job blueprints at Nike. And then he got a job drawing, kids, shoes at Nike, and now he’s doing basketball shoes in that, he just, it just seemed add up in his mind of what engineering degree and get like a real job in his mind, which was, being from Ohio, you can go work at a car company and do like, what are you doing out here in the Pacific Northwest? And I guess he started talking to other runners who on the track and my father was a runner and I didn’t care anything for that. So he was bonding with the people on the truck. Oh yeah. My son works over in design, like over, like in that building. Now we all know at this point, like designers at Nike are treated like they can walk on water. So when he started saying, my son works over in design, two things happened.

Jeffrey Henderson:
One, I was one of four, I don’t know, black designers in Nike, all men. So they either knew who I was or they were just Ooh, your sons at the time. And so they started talking to him and he started realizing, oh, maybe this is a thing. And so he started asking him what they do. And they were riding up, rattling off things like I just signed a deal for the NBA or I did this and all that, big that he actually understood. And at that point, that’s when he was like, oh, now because my father and I didn’t have the tightest relationships, he never said anything to me for or against. But from that point on, I knew that at least he knew that this wasn’t a mistake that I had made. He knew that like, oh, this was something that was real. So then he wore the shoes with a little more pride. Meanwhile, my brothers are walking around like, oh yeah, that’s yours. My brother designer. It didn’t matter what shoe it was. My brother did that. You know, my brother, my brother, he did everything pretty much. He did that.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me what it was like living in Atlanta when you went to Georgia tech, because you went, you lived in Atlanta during, I think it’s peak Atlanta. It is Freaknik. It’s the Olympics and I think also the burgeoning hip hop scene there with so-so Def and stuff. What was it like being in Atlanta during that time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I as the biggest nerd who didn’t care, just [crosstalk 00:42:56] . I’m merely to go, I’m coming down here. I’m going to find a wife. It’s chocolate city. We’re all good hanging out. And I hung out hard for three years. As the biggest nerd, not even cool whatsoever. And it was everything you just named. It was pre Olympics. Everybody was gassed up. It was… What is it? My buddy’s roommate was a bouncer at the gold club and magic city. So we would just go sit at the bar with no money, just try and pretend like we fit in like, knowing we had zero money and we just sit at the bar and order water.

Maurice Cherry:
That can still happen today in Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we go in cause I get bored or whatever, and it’s like nothing but rich folk in here and its like, wow, and we would just leave after like 10 minutes. We were just like, making sure everything was good. But that was the level of everybody was sort of chilling. And yeah, we went back to Atlanta maybe three years after like, yes, not the same, my boys, were still living in like, it’s different now, but it was one of those. We were also in college. There’s nothing that will compare like as an adult to those three years when we were in college with no real responsibilities, other than staying alive and making sure you took some classes. Between going to school in Atlanta and moving to Tokyo was an ex-pat life is good. But those were big time.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel you, man. Last week, actually this past weekend, I was talking to my best friend from college. So I went to Morehouse here. He and I were just talking cause his 40th birthday was last week. And my 40th birthday was a couple of months ago. And we were reminiscing on the past. We were looking at old pictures from back then and stuff. It was wild. So I was in the AUC, right near the turn of the century. I came in 99, 99 going into 2000 and stuff. And I worked for this website. I worked for this website called College Club. That was sort of a precursor to Facebook and I was one of the campus representatives. So what that entailed was that you went around and you basically captured campus life. We had these big Sony Marika, digital cameras that you had to put a three and a quarter inch floppy disc into and take pictures and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
So we were just looking at old pictures and stuff like that from the past, like, man, it’s such a trip how Atlanta has changed since then, because yeah, when you’re here in college, I mean, and I don’t know if it was like this at Georgia tech, but certainly at Morehouse in the AUC, the clubs would send charter buses to the campus to pick you up, take you to the club, you go and do whatever you want at the club and they’ll bring you right back to campus. So you, ain’t got to worry about trying to catch Marta, trying to catch a cab or trying to bum a ride from, from somebody to get back.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’s come down during [inaudible 00:45:49] and they’d be like, oh, this is amazing. And I was like, no, this is terrible. Everybody’s life is traffic jam. And it’s all these people from everywhere, hanging out and it’s like, yo, I can go on a random Tuesday to Fitz Plaza and it’d be bought out like, we’re good. And it’s just the mall, like it’s just the mall.

Maurice Cherry:
So I missed that Atlanta.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I mean, I can’t tell you whether it’s changed. All I know is I’m old now

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, it’s changed. It’s changed ain’t that shame. So, I mean, there, there might still be that same liveness depending on what the event is, and this is probably pre pandemic, but now we’re probably in the gunshots. There’ll probably be some kind of violence that breaks out. So it’s yeah, it’s definitely not the same.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Harlem is tying to trying to figure out where it’s going to be in that level. Which again, when I moved here it was like, oh, I’m not sure. We’ll figure it out. Yada, yada, yada. What I really loved about being in Atlanta and I think it was a combination of the immigrant culture that was there that I didn’t know was going to be there. The Atlanta population that was like, it was Atlanta. And then it was the rest of Georgia. And if you don’t know, if you just moved it, you don’t know the immigrant population, I lived off of Buford highway.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow. Okay. Okay. All right. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
The food was amazing. And so, that had sort of, like, if you don’t know Atlanta, those things don’t mean anything to you. Harlem is kind of the same way. And so being able to pick up those pieces of going from oh yeah, I miss it. And I didn’t really realize it until I got to Harlem and started walking around. I was like, yo, this feels like swats. I feel like there’s a mall here that’s Greenberg. I feel like there’s something here and I think that goes to the creative conversations that I’m having unapologetically. It’s kind of black folk. And then I encourage what designers, Sarah she’s from Columbia. And I’m like, yo, bring Columbia to the projects that we work on, please just bring them all in there. I want to see that. I want to feel like your home is there because folks kind of want that from a creative vision at this point. And if they don’t, I don’t know what to do with them. Like maybe they’re my clients.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So what I’m hearing is correct me if I’m wrong here, because I’m coming up to a question with this, but you grew up in Dayton, you went to Purdue, which is right across the way in Indiana and you come down to Atlanta and then after that, you’re sort of in Tokyo, what were you searching for during that time

Jeffrey Henderson:
Being in Tokyo or?

Maurice Cherry:
Talking about like the entire journey? Was there a feeling that you were chasing or what was your drive throughout that period of time?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s this unadulterated push for something different, something new. There was a Twitter post a while ago with like when somebody go invent some new animals. Cause I want some new meats. I’m tired of eating the same meats and I’m kind of like that guy of growing up. Like I always wanted the new music, but I thought everybody else did. And then as I got older, I still wanted the new music. I wanted the new shoe. And it’s like, this is definitely like a knee of all things. Like I see somebody wearing a pair of shoes that I have. I’m like, yep. I got to put those shoes away. Everybody’s on this Jordan one thing. And I’m like, oh, I just put those away. I can’t walk out the house and it’s not because I’m a sneaker dude is because I just feel a certain way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So going to Purdue, middle of nowhere, west Lafayette, they had what I thought I wanted, but it was also something different. Tokyo was like, yo, this is the wildest place on earth in terms of the visuals and the culture and the class and the people, language, everything was like, yo, I want to do this. And then I got done doing. I was like, yeah, we’re good. Let’s go to the next place. It just became this constant hunt for something new, which I still kind of have. But I think as I’ve gotten older, the combination of new plus know, I just like home, I like walking out the house, totally feeling like I’m at home and think all those other times it was me going what’s the next thing? When I got to Nike, the first thing I said was, I think this was a conversation with tinker.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And he was like, what do you want to do? And my first words were not basketball. Cause I grew up playing basketball. I knew basketball. It was just a second social life for me. And I was like, I want to do soccer. I want to do something I have no business doing so I can be in a whole nother world to see something totally new and meet new people or sweat up or the kids, the first place they told me the basketball, but even then I was trying to do something that I don’t know. I drove everybody crazy because I was trying to do something different. And I think what’s interesting is that question also pretty much pegs was my creative kind of processes was like. It was interesting cause Nike figured that out before I did. And so to fast-forward through all the headaches of my first five, six years at Nike, before I got to Japan was what they taught me was that if you put me in a functioning business where everything is great design is great and everything’s working, I will jack it up basically.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Cause I asked all the questions, why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing it? What else could we be doing? Almost getting just to the point of start over. And so they figured out, yo, let’s go to places we know should be big, that need changing. But the people there aren’t ready to change it. So basically I became one of the people that Nike would throw into a situation that needed to be changed, but they didn’t know how to get the people in the business changing. And so I always say my first conversation of solving any problem is why? Why are we here? What are we supposed to be doing? What problem are we trying to solve? If we don’t get to the original why then we’re just putting band-aids on things. Just cover it out and go about, let it go to the next day.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so I have this underlying question knowing at me like, yo, it could be better. It could be like better, better. It could be really better. So let’s get to the wire matter. And so I think going to new places, whether it was going to Purdue or going to Georgia tech or going to Beaverton or going to Tokyo or coming to New York City, it was always like, yo, I want to get to something new with something different. Then eventually it came to like, I’m ready to chill now. I get me. And so how can I provide opportunities for my young team? And I tell them all the time, I don’t want you here. I want you to go to your Japan. I want you to go to your mind. I want you to go to your, whatever that might be. And then you can come back if this is the right place, but go see the world. Cause it’ll make you stronger and give you new points of view that you won’t get if you just stay home.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something about footwear or just footwear design that the average consumer doesn’t understand?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s funny. We just had a conversation about why I do shoes and it’s always this funny business thing is that I [inaudible 00:52:46] . I will measure people from the ground up. They’d be like, what shoes you got on? And it’s not always the measurement that people think, oh, you have expensive. Like, no, no, I can kind of take you. My stereotype is nothing based on anything else you have other than look, I see what shoes you have on right now and how you’re wearing them. And I’m going to make some calls about you whether I’m right or wrong. And I think that is probably been one of the best articles I always point to for people is Tressie, McMillan, cat, and room for Zuora. I can’t remember the exact title. Cause every time I look it up, I get lost.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s the reason poor people can’t afford to dress poor. And it talks about how the world expects you to, if you go into apply for a job that’s like at Walmart that pays nothing. If you’re black, you have to dress better than the job. You have to show up with something that you just have to otherwise, you’re not really right. That’s something that other folks don’t have to worry about. And I think to some degree that’s been sort of ingrained into my thinking, stems from Dayton, Ohio, like, this is kind of what I see. And I think working on shoes, whether it was one of the things we approached it easy with, it was like, it should be like the most democratic shoe that anybody can wear with colors that don’t distract or compliment or fight or cause fear. And then the project like I’m doing now like…

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t cause fear. The project I’m doing now, for personal, 99 products, it’s a basic running shoe that is meant for anybody to pull it off. Whether you’re a teacher, either student, or head of the class, in the back of the class, it’s for everybody. I think that sort of thinking goes into product that most people write off or they don’t even think about, they just go, “oh, I’ll just buy whatever shoe and I’ll wear it.” Maybe 15 years ago, you could have said that about most of America with cars; that their car really represented what they were doing or where they would going. They put a lot of effort and energy into the point where people stopped caring about cars so much.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’d be like, “oh, I’ll just get a used car.” That still says something, it means something that people would put a lot of energy into cars. Today, people still put a lot of energy into the shoes they wear, even when they play them down.”Oh, you know, this is just like throwaway shit.” I laugh because people say, oh, I don’t really care what kind of shoes I wear.” I was like, “okay, then why don’t you wear some bright red clown shoes?” And they go, “well, that’s stupid.” I go, “oh, so you do care.” You do have a uniform. You do have an opinion of what you wear, so it’s not that you don’t care.

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s just that you don’t care to keep up with the people who you think care too much about Smith. So I think in the design process, it’s sort of identifying what people want for function, want to say about themselves and how it fits into their overall wardrobe. Shoes is something else, that you may wear a different shirt every day in a different pair of pants every day. But you might wear the same shoes every day. That’s going to say something about you, like your haircut. It’s going to say something about you and you choose to be there. When you’re designing for people, you kind of have to want to be on their person, like every day, because that’s what they might use it for.

Maurice Cherry:
So earlier you were talking about how you were working for Nike and you were sending home shoes to your dad, shoes to your brothers, how your brothers were saying, “oh yeah, my brother designed this shoe.” All these different kinds of shoes. Can you name some of the shoes you have designed? Some of the more well-known footwear designs that you’ve done?

Jeffrey Henderson:
The big ones are probably the Yeezy three 50 V2, to go on the Grand Max Plus 2009, those are probably the bigger ones. Then there’s 1,000,000,001 other shoes that made it or didn’t make it. The shoes that I’ve made that sold 10 times more that were like the shoes called the Nike Basketball Air Glide. Not to be confused with the Zoom Glide that came out 15 years later, but the basketball Glide was a $55 white leather basketball shoe that sold for three years more than anybody could count, just because it was at a price point. It’s interesting, I think less about those shoes. People always go, “you’re missing the lead, like talk about those shoes.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s more like, “nah,” I’m more. And maybe it’s because I’m old, I’m more interested in the people who I’ve helped become designers for them about their path and remembering when they didn’t know any better, just like I didn’t know any better and Ray Butts and Andre Doxy.”You need to work on this, and you need to work on that.” They took me under their wing and made sure I did the right thing. That’s my biggest high, I probably did that for my mother, but it’s more about the folks who I could teach and seeing what they do with it. And also them calling me back, I remember when somebody at Denver was like, “yo, I used to be mad at you when you told me to do things and now I’ve got an intern and I’m like, yo, I’m so sorry.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
It just comes full circle at some point.

Maurice Cherry:
So after Nike, you went to Cole Haan for a couple of years, but you said Nike had bought Cole Haan, correct?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Nike bought Cole Haan in 88 and then they sold Cole Haan in 2013.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Was it a big shift design-wise going from athletic footwear to a wider range of footwear that Cole Haan would offer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I wanted it to be. It’s crazy because I went from Japan to Nike running, which was probably the biggest leap I made in terms of learning skill set of being in design and design leadership. Then I did sportswear for not even a year before, we just need to get out of Oregon and go to New York city and with Cole Haan. I was so excited to get the Cole Haan and learn more about dress shoes, and how the last word and how you all the technical benefits and leathers. And like that was like, it was a whole thing. I was going through women’s dress shoes. Like this is again me chasing something like new and different, like, so one day and probably a week in Mark Parker shows up and I had just probably no more than like a month before that we had presented like a line that kind of for at least five years changed, like the direction Nike sportswear that was received really well.

Jeffrey Henderson:
We got high fives, lots of praise, yada, yada, yada. And he was in that meeting. It was like, this is really good. So about two weeks of me being at Cole Haan and I was just visiting for like a month, I was like, yo, I’m going to learn all this figure out what’s going on. It’s going to be good. Parker shows up. And he comes into like, I had this makeshift office and I had like all these pictures plastered on the wall of like Tom Ford and Gucci and churches, like wind tips. And I was trying to learn like dress shoes. And he was like, what’s this? And I’m like, yo, I’m trying to learn like dress shoes. This is new to me. Like I’m excited. He was like, yeah, yeah, that’s cool. Why don’t you do what you did in sportswear? And I looked at him like, okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I knew exactly what he meant. He was like, I need you to do something different that like learn dress shoes. And he meant I should learn dress shoes. And he was also like, don’t show up and give me a wing to show up and give me something different. And so immediately we did the lunar ran light in kind of an hour because it was a marketing guy and a engineering guy were like, “yo, what if we did this? And I was like, yeah, we, I did loner for like three years in running and sportswear. Like we can do this in 10 minutes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And so me learning everything about dress shoes and fashion, in the three years, it was all good, but it was literally like let’s do something to their credit. Everybody was right, because it became the hallmark shoe, it was the coolest shoe for all of three months. And then it just became every IT, lawyer, everybody who wanted to wear a sneaker group had to wear a dress. You wear that shoe to this day. Right. It’s still like, oh no, it’s not the coolest shoe in the world. But it’s definitely something that I don’t know. Every insurance guy has a pair.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you seen footwear design change over your career?

Jeffrey Henderson:
What’s been both. Probably. It’s kind of annoying to like some overhead to solve for where design is. One way, you go to this design school, you learned these rules, you make something and you draw it, you go into the factory and you build it. Now, to me, it’s really encouraging to watch folks who basically just Photoshop some colors together and throw some shoes together. And like it equates to, they may take the Jordan One and flip it in colors. That’s new. And the purist will be like, well, that’s not design it. Just the color. And I’m like, yeah, but at the end of the day, if somebody puts it on and gets value out of it and they feel a certain way, I think that’s valuable. Even if the shoe was already designed and someone added their own touch to it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So I don’t necessarily think negatively about it. I do know that if you want somebody to make a new shoe, you probably should pay someone who knows how to make new shoes. But also I’ve seen plenty of designers and it was true at Nike people who would draw the most amazing shoe. And then they were colors that were terrible, like completely unwearable. And you’d be like, “yeah, yeah. Just, just send that over to my guy over here, let her do it. Let, let her put some materials on it.” You did your job, you made an amazingly functional, beautiful, physical thing. Now let somebody else add the color and whatever else that makes it wearable. And that’s a whole other job. That’s a whole other skillset that just because you drew a shoe, doesn’t mean you’ve actually had that skillset. So I think seeing that become a more regular part of the industry of people being elevated, I think is very worthwhile.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve done work with Allbirds before and there’s a lot of these kinds of, I thought they came about in the last few years, a lot of these minimalists kind of shoe designs, there’s Allbirds, Greats, Vesey. There’s probably a dozen or so of them. What do you think about those kinds of shoe companies?

Jeffrey Henderson:
I love the energy they bring in, my work with Allbirds is literally, they kind of thought they might want to do something. So they hired me for one small project and I was like, you guys will be big. Can I hang out with you on it? They said “We don’t want that much. We don’t want that bigger relationship.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow! Okay.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t need to do that. Well, and it was one of those to their credit. I think they focused on doing something that no one in the industry thought was the right thing to do. If you ask everybody in the industry, “Hey, would you make a wool shoe?” The first thing I got is it gets dirty. It gets like, don’t do that. Dave leaned in heavy and the way they did it through DTC through a community built on starting with Silicon valley and working his way to wall street.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think they chose a community that traditional sneaker folks didn’t have an idea about. I think to the credit of a lot of those companies, a lot of them have been people who follow in those footsteps, no pun intended to do the same thing as with like, I loved like what great submission was like, just to bring something that was quality and simple. I think they may have lost track of that along the way. I think you do, you try to run with the sneakerheads, like you get lost in like the energy and the same and the cool kid and they stock X and all the other stuff, instead of just like, it’s a business, make a dish that people want. And I think there’s credit in doing that without having to follow.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I think a lot of the brands that are making stuff now, I kind of liked them. They also give people the benefit of they can walk out their house without having the same shoe. If you walk up, do you want me to house with a pair of SES on and no, one’s going to be like, oh, y’all got the same shoe. And if you do, there’s a bonding moment. But if you tried to bond with everybody who had on a pair of air max, you wouldn’t go that far.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see that. I think one thing with those sorts of shoes, I don’t know if they are sitting in warehouses or if they’re made to order. But of course, I think with the rise of these are certainly an increased public perception of easy to obtain footwear that wouldn’t necessarily be through Adidas or Nike or something like that.I’ve seen shoes on Instagram that were clearly just, I don’t know if it’s a drop shipping sort of thing, but you’ll see some shoes on Instagram. They clearly are just parts glued onto a sock that they’re selling as a shoe. And you think, “oh, this might be good in these sort of still shots,” but then you actually get the shoes and they smell like industrial strength adhesive and you have to air out your apartment that may have happened to me. I’m not saying it did or didn’t, but [crosstalk 01:05:30] that may or may not have happened. I plead the fifth, it’s my show. But, I think what it does is that at least democratizes the aspect of footwear design, where you have these independent companies designing shoes that are also able to appeal to people that are different from before, the bigger brands that are well-known for designing shoes, like a Nike or Adidas.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it forces the bigger brands to innovate when they really may not have had the catalyst to do so. I would equate what Allbirds did for sneakers is exactly what Tesla did for electric vehicles. Toilet had been sitting on electric vehicles forever and they weren’t trying to make it the cool kid car. It was just an electric vehicle. We make it so what, and Tesla was like, no, we make the electric vehicle. And I think there’s going to be the evolution of anything else, you’re going to find some companies that make something that’s not all that great. And hey, if you’re going to go out there and try everything, you got to be willing to be like, if you’re the one who’s not going on the open, you’re trying every restaurant. Sometimes you go fast in here, your food, but if you’re the person who wants to be that person, who’s like, yeah. Before anybody else sees it, I’m going to try it. You may stumble upon the next thing. I’m curious, what are you wearing? What is your go-to shoe at this point?

Maurice Cherry:
My oh Jesus, oh boy. It does get personal because I hate shoe shopping. I absolutely hate it. It is up there with going to the dentist. It’s shopping for shoes. I do not like it. [crosstalk 01:07:06] I have sort of wide Flintstone, ish feet. And so as a kid, going with my mom to the store to get shoes was always a hassle because one of my feet is decidedly about a half size, bigger than the other one. And also because my feet are wide, most shoes that come in like a medium are way too small for me. Like I can’t even get my foot in it. So I’d have to get a larger size because that would then kind of widen the width of the shoe a bit. But then now I’ve got all this like floppy toe room at the end. And my mom’s like, just put a sock in it, like just stuff a sock in it.

Maurice Cherry:
So it doesn’t get the crease or whatever. But then that [crosstalk 01:07:50] hurts while you’re walking and you’re trying to run. It’s a, it’s a whole thing. So I’m not a big, [crosstalk 01:07:56] I’m not a, I’m not a big shoe shopping person. It wasn’t until I know that was well into adulthood that I saw a podiatrist and actually got like my feet measured and all this sort of stuff. And I had been wearing the wrong size for well over a decade, wrong size shoe. [crosstalk 01:08:13].

Maurice Cherry:
I wear about a size 10 extra, extra, extra, extra wide, like a 10 40. And usually what I was getting was, and I mean, you know, growing up, of course it would change as my foot change. But like right now I usually rock about an 11 is pretty good. But like if one was an 11 and the other was an 11 and a half, that would be perfect because even on the other foot, which is bigger, it’s still like very constricting and most wide shoes are hideous. You’re a footwear designer. Even talking about this, the desire for like medium shoes. I mean, the sky is the limit. You get to watch shoes and everything looks like orthopedic shoes. Why is that?

Jeffrey Henderson:
So there’s a little bit of like the bell curve. And so quite typically the design goes to, and you’ll notice that most things, when they’re in a smaller size, they can be more cute, more appealing. And so,

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’re dope. Like I can, like, you can get them in different colors and they look nice and then you get to the wide shoes. And it’s just like, it’s like what I call the PE teachers, which are the monarchs from Nike. Like that’s all you get. [crosstalk 01:09:27] I know, I know that’s probably,

Jeffrey Henderson:
That’d be the cool kid shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
But a lot of it is definitely built on again. If you’re making your money in one area, a lot of brands don’t then spend a lot of time in other areas. And so you get some brands who may find that’s a niche customer. So my guess is you bought more than your fair share of New Balance.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Yes. How did you know you’re reading my mind? Yes. There was a time in my twenties where I had not a lot of different colorways of New Balance, but the new balance, not the nine nineties, those were ones I ended up getting before. But like the, I forget the number. It’s like new balance five somethings. I had those in probably every color.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it kind of becomes your uniform and it’s time to, okay. But then when is that? What ends up happening? Two things happen. Everybody who has that same point is wearing the same thing. And then you get lumped in a box.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then it’s one of those, oh, you have wide feet. So you have to wear new balance and then there’s not enough, let’s do something different. [crosstalk 01:10:37] And so you have to refine the brands that sort of, I don’t know, care, or we’ll show you something different and it’s not easy.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s the new balance Five, seven fours. I had them in so many different color ways. Cause they, I mean, and on 11 they still fit. They still were pretty wide, but I had those for a long time and yeah, there was that association, which is actually why I stopped wearing them. Well, that in my podiatrist was like, you need to stop wearing these. They’re not doing any favors, like stop wear these shoes. Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it was funny as it was a podcast or was a clubhouse and my friend Simone runs it and she had the president of Rihanna’s brand owner [crosstalk 01:11:18] and hear her talk about inclusivity and design that what Rihanna wanted. She was like, look, there were two things that quickly and easily made, making intimate wear for a diverse population of women. Important one was really easy. And that was just shades of nude. Like just what colors you chose. She was like, that was really easy. Every brain could flip that switch immediately and go from like two shades of nude to 20 shades of nude because there are different colors of people. And she was like, that was actually, it’s more of like a decision you have to make. And then it’s a supply chain thing and some operational, the blah, blah, blah. It’s pretty easy. The really difficult one is when it comes to physical shape and sizing, because one, you have to have people in the building who can relate and understand.

Jeffrey Henderson:
She was like, not everybody in intimates is the same size 16. Sometimes you’re 16 up top. Sometimes you’re 16 on bottom. Like it’s just different shapes. And if you can’t have a real conversation about it, cause the right diversity is in the room is not in the room. Then you just end up making, like, we just took the same thing and made it bigger. And then you don’t write answers and then you get what she put it. You’ve been with skinny people think that people want, and she was like, it’s not that blunt, but you also get what skinny people think super skinny people want. And she used those words. She was sort of getting like, yo, like it just doesn’t help. And they don’t know. So until you bring people in the room who have wider feet or like our last version of the, and that was one of the things Rihanna said is like, no, when you make the larger sizes, it better be just as beautiful when a person is when you make the medium size.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Like that’s just what it should, what should be done. And so when we were making the next versions of the point, I had a lot of flat, cause I know a few football players who were like a size 15 and I shoe only went up to a 14 and it was like, Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. Yeah. Like what are you doing this next batch? And it costs money. Like we had to make molds, we’ve gone up to a size 17 with these things shoes and we’ll try to go up more, but like it costs money to get there and you need people to actually support like, so I sent you a link, you’ll see it, the jokes, John. But that shoe comes in like four E in terms of width [crosstalk 01:13:34] so there, and you’ll try more and it’ll be different. And whether is your cup of tea or not? The idea is that when you wear them, you’ll notice some wind here and you’ll see like, oh, it doesn’t have to look hideous. It doesn’t have to look [inaudible 01:13:50] And it’s kind of, okay. So I think design can bring that to people, especially in shoes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, So, so to answer your earlier question about what I’m rocking. So I do have kind of my two that I tend to sort of vary between one is like a, all black, like Reebok walking shoe. I don’t know what the name of it is, but it has like this air bubble in the sole. So like it’s very bouncing. Like I wanted some just like straight up like black minimalists sneakers that I could just throw on with anything. And then I do have a pair of monarchs and I actually had to stop wearing because the cushioning was too much. Like it was like, my foot was in like a spaceship and it’s funny. Cause I remember when I first got those shoes, I would get so many compliments on them and I’m like, thanks. And I didn’t know if it was for real, cause I honestly got them because they came in a wide with my podiatrist’s had recommended it.

Maurice Cherry:
And when I first put it on, I was like, oh, so this is what it feels like to walk without foot pain. Like now the shoe actually like, but I still have that one for every now and then, but I just bought three pairs of shoes recently.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if this is because I got the vaccine and I feel like I need to go out in the world, but I got three new pairs of shoes recently and they’re different in different ways. So one is a Fila shoe.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s the Oakmont mid and my, my podiatrist, I recommended it cause it had a thick sole and he’s like, you kind of need more of like a, almost like a boot type of shoe as opposed to maybe like a low sneaker type or something. And so I have those and those are great. Those are ass-kicking shoes. Like I love those shoes. And then I got a pair of Hoka, Bondi seven. I just got those a couple of days ago actually. And I might send them back. They’re too bouncy. They feel like I’m wearing moons shoes. Like if I needed to jump and reach high things, I would probably keep them. But like I’m walking and I’m like, whoa, like I’m literally, like I literally have a spring in my step is what it feels like

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s meant to be. It’s meant to do that. So it’s good in terms of the functionality. It’s not the functionality you’re looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then I got another like honestly I got a card in the mail from DSW that was like $25 off a shoe. I’m like, let me just get some more like knock around shoes. And I got some Sketchers, like slip ons there, the ultra flex 2.0 Mercon slip on sneaker and they’re okay. But like one of the shoes fits and the other one is too small because it’s not wide enough for the other foot so I can still wear them. But they’re just like, they’re okay. And I mean, after the discount, they were like 25 bucks. So I’m like, yeah, this is, this is just something I can just throw on and like check the mail or something like that.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So we’re going to get you into some Johns. You’re going be to, you know, say nothing but good things. We gonna see you on the gram And then you had to give all praise if you like it. And if you don’t, you never heard of it. So its all good.

Maurice Cherry:
Ill Put a link to this in the show notes so people can see it. Like I’m looking at it now, the Jackson YC, John, they come in like this lemon ice, yellow, like ch like classroom, chalk yellow, which is an interesting color way. I like it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They also come in gray suede, I think there’s a gray suede

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, I see I’m scrolling down. I see now

Jeffrey Henderson:
Scroll down.

Maurice Cherry:
The yellow was interesting though!

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that was based on, so my brother, his kidneys started failing his feet, started swelling and he needed wider shoes. And so I put them in some Birkenstocks, which he was good with, but he needed like some actual real shoes to get around in. Cause he’s in Ohio and it was winter. And so I was working with his brand in China and they made the shoe for seniors. The name of the brand is Zulee’s and so, and the shoe was like, I don’t know, it’s kind of the way they created. It was very much like old people shoes.` It’s like, it just had this diet to this sort of function first and it just didn’t look cool. And I was like, yo, can we make these in first suede? And then can we make them in like some monotone colors that I don’t know, you think you like, look good?

Jeffrey Henderson:
And they were like, well, that’s not what old people want. I was like, well, how do you know? Like, and they were like, all right. So they blessed us with some pairs just to try out. [crosstalk 01:18:04] And people were like, yo, I can look good. Like, and we kept getting hit with, I don’t want to wear them out. And it was like,

Maurice Cherry:
oh, interesting.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Because they were all suede. And they were like, I don’t want to get them dirty. Cause they look so nice. It was like, like stop wearing the shoes that you hate because you can get them dirty and wear these. And it was interesting because we made our conservative desks that, you know, we’ll make them in gray and we’ll make them in yellow thinking that, you know what? People will want the gray because that’s normal. But you know, we’ll get some daring people to wear the yellow and it kept going back. Like I think we sold out of the yellows in most sizes. So you have your side, it’ll be lucky. But for the most part we have grays left cause people wanted like they wanted to stand out in the way that wasn’t like clown, but also they didn’t want to look like I am the old person I am. And I think that, again, it goes to, wasn’t so much about the design, the design should work, but sometimes it’s color and materials [crosstalk 01:19:00] that kind of plays into how people feel.

Maurice Cherry:
It is an appropriate amount of swag. Like I’m looking at the photos, like there’s this one where this dude is getting into like a rag top convertible and like his, the color of the car and his shoes are pretty much the same. I’m like, that’s kind of dope. And he’s cause he’s wearing a black jacket. It has on yellow shoes. And then you see like the black rag top in the yellow paint, like okay. Bet. All right, cool. Well, we will definitely talk about that after we stop recording. Cause I would definitely be in the market for these look, these look great. And it’s interesting that there’s this personal story behind the design too. What I get, you know, from just talking with you and learning about your history and everything is that eventually you always bring it back to the work, which I think is something that is indicative of people that really have a passion behind what it is that they do.

Maurice Cherry:
Like even with the name of your studio being “And Them” like you’re taking the onus and the focus like off of you, it’s really about how the work is being received in the world and how people are using it. Which I think is super, not just, I think super important, but also super inspirational for people to see, because I think especially for younger designers there.

Maurice Cherry:
can be this, want to kind of do the biggest flashiest stuff all the time. Or like, like that’s the stuff that they want to do that they feel like may point out the thing in their career or like put them on the map or something like that. And really if the work that you’re able to do is like really changing people’s lives and affected them. That’s hopefully just as, as good as a takeaway from the work that you do.

Jeffrey Henderson:
No, I think that’s well said. I think even the work that you’re doing, like you talked about, like it took you a number of podcasts and a number of like folks in the outside, like co-sign for credibility to be there with other people. But the reality is you are going to do it because you thought it needed to be there. And I think that’s very important. So people don’t understand that sometimes people won’t come out to you first show people won’t come out and see like the first game you play in cars may not be great. But if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft, you get better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that’d be great, but if you know why you’re there and you keep working on your craft and you get better, I think it then pays off, and it doesn’t always have to be, “Did I have the biggest show on the planet?” Sometimes it’s just about, “Did I do really good work and were people happy?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
So, no, it’s definitely whenever we can use our skills to make friends and family happier, and when they bring us new friends and family that we can work with, we’re happy to use our skillset to make other lives better.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I don’t know that we technically announced it. I guess they announced it. We’re working with this Reinvention Lab out of Texas, this group out of Teach for America to kind of… We ran a shoe contest, and they got to actually find organizations within their group to design shoes and they got to work on it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s interesting is there’s going to be a winner, and we’re actually going to sell some of the shoes that they made. And they were like, “Oh yeah, we don’t care if we won any more.” Just going through the presentation process, how designers look at things, how they have conversations about things… Just the design process was new to them. And that helped them understand what they bring to education and what they bring to laying out curriculum, which I sort of, I don’t know, I hang out with Chris Emdin, whose HipHopEd, and the way he talks about pedagogy. Those are things that I take internally as normal, but they had to go through this class. They had to do this competition to take in and be like, “Oh, design thinking is not just for designers. It helps us.” And so that was really gratifying to see. Or even just our approach and our process could bring, I don’t know, something to other people.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of school, I mean, you’re on the advisory board for a school in New York, the Business of Sports School. And most recently you became a board member at Knoll. For you, what’s the importance of sitting on boards like this?

Jeffrey Henderson:
It’s… Another thing that I sort of got dragged into, and some of it’s because I’m old, I hang around old people and they are on boards and they say, “You’d be good at this.” I didn’t really know what a board did or what it meant. Now that I’m on two, I can sort of surmise that it’s definitely one of the, for most businesses, the biggest form of sponsorship you can get. Because as much as mentorship and execution are good, if the people who are sort of guiding the people who are in charge understand the entire, I think, operation and process, the better it is for the people who are doing work and the more diverse of an angle you get. And so at BOSS, this a sports school, it was…

Jeffrey Henderson:
And one of my best friends on the board, we were having this discussion around college visits. And so BOSS is a school in Hell’s Kitchen, most of the kids come from the Bronx and Harlem. In terms of who could attend, they’re changing up a little bit how who gets into the school, but it’s definitely an open enrollment. It’s not based on higher test scores and they don’t pick who they get into the school. It’s just kind of an open free-for-all in terms of kids that get to the school.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s not built on kids who are automatically going to Harvard who have family history and education and college background. And so one of the things that they’ve promoted, I think for good reason, is they want to make sure that kids have an understanding of what college is, and so they go on college tours. And so the college tours were happening around junior year, and I said, “No, it’s too late.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And my friend Marie, who works for SMY, her son at the same time… I think both of our sons were in college, were in high school and around junior year at the same time. And she chimed in and was like, “No, you have to understand. My son, this is the biggest time of his life. He’s visiting all these colleges. And it’s really important. It’s shaping who they are.” And I was like, “Yeah, but your son has heard about college since he was five years old. Some of these kids, none of their family is going or has gone to college. And so this is a new concept. They’re expecting them to go work. Some of these kids, their family is wondering why they’re finishing high school, literally wondering why they’re finishing high school, when they could go work and put food on the table. It’s a different conversation. So can we please take them freshman year, even just to one college campus? Normalize the idea of college in their brains before they’re taking an ACT, before they’re taking a prep test. Can we do that?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And what’s funny is she saw that, and she was like, “Oh.” And because this was happening at the board level, this is well before the teachers had to choose where they were spending money or where they were scheduling time, and so offering a more diversity of voice, at a school like that, I think was powerful. But there’s quite a bit of diversity on that board. When I got to Knoll, there wasn’t that much of diversity of thought on the board. And it was interesting, because when it first came up, I was like, “Are you inviting me on the board because I’m Black?” And they were like, “Well, that’s helpful.” And I was like, “Oh [crosstalk 01:26:00].

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I was like, “Well, are you inviting me on the board because I’m creative?” And they were like, “Yeah, it’s a design company, and we don’t have creative people on the board. There’s a misstep there.” And I was like, “Oh.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then later on, someone was like, “Yeah, scary enough. You’re also young.” I was like, “Oh, I haven’t been young in a while.” But I was the youngest person on the board. And I think, again, being able to have diverse levels of thought at a board level where it’s really only about sponsorship, it’s really about giving direction to the real leaders and responsible folks who run something, being able to give them a sounding board and holding them to task on, “Are you getting the most out of your people? And by the most, are you just even listening and can you hear their voices?”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when boards start to diversify, I think… And I mean, the same is true in C-suite. I have a whole thing about, “I love all my friends who are D and I experts at every company, but you wouldn’t need them so much if the C-suite was diverse. You’d have other problems to fix because then those folks would make sure that there was a diverse hiring thing.” Maybe not all the time, but there’d be more folks to sort of like, “Let’s get after diversity in bigger ways.” And I think to me, the board level helps usher and push along those movements. So I’m very, very happy that folks sort of tapped me on the shoulder. One, I didn’t look like the average board person. I also went in saying I wasn’t going to act like the normal board person. And I think they were actually quite excited that I wouldn’t be. So I was blessed to end up in conversations that they wanted me there, as opposed to they felt like their hands were tied about having me.

Maurice Cherry:
So I mentioned before we started recording that I had done my research. I read through a lot of articles that you had written up on the GwoodThin.gs blog, and they’re also syndicated on Medium.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I apologize for [crosstalk 01:27:58].

Maurice Cherry:
No, no. I actually want to talk about that. What does writing do for you as a designer?

Jeffrey Henderson:
Writing is probably, and this plays into, I don’t know, the background of introversion of I stumble across my words. If I’m having a conversation, I’m one of those people who goes, “Oh, I wish I would have thought about that when we’re talking” because I can’t think on my feet like that. And so being able to write, a skill that my sister made sure I… She saw that I had a little bit of a talent. My sister’s 13 years older than me. So she saw I had a little talent and made sure my teachers knew and forced me to write more and more when I was in high school. And that just became a way for me to, almost in a journal way, sort of write down what my thoughts were when I knew I couldn’t finish them in other ways, or I really didn’t feel comfortable talking to other people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And also allowed me to… And when you get old and have kids, you sort of see that, well, your kids aren’t always listening to you. And I, for sure, didn’t always listen to my parents or my elders, but if you write it down and leave it so that when they’re ready to take any of the information, it’s there for them. And so for me to write it down like this… And people bring up some of those Medium posts all the time like, “Oh, I read such and such.” I don’t even remember writing it. It’s from 2016. And I might’ve just copied and pasted it from a Tumblr post from 2012. But it’s more of my journal, this was kind of going on or a thought that popped up in my head that I may have wanted… or someone asked a question that I wanted to answer for that person, but also wanted to answer for multiple people.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So being able to write, to me… And it’s funny because people often talk like, “Oh, you write the same way you talk.” And it’s like, “Well, that should be the same way with everybody, I would think.” And so I don’t use complete sentences, and I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence and just go into the next thing because it’s really just my thought… And my kids hate it. They’ll read and be like, “You have no focus.” Because they took real writing classes and I’m like, [crosstalk 01:29:57]. “You’re smarter than me because I can send you to a school that you can be smarter than me, so leave me alone.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
But for me, it’s sort of this unfiltered way of throwing down whatever is in my head. And I might evolve six months past whatever I wrote, but my journal is sort of me documenting my thoughts so that if it’s helpful to somebody at a time, it’s good. And also there might be hope that there’s some things that I’m sort of fighting against or don’t want that one day it’ll be sort of useless because they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, we don’t have those problems anymore. We’ve moved onto new problems.” But hopefully that becomes the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say I could not stop reading. I think you’re a fantastic writer. I think you should keep it up.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you. No one knows that I’m paying you in shoes to say that, right? Okay. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I was going to say that before the shoes. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. No seriously, though, I mean, as I read through it, I think it’s important not just as you’re talking about to push your thoughts down, but as you also said, for other people to see, and not just your kids, but for other designers to stumble upon, “This is what it’s like for an agency owner when they’re working on projects,” or, “How do you think about the work that you do in your creative process?” That kind of stuff tends to not really get shared, certainly not from other black designers in that way.

Jeffrey Henderson:
I was listening to, I think one of the interviews you had before, and I think you brought up that you could throw something in a Tweet and how deep does it go, but how long does it actually stick? It kind of gets lost in the universe.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think when you actually write a book, there’s a little bit more staying power. And I think those long reads that challenge you to follow a story that imparts information, I think, are very powerful. And I think there’s also just… Some people would rather have the 300-page book about a topic and some people want a TikTok version of the same thing. And I think everything’s not for everyone. So how I communicate may not be for everybody. I apologize that you had to read through all those, but for some people they enjoy reading them and some people are like, “Yeah, I read the first three lines, and I was good. Way to go.” And that’s okay. [crosstalk 01:32:05].

Maurice Cherry:
No, I read through all of them because some of them you’re talking about different projects that you’ve worked on. There was one even about the recent board appointment that you had mentioned. So it was just good to sort of see it, see how you perceive the world through your eyes and your words and how that all… Because for someone like me, I wouldn’t know what that’s like, but to read your words on it, it’s like, “Oh, so that’s what it’s like.” Just to kind of see that perspective is important.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And it’s really powerful when you don’t have enough voices in jobs from people who look like you who might be able to say things and sound like you, not only for you to hear and go, “Oh, okay. This is what it’s like when I get there.” But also I think I wrote one article about of the nicest guys I know on the planet. He posted on his Instagram a photo of the Nike design offsite. It was a picture of all the Nike designers and pretty much all white folk with… You can pick out the three or four people who aren’t white.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeffrey Henderson:
And when I saw that, I had anxiety just looking at the picture. Because I remember going to those offsites going like, “This is weird,” and not knowing who to tell or who to say it to except for people who were there.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And we were all kind of looking at each other like, “Yeah. But it is what it is.” Someone just posted the phrase, “It is what it is” on Twitter. And I was sort of like, “That’s a very dark expression for Black folk because it’s almost like you’re giving up, like a loss of hope.” But “it is what it is.” It’s not what I think other people might think it means. It’s definitely like, “We’re done here. There’s nothing we can do. It is what it is.”

Jeffrey Henderson:
And I think changing that at Nike became something so many of us focused on that, I don’t know… I don’t know if we were able to put a dent in it as much as we wanted to, but it definitely some days felt it is what it is.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And that picture brought out all that anxiety. And I told him. I was like, “Yo, are you okay? I’m going to actually use the article. I’m going to write your name and say what a good dude you are but also explain this is the truth.” And it’s funny how many people who reached out to me after, on both sides who were like, “Yo, I thought this and I didn’t know how to feel, and I didn’t know what to say.” Depending on, like, on each side, which is kind of interesting. And there were some people were like, “Yo, you never acted this way when you were there.” And it’s like, “Maybe I did and you didn’t notice.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Or, “Maybe when you knew me, I was going with ‘it is what it is.’ So what’s the point in telling you about it?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
So writing is a way to sort of, I don’t know, let people see what it really was, even if you couldn’t do it in real time.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it can also sort of serve as a mirror back to you, particularly in terms of colloquial language. You have one post on here called Who All Gone Be There, which is so common, I think, for any person of color they’re going somewhere that’s mixed company.

Jeffrey Henderson:
[crosstalk 01:35:12] talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’re like, “Who all gone be there? I need to know what I’m stepping into,” or something like that. Or even there’ll be posts that are named after song titles. There’s one called Shook Ones or something like that. Or even one where you’re breaking down the cost of a shoe, you know, or the materials and everything that go into it because people will, I think, certainly with the inflated sneaker economy now, people will look at a shoe and wonder why it costs that much, but not thinking of everything that has to go into it with research and materials and all that sort of stuff.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Right. And what’s funny is, I think… And I watch what’s happened in the last 20 years with journalism is that, I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago there would be, especially sports journalists, I think that’s kind of where it started with like, “Oh, this is the hip hop journalist, and he speaks in a vernacular that connects to the people and uses hip hop slang,” and yada, yada, yada. It’s one of those. Or “Y’all just letting him write and just write what he would write to his friends.” And so for me, I think that connection point of calling it Shook Ones is not… I’m not trying to connect with you. I’m not apologizing. It’s just like, “You know where it’s from. I know where it’s from. So that’s how we communicate. That’s how communication works. I don’t know any Billy Joel songs to impart to you how I’m feeling about it, so I can’t do that. And if I could, then I would connect with… Are there Billy Joel people listening?” No shade to Billy Joel, but that’s sort of… I’m just talking the way I talk in the group chats with folk.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah,

Jeffrey Henderson:
So it’s sort of… And I think that was… And writing helped me… I talk about this a lot. I grew up swearing like nobody’s business, and I don’t know if we cool. We know what you like. I could swear left or right. Writing helps me like, “All right, let’s change some of those words. Sometimes it bes what it bes.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And to your point, it also, you know, even, I think, as it reflected through the makeup of your team, it shows them that being able to express themselves authentically doesn’t make them any less of a professional.

Jeffrey Henderson:
You know what’s wild is… And I talk about this a lot with folks who are of my age group, who are in this weird late forties, early fifties, where we sort of went through a history of trying to code switch. And like I said, I don’t know if I’m necessarily good at it. I think I tried it enough, but I don’t know that anybody bought it. But the idea that young folks don’t care to code switch.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jeffrey Henderson:
They just show up how they show up and talking to folks who are my age. It’s like, “Yo, don’t get caught out there code switching because the young folks would call you out on it and they ain’t listening. They don’t have time for you to be worrying about what you got a bonnet on at the airport. It’s just not [crosstalk 01:38:08].

Jeffrey Henderson:
It should just be you every day. And it’s difficult because we came from an age group where we were taught when you show up, you’re in their space. You need to respect [crosstalk 01:38:18].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, respectability politics.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Exactly. And it’s sort of… I was lucky enough to… And I say this all the time. I have amazing credit only because when I got my Discover Card in college, it was like, “Yo, you can either pay this much or you can pay this little bit and all these other numbers about what you pay for the next six months.” And I was like, “I’m too lazy to do that. I’m just going to pay the big number.” So I never had debt because I just paid the big number. So it’s not because I was smart and knew, “Ooh, I want to get good credit.” It was I just don’t want to deal with the headache.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Same is true about… I was just like, “I don’t want to wear a tie to work ever. I don’t want one of those jobs. I’m not going to go work there. I just want to wear sneakers to work.” I just chose that, not knowing it was going to be… I didn’t choose this because it would make me money. I didn’t choose it because it would provide me money to buy a house and not have to assimilate so much. I did it because I just liked sneakers and I liked the culture. And I think young folks are more and more for the technology to exist, they get to do the same. They’re just trying to figure out what it all means because they’re being told by older people, “Oh, it’s adulthood time. So now you have to follow in line and you’ve got to wear your hair a certain way.” And they’re like, “No, thank you. But [crosstalk 01:39:33].” So I think it’s cool that people can be who they’re going to be and old people like me get to help them do that.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
Yo, this drives me and everyone else crazy that I want to be able to just walk down the street and not have to go anywhere and everything comes to Harlem because we made it possible. I went from, I don’t know, doing product design a few years back to ad and content creation. And now I’m missing a call right now about NFTs, which I had no idea about, but, “Okay, let’s go learn about NFTs and the process and the drops and all this other stuff.” And it’s one of those… I think the strategy mindset, the creative mindset, and a little bit of, I think, luck along the way of having some wins, folks invite us to parties, whether it’s just me or my entire team. I think people trusting my team as they get better. And the team’s starting to have their own sort of mentees below them to kind of grow the business for all of us.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And even if they go run and create their own agency, it’s all good. I kind of want this fun growth to keep, I think… I used to say making stuff was cool, and now I’m to the point where making stuff has taken a different personality, given my thoughts on sustainability. And sometimes it’s not making stuff is the answer, but figuring out how…

Jeffrey Henderson:
My biggest thing in terms of conversations in the last probably three months has been on housing justice here in New York City. And I think that’s not the standard conversation for maybe a creative, but I think the thought process and the connections and the ideation that myself and my team, the folks I hang out with and bring to the table just, I don’t know, open up the vision on some of those things. And I think that’s what I mean when I say putting things… And I’ve always said this. If you can create, I don’t know, some systemic change in Harlem and Atlanta and Oakland, in places like Detroit, I think if that starts to stick and ownership becomes a big piece of it, I think there’s some conversations that are really going to be had.

Jeffrey Henderson:
And then their less talking about, “Oh, well, I don’t know if we’ll give them a chance, but we’re good. We did this. We’re good.” And I think that’s where I’d want to be. Even if it’s not me, I’m just hanging around people who are doing those things. That’s my five years from now.

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

Jeffrey Henderson:
So definitely come hang out… For the most part, if you want to find out about all the fun we’re having, find us at GoodThin.gs, G-O-O-D-T-H-I-N.gs. I’m sure it’ll be in the bio and byline. That’s where we have our fun. That’s where we give back to the community. That’s where we show how we hang out. You want to book us for business? Definitely come to andthem.com. We keep it professional. You can write us checks and we’re all good. Ready to do stuff. And then definitely, I don’t know, we’re making some shoes. We’re doing apparel next. You can see NinetyNineProducts and Jackson YC. my guy [Royce 01:42:42] is doing Silk City. We got a few hustles going on, some fun. So please, you don’t have to read all the reading [inaudible 01:42:49] is doing. Greatly appreciate it, but you can come check out and see some of the creative stuff we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s good reading, y’all. Don’t listen to him. It’s good reading. Jeffrey Henderson, thank you so much for coming on the show. I think, you know, from hearing your story, from looking at your work and, again, even from the research that I’ve done, to me, there is a certain deep sense of thoughtfulness that you bring to your work that perhaps I don’t know if you even recognize how thoughtful it is in terms of doing work for the community and making sure that you’re creating this nurturing space for young creatives and everything. I think it’s something that more of us need to see in the industry. We need to see, of course, I think just more Black agency owners, but also more Black agency owners that are kind of bucking the trend or changing the paradigm or showing that it’s okay to be thoughtful and do great work like this and not have to stick to, you know, any sort of archaic or a draconian style of running a business, that you can do great work and have fun and it can be a nurturing space.

Maurice Cherry:
And I definitely see that care and thoughtfulness that you bring to your work, and I’m appreciative of it. I’m sure that folks listening think that way as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jeffrey Henderson:
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be on that list of hundreds of people who you bring in, I think. Visibility too. I love what you’re doing. So however I can be a part of this, I’m happy to help. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Keisha Okafor

We’re halfway through the year! Summer’s here, and I thought it would be a great time to feature an extraordinary young designer whose work I recently discovered — Keisha Okafor. Her work is brimming with energy and vibrancy and joy — feelings we all could use a bit more of these days.

We start off talking about freelance design, and Keisha told a bit about how she helped make one of the features Google Doodles for Black History Month 2021. Keisha also spoke on her signature design style, talked about one of her dream projects, and gave some great advice on being an illustrator. Keep an eye out for Keisha — I think we’ll definitely see more of her work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keisha Okafor:
My name is Keisha Okafor. I’m a freelance illustrator. And I would say that my work I’ve been using depicts joy and celebrates people. I really like to use bright colors and bold patterns.

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

Keisha Okafor:
It’s been going pretty great. I actually just went freelance full time. So that’s the thing. But before that, I’ve been working full time in design as a production designer, actually for print and also doing project management. Ironically, I was managing all the print projects I was doing. So kind of like a one-woman show. So all of that was very technical and like sending client emails. And then out of work, I was doing illustrations and drawing and working with my freelance clients. So it’s nice to have more time this time, but honestly, it’s been going pretty well. I mean, I know the whole pandemic is still happening. In my mind, it’s not even close to being over, but as a very, very heavy introvert, my day-to-day isn’t really that different, I be inside. So I’m still watching Anime, still playing video games. Yeah. Outside of work is pretty normal to me because I wouldn’t be outside anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. So yeah, you just went freelance. That’s a kind of scary thing to do to make that leap of faith. I mean, did you feel like you were prepared for it when you did it?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I definitely did, which is surprising because years ago, would have been terrified, but I did a lot of planning, I watched so many seminars and workshops about going freelance, like what do you need to have in place before you do that? And I also saw enough clients coming in and projects coming in to where I believed like this is going to keep happening. I’m not just a Juneteenth, Martin Luther King Day illustrator. I can do this 365. So once I saw that and all the other planning I’ve been doing for the past several months, I wasn’t as scared as I expected to be.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. That’s good. I mean, oftentimes, we’ll have the designers that are here on the show that either are freelancing or they’re thinking about going freelance, and making that leap can often be really scary. I mean, you said that you had some preparations in place, which is good. I mean, to know that you can step out there and have at least some sort of a foundation, so you’re not necessarily going at it alone, but you have, it sounds like you had some major things already planned out before you made the jump, like clients.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I also had savings. That was like my main thing. I didn’t want to jump with like $25 in my account. So with all the freelance money I’ve been getting, luckily because I had the full-time job, I was able to save all of that pretty much by pretending that I didn’t have it. I was tricking my mind, like, don’t spend this, this is for your future. Like, don’t wild out and buy stuff, but I’m also not naturally a big spender. My biggest splurge last year was getting Netflix, the two accounts. Yeah. I mean, I bought video games, but I would’ve done that anyway, but yeah, I got Netflix. So that’s like an idea of something I think about, a purchase that I would think about for a while before doing so. Was able to save all that money to have bought a year’s worth just in case nothing happened, which I don’t believe that was going to happen, but just in case, I had enough money to live off of that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a very smart move.

Keisha Okafor:
Thanks. I take risks, but it’s very calculated because I get very scared, just the idea of going freelance is so scary. So I just wanted to make sure I have things set in place, I thought it through that I’ll be good.

Maurice Cherry:
What made you decide to go freelance? You said you were working as part-time gig, did something happen or did you just feel like it was just time to go?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, just in general, the jobs I’ve had, it was a full-time job too. Boy, was I tired anyway. It was just like, no matter what job I had, it ended up being rinky-dink. And by rinky-dink, I mean, no matter how confident I am, no matter how competent I am at the job, no matter how much work I do, how fast I go, I’m still getting treated like I’m entry-level or like the level of a recent graduate in my pay, in how I’m talked to when I ask questions. And I’m just getting tired of that. And because I saw that doing freelance wasn’t as intimidating as I thought, I was just like, let me better myself and make sure that I’m handling that side for myself, that I get to advocate for myself and also determine what I’m worth.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a big reason why I ended up going freelance back in 2008, the company that I was working for was treating me in that same way, like I felt like I was being undermined or belittled or patronized too, even though I’ve got the skills to be there and I’m cranking out top quality work, you still feel like you’re almost treated like a child.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Yeah. This past job, the work I was doing, it took four people to do before I got there.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And they’re not a startup company. They’ve been around for many years over a decade. And even taking on that work, they still saw me as a rookie. And I’m like, “Really after all of this?” So I could see that that wasn’t really going to change anytime soon. They would give me compliments, but I’m like, “But my pay isn’t changing.” And when I say things and give suggestions, it’s just going over the head and out the window. So I’m just like, “All right, I see where this is going. I’m out.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you right now? I know you just started freelancing, but have you started getting into a good rhythm?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Generally, I have a Trello account, where I have all my freelance projects that I’m working on right now and just different to-do lists, broken down to all the small steps, just so I can see overall what I need to work on. So if there are any priorities or upcoming deadlines, I’ll then write a list, a to-do list of like at least three things I want to get done during the day, like I want to finish this sketch or I want to finish this piece, send this email to the client, things like that. I usually start my day at around 10 o’clock. I am not a morning person at all. Also, I have a cat who only wants to be pet in the middle of the night. So from like 5:00 AM to 7:00 AM, she’s crawling on my chest, like, “Pet me, pet me.” And I’m like, “Let me sleep.” That’s why I start at 10:00 to get back some of that sleep I lost.

Keisha Okafor:
But yeah, I usually start eating cereal, see if I have any emails. I don’t really get too many emails, but I’m also someone who like, I get through them. So I usually only have like three tops. And then I just start the work I’m doing. And if, and then I just keep reviewing that Trello list with my deadlines and checking things off. And if I’m like at the right pace, because I’m trying to pace myself doing a little each day to make sure I hit the deadlines early, instead of like binge doing it all in one day. So once I hit that pace for the day, if I’m done, then I’ll take a break and rest for the day. Yeah. That’s generally how it’s been going so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The best thing about freelancing is really setting your own schedule and then no one can tell you to change it. It’s completely up to you. So if you want to stay in till 10:00 AM, till noon, you can do that. No problem.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. It still feels like, I feel like a kid beginning summer break, but then I’m like, “Keisha, you’re an adult.” Make sure you get stuff done, which I always do. But waking up at 10 o’clock and being like, “Well, time to get this started.” That still feels wild to me. I’m like, “I get to do this. I planned for this and it’s happening.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, I first heard about you this year from your work you did for YouTube’s Black History Month campaign. I think they did four different illustrators and artists for each of the four weeks in February. Can you talk about that? How did you become a part of that project?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah, that still blows my mind. This was like maybe a week before Christmas. I randomly get this email saying, “Hey, Keisha, I work with YouTube. Want to work on this project about Black Creativity for Black History Month?” I immediately thought it was a scam. And then I googled everyone that he mentioned just to make sure kind of just like, who are you? What the heck? His email didn’t say @youtube.com. So I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know about this. Let me just double check.” But I googled everyone and then their LinkedIn pages were like, they’re designer at Google, engineer at Google. I’m like, “Oh, okay. So he was serious.” So I immediately said, “Yeah, I am available to do this. Are you kidding me?”

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And then probably a week or so later, I met with like a small design team at the YouTube. And they were just telling me about the initiative that they had and they want to work for artists celebrating History Month and wanted to have all the artists make art around black creativity. And that was it. They were like, “You can make that whatever you want it to be, but it just needs to be around black creativity.” And they gave some keywords, like forward-thinking, hopeful, bright, like that. Literally, those were the keywords they gave. So I pretty much just took that and ran with it. But also in the back of my mind, I’m like, “Okay. Okay, Keisha, this is YouTube. You got to show up, you got to show out. So like, do it, do the thing.”

Keisha Okafor:
So initially, I was planning on doing portraits of women who in math and science from the past just to celebrate them. But then they wanted something, when they said forward-thinking, that’s why they gave me the idea of having children in there, like giving like a hopeful idea instead of looking to the past, wanting people to look to the future as well. And I was the one who chose math and science, just because normally when you think of creativity, I usually think of a paintbrush, like dancing and music.

Keisha Okafor:
And they also mentioned that they didn’t want to hit the normal black stereotypes. So like a boombox and people doing break dance. They want it to steer away from that. So I personally like math. I still, even at my big age, I watch PBS Kids shows about math and science. So I figured that would be a fun thing to do, a fun thing to go around. And that’s in that forward thinking idea, it was me having like women in STEM, showing young girls the magic in front of it. So that’s where the idea came based on their feedback. That’s how that idea came to pass.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. And once they approved it, I was just going with it. The main critique was at first, I made everyone dark skin and almost the same tone. And they were like, “Oh, can you give it some variety?” I go, “Oh yeah, no problem.” And then they wanted me to use like, I was being very literal at first. So like the sky is blue, rockets are gray. And they were like, “Can you use like some of the colors that you use? Like the ones that you use.” And I was just like, “Oh, okay. So you actually want me to put my spin on it.” I was putting all these rules, adding all these rules to myself. This has to be very literal. If I’m drawing math, it needs to look like math. But once they said that, then that’s when I went crazy with the colors, like, “This guy could be pink and yellow and purple.” So yeah. Then I added my own spin to that. And that’s pretty much how it turned out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I have to say it looks amazing. And for people that haven’t seen it, we’ll make sure to put a link to it in the show notes so you can definitely check it out. I mean, I get that kind of forward feeling, that forward-thinking notion from that. It’s interesting enough, I had discovered an organization, I think they either left a comment or I saw it somewhere else on the web, but because your piece was centered around STEM, I had discovered this group called Black Girl MATHgic, like Black Girl Magic, but MATHgic. And I mean, I love math too. My degree is in mathematics. So I saw that, I was like, “That is so cute.” That was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like it’s a program, but then they also sell some merch for fundraising and stuff. I was like, “This is really dope teaching young black girls math fundamentals and stuff.” It’s pretty cool.

Keisha Okafor:
Oh, that is so amazing. I just love that so much. And the lack Girl MATHgic, Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you working with YouTube on this was like a really kind of collaborative process. Are those sort of the best types of clients for you to work with?

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. I would say that working with YouTube was definitely like ideal client. They were very responsive, followed the schedule, they communicated so well. And they were also really nice, like we’re working with big clients, I just assumed like they were going to be very strict and we need to have it look a certain way. They want to work with people, but they want it to look a certain way, it’s what I expected. But working with them, I really saw that they wanted me to show myself in there and to put my own spin. When they said, put your own spin on a theme of black creativity, they actually meant it. That’s why I mentioned the thing with the colors. That was like very refreshing for me, something I really enjoy, like the great communication, being responsive, when things were delayed, they adjusted the schedule to match the delay. I was like, “You’re amazing.” Yeah. I really enjoyed them as a client. And those are things that seeing that it’s possible, those are things that I start to look for when I’m working with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s go back to freelancing just a little bit more. When you have a new client or you’re approaching, let’s say, a new project, what does your creative process look like?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So usually, I try to get as much information from the client at the beginning as possible because a lot of people say, “Oh, just do whatever.” But they actually have something in mind. So I try to ask a lot of initial questions, just to get an idea, like, do you have an idea or do you actually want me to give you my ideas? I just want that to be clear from the very beginning before I start doing research. And then I also asked like a lot of technical questions, how much do you want the resolution to be? What size? What’s your timeline? Because if it’s a small timeline, then I won’t try to do this super complex thing. I’ll make it simpler.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of like the creative making the thing once that’s settled, I usually do a lot of research on stock websites. I like iStockphoto, just to get an idea of like composition, and if it’s something I’m not familiar with, I can’t just think of 35 math formulas off the top of my head. I just got f of x imprinted in my mind, but I need more. So I like to look at stock websites just to see what kinds of things are default, their body poses, body expressions, what do real people look like? Because I don’t want every person I draw to have the same face, but different bodies and different hairstyles. That feels weird to me, but I like when other people do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So I like to go on stock websites just to see if anything is giving me ideas, is it inspirational? Is it good for reference? And once I get that, I’ll start sketching out different ideas, trying out different compositions, just to see like, does anything look good? Can I draw this thing? What are the hands going to look like? And then usually, that’s when I start going back and forth with the client, seeing what they think of my ideas.

Keisha Okafor:
But if anything’s going in the right way, usually, that’s also the time I’ll ask, “Do you have any other ideas once you see this, a better idea of what you’re looking for kind of thing?” And then once that happens, I’ll either revise it or start going with color, again, make more ideas, send that to them. And then it’s usually just a back and forth, giving them the art and then getting their feedback. But as I’ve been working and seeing like how easily that can turn into a 100 revisions, I put limits like, okay, we’re going to have two rounds of revisions. And if you want more, this is going to cost. So yeah, I say back and forth, but it’s back and forth like twice just to protect my time essentially.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, even with all of this, are you also thinking a lot about, let’s say, colors, like a color story or anything to go along with a new project? Or does that come naturally?

Keisha Okafor:
Sometimes it comes naturally, but I also have a Pinterest board just full of different pictures that are like, it’s either a fashion outfits, stationary, graphic design branding, things like that. But if I don’t have any ideas, I’ll just pick from that, like, oh, let me try this, or since I’m on social media a lot and have a lot of artists I follow, there are just some artists I like the way they use color. There’s an artist, her name is Olivia Fields. And one thing she likes to do is have a very monochromatic color scheme, but she uses value so well it’s still very interesting to look at. So if I’m thinking about that lately, I’ll like, let me try to use a monochromatic scheme just to see what it look like if I do it kind of thing. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just trash it. But yeah, it can either come from other artists, that Pinterest board or I’ll just start off with, I want the main color to be yellow and then I’ll just randomly pick colors and adjust it based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So I want to switch gears here a little bit based on what we were talking about prior to recording. You mentioned you’re from North Carolina, that’s where you grew up. Tell me what it was like growing up as a creative kid in North Carolina.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. I will say my grew up story isn’t similar to like the ones I hear on interviews. People will be like, “I drew all the time, I love drawing.” I drew some of the time and I was mostly watching cartoons, animated movies, just a lot of TV, playing a lot of video games. It wasn’t until I was 13 that I even decided like, oh, I want to do something art related. It was from seeing the Incredibles. I saw the behind the scenes animation thing. And I was like, “I want to be an animator.” But then once I got closer to picking a college and saw what animation was, very quickly, it was like, no, I don’t want to do that.

Keisha Okafor:
I want to draw because I used to draw like a little bit, when I say every once in a while, I mean like a handful of drawings per year. I wasn’t really, I liked to draw, but I wasn’t sitting around drawing all the time because I was just overthinking it so much, I would draw, one time, I drew the Powerpuff Girls, like just very stiff Powerpuff Girls poses and look like them. But then I took it to school for the next few days and showed everyone. I was like, “Praise me. I’m a good artist. Look at me.” And then didn’t draw for like the next few months.

Keisha Okafor:
That was me as a kid artist, but still very much enjoyed it. I took art classes in middle school and high school. And I would say that’s where my artistic skills and sense and interests started to grow. I wasn’t doing anything like extracurricular. I was just taking it as an elective. So by the time I got to college, I was like, “I don’t have any other interests. I want to be an artist. And I’m hoping college will unlock the key to figure out how people actually get paid to make art.”

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you went to North Carolina State University, which we’ve had several alums just here on the show that have went there. While you were there, do you feel like they really prepared you to become a working designer out in the world?

Keisha Okafor:
Now, when I look back at it now, I’m like, “Oh yeah, they actually did.” But at the time, I didn’t think so at all, because it just felt very vague, because I also, I majored in art and design at NC State and I thought that meant I’m going to paint, like be an artist. They attach design to it. But they really mean art, right?

Maurice Cherry:
No.

Keisha Okafor:
It was like the first week they were like, “Hey, I know you guys like to draw and paint, but we’re not teaching you to be artists, we’re teaching you to be designers.” And in my mind, I was just like, “No, what is design? Oh, no.” Looking back on it now, I see they were teaching us how to think like designers and how to problem solve. And that’s something that’s been so helpful. And also, with drawing, making sure you understand the foundations of drawing, that’s something that I’ve been using a lot as well, but really that problem solving thing and also how to think like a designer, I would say that’s been the most helpful in my design career. But in terms of like how to get a job, how to make a good portfolio for a job, nope. I’m just like, “I wish I did something about it.” But now that I am working and have had jobs, those design fundamentals have actually been very helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now, after college, you ended up for a while moving out to LA, what prompted that?

Keisha Okafor:
It was actually like one of those moments of close family member passed away. So it was just very much like life is short kind of moment, let me try things that I would never do, just you never know you get this chance again. And growing up, watching a lot of TV, California always looked cool. And that was one of my bucket list thing, like I want to see what it’s like to live in California. So once that chance came up, I just went for it, oh, man. So scared. I was sweating on that plane just, Ooh, oh my gosh. I was so scared. But yeah, that’s how I ended up getting there.

Keisha Okafor:
And really, my goal was just to see, like, can I go there and survive? Can I do enough to make sure I don’t have a flight back in three months? And I ended up staying for four and a half years, going on five years. I came back to North Carolina at the end of 2019, months before, I mean, months before COVID happened. So I am so, oh, I don’t have family in California. So that’s why I’m like, I am so glad I moved just in time so I could be near my family and at least know they’re safe in person versus a phone call from like 3000 miles away.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, while you were out there, did you get a chance to really experience the LA design scene?

Keisha Okafor:
I don’t think so. When people say that, I’m just like, “So where’s the scene at? And how do I get there?” My only experience was through the jobs I had. And comparing it to North Carolina, the main difference I noticed was that things were way more fast-paced. Yeah, that was like the biggest difference I noticed. And also like, but this is with anything. Once you see the process behind things, it takes that bale away. Things aren’t as glamorous as I initially thought, like I had a job at a media buying agency, where I was editing album covers for social media posts or resizing banner ads that will be put on YouTube, like watching the YouTube video and seeing of like, oh, this looks so like, well, one it’s annoying, but also seeing like a big artist with an ad, I’m like, “Ooh, fancy.” But hearing the media buyers trying to get the space and make it and asking me to resize things and how crazy that process can be, I’m just like, “Okay. These are just regular people trying to just do their jobs.”

Keisha Okafor:
And I would say a big thing that just in general in the workforce, I’m just like, “Man, people procrastinate so much.” I thought that was like one of those warnings I got in college, like, you’ll never be able to procrastinate when [inaudible 00:27:40], but adults do that all the time.

Maurice Cherry:
All the time.

Keisha Okafor:
Yes. Oh my gosh. And it happens so much. When I was working on those album covers, I was just like, “Come on guys. Just please send me the picture so I can resize it.” But it did help me build up efficiency because there were such fast turnarounds. I was used to working at a fast pace. So coming back to North Carolina, that’s how I ended up, when I mentioned earlier doing the work of four people, because I was used to working so fast. Like when things are slower here, it wasn’t that big of a deal. It felt normal. It helped me in that sense. But yeah, you asked about the design scene. I would also love to know what the scene was like, where was the all people? Where were the people at? What do design people do? I didn’t really get that question answered.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting because like, you mentioned earlier like, well, where is the design scene? I think designers carve out their own scene based on who they’re working with or working for, who they have met or inspired by. I’ve been to LA only once, I went in the beginning of 2020 in February. And I found that it was just like real, it was just so spread out. I mean, Atlanta is spread out, but LA is way more spread out. I’m like, it takes forever to get anywhere. Like if you’re going to go somewhere, you better hope it’s on your side of town, you don’t have to cross over and go down. It’s so big. I was there for two weeks and I know I only saw maybe like a 10th of LA. It’s so big. So big. I mean, I guess when I asked about like how the design scene was, I’m curious if it was different from maybe the design scene that you knew back home in North Carolina, like you mentioned, it was more fast-paced, but were there other differences?

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a good question. I will say, like you mentioned, because everything was so separated, it was kind of like, if you weren’t in that neighborhood, we’re not going to meet or we’re not going to meet often. So it ends up being like pockets of communities that I would notice. So I had a lot of animation friends because they lived in Glendale and Burbank and they were interested in working at Cartoon Network or Disney TV.

Keisha Okafor:
So I would meet those people in Burbank and Glendale, but then the people who were interested in more of graphic design or stationary, I talked to those people down near the beach because that’s where a lot of the agencies were. It was like, I could find pockets of people in different areas, but it was so rare for them all to come together just because how long it took to go places like, like literally, Google Maps will say something is maybe 10 miles away and you think, oh, I’ll get there no time. That’s an hour trip one way. I’m just like, “This doesn’t add up.” But then you take the trip and I’m just like, “That took an hour. Oh my gosh.” So it’s just like people aren’t going to make that. Even people who were natives, they weren’t really going to make that trip on a regular basis. So it was just like pockets of communities that I would have in the different places I was at depending on where I lived and worked. That’s how I ended up seeing the people.

Keisha Okafor:
But I feel like in North Carolina, everyone is in Raleigh, you’re in Raleigh, I can get to the edge of Raleigh, the top, it will take like 20 minutes. So to me, compared to being in LA, I’m like, “That’s not a big trip at all.” So I feel like people are taking more initiative to meet up, and I’m sure that’s because of COVID as well, have like a lot of meetups and groups and workshops and stuff. Whereas it would be like a once in a lifetime thing to do, I’ll take this trip one time an hour for this workshop, but don’t count on me to come every week.

Maurice Cherry:
And the web is going to change things too. I mean, there’s events and workshops and things. A lot of stuff has come online just over the past year that before either didn’t exist or it was just inaccessible because of location or something like that.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. Adobe MAX, the first time I attended it was last year because it was virtual. I lived in LA and it happened there every year, but I just was not about to sit there and pay for it not only, but just go there and talk designer talk. Sometimes I feel like there could be a prestige that some people might have, like, hello, I’m art designer. I integrate things together. They use all the design words and I’m not very good at that. I’m just like, “Yeah, make pictures.” So being in that environment isn’t something I would want to pay to do. So it was nice to be able to attend the virtual version because I never would have went otherwise. Yes, there were so many conferences and things I’ve never heard about that I got to hear about because it was virtual and people I got to meet because of that, which is nice to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was going through your work, I saw your illustration work and your portrait work, which is beautiful, but your patterns, the patterns on your website are absolutely gorgeous. I love that you have in your bio, on your website, you mentioned that you’re an artist and designer depicting joy. What does it mean for you to depict joy in your work?

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So in terms of people, you’ll probably see that I draw a lot of black people. And one thing that makes me happy about black culture and just black people in general is just seeing us love the things that we love, however we love it. It just makes me really happy to see all the different facets and ways that black people just are. I get so excited. And I feel like when I draw that, that’s where I’m trying to convey just how excited I am to see black people as they are, doing whatever they like, looking as cool or as goofy or as happy as they are. I feel like that comes through with the people.

Keisha Okafor:
And in terms of the patterns, I really like music. But when I hear music, I tend to see a lot of different shapes and colors just moving together. That’s how I see the song. Like me drawing those abstract patterns, it’s usually me listening to music and drawing whatever comes to mind. So just kind of like the happiness that comes from listening to music, that energy is something I’m trying to capture in the patterns. And I like for it to fit together kind of like different sounds fit together in a song, that’s how it shows up in the patterns.

Maurice Cherry:
And when you’re even doing these patterns, it also seems like you’re drawing from nature some too. I don’t know maybe if that was just the particular collection that you were doing, but I saw a lot of kind of tropical themes and leaves and stuff like that. It’s just very, very stunning work.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you. Yeah, the tropical thing is I just love the way tropical scenery looks. I also think it’s nice, like all the different leaves and like patterns that you see within leaves, I think that’s nice as well, but also sometimes, if I draw too many triangles and circles, I’m like, “Let me draw something that people can recognize.” So it ends up just being leaves and flowers for some reason. I’m not even a big flower person, it just ends up coming out, or I’ll just look up pictures of flowers. But yeah, I really love tropical weather and themes and stuff. So I just end up drawing it a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I have not met a Nigerian that didn’t like bright colors. So you’re definitely onto something there.

Keisha Okafor:
[inaudible 00:35:22]. I love that. You’re right. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you are feeling uninspired, like say you hit a block in a project somewhere you’re working on something, what do you do to get that spark back?

Keisha Okafor:
So when I am inspired, I have a bunch of hidden Pinterest boards. And then I also have a notebook where when I’m inspired, I just write down ideas of things that I think will be cool to make. So when I am feeling blocked or uninspired, I’ll look through that Pinterest board. One is just called Black, and it’s just black people, just random black people that I can find on Pinterest. It used to be really hard, but I saved so many pictures and looked at it that Pinterest has realized this girl likes to look here black people. So now my homepage has that.

Keisha Okafor:
So I’ll either look at that Pinterest board, just kind of seeing people do stuff or I also have some with just colors or textures or shapes. I’ll just look through the Pinterest board or I’ll look through that list of ideas that I have. I’ll either do that or I’ll just take a break. Turn the thing off, turn the computer off, turn the iPad off, watch TV, play a video game, take a nap and then come back. Yeah. And then if there’s like a time crunch, I’m just like, “Well, honestly, think about the money.” I’m like, “Girl, do you want to get paid?” I’m like, “Yeah.” So I just do it no matter what I’m like, okay. Just loosen up. Then I’ll take a five minute break, loosen up, get some water or something and then come back and just do it.

Keisha Okafor:
Or another thing I’ll do, sometimes I’m not a good singer, but I love to sing. So I’ll just turn on Spotify and then just force myself to sing along out loud as bad as it’s going to come out, just so to get my mind not overthinking it. And then things usually come out better. If I have, like my mind is focused on me singing, even though like, what notes? What notes am I hitting? So that helps me have a bit of more energy and looseness to the art that I’m making.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that I would do when I was working on projects is I’d always build in at least a week into the sort of like project plan, because I mean, I think the expectation, certainly, I think from clients, but oftentimes, for us as freelances, as designers, the expectation is we’ll get the work and we’ll just be able to knock it out, like we’ll sit down and we’ll know what we do because the client has brought us on for our expertise. So we have to be the expert.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, depending on how, if you set up a project rate or hourly rate or a day rate or whatever, sometimes clients will try to nickel and dime you to try to know like, well, how long did it take you to work on X, Y, Z, and blah, blah, blah? And I certainly early on in my freelance career, that was a mistake that I made. And then eventually, I switched things over either to like a project rate or I do like a day rate or something like that. I’d build in like a week of time because there’s no telling.

Maurice Cherry:
And for me, it’s almost like creative insurance, like I may need it in the future if something happens, like what if I get sick? Or what if I just am not feeling it? And I can take that time out of the bank sort of because I’ve built it into the project and then I can, like if I take a day off and then decide to come back later and do it, then that way I’m not impacting the project because I built that time in there. It gives me permission to not have to be a machine when it comes to like creativity because sometimes the ideas flow and sometimes they just don’t.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ve certainly been at that place where you’re at, where you’re like, you just have to think about the money, like think about what this is going to do. And then you soldier on or you push through it. But yeah, that’s one thing that I would do is I just build in the time because the good thing is if you never use it, then you come out early and the client is happy. And then if you do use it, the client is still happy because you came out on time.

Keisha Okafor:
Right. That’s great. Because I learned in the design world as well, especially when I was at that media buying agency, it was an open office and there were only like eight of us. So sometimes I’ll work on stuff, they just be standing over my shoulder, “How long do you think it’ll take?” I’m like, “Please. Oh, I think it’ll take me a few hours rolling.” It wouldn’t. It would take me shorter than that, but I like to add in that buffer, just like you said, like if something happens, I can still turn it in when I said I could, but also giving myself that insurance, like you said, to make it.

Keisha Okafor:
But in terms of the illustration projects now, those few hours turns into a couple of extra days or maybe an extra week, like you said. Yeah. Especially when people say they have a tight turnaround, things never are as tight as people want it to be, especially with getting revisions and just getting feedback, especially if there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So it is way better to add in more time for that kind of stuff in the beginning, like you said.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now when you were in school, when you were back at North Carolina State, let’s say, I think that was maybe probably around 10 years ago at this point, right?

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where did you see yourself career-wise by this age where you’re at now?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, by the time I graduated, I was just like, “Am I cut out for this?” Honestly, because I thought, again, like when I was 18 entering college, I thought, okay, college is going to give me the roadmap. And by the time I am a senior, I’m going to know exactly what I want to do, how to get there and I’ll be able to get there. But that didn’t happen when I was a senior. I felt kind of similar to how I was as a freshman, like, what? Like, what am I doing? I need to find a job.

Keisha Okafor:
So I mainly, the main goal I had, I was like, Keisha, please have a job, please have a job and an apartment that you can pay for with your job. I had very, very basic goals for myself, have a job that’s something related to design. Yeah, that was pretty much my only goal. I wanted, the idea of freelance sounded good, but then at that time, I had no idea how to do it. So it wasn’t even, it was more like a fantasy more than like me seeing myself there.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t go to design school, but it is something that I’ve thought about in terms of like, do I need this in order to have this legitimacy for myself as a designer? Because I’ve been self-taught and I did a little bit of work at companies, like I worked for the State of Georgia for a while, I worked at AT&T for a while. And then like, I really had just felt like, you know what? I got this, I could start my own studio and do this and really do it myself. And I’ve learned so much really just in the time that I had my studio doing things by myself, but they never really teach you entrepreneurship. I mean, again, I didn’t go to design school, but even with the work that I was doing, by the time I started my studio, I had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and still didn’t know anything about freelancing. I was really either making it up as I went along or I was asking other freelances. I was really gaining this education while I was also trying to run my business.

Keisha Okafor:
Absolutely. Because in design school, in my senior year, we had this class that the description was literally, we’re going to prepare you to get a job. But when we actually took the class, they were like, “You need a website. Do you know what a website is? You can make websites on Squarespace.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? This is my senior year and you’re teaching us that we need a website. Of course, we do. What are you talking about? How do you get a job? Please tell me what to put on my resume and how to get the people to actually hire me.”

Keisha Okafor:
Even then, like being in design school didn’t make that difference. It’s almost like they’re out of touch with what was happening in the world. Like they got the art skills, but getting a job or even being an entrepreneur, that wasn’t even close to being thought about in any of my classes. I would have had to talk to alumni who are already doing it. And kind of like you said, they were figuring it out on their own or like having outside resources to figure that out. So I definitely don’t think going to design school will or not going to design school, you won’t really be missing out honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, by the time I really started figuring it out, I think I was about, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about two or three years into my studio and from just talking with other freelancers and picking up, because sometimes you just have to get, unfortunately, you just have to get burned a few times in business before you learn that lesson or whatever that particular lesson is. But I think by the time I was like, by the time I hit my fifth year, I had it down pat at that point, I knew about contracts and proposals and getting things done and everything just ran smoothly, but it took some time to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
So yeah. I think now, because freelancing is an option for so many people, whether they do it either independently, like you’re doing, or if they do something like working via like a design marketplace, such as ThemeForest or Envato Elements or Envato Market, whatever the thing is that Envato has with all of the different websites and stuff, Fiverr, even those kinds of things, Upwork, there’s ways that you can use those tools to manage your business better, but it’s still, at the end of the day, it comes down to really knowing what those fundamentals are and knowing what works best for you. I think certainly, when I was doing business, there’s not an all-purpose solution for like being an entrepreneur. I wish there was. But once you learn what works for you in terms of cashflow and payments and client communication and everything, then you’ve cracked it, you’ve cracked the code pretty much.

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned even about graphic design because NC State does have a graphic design major, but I majored in art and design, a lot of the stuff I learned about graphic design was just learning by doing. It ended up being like the jobs I had, more doing stuff for family and friends was really the stuff that prepared me for the different jobs. And I’m learning that that’s the same thing that’s happening with freelance as well, like the classes that I take, the people, the Instagram artists that I’ll DM or Instagram friends I have, I’ll DM, those things have been really helpful. And also, like you said, being burnt, having bad clients, that helps me set better boundaries for future clients, like knowing what to do. So yeah, that’s definitely something I’m in the process of right now. I’m definitely looking forward to the part where everything runs itself.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll get there probably I think sooner than you expect. Before you know it, it’ll just flow. It’s sort of like a… I mean, you watch anime, it’s like the Avatar State. Eventually, you’ll be able to just invoke it and you’ll be good.

Keisha Okafor:
Awesome. Avatar is one of my favorite shows. So I love that you said the Avatar State.

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

Keisha Okafor:
Speaking of anime, so I’m watching this anime called Fruits Basket. It’s a silly premise. When it’s like, if you hug someone of the opposite gender, they will turn into Zodiac animal, so like the Year of the Horse, or a cat, rat, like things like that. But you end up finding out everyone has these crazy backstories and there’s this whole curse and things like that. So I’ve just been binge-watching that show basically, because I’m so curious to see what’s happening. Other than that, I’ve been playing a video game called Mario & Sonic at The Olympic Games for 2020. I’ve just been going through the story mode. There was one, it’s the triple jump and I keep getting disqualified. So I got mad and turned it off, but I still think about it because I’m like, “I’m going to win.” Yeah. I would say those two things.

Keisha Okafor:
Also, I have a cat. I’ve never had a pet before, but I got one a few months ago, honestly, off the strength of seeing other black people on social media have cats and they seem to enjoy it. And I always wanted a cat. So I ended up getting one. So I spend a lot of time peeking over the couch, seeing what she’s doing or looking for her around the house and just smiling really big. She gets annoyed, but I think she’s used to it. I would say I’m pretty obsessed with her.

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

Keisha Okafor:
That’s a great question. I would say the only dream project I had, I got to do it last year. So I got to illustrate a deck of playing cards and I pretty much did the art direction for the whole thing. So you mentioned the tropical idea, there was a running idea I had for a long time of joining black people in the tropical space, kind of like an oasis, a place where they could freely celebrate themselves without all the isms in the world that black people carry. So I pretty much made the deck around that and got the job black people being happy or silly in that tropical environment. And that was something I really enjoy doing. If I think of like a future project, it would be a similar thing, but in a different format. I haven’t figured that out yet, but definitely enjoyed doing that deck of cards, but I’m not sure if that’s like a book or like a coffee book or like a storybook, but that’s kind of like something that I’m juggling in my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding what you do as an illustrator?

Keisha Okafor:
Interestingly enough, I would say the best advice I have is more of like a you as a person. So like, not finding your identity in the work that you do, you’re more than the work that you do. You are enough as you are. Like those kinds of things I’ve seen have made the biggest difference for me. Yeah, a lot of times the artsy-fartsy, mumbo-jumbo, it just slides off of me. I’m just like, this sounds, but when I draw, what does that mean? So hearing things like, I’m more than the art that I make is very freeing for me to be able to just have fun with it and do stuff that I like. And I don’t have to judge myself based on how well I drew today.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I can see how that, I mean, well, one, I see that is good advice just in general, like, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in the work, but also realize that you put your own identity into everything that you do as well.

Keisha Okafor:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next like five years? Like this whole pandemic craziness is over with, it’s 20, what? 2026. What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keisha Okafor:
Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead. I was like, “Will the world still be turning at that time?” I think it would be.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so.

Keisha Okafor:
You’re right. Me too. Honestly, I hope I’ll be doing bigger projects, projects I’m really excited about. I’m enjoying the projects that I’m doing right now. So more, just like an extension of the kinds of things I’m doing right now getting to illustrate different people, doing things, really hoping to get into the Children’s Book World, be able to illustrate them to children’s books. That’s something I’m looking forward to. And also, I want to get my patterns onto products. So one thing I’m hoping to do also in five years is to have my products on things. Yeah. More of like, just like all the different ways I can get my work out there, either on products or online in different formats. That’s something I’m hoping will happen, just as I grow and do things and get better at art, have it just spread onto different formats as well.

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

Keisha Okafor:
Yeah. So you can find my work on my website, which is keishaokafor.com, O-K-A-F-O-R. You can also find me on social media on Twitter and Instagram, mostly Instagram @keishaoak, oak as in oak tree, O-A-K. The reason why it’s like that is just so you know how to pronounce Okafor. But yeah, that’s pretty much where I’m at, Instagram, Twitter and my website.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Keisha Okafor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, I just love how joyful and colorful and vibrant your work is. Like I mentioned, when I discovered you from the work that you did at YouTube, I was just looking at your website, like, this is so fun. And I have to say that it’s rare to see a designer put that sort of joy into their work, but I am really excited to see what sort of work you’ll be doing after this interview, after people get a chance to really see your work, because I feel like this sort of vibrancy and joy in life is what we need right now. We need to be seeing more of this everywhere. And so I’m excited for people to really learn more about you and learn more about your work. And yeah, just thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keisha Okafor:
Thank you for having me. I am hope, really excited for people to see my work too. And I really appreciate all your kind words. Yeah, I definitely, I’m just like, if I’m going to draw, I’m going to have fun with it and I want everyone else to have fun with it too. So definitely excited to see where it all goes.

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

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