Salih Abdul-Karim

For our final episode of Revision Path for 2023, I talked with the amazingly brilliant Salih Abdul-Karim. If you’re a motion designer, then there’s a good chance you’ve used Lottie, which Salih co-created during his time at Airbnb and is the new industry standard when it comes to animation on mobile apps and the Web.

Salih talked about his current work at Cōlab, exploring their non-traditional approach which eschews agency hierarchies to maintain a hands-on, skill-diverse team that seamlessly fills in the gaps for startups and other companies. Salih also shared his personal journey of how he found his passion for combining tech and creativity, and we even gave our thoughts on Andre 3000’s debut solo album, New Black Sun.

Even with such a seasoned career, Salih’s humility and mindset of constant learning is truly inspiring. From all of us here at Revision Path, consider this episode our holiday gift to you! Merry Christmas!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So my name is Salih Abdul-Karim, and I am a creative director [and] motion designer.

Maurice Cherry:

So, Salih, we’re recording this at the end of the year. When you look back at 2023, if you could pick three words that would describe how this year has been for you, what would those words be?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I would say…confusing. What’s the word to say that something went fast, like…

Maurice Cherry:

Swift?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Swift. Okay, so I got confusing. I got swift. And maybe lastly, I would say family is what I would say would be maybe the third word when I think about this. And that has to do with both my literal family, but also, like, where I’m working right now has a lot of family vibes. We all take care of each other, so it always comes up.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish in 2024?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think that I don’t have any kind of specific goals, and I never really been the kind of person to sit down and set goals. I’ve tried to do it before, but if anything, maybe my number one goal is to really try to foster even more relationships. I think that’s probably the thing I think about the most right now, is I got a lot of great relationships based on the 20 years I’ve been doing this. And I kind of have been riding the waves of those relationships for a while. And I just know that there’s more out there, especially as new industries like AI come out. There’s people working in it. I want to meet those people. I want to talk to them. I want to foster just some more relationships in some different areas.

Maurice Cherry:

Isn’t it wild to say that you’ve been in this industry for 20 years? Doesn’t that feel wild when you look at the grand scheme of things?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It’s wild. And I feel hella old, man. And then what has happened in those 20 years? It’s just been such a whirlwind. It’s interesting, I think about where that 20 years started, and it started in such a kind of ambiguous place where I’m getting out of school and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m trying to figure my way around it. And again, I still kind of feel like that. Today I’m at a company where we’re working with startups and I’m trying to find their way. And the feeling almost has not changed from when I got some experience and I have some skills I can lean on, but the feeling when I got out of school, I kind of still feel like that today, 20 years later. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you feel like the guru at the top of the mountain? A little bit?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Definitely not. I definitely do not feel like the guru at the top of the mountain. And again, I can’t say that I don’t have knowledge or tricks that I lean on or experiences that I lean on, but more often than not, I definitely still feel like I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing and I’m trying to make the best decision I can with the information I have every day. It’s worked out. I still got a job, I’m still working, and I got a lot of great colleagues that I’ve built over the years, but I definitely still don’t feel like the wise guru or feel like I know what I’m doing at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about Cōlab, which is where you’re currently at. It’s this creative studio that’s based out of San Francisco. Tell me more about it. Like how did you get started there?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So Cōlab is like you mentioned, it’s a creative studio focused in on marketing, brand design and product design. And Cōlab kind of sits within a growth equity company called Westcap. And so you imagine Westcap invests in mostly tech startups. They invest in the startup. They say, okay, we’re going to give you x amount of money, but we’re also going to have our creative team Cōlab parachute in and help you with various things. And when I say various things, I mean it could be almost anything. We got 22 people on the Cōlab team. We have brand designers, product designers, growth marketers, insights.

People do insights and research to better understand companies’ customers. We got me as motion design and creative director. We have brand strategists, we have content strategists, writers, we have pr. So we have a lot of various skill sets. And most of the skill sets we have are exactly the kind of skill sets that a startup shouldn’t quite have yet. There’s no reason for a startup to have a motion design, but there is a reason for me to, like I mentioned, parachute in and help out with various things. There are times where we have startups where they don’t have a CMO, but we have these two VPs of growth marketing. Maria and Diane. Sometimes they’ll parachute in very well what a CEO does and how to work with one based on all their experience.

They’ll be a temporary CMO for a minute. Cōlab is really about helping startups reach another level, and sometimes you can only reach that level when there’s a certain set of skills that you may not need yet. And that’s what we fill that gap for.

Maurice Cherry:

So you mentioned the team, and it has all these sort of different components. I mean, it sounds like almost kind of like a full-fledged agency.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. And the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency, and this has been a debate between us since I started, the only reason why we don’t call ourselves an agency is because, number one, we don’t have all the layers that an agency has. Account director, senior account director, and all of the, I would say, account services of an agency. What we have are pretty much a couple dozen people who can, again, direct projects and lead projects, but also those people also design. So we don’t have people who are just managers for managers sake or salespeople or anything like that, that maybe a kind of traditional agency would have. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

And I guess, like you said, it’s coming in from the bigger partner. So everything that comes in is basically like a fully qualified lead. You don’t have to hunt down work.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

That’s true. And one of the things I do like about Colack is we do have a group of companies that we work with on a regular basis that come in through who Westcap invests in. But we also do take external work as well. So we do sometimes reach out to companies that we’re interested in doing work for, or it might be a contact that we’ve known that has decided to start their own company and we’ll help them. So we do have external companies. Again, the main difference is when you work with us, you’re not really getting the same kind of, I don’t know, full fledged, layered agency experience. You oftentimes are working with a smaller group, four or five people. Each of those people is senior enough to do the work, but also to run the project as well.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, I got you. So when new work comes in the door, what does the process look like? By the time it comes to you, I should say, what does the process look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, when new work comes in the door, usually, obviously there’s kind of a meeting with me. I serve as a creative director, executive creative director. We also have Brian Wakabayashi, who’s our head of strategy. He’s also kind of like our creative studio managing director. And then we have Michelle Ha, who’s our operations director. So the three of us usually will meet with whoever the company is that is interested in collaborating. And really we start a conversation about what they think they need, what we think we can do, and begin to kind of formulate a plan on how we think we might be able to help them. And from there, depending on what it is, sometimes I fade away altogether and they don’t see me anymore, because what they need is something that’s more like strategy.

And then we’ll bring our other brand strategists in, they’ll do a strategy process, and that might be the end of the project. Sometimes a thing will come in, like as an example, we had an AI startup approach us to do an explainer video for them that explains their product. That was an instance where I took that project on. I brought on a designer, brought on a writer, and then Brian, our head of strategy, he disappears. Depending on what the project is, you’re going to get a different combination of people from the team that really focus on the thing that you need.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, it’s funny you mentioned AI. That’s been a regular theme that we’ve had on the show probably for the past two years now. We mentioned it at least in every episode in some capacity. Like, how are you using AI or any of this other new tech, like virtual reality, mixed reality, et cetera. Do you use any AI tools in your work, or do you have any just kind of general thoughts about AI with motion design?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I love it. I use them, but honestly, I more or less play with them. I haven’t yet figured out an exact way of how to integrate it into my day to day workflow. I imagine how I hope to be able to integrate it. Like as an example, if I have a video that I’ve made that’s 60 seconds long and it’s in a 16:9 kind of TV format, I’d love to just tell AI, :hey, make this into a square format for Instagram. Hey, cut this down to 30 seconds.” I’d love to be able to do that and have it just do it. But as of now, more or less any AI tool that I see come out, I try it, I play with it.

I play with mid journey, creating images, sometimes for fun, I definitely play with ChatGPT in terms of asking questions, or sometimes I’m doing writing for blog posts and I’ll have a proofread, stuff like that. But I feel a little bit like I’m just playing. I haven’t really found a way of integrating it into my work in a real way.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, has the AI gotten sophisticated enough to do motion work? I mean, I’ve seen like, chat, GPT will do text and mid journey and Dolly and things like that, can do images, but has it gotten sophisticated enough to do motion?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There are some programs that do it. There’s one called Runway ML.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

They have a whole suite of tools. So sometimes one of the kind of projects that I work on sometimes is like screen replacement, right? So you imagine you have this app, and they need a video to show off what the app does. So obviously you need people walking around using the app, and you’re showing footage of someone using that app. And usually what happens is I go in and I put in a new screen on top, and I track it, and I do what’s called rotoscoping, kind of painting out the frames, the fingers in front or whatever, and making a new screen look like it’s integrated into the shot. And so this thing, Runway ML, they have a bunch of tools that can help you do that. For example, you can click on something and have it track. So if it’s a footage of like a surfer on a wave, you can click on the surfer’s body, and it’ll give you a tracking point as they move along. Then you can use that as you want to put a hat on the surfer or whatever you want to do.

So it has some stuff that are really kind of cool or fun to play with. But again, I’ve been using certain methods for a pretty long time, and occasionally I’ll try to use it to replace one of my methods, but it’s not quite at a place where I feel like it’s going to take it over quite yet.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. I was curious if it had the capability to do that, because I had a motion designer on the show a couple of weeks ago, Andre Foster. He co-founded a motion graphics design studio and production house called First Fight. And he talked about how he uses it sort of as like a Pinterest board. Like, he uses it for just kind of like inspiration and stuff. But then he said it inspired him enough to actually put together almost like opening credits to a show, not a real show, but just like, oh, let’s see how far I can sort of push the technology. And honestly, it looked like something I would see on, like FX or something. It looked really good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, that’s dope. Yeah. See, I’ll talk to you when we’re done on what that is. And play with it.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned this in a past interview that you’ve done. You said that motion design is so crucial to making high quality digital products on any platform. Why is that the case?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

The case is just because the way, and this is maybe too deep and existential, right? But the way we experience all of our lives is through time, right? You walk outside, you walk down the block. That took 10 seconds. You experience time. You saw a dog, you saw a tree, you saw the sun. The way we experience life is through time. And I know that for years people were reading books and you using your imagination, people reading magazines. There’s a very static kind of experience. It lives as that thing, like a rock, just lives like that forever.

But now that we have technology, and smartphones are just ubiquitous, they’re everywhere, and you’re able to actually interact with them. You put your finger on it and you move it. You’re adding motion, you’re adding time to the equation. And the reason why motion is so important is because it helps you do something that feels more natural to what humans should be doing, if that makes any sense. So just as an example, right, if you’re on a website and you click on a button that’s going to take you to another page, the old school way is it’s just going to slam you right to the next page. Now you have to reorient yourself and figure out where you are now. And the way I think about it is motion can actually help you bridge those two things. It can help you understand where you were, it can help you understand where you went, where you’re going, and it just creates a more natural experience than just kind of blinking.

And now you appear somewhere else.

Maurice Cherry:

That makes sense. Now that you put it that way, it is something that I think humans are used to, that they’re used to motion. And also, so many things now are skewing towards video, and that’s nothing but motion. So it kind of makes sense to still put those sorts of animations and interactions in most types of applications because that’s just what we expect now.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Totally. And it’s not a surprise that TikTok is as popular as it is with videos. Right. We love to look at things that move. It feels good. In addition, to help you understand how Ui might work, motion just helps you add emotion. We are all emotional. You feel happy, you feel sad.

And the things you interact with, you want them to give you that same thing. So when something you interact with has a little bounce to it, it gives you a feeling. Oh, this is supposed to be fun when something you interact with has a smoother nature to it. Elegant. Oh, this is supposed to be classy, right? So it helps you give emotion to digital products, no matter what the devices are, whether it’s on a phone or AR or VR or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:

Motion adds emotion. I like that. That’s good.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

100%.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you. I’m curious on where this sort of spark for design and animation sort of came from. So tell me more about where you grew up.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I grew up in the DC area. Kind of moved back and forth between DC and Philadelphia. And growing up, we always had the latest game thing. I’m dating myself here. I’m an old man. But we used to have the Texas instruments, we used to have the Atari 500, or we used to have all these old game systems when I was like a little kid, and I loved playing with them. But I also had this curious mind where I would try to take it apart. I would say, what’s in here? So I would get a screwdriver.

I would open up the back. My mom would come in a room a week later. She’d be like, “why is the cover off of the Nintendo?” And I’d be like, “well, I just wanted to see what was in there”, right? So I actually had a Nintendo that did not have a cover that I played for years because I couldn’t figure out how to put the thing back on. I just have a love of technology, like a lot of people. And I used to build my own computers when I was in middle school and high school, I’d buy the RAM, I’d buy the motherboard. I’d build them from scratch. It was just a fun thing. And when it’s time for me to go to college, I thought, okay, let me try to do computer science.

I’m going to learn how to program. I’m going to build. Make games, something like that. And my first year, at the end of my first year, I had a 1.2 GPA, and that was because the math was destroying me. We had, like, this Calculus, or Calculus 2, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. And not only that, at the time, I just didn’t know how to learn. You know what I’m saying? I didn’t know how to sit down and study. I didn’t necessarily have the discipline yet to really push through.

I didn’t know how to tell my homeboys, like, I can’t go out with you all; I got to get this computer science work in, you know what I’m saying? So I just ended up almost kind of flunking out of school. And this is a story I’ve told before. That one evening, my dad came…I used to live in my parents basement. During college, my dad comes downstairs, he’s like, “bro, we saw your grades. Like, look, we don’t care what you’re going to do, but either do this right or don’t do it at all.” And then he closed the door and walked upstairs.

Maurice Cherry:

Damn.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it was just a note. We don’t care what you do. We’re going to support you. But don’t just do something and be flunking and failing out. So I had a moment where I had to really say, am I going to really try to do this, or am I going to look for something else? And the school I went to, George Mason, they had a digital arts degree. It was basically a degree to help people make art using computers. So I thought, oh, well, let me do that. That seems kind of cool.

They have class in Photoshop. They had a class in after effects, which is wild that I still use after effects today. And then they have a class in 3D program that doesn’t exist anymore. And I took those classes. I was in the art department. I was learning about our history, critical theory, critical thinking, and I was really kind of enveloped in the art world through a technology lens. And from there, I got straight in. So that shift enabled me to kind of see how I could bring some of my creative mind and technology together.

So my senior year, I started to find these motion design companies all around the country that were doing these awesome commercials, and commercials will be animated with all these awesome graphics and characters. And I said, you know what? I want to do that after school. So after college, I packed up my little car, a little Acura, and I drove up to New York, and I moved up there, and I was knocking on doors. I had a little dvd. So funny. My kids, they saw some of my old DVDs in the garage. They were like, what’s going to use them no more? But I had my old DVD that I made. I burned it and had my reel of student work.

And I’m, like, walking into these shops trying to get work. And luckily, I had this. He kind of became my first mentor. He’s a creative director at BET right now, Kendrick Reed, and walked into his office, and it was amazing again to see somebody like me, six foot something, Black man, bald head, and he’s a super fashionable guy, wearing cool clothes. I was like, okay, I see. So I walk in his office, and he’s like, “so tell me, what do you want to do?” And I was like, “well, I love design. I love animation.” At the time, he was the creative director at Comedy Central, and so they had a department at Comedy Central that made commercials for Comedy Central that aired on Comedy Central.

So that was the department that he ran. He’s like, “well, what do you want to do?” I was like, “well, eventually, I want, you know, like, I want to be creative director at some place with a team like this.” So he kind of laughed, and he gave me my first job out of college. I was there for a couple of years, built some good relationships with some folks. I ended up going freelance after he left. I was kind of sad when he left. So then I left after he left, and I ended up going freelance for about eight or nine years after that. And I was just designing and animating wherever I could get in the door.

Design shops, ad agencies, TV networks like HBO, Showtime. I just would get in wherever I could. And it was an amazing experience. And some of the people I met back then, I’m still in contact with today, even though I’m kind of on the other side of the country, I’m doing something a little bit different. That was a really important part of kind of what led me to what I’m doing today.

Maurice Cherry:

During that time that you were doing all this freelancing, I mean, yeah, you were at a bunch of different studios, a bunch of different places. Do you feel like there was something that you were trying to attain? Like, were you trying to get to Kendrick? Were you trying to get to his position in terms of moving up the ladder or moving up in your skills?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think the thing at the time, those ten years, what I really wanted to do was learn how to make my work good. Like, I would make something, and then I would go see someone else’s project. And it was very clear to me that mine wasn’t as good. My whole thing for that ten years was, I need to figure out how to make something good, because I see this person over here is crushing it, and mine doesn’t look like theirs. Why doesn’t mine look like theirs? And in the industry at that time, there’s a lot of late nights, and everybody worked from, like, ten to eight. We went out afterwards and come back to work the next day and deal with it. So it was a lot of hard work, but that was really the thing I thought about the most. Just like, why isn’t mine as good as that other person? It was more of a creative pursuit to make something that I felt was equal to the people I admired at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I’m kind of trying to also place this just like, chronologically. So this was really during the time, I’m guessing this is like the early 2000s. Like early 2000s to 2010s, pretty much?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah. 2002 to 2011.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I mean, during that time, even if you just step back and look at the web, think about how much the web had changed from 2002 to 2011. And of course that would end up invariably being reflected in media and advertising and publishing, because computers are now taking over as, like, the primary way that you do design, and the technology is getting better and the browsers are getting better, and all of a sudden now we’re using CSS, and now we have to change what we thought we did before with tables into something new. So there was always something new, I think back at that time, and it felt like there were new discoveries or new ways of doing things. Like every month it felt like it was something new and you had to keep going, you had to keep making stuff just to catch up. Like, you couldn’t really rest on your laurels during that time because of just how fast things were progressing in the industry.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, yeah, that’s 100% true.

Maurice Cherry:

So after you were doing all of this freelancing and everything, you ended up as a motion graphics artist at square, and you were there for, I think, roughly about three years, is that right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, that’s correct. And square was the first place that I ever worked. Number one, that was a startup, but number two, that had, like, a physical product. All the things I had done for the ten years before were all advertising and marketing for tv shows. And the shows have people and Dave Chappelle’s show. It was interesting to be at a place that they had this little square card reader. And not only that, they had a whole team that worked on it. They had a team that worked on the box.

They had a team that worked on logistics of where the parts come from. They had a team that worked on every aspect of this little physical device. And so it was the first time where I worked at a company like that that I could actually get a peek inside the technology. I mentioned earlier. I was taking apart my Nintendo because I was curious what’s in there. And so it was really fun for me to be around people who were kind of making things, sending inside out. I think that it was mostly, again, like I mentioned, a little bit scary and daunting. It was comforting that I was on the video team at this company.

So I was still making videos. But when I would go into a meeting with the group who was responsible for the launch of the new Square Reader, and they’re talking about engineering challenges. I don’t know what they’re talking about. You know what I mean? I feel a little bit lost and confused, but the only thing I could rest on was like, okay, I’m still here to do the thing I came here to do. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn about what they’re doing. But that became my challenge at square was like, how much can I learn about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about that can help me do my job better?

Maurice Cherry:

And then after that, you ended up at Airbnb, where you started off as the company’s only motion designer. I bet that had to be pretty daunting, especially at that time when Airbnb was really starting to take off.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, definitely. And so when I was at Square, like I mentioned, I was in the room with all these other functions, physical engineering, but also product designers. Yeah. And there were a couple of times when I was at Square where I collaborated with the product designers. Oh, I would do an animation for the square’s website. One of those product designers, Jason Mamro, who I still work with today, he left Square and went to Airbnb. He’s on Airbnb’s product design team. And at the time, their head of design, Katie Dill, she was, you know thinking, we probably should get a motion designer.

And everybody’s, all the product designers like, yes, let’s get a motion designer. And Jason luckily threw my name out and I ended up kind of coming in, interviewing for the role. And it was funny, my first week, I’m sitting with my manager, and since I’m the first motion designer, it’s not exactly clear how I’m going to plug in. So he asked me, he said, well, what should you work on? I was like, what do you mean, what should I work on? You should tell me what I should work on. Right? He’s like, well, no. Since we never had a motion designer, you have to help us understand what you can do as well as us telling you what would need you on. So it kind of opened my mind up to like, oh, this is a kind of a role where I kind of get to help create it and it’s not so cut and dry exactly what I’m going to be doing all the time. If I see an opportunity, I can pursue it.

If I see something I think I can help out with, I can go help; and likewise, people who think I can help can contact me for help.

Maurice Cherry:

What were some of those early things that you were doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I remember when I first joined, they were about to launch the Airbnb Apple Watch app. And you mentioned earlier how everything was always changing. So I was very much used to working on animations that were for TV. And the Apple Watch screen is tiny. And so I think the first project I ever worked on was the animation for the onboarding for the Airbnb’s Apple Watch app. We had these little characters and we had the little character, like, tap their watch and then we had a little Airbnb logo. It was very cute. I think that was the first project I ever worked on.

And then from there, I remember working on, they launched the Apple TV app and I worked on an onboarding video for that, or onboarding animation for the Apple TV app for Airbnb. And then from there, really honestly, it spread out to so many different things. Sometimes I was doing the animation for either the website or the app, but other times it was prototyping UI. Okay, we need a prototype. We got a meeting with Brian Chesky in three weeks. We need to put together a prototype to articulate how we want this flow to go. Or it was. Brian Chesky has a presentation about this new feature and he needs an animation for his presentation that shows what the UI is going to do.

And they still do this today. When you see Airbnb’s launches, they have a couple of motion designers now that they do this all the time where they’re making prototypes for presentations. So I used to kind of do, there were probably like a dozen different things, ways that I would help out just depending on the time and what was going on at the company.

Maurice Cherry:

Man, I mean, it sounds like you really had your hands full, because I know that as Airbnb was growing, and I said, like you said, the tech was also changing. Mean, did you feel like you were stretched thin? I mean, did they eventually hire more motion graphics designers?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, eventually we hired another one. Maybe on my third year we hired another one. Then he kind of subsequently left. So then it was just me again. But I used to tell everybody there were 60 product designers on the team with 60 product designers to one motion designer. I used to tell everybody, like, I’m just one person, so I’m going to do what I can and everything else is not going to happen. And everybody again, everybody who’s very understanding the culture that we had at Airbnb at the time it was real friends and family vibes. It wasn’t like people were like, oh, man, he’s not doing his job right.

Everybody knew that there’s no way that one person could do, you know, for a lot of teams, it was like even me helping a little bit was going to be better than not helping at all. So they would accept any level of engagement that I could give. Everybody’s really understanding.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s good, because I’ve definitely worked at some places that are not that. Definitely the opposite, where you’re the person that does it, they expect you to always be the one to do it. No matter how many times you’re like, I need help. No matter how many times you’re throwing out a life preserver, they’re like, oh, you got it, you’re good. No, I’m drowning over here. Can you help me? So while you were at Airbnb, and like you said, they ended up eventually building out the team some more, you were on a team that launched Lottie, which is an open source tool that adds animations to like, iOS, Android, native apps, et cetera. How did the idea for Lottie come about?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So I mentioned earlier that one of the first things I worked on was the Apple Watch app. I had these little characters animating, and the way I delivered it that delivered the animation to the engineering team was, I’m pretty sure it was a sequence of PNGs. My engineering partner, an iOS engineer, he had to build a way for the app to play those PNGs in sequence. I think it was like 30 PNGs per animation. And for me, coming from tv, I was like, there has to be a better way for us to do this. The png sequence to do all our animations. The file sizes were pretty big and I think everybody hoped for a better way, but there just wasn’t anything out at the time. And I developed a really good relationship with an iOS engineer named Brandon Withrow.

He was an iOS engineer, but he went to school for animation. So we clicked right off the bat. And Airbnb used to have these things called Hack Weeks, where during the whole week you could work on anything you wanted. And I remember I approached Brandon, I say, maybe let’s try to find a way for us to get some data out of after effects, the thing I animated, and get it into iOS playing somehow. So he’s, I mean, let’s try it. What do you got? We ended up finding this tool called Bodymovin. It was this engineer named Hernan Torrisi created this tool that could export data out of after effects into a file, JSON file. It just has all the raw data of the animation.

So I send this file to Brandon. I’m like, what do you think? Bodymovin is open source? Take a look at it. So he said, all right. A couple of days, he came back, and he had a blue square show up on the screen. It wasn’t moving, wasn’t animating, just a blue square. And I think that kind of spurred the next step, which was, okay, now he has the square going left to right. Okay, next. Now he has a triangle and a circle.

And he, Brandon himself, just worked on features in his own time, and he got it to a point where we could do some small animations similar to the ones I did on the Apple Watch, and we could actually put know, I could export it from after effects, get the data out, put it into the iOS app, and the file size was much smaller, and it was way more performant. And so we had a little thing for iOS that was working, and we thought, well, we have an Android app. Kind of a bummer to have animations on iOS. Let’s find an Android engineer that could help us. And we brought in another engineer, Gabriel Peal. He was an Android engineer at the time. And we said, well, look what. Here’s what Brandon has on iOS.

Maybe we could do something similar on Android. And Gabe was the funniest one because he was like, I don’t know. He’s like, if we could do this, somebody would already name it. We gave him the same files, but he did the same thing. First he had a box, then he had a circle, then he had it moving left to right. And the next thing you knew, we had an iOS and Android framework that could play these really small animations in our apps. So we had that for a handful of months. And I think it was February, or I think it was like December of 2017, Facebook open sourced their version of what we had.

It was called Facebook Keyframes. It was exactly the same thing you export from after effects. Your data comes out. It works on iOS and Android. So when we saw that, we said, oh, they made it, too. It wasn’t open source at the time, so I thought, oh, well, let me try theirs. And I remember exporting one of the animations that worked on ours. I remember exporting it in their format, and there was a whole bunch of stuff broken.

So it was very clear to us that, oh, the thing we have is a little bit better than the thing they have. So we should open source as well. So Brandon came up with the name Lottie. It’s named after an animation pioneer named Charlotte Reiniger, who’s German. In the 1920s, she created full length feature movies and we got the name, we open sourced it, we made a little landing page and it just kind of took off from there.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. It sounds like it was a pretty organic thing, though. It didn’t just sort of come. I mean, it came in a way out of necessity. But the way that it managed to sort of build out and really become a framework was really organic.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Absolutely. It was really organic. And it was just lucky. It feels a little bit like the right place at the right time. It was lucky that Airbnb had a motion designer at the time. It was lucky that Brandon was an iOS engineer who kind of knew about animation. It’s lucky that we were friends and he would work on it in his free time. It was lucky that Gabe was so talented that he could jump in and create.

And at the know, we all had other stuff to work on. Our managers really didn’t care if we worked on Lottie in our free time as long as we got our other stuff done. And so that was the vibe for about a year. It was really a side project.

Maurice Cherry:

And now Lottie is used all over the place. It’s used in hundreds of thousands of different applications and stuff. What does it feel like knowing that something you’ve created has really caught on like that and made such an impact?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

It blows my mind. It really blows my mind because again, it could have easily not happened or it could have easily been Facebook keyframes that have been the thing that really caught on. So, yeah, it blows my mind. And it’s just humbling to be a part of something that people like and they use it and all. Full disclosure, I’m sure someone’s going to come out with something better than Lottie and then Lottie will disappear. That’s just the nature of software. That’s just the nature of creativity. I’m cool with that.

But to have had a hand in something that people like and use and have been using for the last handful of years is really humbling and amazing.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I can imagine. Just seeing your work make such an impact and then to know that you were really kind of behind it in the beginning is amazing. And it’s not something that is, I would say, hidden to history. People know that you did it. It’s not like Lottie just sprung forth anonymously. They know that you’re one of the people behind.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Really, the thing that I really like now is, like I was saying, at Cōlab, I’m working with startups all the time, so I’ll be working with a startup and they’ll be like, hey, can we put this animation we do? Can we put this on our app? And they’ll be like, I heard of this thing. It’s called Lottie. Maybe we could use that. They don’t know how. You’re like talking about my child, you know what I’m saying? I know this thing so well. I helped build it. I was there from the beginning. But people don’t know and oftentimes I don’t say anything.

I’m not that kind of guy to be like, well, that’s my thing. But it’s just kind of cute and funny to me that it’s now coming back to me through other channels I can imagine.

Maurice Cherry:

Like, you have to sort of keep yourself in check, like, “oh, like, I can’t…I don’t want to blow my cover here.”

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, 100%. But also, you know, design, motion design, this is a small industry of many. And what I did, while it’s maybe important to a couple hundred thousand people, there’s probably a ton of other people that don’t even know about it. So it’s not that big a deal. It’s not brain surgery. I’m not saving lives here. It makes me laugh when that happens, and it does happen every couple of months, which is great to me.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there still active development on it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

There is some. So Gabriel Peal, the Android engineer; he still works on it. He still works on it. He gets requests through and I think that’s probably the benefit of being open source. You have other people in the community who contribute, you have other people who change the code and submit it. So yeah, it’s still being not, I think that for a little while, while I was at Airbnb, after Brandon and Gabe left, it wasn’t really worked on internally, but there were a couple pushes internally to help develop. So we, I remember it got changed from one language into Swift, and then I think more recently since I’ve left, they’ve done a couple small things on the iOS side, but it’s really honestly mostly being pushed outside of Airbnb. So there’s a company called Lottie Files.

They’re based in Malaysia and they’re doing a ton of development on themselves, bidding on top of it, building state machines on top of it, which is a complicated term. People can google it and they’re kind of doing all kinds of things with the format and helping develop it outside, mostly because it is open source.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look, sort of, back at the early parts of your career to now, what would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Maybe the biggest lesson I learned about myself is that I really do enjoy being in an environment that I don’t know what’s going on. Okay. That there’s things that are new, there are things to learn, there are things I can be curious about. So, for example, like I mentioned, when I joined Airbnb, I was the only motion designer on a team full of product designers and engineers, none of which I had worked with before. I’d never worked with an engineer before. But it was so interesting to me. I ended up taking an eight week coding class because, again, we were in meetings where I didn’t know what they’re talking about. So that part of trying to help myself understand someone else’s industry to better do my job is fascinating to me.

And now it’s a similar thing at Cōlab. I’m working with startups, I’m working with ceos, cmos, and founders. I’m understanding what they care about. I’m understanding that they care about their business goals, so they don’t care about how the thing moves or what it looks like. Is this having an impact on the business?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

So now I’m having a whole different set. And I think every few years in my career, when I start to feel like I’m pretty competent at the thing I’m doing, I usually end up moving to something else that puts me a little bit off balance.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned that because I think that that is a practice that is something that more creatives, I think particularly more Black creatives are starting to embrace. I’m tying this into something, I promise you. So we’re recording this right now on the day that Andre 3000 just released his new album, his debut album, debut solo album, New Blue Sun.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

We’ve been talking about it at work all day.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, really?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I listened to it this morning, actually. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think about it?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think it’s…

Maurice Cherry:

You can be honest! Yeah, be honest. Think about it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I mean, I’m such a big Andre 3000 Outkast fan. Like, I’ll listen to whatever they put out.

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? They could put out themselves beating a bucket and I’ll listen to it. But the interesting thing, I saw that they had an interview with them last night at GQ, and he was talking about, like, they were at the top of their game, and it loses some of its magic when you feel like you really know what you’re doing. And I think he was looking for something different where he could feel like a beginner again.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? But, yeah, I listened to it this morning. I think it’s cool. I put it on while I was writing something. And honestly, for about 40 minutes – the album is like 90 minutes long. For about 40 minutes. I totally forgot it was on.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And I think that’s the point.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s the point, too. And the reason that I was asking about this is because I think sometimes, especially when people know you for a specific thing that you’ve accomplished in your career, that tends to be a box that they put you in. So anything else that you do is, like, compared to that thing, or they expect that the next thing that you do is going to be the same box-shaped thing that you’ve done before. So, of course, everyone knows 3000 for his lyrics. They’re expecting it’s going to be a fire rap album. Right? Instead, he comes out with some Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Yusef Lateef-like flautist sound bath 90 minute journey that’s like the product of an Ayahuasca trip, right?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Oh, he definitely was.

Maurice Cherry:

And I’ve been seeing some of the reviews. I mean, it just came out. By the time this airs, people will have known about it or. But. But I was thinking, like, man, I bet people are going to clown this album like they did when Solange’s last album came out. Like, When I Came Home came out and people were like, what is this? Because they expected her to be in this, Beyoncé’s’ little sister, kind of like, T.O.N.Y.-shaped, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dream- shaped box. And she comes out with this…I mean, that’s one of my favorite albums of all time, her last album.

So I really like what you said about you, like, being in these spaces where you don’t know kind of what to do or what’s next. And I think that’s something that creatives in general, particularly Black creatives, should embrace, because it locks you in a box when you’re always doing the same type of thing over and over and over in a way. And as creatives, there’s more things that we want to do. There’s more ways we can sort of express ourselves. I think that’s a really good practice to have as a creative.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

And it’s scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

You know what I’m saying? It’s scary. But I think that’s part of the point. That’s the reason why people like roller coasters. It’s kind of scary.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

But that’s kind of what’s fun about it.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say are, like, your next steps of growth for you as a creative? Like, where do you want to grow into?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Yeah, I think I have some knowledge from television. I have some knowledge from kind of the product design engineering side at Cōlab. I’m kind of putting those two things together. So I get to help startups with brand campaigns that have tv commercials, but also animations within their app. I think after talking with you about it for a little bit, it definitely feels like the thing that I butt up against most that I’m not always really sure about is really about business goals, how a business runs, how a startup runs, how do you actually make business impact, how do I use my skills in order to actually fundamentally change the direction of a business? You know what I’m saying? And I think that learning more about things like customer acquisition costs. Right. Learning more about measurement and research and strategy, I think will just help me put my work through a slightly different lens. And these are all things that at the moment, I would say I’m like a child at, but I think those are the things I’m starting to butt up against right now, especially when you’re talking to founders or people running companies.

These are things they care about and probably some things I need to learn there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, and that’s a good point. I mean, the best designers, I think, eventually end up finding out how to meld the creativity with the business and the strategy to really take it to the next level, because there’ll be a certain point in your career, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I certainly have, where you just feel like you’re the hired hand, like you just come in to do this part of the work and that’s it. And you may or may not see what the impact of it is. It may not be privy to you or you may not be exposed to it, but you know that you can do more. Like, you can feel yourself kind of growing out of that constraint that you have. And so I think that’s a good place to be, is to try to learn more about the business end. And I think with Cōlab, you’re at a great place to do it. You’re interfacing with startups.

Plus Cōlab is sort of this creative arm of a larger business entity. I think you’re in a great place to make that happen.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think you’re right.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you pull strength from?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Most of my strength comes from probably just my curiosity, like when I think about, what am I doing? So sometimes it’ll be like 11:00 and my whole family, my kids, my wife, everybody’s sleeping, and I’m just up, can’t sleep. And I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about some project that I’m involved in. It might be some explainer video where we have a script, but I think the script is not that good. So I’m really curious about looking up other scripts and good ones and seeing what they did. I’m really curious about doing, like, let me do, like, ten different versions of this thing and see what they look like. That curiosity, that creative itch. The part of the creative process where you’re really exploring this blue sky, it could be anything. I think that’s probably where I draw my strength from, is I’ll stay up late for those reasons.

And again, when I’m staying up late and I’m working hard on something, it does tend to be better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. If you wouldn’t have gone into motion design and animation, what do you think you would have ended up doing?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I have no idea, really. I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t know what I would have done. And it all happened so kind of happenstance, you know what I mean? It was like, I rolled the dice, okay, now I’m in New York. Roll the dice again. Now I’m in San Francisco. Roll the dice again. I couldn’t have guessed that I would be where I am today, doing what I’m doing today. I don’t know if it’s like a question I have a really good answer for.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess, to that end, what do you want the next chapter of your story to look like?

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I think I want to continue doing the things I came to Cōlab to do, wherever it is. I want to keep bringing these two halves of my career together. So how can I use design and animation to entertain people? And also, how can I use design and animation to make people’s experience better, to make their experience of a product better? And I want to keep kind of jamming those two things together and then put a layer on top of. I want to use design and animation to help businesses achieve their goals. Right? So all three of those things. I want to just get much better at doing those three things.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Salih Abdul-Karim:

I’m the worst with social media, so I’m not really on Instagram or Twitter or X or whatever. Our work is at colabgroup.com. That’s where our work is. We’re actually probably going to start releasing some thought leadership pieces, just some things we talk about internally that we want to put out there so you’ll be able to hear my voice through that. I used to have a website. I used to have a portfolio on a rewl. I took it down because it got kind of old. I was like, man, I don’t like this work anymore. So I don’t really have a personal site.

But, yeah, I would say colabgroup[.com]. And the work that’s there, the things that you see on that site, is probably the best representation of me on the Internet right now.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Well, Salih Abdul-Karim, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, the work that you’ve done with creating Lottie, like I said, it’s had such a huge reach, just in terms of how many people use it. I think there are people that are sort of the benefactors of your work that have no idea that you were sort of the person behind it. But I really love what you had to say about the big takeaway, because I asked you this before we recorded, is like, what do you want the takeaway to be? And it’s like, you don’t have to know what you’re doing. And I think the cosmic happenstance of this episode happening at the end of this year, potentially the end of this podcast, is such a profound way to sort of close things out, because the main thing that I’ve always wanted to accomplish through Revision Path is that there’s more than one way to get to be a creative. There’s more than one way to do this, and you may not know what that is. And so maybe the stories of all these people can give you some insight as to what that thing might know.

So I really like that. That has been sort of a guiding force throughout your career and throughout your life, and I’ll be excited to see you bring those two halves of your career together in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

No, thank you, Maurice. And thank you for doing all these episodes and putting this together. I think you’re doing something really special.

Maurice Cherry:

And we’re releasing this episode on Christmas, so it’s my gift to everybody. That was kind of corny, but, okay.

Salih Abdul-Karim:

Pour a little rum in it for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Hey, that’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I’m talking about.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Jonathan Patterson

If you’re a product designer that’s been thinking about striking out on your own in 2024, then Jonathan Patterson is a name that you need to know. As a freelance senior product design generalist, he knows all about rolling with the changes in the industry, and about what it takes to stay competitive.

Jonathan and I spoke not too long after his presentation at AIGA Detroit’s IXD2 event, and he talked about the various projects he’s worked on in the fields of healthcare, education, and AI. He also shared his personal journey growing up with a passion for drawing, transitioning from traditional print design to digital products, and explained why he made the switch to full-time freelancing (and what he’s learned along the way).

Hopefully Jonathan’s story and his work inspires you to carve out your own path for your career!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Patterson:

All right, so I guess I’ll give you the elevator pitch. I’m the invisible hand that crafts the products you rely on daily. Often we don’t know who’s behind the things we touch and interact with. And I mean that in the virtual and the physical, you know, whether it’s the buttons you click to play your favorite podcast or the home screen of a service that you subscribe to, I design and make sure everything is where you expect it to be and make it look good in the process. So I’ve got a BSA in visual communications from Kendall College of Art and Design, which is essentially graphic design. And over the years, I’ve slowly morphed my interest and my focus to kind of like pace or sometimes exceed where the industry is headed so I can stay competitive. But these days, I’ve moved completely into product design generalization. So instead of having one focus like user experience design, I do all of the skills that are closely related to design that launching a product or service usually requires.

As a full time freelance product design generalist, my goal is to really have a variety of skills that when you total them up, they make what I have to offer kind of more comprehensive and fine tuned than anyone who’s just doing one part of the product design stack. So, Jonathan Patterson, two decades of experience, first podcast interview. Let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:

Looking back at this year, what are three words that you’d use to describe how 2023 has been for you?

Jonathan Patterson:

I would say revolutionary, difficult. Well, this is not a word or more of a phrase. Kind of par for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. How has it been “par for the course”?

Jonathan Patterson:

Par for the course. Meaning there’s always something changing. Nothing stays the same, which is especially true in technology. Right. And I think any business owner, which as a freelancer, full time freelancer, I certainly look at myself as a business owner. But there’s always a challenge to contend with. So par for the horse means while we have certain types of challenges this year, there’s always a challenge to contend with.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Well, the only thing constant in the world is change, as the saying goes. And I think those three words are a really good way to sum up 2023. I think for a lot of people.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Everywhere you look online, it’s people posting about the tech layoffs and their job being downsized or eliminated or can you help me get a job? That’s what I’m seeing a lot of.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Do you have any goals that you’d like to accomplish for next year, like any resolutions for next year?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think one of the things that I’ve been sort of indexing on is just starting something, I suppose, of my own on the side. Now, while I have a lot of different fun side projects that I’ve done here and there, I think that’s probably one of my objectives for the upcoming year, is to start something maybe that is more official outside of the full time freelance product design work that I do. It could be a product or service. I have many ideas about what those could be. I keep a running list of things that I’m considering and just ideas that I’m vetting. I think that’s probably one of the focuses that I will put some thought around soon.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you just did a talk recently. There was an event in Detroit called IXD2 put on by AIGA Detroit. Shout out to Carlos and the folks there. Tell me about the event. How did it go?

Jonathan Patterson:

It went well. That was a first annual, we’ll call it…it’s called IXD2, which is the interaction design Detroit conference, and it will be held annually. So I actually talked about how to stop ghosting your side projects and basically I gave five tips that I’ve used to kind of see my projects from start to finish. So it was actually a whole day of different speakers and panelists and workshops. So mine was towards the end of a twelve hour, probably around their day. But it went good. It was well received. It will continue into the coming years, as far as I understand.

So I’d be excited to go back or I was a speaker this time, but if I’m not a speaker next time, or if not involved next time, I’ll certainly be happy to attend it.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, was this a new talk that you created?

Jonathan Patterson:

It was, and it was relatively in short order too. I think that between the time that I came to understand that they were interested in perhaps putting on some type of event like this, and the time the event actually occurred was just a matter of a couple of months. So I kind of last minute put together some ideas and the presentation ended up coming together. I probably would have talked about something else besides how to stop ghosting a side project. But again, due to the time constraints, it’s just like, okay, well, let me see what I can do that will perhaps resonate with people. And as I also come to understand, I tend to try to get feedback from people after I do a presentation or a talk or something like that, just because it’s always good to be sharpening your skills wherever you can. One of the things I heard was that people liked the variety that my presentation provided. There was a lot of, as you might expect from the title interaction design.

There were a lot of presentations and talks about processes and user experience specifically into the weeds of those types of things. Mine was a bit more general and sort of lighter. So I heard that people like that kind of component of my presentation. And I’ll also say for anybody who perhaps is listening to this and who saw that presentation, that I did put a lot of emphasis on the design of the presentation itself, because so often I find that, and this is just an easy thing for us designers to fall into for some reason, that when you’re doing a presentation, you don’t necessarily design it to your best ability. Rather, you’re just so focused on the content that you sort of let the design go by the wayside. And I’m like, okay, I can’t let that happen this time. This is specifically a design conference, so I’m definitely going to make sure that I put equal focus on what I’m saying, what I’m presenting, as well as what it looks like. So the design, it’s kind of contemporary.

It’s of the times. Lots of interesting typography and visuals to look at us designers are a fairly fickle bunch. We like things to look pretty. So I’m like, okay, this is going to look pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you do a lot of public speaking at conferences?

Jonathan Patterson:

I wouldn’t say a lot. I’ve probably presented just a handful of times. Really. I can count in one hand probably the number of times I presented, but I’ve had some local colleges who will ask, like accelerators or programs that colleges have that are related to product design or design will ask me to come and talk to one of their classes or something like that. So I’ve done that a few times. I was part of another AIGA event a few years ago before COVID where I talked about or I presented a case study that was the theme of the event, was like, case studies and case studies projects that you’ve worked on. So I presented then, which was a few years ago, and then, like I mentioned just a few weeks ago, with this most recent one. So not a lot, but I was happy to hear that.

Some of the feedback that I also got recently was that someone said that my presentation flowed very smoothly and they got the impression that I did it all the time. I’m like, well, thank you very much. That’s probably the best, most flattering compliment that I feel like I got this evening. So I was happy to hear that.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. I mean, I hope you get a chance to give that talk at other conferences. I mean, you put that much time into designing it and you’re getting this great feedback, like take it out on the road.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, you know what? Somebody else mentioned that. I think if the opportunity presents itself, I might do that.

Maurice Cherry:

So let’s talk more about you being a freelance senior product design generalist. You had mentioned that before. I was like, that’s a mouthful. That’s a lot. And according to your website, as well as what you just said, you are the invisible hand that crafts the products that you rely on daily. And you’ve been doing it for such a long time. I mean, almost 13 years. That is super impressive.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, thanks. Yeah, I’ve worked in all sorts of industries on all types of projects. Early in my career I worked with on a bunch of apps in the education space that taught kids how to write or do math. I also worked on a project for the brand pull ups where I did a lot of UX and UI for an app that parents use to potty train their kids. Let’s see. Some other memorable projects that come to mind are product designed for a healthcare startup. This is akin to like Angie’s list for healthcare workers. I did iconography for OkCupid, where I created dozens of icons that reflect the interest and the characteristics that people show on their dating profile.

I did data visualizations for Brighthouse Networks, which was bought by charter Communications or Spectrum Charter, I believe. But more recently I’ve done work for this company called the Standard, which is this wellness and social networking app. They’re kind of still in this amorphous phase where they’re establishing their value proposition. I’ve helped this company called True Anthem. They’re out of California and they have this AI powered social publishing tool. And basically the gist of it is that large scale content publishers like the Associated Press or Reuters or NBC News give their social teams access to this dashboard where they can automate their social media posts and understand all of the analytics around what content performs the best and when to post it and where to post it to. So it’s this dashboard that integrates with all the popular social networking platforms. You know, Facebook, X, Instagram, et cetera.

Last, I guess I won’t forget to mention Ford. I’ve helped them on and off over the years. I’ve worked on their website, helping to think through different visual concepts to present features and promotions. I’ve also done a lot of work on what they call the build in price section of their website, which is the part where you customize a vehicle that you’re interested in buying. And that area of the site in particular is in constant flux, and they go through many iterations to push out even the smallest of changes. So I’ve helped with the UX and the UI there, as well as, again, lots of iconography for that section of their website. Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of the overview.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you’ve mentioned a lot of different clients here and a lot of different sort of types of product design work that you’ve done. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know, I work on B2B and B2C types of projects. I tend to find the B2C ones a bit more, I guess, compelling to work on because the tone that you take in terms of the writing, the UX writing that you do for it, any kind of light copywriting that I might do, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a copywriter, but any of the. I think just the way that you approach a consumer is very different than the way you approach, like, a business product or service. Now, I definitely do both, but I think I probably get a little bit more fun out of the B2C ones. They’re just more room to, kind of…I feel like those apps and services are a bit, just more entertaining, if you know what I mean.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there any type of work that you want to do in the future? Like dream projects, anything like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what, I have always been of this mindset too. I’m like, okay, it could be fun to work on in the entertainment industry specifically, maybe for some type of celebrity website or something like that. But then the more I think about it and the more I see how other industries work with certain types of media, I would imagine that it’s probably a more difficult ask to do some of that work quicker turnarounds, probably projects that you imagine might go a certain way, maybe don’t, because you’re answering to maybe people who have. Maybe my idea of what it’s like is totally different than what it’s actually like. I’m starting to think that that might be the case. So in the past, I’ve always thought that maybe I’ll work on entertainment stuff, but maybe not. I think what I have going for me now, which is a variety of types of work that come my way, is a great kind of mix because at times I’m working on very UX heavy work. Then, at other times, I’m working on very UI heavy work, and I think just the mix of projects is what keeps me most interested. It’s almost like you never get bored.

Maurice Cherry:

So you like to have that variety, it sounds like.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. I think that’s one of the main draws to freelancing, is that you get to pick the types of projects that you work on in the mix. So if you’re ever feeling too much of something, you can say, okay, well, this next inquiry that comes in, I won’t take that, I’ll take this other thing, because my plate’s full in that other area. So, yeah, that’s definitely a plus.

Maurice Cherry:

One thing that we’ve been talking about on the show pretty regularly over the past two years is kind of how a lot of this new tech is encroaching upon the creative industry. Maybe encroach is not the right word, but it’s starting to infiltrate into the tools that we use, the way that certain businesses now offer new services, et cetera. I’m curious…with what you do, have you seen any trends or changes in the industry, particularly as it relates to AI or generative AI or something like that?

Jonathan Patterson:

Generative AI pretty much seems like it’s working its way into everything. ChatGPT has all of the, like, DALL-E and all of those types of services. Photoshop, just typing in something and generating it on the spot. It is totally changing the way that we work, the way that I work. Like many People, I think that we’re in this phase where we’re just trying to understand how do we make our businesses kind of bulletproof against some of these new technologies. I think at times people have this idea about, or this feeling that, okay, I can’t wait till things get back to how they were. They’re not going back. This is kind of like we’re here now. It’s just going to kind of keep on happening, and I don’t want to say get worse, but there’s going to be kind of more of this need to reinvent yourself, to come up with ways to stay marketable and relevant.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, have you been using it any in your wor, or…

Jonathan Patterson:

No, I use ChatGPT for sure now. I tend to have it refine my work. So if I’m writing something, whether it be some text for a website or for anything, I like to use ChatGPT to refine my work instead of just be the kind of creator of it. I’ll say that one phenomenon that I do notice is that I tend not to recognize my writing. If chat GPT kind of manipulates it too much, and I think that might be, like, a phenomenon that people may start to realize. I’ve experimented with it, for example, commenting on a blog post or some type of medium article that I saw, where I’ve experimented with using ChatGPT to write my response haphazardly, type something out, pop it in a ChatGPT, have it, rewrite it, make it sound good, and then post it. Then go back and read it. Like a month, two months later, I’m like, okay, did I actually write that? I don’t remember writing that.

So that’s this phenomenon that I’m noticing with ChatGPT. So I use it, and I’ve learned to. Obviously, it’s still fairly new, or I’m new to it, but I try to use it more sparingly so that the work is my work, and I recognize it as such. But in terms of design work, not as much there. I’d say more in the lines of text. Right. I don’t feel like the image generators are exactly up to kind of the level that I would want them to be at. They’re helpful if you want to maybe change something small in an image, but they all had this overly smooth look.

If you try to generate an image from scratch, I’m sure that’s going to change in the future. But for right now, I don’t use it extensively in the kind of visual work that I do. It’s just not capable.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we’ve had folks that have come on the show before that say they use it kind of like as a mood board or as inspiration. Like, it’s a great way to help spin up ideas. If you have maybe some ambiguity on where to start, it can kind of give you a nudge in that direction. But there still has to be discernment from humans, of course, the ones that are going to be using that stuff to decide how it should be used, if it should be used at all, if it should be changed, et cetera. So it seems like you have a pretty kind of discerning nature about how you use it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, most definitely. It’s going to change quickly, I might add, too. I think that there’s always this kind of impression that, like, oh, this is far off. Well, technology is kind of exponential in many ways, so while it’s not there yet, it’s probably going to be there faster than I expect. So I guess fingers crossed. I’ve got a little bit more time to be employed.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s kind of switch it up a little bit here. We’ve talked a lot about the work that you’re doing. But let’s learn more about you, about the person behind the invisible hand, so to speak. You mentioned before we started recording you’re in the metro Detroit area. Is that where you’re from originally?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve always been in this area. Went to school in Westland. I had a class in graphic design. I was, I guess, early on, though, I was kind of always interested in drawing by hand. That’s kind of where it all started, drawing on paper. Mortal Kombat characters. I remember when the Lion King came out, I got a computer. Then I started drawing in, like, Microsoft paint.

Lion King characters. Yeah. So I grew up in Westland or which school in Westland, rather. Then I went over to the Grand Rapids area for school for my degree, and after I graduated, came back and started working at this. I worked at J. Walter Thompson, which is this worldwide advertising agency. They have offices all over. So I was working on regional advertising campaigns.

That was technically an internship, but it was after I’d graduated and I was actually making money and working on projects. So it’s kind of strange, but that was an internship. It was after I graduated. So I did that for a year and then I started working. Once that internship ended, I worked at this full service ad agency, which is again, in the metro Detroit area, and I was doing all types of things. Any creative task that came through the agency, I had my hand in it. So they were full service. They did out of home, digital, print, radio, TV.

So I was the senior art director there, and I did that for about six years, and I decided to kind of break off and do my own thing.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, before we kind of get into that, I want to just kind of step back a little bit to talk about your time at Kendall, because I’m sure if you sort of had this sort of talent as a child where you really were drawing and into this sort of stuff, and then you wanted to pursue it enough where you went to school. Do you feel like your time at Kendall kind of prepared you for getting out there in the world as a designer?

Jonathan Patterson:

I do think it did. Again, things are constantly in flux. Right. Stuff that you learn. I was in college in 2004, so obviously things that I learned back then are not necessarily relevant today. But for the time. At the time, yes, it did prepare me. Now, that said, I did find that I had to, or I’m the type to push myself to learn new things.

So even though I did feel like some of the courses and things like that, I learned a lot, but I didn’t think that they were challenging me as much as I could challenge myself. So I would take it upon myself to kind of just do whatever I could to be learning new things and challenging myself. It’s a great program. I learned a lot there, but learning is never done. You have to constantly learn new software. Things that the programs that we were using back then practically don’t exist now, just things that you were doing then, just not relevant. So for the time, it was great. But I know much more now than I did back then.

Maurice Cherry:

No, I mean, that makes sense. I mean, if you were in college in 2004, I’m just thinking, sort of, what design tools were out there. I mean, I think everything was pretty much Macromedia or Adobe. This is before they, I want to say 2004 is before they merged, because I distinctly remember using fireworks, like right around that time. And I remember Dreamweaver first being Macromedia, Dreamweaver before it became Adobe Dreamweaver. But just in terms of like, I’m thinking, yeah, software and things like that, there’s so much changing in visual communications during that time period. I think also because, and maybe you saw this when you went out into the world after graduating, but companies were then starting to realize how to have a visual presence online. Prior to this, companies were still sort of trying to figure out, well, how do I get on the Internet? Should I be on the Internet? What should that look like? And by this time, like mid-2000s, companies are starting to figure it out.

They’re starting to sort of see how they can represent themselves or represent their brand or their product or their service online in a visual way.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. So when I was in college, it was technically graphic design, so I only had, if memory serves one, maybe two. Two classes. Honestly, I think it was one class on web design or anything like that. So all of my other things were print focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, wow.

Jonathan Patterson:

I did learn Quark, but I actually never used Quark outside of school, at least not to any degree. It was always indesign. Indesign was like coming on the scene right when I was going to school and graduating and things like that. So all of my education was really centered around print design. I had a couple of typography classes and Photoshop classes and of course all of your core studies, design fundamentals and all of those art history classes and things like that. So I used GoLive, which doesn’t exist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, man, I remember GoLive. Oh, you just took me back with that.

Jonathan Patterson:

You know what? Their program was nice work, though. I loved the fact that it was like designing in Photoshop or Illustrator in the sense that you could lay something out on the canvas, then it turns it into the design. Honestly, I only had one Web design class, and it wasn’t until after I started working at that agency, after my internship, after college, where I really started doing more digital work and web work, everything else was like, up until that point was very traditional, advertising based. And that’s actually one of the reasons I did kind of make the switch to full time freelance, is because I’m like, okay, I want to specifically work on digital products, websites, apps, experiences, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. During that time, as you mentioned, you were kind of studying a lot of stuff with print. That’s another thing, is that the web was sort of changing from, I say, in the early days, it felt like a lot of the web was just taking whatever was in print and directly putting it on the web, whether that was a scan or whether that was a table based layout or something. And so it sort of limited, I think, a lot of expression that brands or companies could have. But then I’d say right around, not even too long after you graduated college, like 2005, 2006, things switched over to CSS, and then you could now float things across the page and change alignment in these ways that broke you out of this grid based kind of print format that I think a lot of early design was in. And it allowed you to sort of really kind of go outside the box with different types of design and things of that nature. So to me, it does make sense to freelance during that time, because if you’re working at a company, and I just know this because I did work at a company, when that happened, it is so much hassle to change things internally after you already have one set of processes, whether this is how it’s always been done or this is how we want to do it, as opposed to when you’re a freelancer, you can change on a dime if you need to. You can just focus on a specific type of product or a different type of service, but you can adopt and change, do things much quicker than larger companies or larger firms or agencies can.

Jonathan Patterson:

Oh, yeah, most definitely. And I think that you need to be able to do that. Right. I’ve had the kind of luxury of being able to experiment with. All right, so what interests me? What are people asking for? What are people reaching out to me for? And I have a lot of interest in terms of the design space. So while that may not work for everybody, it worked for me because back in the day, I had people, independent app developers, for example, making their first app for the iPhone and they need somebody to design it. That was kind of how I got my intro into designing for iOS was app developers reaching out to me saying they needed some design help. I’m like, this is fun.

Let me try this. So I did that. So my degree is in graphic design, but due to my wide range of interests, I have been able to kind of explore working in all aspects. And one of the things I’ve done is transition some of the skills that I’ve learned that apply to other design mediums into more marketable skills. So, for example, an ability to use Adobe illustrator very well and make cool looking icons, well, how that looks today for me is I use this program called Blender 3D. I wouldn’t call myself like a 3D artist. Rather, I’ll call them illustrations because I’m not focusing on how to make something technically accurate for 3D printing or for the architecture space,.right?

It’s more like, how can I add on this medium to enhance the product design work that I do, right. So if I’m creating a website or something like that, or an app, and it needs some cool animation or content to be designed that we want to manipulate, when the user hovers their cursor over it or taps it or something like that, that’s kind of where my skills come into play. So I try to develop this skill set of deliverables that can all work together.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, when you look back at your time at Quill, I know that was sort of what you mentioned prior, before we talked about Kendall a little bit. You wa ere there for almost six years. You were their senior art director. What sort of was the impetus for you to start your own business?

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, and to be clear, too, so I was the senior art director, but they were, we’ll say, a small to medium sized company. So it’s not that we had a ton of people there. So the reason that I decided to leave is what you were asking, is that right?

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I guess you could say that. I mean, unless that was sort of part of the reason for you wanted to start your own business, was that you wanted to leave.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ll say that I was just maybe starting to Plateau at the company. Maybe there wasn’t enough kind of upward opportunity. And again, I also wanted to focus exclusively on digital products and services versus having to work on prints and radio and broadcast. Also, I feel like I was capable of executing the types of experiences myself that the firm’s clients were looking for. So as is so often the case, pay was also starting to become an issue. And in the end, I felt like I wasn’t making enough as I could make, and I didn’t see much evidence that that would change. So that said, I did learn a great deal about the ins and outs of how to run a business. One of the most important lessons I got to see firsthand was how clients don’t hire you simply because you’re good at what you do.

They hire you because you’re capable of doing the work and you’re a likable person. You seem like you’ll be fun to work with. But the agency was, again, small to mid sized. So in a sense, I kind of, like, shadowed the owners, and I was able to learn how to talk to prospective clients and write proposals and run meetings and all of the other things they don’t teach you in college.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s fair. You get to a point where you feel like you could do this yourself or you could maybe do it better and you strike out on your own, and that’s what you did.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah. Well, again, too, people were. It made it easy because people were reaching out to me in my personal email and saying, hey, can you help me with this? Can you help me with that? I’m like, okay, well, maybe I should try this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I completely understand that because that’s the same way that I started my business. I was working at, at T and honestly hated it and just really felt like I could do better. I felt like I did reach that plateau where it’s like, I don’t know if this is going to get any better for me anywhere else. There were other issues there, too, just in terms of the staff, but in terms of just your personal fulfillment as a designer, I knew that I could be doing better work than this and could possibly be getting paid better, but this can’t be. The high point of my career is having a 15 minutes lunch break on a twelve hour shift. I can’t do this. Right.

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I will say, though, too, at the time, it was in college, I was working at retail jobs, and that’s never fun, especially as a design person. You want to be doing work, that’s like, what you’re going to school for. So when I got that job, for the time that I was there, it was generally like, okay, this is where I need to be. I worked hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t making any money, I was making good money. But I’m like, okay, I can make better money.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, totally. I get it. I 100% get that. How were those early years?

Jonathan Patterson:

Of business freelancing, early years of business. They were good. I would say that back then, I found myself working on a lot of smaller projects. Right. Projects that can be completed in a couple of days or a few hours versus these days. It’s like, okay, it requires a week minimum, or several weeks or several months. So back in the day, it was a lot of like…there were times where I’d be working for seven days a week.

I’m like, okay. I’d start getting stressed out because I’m like, okay, too many small projects, constantly working. I was making enough money, but the problem I had back then was too many small projects. Once you start running out of time to work on them, then you get stressed. So as the years have ticked by, I’ve slowly kind of expanded the scale of projects that I work on. And sometimes there’s some ebb and flow there, right? It can be very busy. Sometimes it can be a little bit slower. But I would say in general, the scale of the projects have changed over the years.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you approach a new project? Like, say you’re working with a client or something comes across in your inbox? What does that intake process look like?

Jonathan Patterson:

I think probably the more interesting part would be like, maybe my creative process. So it kind of starts with just asking a bunch of questions and understanding the problem to make sure I’m solving for the right thing. Suffice to say, there’s this extensive fact finding, goal setting, and planning process. But maybe the creative process is a bit more, I’d say, unique or just my own. It starts with taking inspiration from everywhere I watch movies. I think that medium inspires my creative process a lot. I think it’s so different from product design that it makes it easy to come up with an original idea based on a narrative that I saw. I think probably the most compelling creative ideas come from the mixing of unexpected connections that you can make between topics that are not already connected.

It’s almost like the magic comes from bringing those two concepts together in a novel way. But I try to take inspiration from everywhere and bring that work into the product design work that I do. In addition to that, I think, of course, surfing the web daily, you just come across things that naturally will someday work their way into inspiration for a project that I’ll work on. So I keep like, boulders of interfaces and websites and illustrations and animations on my desktop to kind of just refer to. I do consider myself in the business of selling ideas, so I’ll say this. Too often clients are eager to spend a budget if you hit them with something that kind of strikes their imagination, and having my go to folders that I can inspire myself from is a good starting point. So, actually, one of the things I’ll do to jump start a creative process or get a project off the ground and up and running is kind of like, after I have a meeting or a phone call with a prospective client, I will send them this preliminary or kind of like cursory email with some creative ideas, and that’ll get their wheels turning. And then the next thing I know, I’ve got them asking me to send a full proposal.

And then we’re often working on a new project.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back over, I don’t know, let’s say, like the past, we’ll say five years, we’ll roll the pandemic into this. What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned about yourself?

Jonathan Patterson:

Biggest lesson I’ve learned about myself. I don’t know that I’d learned anything new. And maybe that’s because I’ve been freelancing for way before the pandemic started. Everybody was kind of like, clamoring when it all went down, getting their office set up, trying to understand how to freelance or work remotely. I’m like, I’ve been doing this for ten years at the point that the pandemic started. So that was easy for me. I felt like…I’m like…I’ve been social distancing for ten years now. I already had everything set up, my billing software, my processes were in place.

I was able to experiment with different ways of working with clients. Do I work with them on a retainer? Do I work with them on a fixed price? What’s my rate? Do I sign NDAs ahead of time? Or do I never sign NDAs? That was one of the things that I’m getting a little off track, but I think maybe a little bit relevant. I think that I very much enjoy the. Am thankful for the fact that I was able to see what works and what doesn’t work, which is different than working for somebody else. Right. When you work for somebody else, they tell you what you can say in your email to the client. They tell you how to Bill, they tell you the process that you have to structure your files through. Those are all things that I got to do my way or just trial and error.

I think there’s something to be said for the ability to see what works and what doesn’t work for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:

Right?

Jonathan Patterson:

Again, I guess that wasn’t new to me, but that was something that I imagine a lot of people probably started to get wind of when the pandemic hit. And what they learned about themselves is probably some of those things that I had learned up to that point.

Maurice Cherry:

But you’ve been good. You’re good.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, I’ve made all the mistakes. I think that one of the things that I have learned over the years was that not everybody communicates the same way. I think that I have a very. In the past, I probably was much more direct than people that people tend to be like, if I have a question about something or if I just legitimately think that the client needs to hear some particular feedback, I would just say it. But I learned that, okay, sometimes you can’t just say it. You have to ease them into it. And that’s something that you can’t if you’re working for. I guess to bring my sharp point to this idea, it’s like when you’re working for somebody, they tell you that you can’t say this when you’re working for yourself.

You can try it and see what happens. And I certainly did that. So I made all the mistakes, but I think I’m better for it.

Maurice Cherry:

I got you. I feel you. Okay, so what are sort of the next steps of growth for your business? Like, where do you want to take it?

Jonathan Patterson:

I want to take it. I think that I have always wanted to remain in, I guess, a small business. Like, I don’t have any employees, and that’s by design. I think with employees comes other headaches. Right. You have to make sure that, well, I don’t know. I don’t have any employees, but I’m just guessing. It’s like you have to pay for insurance and all of those other things.

Many more expenses, overhead. It’s just a much different, kind of, like a ballgame. I feel like I would be managing people more than I am doing work, which is what I do now. When clients reach out to me, they’re looking for something to get done. I think my business is, I’m happy with kind of where it’s at. I’ve helped other clients of mine who say they’re like, oh, I wish I would have gone your route and not hired employees and just stayed small. So many fewer headaches to contend with. I had an attorney who I did work for who told me that.

So, yeah, I think just based on my experience and things that I’ve heard, I think it’s just as easy to stay small.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Where do you kind of pull strength from? Like, what motivates you to keep doing this work?

Jonathan Patterson:

Well, I’ve always been a creative person. I think creativity can manifest itself in many ways. Right? So while I don’t think I’ll do product design forever, I will always be in the creative space. So, for example, I used to play the piano for many years. I took classes in school. I took them outside of school. My mom hired somebody to take me to get lessons from. So I’ve done music oriented endeavors.

I’ve, like I mentioned, had an interest in drawing by hand. I then kind of transformed that into graphic design. Now I’m in product design. So I will always be in the creative space, in the digital space. I think there’s so many foundations to design that are transferable, right? So all of the foundations, color, scale, contrast, repetition, light, texture, those things can apply to interior design, print design, furniture design. So I very much see that I will be in some creative space now. Which one? That is in the future. I’m not sure for the time being it will be.

It’s going to definitely be product design. But I think in the long term, I could see myself going into something probably in the fine art space, right. I think my career, for the most part, up until this point, has been commercial design. Right? It’s about how to sell a product or a service or get somebody to take an action based on. It’s less art. Granted, there are a lot of visual components to the work that I do, but at the end of the day, it’s not art because we’re selling something or making something or convincing people or educating people on why they want to buy a service or a product versus art or a personal expression that is more about self expression. Right. So you think of sculptures or paintings or woodwork or something like that.

So I think in the future, my interest will probably be more in the focus on things that are not, like, consumer focused.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay. Where do you see yourself in general in the next five years? I mean, I know we kind of talked a little bit about where you want to take the business, but when you look in the future, based on where you are now, what kind of things do you want to be doing, especially with.

Jonathan Patterson:

I’m very interested to see all of our AR and VR experiences start coming into play. I know that there are a lot of mixed reviews on how that’s going to look in the future of the metaverse and all of that. Personally, I’m interested in working in that space. I think it’s just going to be so new. Right. A lot of the work that we do in UX and UI design today for screens is there are many design patterns and tried and true methods to pull from. I’m interested in establishing and working in and setting up kind of new paradigms and principles and patterns for devices that are upcoming.

So I’m very excited about the Vision Pro. When that comes out, I’ll probably start to tinker around in that space. I’ll have to give me one of those when it comes out, start designing. And I do imagine maybe a similar kind of pattern as to what I experienced before, where if I’m offering services that are tailored toward developers who are creating products for vision Pro, they probably need some design assistance with it. So that’s kind of me keeping up with the times. It’s how can I tailor my services to be in demand and where the market is going? Which is one of the reasons I actually had an interest in three D. One of many reasons I’ve had an interest in 3D in the last few years is because I saw or I read that these types of experiences are coming and I want to be able to be able to create assets and just work in this space. So yeah, that’s an area I’m very excited about is VR, aR, that type of work.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they hire you? Where can they find all of that information? Online?

Jonathan Patterson:

Definitely at my website, which is jonathanpatterson.com. I am on X – @jonpatterson_. That’s J-O-N underscore Patterson, of course. Linkedin.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Jonathan Patterson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you really, for kind of diving deep into your business and kind of exploring why you do what you do what you do in terms of services and things of that nature. I think it’s important, especially now at this time, when people, for one reason or another, might be out there trying to find their next path or like what the next thing is that they’re going to do to really sort of see what someone who has been out here doing this for a long time is doing. So they can maybe look at how they structure their work or their business. But I think what you’re doing is great. I know you mentioned something about sort of having the work speak for itself and being the invisible hand. I’ll tell you that once you start speaking, that kind of goes a little bit out the window.

Yeah, I know, because the work doesn’t have a mouth, you do. So it’s like, as you start getting out there and speaking more. And I think certainly as people really see more of you, as well as the work, you’ll take off for sure. I mean, certainly what you’re doing now is really great work, but I’m excited to see where you go in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Patterson:

Yeah, well, thanks for having me.

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Jonathan Robinson

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December is a good time to reflect and take stock of the year, and that’s the basis of my conversation with this week’s guest Jonathan Robinson. Jonathan is a creative powerhouse — a writer, a filmmaker, and a director, just to start — who’s currently on a personal journey of self-discovery.

We started off doing a bit of a recap of the past year, and Jonathan shed some light on what creative and experiential producers do and how he came into those titles through his work in the advertising industry. He also talked about working with AI and VR, and spoke about how his time spent at Facebook and Twitter helped shape him into his current calling as a storyteller.

For Jonathan, chasing his passions and connecting with other people are what drives him. When you look back at this year, what’s been your driving force?

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

My name is Jonathan Robinson, and I am a creative producer, director, and writer, supporting all kinds of interactive experiences, products, and bringing stories to life.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back at this year, at 2023, how would you describe it? Like, how’s it been for you?

Jonathan Robinson:

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, I think. I kind of liken it to making a loop around a racetrack. Things feel very familiar. But also, the urgency of how I’m trying to sort of move up in the race is starting to set in. I started the year still very much in a sort of personal sabbatical, working on a few writing projects and a VR concept which was really fulfilling, but also because these projects were very personal and tied to my personal experiences, my family history. I was doing a lot of digging up sort of latent emotional baggage and opening up wounds that I didn’t know were there. Add to that sort of the reality of living in capitalism and needing to pay your bills, trying to balance how to leverage the skills and the experience that I’ve had over the last close to 15 years working as a producer to generate some income without necessarily going back to the kind of soul crushing work that it felt like I left quite intentionally. I’ve done a little bit of contract work to pay the bills, but in doing so have been reminded why I left in the first place.

I think if anything, I feel like I went on a sort of condensed loop of what the past four or five years of my journey has been just in this one year. I think that’s given me a renewed clarity and motivation to continue in this sort of uncomfortable, unfamiliar path towards what I think I know I want.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s a very diplomatic answer.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s me. I’m a producer by trade and also a little bit by personality. So always trying to find the middle ground that moves us closer to an objective.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. How are you making time for joy these days?

Jonathan Robinson:

One of those things is really starting to take some of these more administrative skills that I’ve used in my professional life and trying to apply them to the emotional maturity, work and growth that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years. I had a moment of I mean, as most of us did during the pandemic of real clarity and understanding that I was not investing nearly enough time and energy into my relationships as I was into my career. And so, from there I started to just try to apply some of that structure that existed in my career that created that focus and apply that to relationships. It sounds, like, very academic or clinical, but I have a standing call with my best friend every Friday or excuse me, every other Friday when we talk for about two or three hours on the phone. I have standing dates with a couple of other friends either on a weekly or monthly basis just to make sure that we have a touch point. And it’s not like we’re only ever talking during these times. But I’ve found that when you have that consistency, it makes it so much easier to seek out these connections in between. And I think for myself, I’m kind of a self-isolating personality when I don’t have the sort of structure and pressure to show up if someone is not directly in my vicinity.

Living here in Oakland, I actually don’t have most of my closest friends in the area. They’re either in New York or in Southern California or in Europe. And so, it does take a little bit more effort on my part to make sure that those relationships are solid and are being fed. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing that growth and the ways in which it’s made me less in my head about reaching out and connecting with people. Even if it’s just something as silly as sending a meme or a photo of something ridiculous that I just saw while I was crossing the street. Yeah, I mean, add to like trying to make sure that I get out of the house and have in-person community. I’ve been attending this writing group here in Oakland, at Wolfpack Studios, a little studio in downtown Oakland. And it’s just maybe about anywhere between six to twelve of us once a month.

And we get together for about two hours, two to three hours, to go through a couple of prompts. We start with haikus and some short story prompts. Folks are reading their poetry and rapping or they’re not writers at all and they just wanted to show up and have a good time. But I’ve found some really cool people who just being able to express yourself in a room of other people who are willing to express themselves and open up in that way, I think, has been really refreshing and really rewarding for my own personal work. So that’s kind of the variety.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s really good to still try to keep those lines of communication open. I know when the pandemic first started, that was kind of a thing a lot of people tried to do, at least through Zoom or through other types of telecommunications type software. Just like check in, see how things are going, et cetera. But now I don’t want to say we’re a few years out from the Pandemic, but certainly the world has gotten back to its normal state. Well, I don’t want to say normal. You know what I mean. We’ve started.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ve pushed past that restrictive period, and I think some people have moved past it, some people haven’t. I still feel like it’s a very sort of OD and touchy time in terms of communication. So, I like that you’re making those efforts to actually keep in touch and keep those lines of communication open because it can be so easy, especially if they don’t live in the same city as you. It’s so easy for those to just die on the vine.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

2024 is right around the corner. Have you thought about what you want to accomplish next year?

Jonathan Robinson:

I have, and as I said before, it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I’m excited. I am going to be taking a renewed focus on these creative projects that I started about a year and a half ago. I’m working on a sci-fi script and a couple of short stories that I want to shoot and preparing for a push to either potentially go to a film school later in the year and figure out how to kick start a filmmaking career. So that’s like one track. But on the other end of the spectrum is exploring what I describe as more experiential work, things that involve newer technologies like artificial intelligence and VR. There are a couple of artists that are really interesting in this space, one of which is a good friend who I used to work with in New York. Their name is Sougwen Chung, and they do essentially a lot of collaborative performances where they are generating art along with their artificial intelligence and robotics companions that they have built and programmed over the last, I think, twelve years now. And so, I’m very excited to find ways to replicate that same kind of work, as well as find ways to collaborate with folks in that space, including Sougwen themselves.

But in terms of what all of that looks know, I can’t really tell, really. I grew up in the church, so it’s really easy for this phrase to come to mind, but I am literally walking by faith and not by sight. I am just putting 1ft in front of the other and juggling the variables and catching the consequences, which I mean, I guess is what it means to be a producer. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in that space dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. But it’s a lot easier to do that when you have conviction, which I think has been the theme that is coalescing towards the end of this year in terms of how I want to approach 2024. It’s with conviction. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to have everything absolutely planned out; I don’t need to know how everything is going to work out.

But I do have to walk with a sort of full body yes and a confidence that is grounded in purpose. And that really is what conviction is. So that’s what my 2024 looks like. Walking into the unknown, sure footed.

Maurice Cherry:

I like that. I like that a lot. That’s funny that you also kind of tied that back into the work in a way about like, this is what it means to be a producer, which I want to unpack a little bit later now when I do my research and everything to try to find out more about the guest. And you alluded to this a bit earlier, kind of being on this personal journey. What brought that on?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think when I look back at it, and in hindsight, it started at the end of 2017-ish, basically when I started at Facebook. Up until this point, I had been working in New York in the advertising field. I’d bounced around between a couple of different agencies, but at that point I was around three years into my second stint at a production company called The Mill, and essentially being like one of two senior producers in their experiential and interactive division, which they had just started to build back up. I got this opportunity to work at Facebook, and the job was in London. So, I’d be leaving the country to live outside of the country for the first time since I was like three years old when I was in Costa Rica. And so, I was really excited about that opportunity. This is also 2017, so if we think back to where the world was sort of socio-politically, an opportunity to work at a place like Facebook is a sort of double-edged sword. High impact, massive reach, and you’re working on a product that touches almost half of the people on the planet in one way or another.

But at the time, we were also starting to discover, more concretely anyway, that some of the ways in which that impact was landing in people’s lives was actually quite harmful, and that maybe something actually could have been done about that, but simply wasn’t. So, I threw myself into that opportunity with optimism and a lot of youthful vigor. But I think the combination of one understanding the relative impact of one or even a couple hundred individuals in a corporation that has 70,000 employees and a global reach, it makes for a quite Sisyphean task, I think, is the word. Pushing that boulder up the hill every day, and also living in London, moving there without any friends and family. And all of these things sort of coincided and combined with the point in my life that I was at, and I fell into a pretty deep depression. And then I learned the first rule of working in tech, and that is that every six to eight months there’ll be a reorg. And I was reorged out of my role and needed to find a new one. And I had one of two options: stay in London and find a team within the Facebook ecosystem that could use my skills so that I could stay in London or move to the bay area for this particular team that had headcount.

And they were like, we’ll take you on, we want to have you, but it means you got to move back to the states. And with option two, came back to the states, and just in time for about a year’s worth of soaking up the benefits of this northern California climate and nature and all of the amazing culture of Oakland right before the pandemic, and sort of back in isolation. That isolation again just sort of brought to the forefront the struggle I was having between the kind of impact I wanted to have in a company like Facebook and the kind of impact that I was actually having and whether or not that was commiserate or whether or not I could square that with the negative impact that the company was having, at least from my perspective. And so you’re sitting in a studio by yourself all day for months on end, as a lot of us know, and it leads to a lot of introspection. I was spending a lot of time in therapy, actually. I had just started therapy right before the pandemic started, which was amazing timing, but was also spending a lot of time actually talking to my mother about her own sort of personal journey and the spiritual journey that she was on at the time. We started talking about different belief systems. And she really surprised me by bringing up IFA and this sort of African indigenous spiritual frameworks of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.

And I started to dig into some of these things and do a little bit of research on my own. And she invited me to a weekly class, weekly zoom with someone who was going to sort of run through a curriculum to explain the basics of the framework. And without getting into the details of the spiritual beliefs themselves, I think what was most impactful about that was this underlying system that was about understanding your place within this particular life, this place and time that we exist. And how it connects to our ancestors, the people who came before us, the people around us, and the unseen forces that are at play, whether that be natural forces, societal forces, technological forces. And it really started to give me almost like a narrative framework to be able to investigate my life and see what was working and what wasn’t, what did I want to change. And that’s kind of how I got to this place of I don’t think working in tech is the thing for me. I’m not knocking it for anybody who does want to. I do think the work is incredibly important for all of the reasons that I left.

But it became very clear that my path, my purpose is in storytelling and finding ways to weave narratives that can help us investigate the relationship between what we see in front of us and what we feel like we experience as reality and those unseen forces, the parts of reality that are just outside of our perception and how to sort of marry the two, make them compatible and then create a better reality. Because I do think that that is what we are here for, to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we can’t really do that if we’re not honest about who we are and the world that we live in and what kind of world that we want. So, yeah, long winded answer to say, that’s how I got here.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to say some of those things that you mentioned. I mean, 100% mirror, I think, what a lot of people might be feeling about working in tech, I think just in general, a couple of months ago, we had Maya Gold Robinson on the show. And I’ve known Maya for a long time. I knew her since she was a product designer in Chicago, and since then she has…actually she’s also worked at Facebook. She also worked at Twitter. She created…

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah, I love Maya. She’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

You did? Okay, cool. Yeah. But she was talking about how right now she’s also sort of taking this break and being like, I’m kind of done with tech right now. I’m going to take a year; I’m going to spend it with my family and just sort of figure out what these next steps are. I think what we’re seeing with tech, and I want to talk a little bit more about this kind of creative journey because I feel like part of this personal journey you went, underwent deals also with you as a creative because you said you emerged talking about storytelling. But I feel like we’re starting to see that tech is not all it’s cracked up to mean. Well, yeah, surprise, right? But I think the way and I mentioned this in the interview with Maya, I was like it kind of felt like in some way we were kind of sold like a false bill of goods about tech, about how it is going to offer you this economic prosperity and these opportunities to be on these projects that can change the world. Especially for large tech companies. But then you get in there and you’re subject to so many other isms and like you said, professional reorgs and things like that.

And it can be easy to feel like a cog in the machine and that your work doesn’t really have the impact that maybe you were told it does.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely. And it’s not necessarily that any of those things were completely untrue. You absolutely can work on these projects that have massive impact and change the world and be financially lucrative, even for yourself as an individual, as much as it is often understood that most of that financial impact is going to go to somebody else sitting in a bigger office. But that doesn’t actually always balance out with all of those other things you mentioned. The reorgs, the isms, the sort of cog in the machine feeling that you get when you work on something diligently and over long extended hours with a massive team and you spent two to six months on something and then all of a sudden somebody decides that no one will ever see it, period. Yeah, that gets old actually rather quickly.

Maurice Cherry:

Very quickly. Absolutely very quickly. I’m thinking of my own journey. The last place that I worked at was this tech startup based out of San Francisco, and I came on under the title Creative Strategist. Creative Strategist was like a title. It’s funny you mentioned the Pandemic, because during the Pandemic, I was also thinking of, like well, what do I really call myself? Because prior to getting I don’t want to say prior to getting into tech, but prior to working for the startup that I worked at at the time, I had my own business, still have the business, but back then I had a staff of nine people. They were designers, developers. I was kind of doing creative work with Mailchimp and WordPress and all this kind of stuff.

But then you get into a startup in these companies and the startup I was at at the time, I changed titles maybe about six different times as the company grew. And so, each time that title changed, I don’t know if it really reflected what it is that I really do. It sort of just puts you in a bit of a box in a way. Like I went from being a content marketer to a design communications lead, to marketing lead, to head of media. And I think the last title I had was like senior Creative strategist because it felt right. It was like, yes, I know the creative part, but I also know the business part and I can sort of bring these two things together in a way.

Jonathan Robinson:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But what I basically was doing, and this kind of alludes, I think, a bit to your story is like, I basically was taking creative projects that the company wanted to do and making them happen, which is a producer type of thing, which back then, I didn’t really think that that’s what I did. Or at least that I didn’t associate that with what I did. But the last place I worked; we made a print magazine. We made a print and an online magazine. And I mean, I threw everything into it because I’ve always wanted to do a magazine. I grew up on magazines and we got two issues out the door, really. We only got one issue out the door.

The second one came after they laid off the entire team. But it was a quarterly magazine. I put so much into it, the structure. I’d sent out this weekly hot sheet to let people know when assignments were due. And these are the artists that are working on certain visuals and all this sort of stuff and had a plan for at least a six-issue run. And these are the themes that we’re going to talk about. And these are the writers that I want to bring in. And we did the first one with great success, and we were leading up to the second one.

The second issue was at the printer. Like it was set to go out a week from then. And then they laid us all off because they invited us to like a slack group called Goodbye and we’re like, Wait a minute, what? Wow. Invited us to a slack group called #goodbye. And I think I started my workday at eight and by noon I was unemployed. It was just like that, and I was so pissed off because it didn’t give me enough time to really pull together all my stuff. But it’s like, yeah, you spend so much time putting something together, and then it never sees the light of day. We were going to do this issue on Web3, and I found a Black Web3 ethicist.

Jonathan Robinson:

Wow.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay? Brought them on as, like, a guest editor-in-chief, and we curated the entire magazine for the point of view we wanted to have. It will never see the light of day.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s crazy. This is unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable. Yeah. I think we can only get, like, one or two of those experiences before we’re like, what are we doing this for?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve had three of them since the pandemic started. I had one in 2020. in 2021, and one last year. And yeah, it wears on you in such an insidious way where you know that you can do great work because you know that what you’re capable of, but then it’s like, does it have value in this, I don’t know, tech system that I’m a part of? It’s so weird.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I really appreciate that particular phrasing. Does it have value in this ecosystem that I exist in? I think that was the turning point in at least my therapy practice that helped me decide, okay, I need to leave. Or at the very least, I need to change how I approach this space and show up in this space, because I don’t have the same value system as these people do. I’m being evaluated on a completely different criteria than I evaluate myself. I’m disappointed and feeling upset because I keep trying to make their value system mesh with mine. They don’t need to. They don’t need to.

I step into this space. I understand that these are the criteria, these are the objectives, these are the responsibilities that I have. So, I’ll do those things. But I think I may be misremembering this secondhand quote, but I believe it was Toni Morrison talking about her first job and how her father told her, listen, you work over there. Those people are not your family. You go there, you get your money, and then you come home. And that is how she approached every job that wasn’t her personal projects. And that’s kind of the mindset I had to switch into that helped me get to the place of actually, I don’t think I want to keep showing up here at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s tough, because with these tech companies, we might as well just keep talking about it, but we’re talking about these tech companies, and the first thing that they really try to sell you on is like, we’re like a family. This is like a family thing. And even that can be super loaded, especially if you don’t come from a great family environment that could turn you off if they’re like, Wait a minute. I actually don’t fuck my family like that. So, I don’t know. This is like a thing that I want, but it sort of builds this in this sort of period of introspection, you start to wonder if the work you do is even valued by this industry. So maybe what I do is better suited for media than for tech or maybe it’s better suited for nonprofits than for tech. Like something where that’s right, the abilities that I have can be used towards a greater good that’s not about KPIs and personal performance plans and stuff like that.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s exactly right. I think that language that they sort of I mean, it’s not just language, it’s a whole sideshow experience that they sort of bombard you with as you step into these environments where they tell you, yes, we’re all family. This company is yours; no problem is someone else’s problem. You can have all the impact that you can possibly dream of if you just put together an idea and work hard to make it happen. All of those things. And they talk about the values that they have of showing up as your authentic self, whatever that means, and radical honesty and being collaborative and caring about the humans that we serve, our customers, our users, or whatever a new term they decide to use to clean up the fact that actually they’re talking about the people they make money off of. All of that sort of sets this context where you can very quickly forget that you’re in a corporation. Like you’re working at a place that is an equivalent size and scale of an ExxonMobil.

And maybe if you were working at AT&T, you wouldn’t necessarily think too much about the coffee and the cereal and the food courts and all of the amenities and how it does actually feel very comfortable and like a family. And so, it’s easier to remember that you work for a corporation. I think because of the way that some of these tech companies decorate their culture, the aesthetics of their culture obscure that reality. That it is very much a corporate culture where capital and profit reign supreme. And as much as they might say that they want to prioritize the betterment of humanity, they will always make sure that they run that language by legal so that they can always prioritize their dollars in that final hour. Yeah. And just sort of unpacking all of that takes some time and it takes some introspection. You really do have to ask yourself, is this company mine? Do my values actually align with the stated values of the company? And then are those values being practiced in the day to day see those values in the impact that we mean? I think that’s difficult enough to ask of yourself, but it is a necessary first step so that you can ask it of the companies that you work for.

Maurice Cherry:

Right at this point I’m like Marshawn Lynch. I’m just showing. Up so I don’t get fined.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s it. That’s it. That is it. I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

I worked for AT&T. I worked for AT&T for almost two and a half years. This was back in two thousand…from 2006 to 2008, I worked there. And at the time their internal sort of slogan was “Shaping Human Capital,” which is like, okay, like, you walk into the building, and you have this big, huge banner – shaping human capital. And I mean, the two and a half years I worked there were grueling not so much in an emotional way, but it’s like it wore on me in such a way that it was affecting me physically and I had to leave.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And that’s when I left and started my own business. And I feel like that’s really when I started to find myself and my career and my purpose is when I left. And the only reason I sort of got back in, nine years later, honestly, was because the market had changed and the kind of work that I was doing with my studio just wasn’t as profitable as it was before. And I wanted more stability because working for yourself is great, but working for yourself can be a real roller coaster, especially because we started in the middle of a recession and it’s not very easy to try to make the money that you need to pay your bills and just sort of exist in this capitalist society.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think things are different now, but not necessarily better because what’s happened is a lot of these tech startups are picking the worst parts of corporate America and wrapping them in this sort of aesthetic, as you mentioned, to make it seem like, oh, it’s going to be fun and foosball tables and beer on Fridays and stuff like that. Kristy Tillman, who I’ve had on the show before, she’s a friend of mine and I know she once talked about filters. No, what’d she say? Perks as filters. So, like, a lot of companies will list all these different perks, and the perks are fairly similar among companies of a certain size that have reached a certain level of funding. It’s like unlimited PTO. And this sounds great if you’re coming from a place where you had to fight and claw for every day off that you had to get – unlimited PTO sounds great.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But then that can also be a filter for the fact that the internal culture will overwork you so much that you will feel guilty for utilizing those days and often get penalized for using those days even if they’re not in an egregious manner. I mean, this especially happened during the pandemic with remote stuff. Like it’s remote, you can work from anywhere. And some people took advantage of that. Actually, at the last place that I worked, I’m not going to name where, but people can search and find there were some people that basically traveled every month, and it was remote and so they could work from anywhere. And they’re like, oh, well, if I can work from anywhere, I’m just going to backpack through Europe. That sounds nice, but then what happens is that builds enmity with the people that don’t backpack through Europe or can’t just pick up and leave and go workplaces. And so even though the company had that as a perk of working there, they ended up penalizing this person for it.

And they were just sort of like, “I don’t understand. I’m still getting my work done. I’m going between times, nothing is happening, and I’m getting penalized for what I do outside of work in this way.”

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Divesting from all of this is, I feel, like the smartest move to try to make, especially with what we’ve seen in the past couple of years with tech layoffs, unionization efforts and really the rise of AI and these new technology things. I mean, we’re talking now just fresh off of the writers…not the writer’s strike, the actor’s strike, just ended. But what we’ve seen this year, if we look back through the whole year, we’ve seen three major unions have strikes and win: the writers, the auto workers, and now the actors. And so, what does that mean now for the future of work in this country? Especially now that we see that these efforts can work? We can lobby together and have better, more holistic workplaces and things like that. I don’t know. I worked at a place where we unionized in 2020 and they laid us off three months later. So, I don’t know if this means now there’s more power that exists.

I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but no, a lot of things are changing in a lot of different ways right now. And I think if you’re a creative person, it can be tough to kind of find your anchor amidst all this.

Jonathan Robinson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And you touched on a lot of different ways in which the currents of society, or at least the trends that society is experiencing, all of the different ways that they sort of knock us around as creatives trying to find our footing. But I do think at the same time, those currents, those trends, those forces, they can help us understand some of the different forces at play on the inside of us so that we can find what movements to attach ourselves to or to move in parallel with that can help us figure out what’s going to be right for ourselves as much as all of this promise of tech was a great way for a lot of us to move up the sort of economic ladder in ways that other folks in our families or previous generations were unable to or barred from. At the same time, we also see that just because you get higher up the ladder doesn’t mean the guy at the top of the pyramid isn’t going to kick this ladder off in order to save a couple of dollars. You can make all of the cool stuff in the world, but if this company needs to ensure that its profit margins look a certain way so that their shareholders are going to be happy, then you’ll find out exactly how they feel about family, so to speak, and you’ll be gone.

And these technologies that we created together out of an enthusiasm in a more optimistic sense for the possibilities and all of the different solutions that we could find within these technologies. They are at the same time because they are owned by people at the top who don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind and are specifically incentivized to care more about how much money shareholders are making than how well our lives are impacted. We see those technologies being turned against us and at the same time to the point of these different unions recently being victorious over some of those forces. We can see that when we look to each other’s humanity and find the common cause and stand in solidarity with the prioritization of the human aspect of our work that we are not capital, we are humans and stand firm in those convictions. We can quite literally face giants and move mountains. But it is still difficult for every actor’s union or writers’ union or the auto workers union. We have, to your point, examples of unionizing and immediately finding yourself out of work or all of the different ways that unions have been combated in the tech industry or in the visual effects industry and the advertising industry, all of which I’ve had some experience working in. And I see how much the struggles of these writers, these actors, mirror exactly what so many of us have experienced both in tech, in advertising, in visual effects and production.

We just haven’t been able to make some of those en masse movements last long enough to make that impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Maurice Cherry:

No, we definitely should keep trying and I think because we’re seeing how it’s worked on, again, this very large level like in the entertainment industry or in the auto industry, I think it’s given people more visibility into it and honestly, it’s giving people more knowledge. It’s amazing when we were back, when we were trying to unionize at Glitch, it was amazing how many people had no experience about unions and what they were except like negative talking points. And it’s like you do realize that some of the perks that you have are the direct results of unionization in the past. Like the eight-hour workday.

Jonathan Robinson:

These things.

Maurice Cherry:

Came because people unionized in the past. So, you wouldn’t have to work 12,13, 14 hours a day or whatever. But yeah, we’re starting to see, I think the tide shifted a little bit. I’m curious though, for you where did this, and if I can call it this, this love for creating and producing and storytelling. Where did this come from? Did this come from you growing up, or…tell me about that.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with stories from a sort of consumption perspective. My mom was trained as a teacher and sort of raised me with a strong emphasis on traditional education. So, I was always reading something. I mean, I had to do book reports over summer break. When I would finish my homework too fast, she would create more curriculum for me to do. I was getting in trouble for talking too much in class, and the teacher said, well, he finishes his work, and then he starts talking to the other students, and that’s disruptive. So, she made an agreement with the teacher to create an entire curriculum that she would grade that would be included as part of my grade.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Mama didn’t play!

Jonathan Robinson:

No, not at all. So, I was constantly reading and consuming stories, and I’ve always been a deeply curious individual. I don’t want to just know what happened or even how it happened. I also want to understand why it happened. And I think all of that extra emphasis on critical thinking, on reading analysis, and on doing your own research and citing your sources sort of built this almost like programming in my brain to understand stories, both from a surface level as an entertainment experience, but also on a deeper level as a tool for communicating information and actually being able to sort of transcribe experiences from one person to another without having to directly live through them. The thing that was included in the story. So, I’ve always sort of had that perspective on storytelling to a certain point. I graduated high school and was like, I want to be a comic book artist.

The dream was to work at Marvel, maybe work on an X-Men or Spider-Man comic. And after some experience in an art school, the now defunct Art Institute of Las Vegas very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to get the kind of education that I needed from that particular place and moved to New. York, just because I felt like that was my Mecca, the place that had been calling to me, where I was going to figure it all out, and quite literally stumbled into a career in advertising as a producer. I was on my girlfriend’s couch trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent the next month, found a Craigslist ad for a project manager intern, and my only question in the interview was, what’s a project manager? And how can you be a manager and an intern at the same time? That experience really opened up an entire world of possibilities. I didn’t realize that there were so many creative individuals with stable, well-paying jobs. Even if you are working 12 hours a day, and maybe more than that, sometimes you could make websites and flash banners and mobile apps, and one job leads to another. And I think the place that really blew the doors open on the possibilities was The Mill. Working there was quite a privilege in both stints that I was there.

The first time they were starting what they called their Mill digital team. And the whole idea was around. The mill is traditionally a VFX studio. They do all of the…their whole little tagline is like, “if you watch the Super Bowl, at least two out of every three commercials that you saw, The Mill touched in one way or another.” But they were trying to move into this more digital, out of home experiential field that was starting to pop up at the time. And I got to work with a really incredible dream team of creative and technically excellent individuals who sort of took me under their wing as this young 22-year-old little idiot who didn’t know anything but would follow instructions and ask as many questions as came to mind. And they exposed me to the possibilities of what you can do with a serviceable, knowledge of available technology and a strong creative vision. Add to that the third leg of the stool, some business sense and tact to be able to convince folks to pay for those things, and you got yourself a pretty promising path for making some cool things and getting paid to do that.

But working there meant being able to, on the one hand, work with animators who typically did 3D animation for visual effects in like a Gillette commercial and trying to explain to them how you’re going to turn a couple of data sets into a particle visualization that replicates the visuals of the sort of mackerels and tuna form of something like a school. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

Fish or something like that. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Trying to convince these folks to do things with their expertise and their most familiar tools that they had never been asked to do. And then also trying to tell stories with these data points, because, again, we’re in the advertising and marketing field, so everybody’s got a narrative. And so that experience really helped to shape the possibilities of how I could connect my love of stories and the depths of what stories mean. Not just the what or the how, but the why with these new emerging technologies and the deep institutional knowledge of more traditional media that could influence the way that you combine these new technologies to create experiences that really allow us to experience stories in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. Yeah, it really does feel like a serendipitous journey where I sort of stumbled into all of the places and things that I needed in order to be the person that I am today to do the things that I want to do. But I like to believe that that’s how life is supposed to work. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you end up where…

Maurice Cherry:

…you’re supposed to be stepping out on faith, right?

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned your mom, you mentioned this girlfriend you had at the time who were some of the other people that really helped support you during this journey.

Jonathan Robinson:

I think I’m going to name off some of the folks that really stood me up at The Mill that first time. My first mentor, Kay Gowda, was the senior producer for that Mill digital team. And when I say he stepped in as a big brother and really looked out for me both from and in the office process perspective, but also from outside life, like, what are you trying to do in this space? And here are some of the possibilities. He really set me up with a lot of the tools that I still use to this day to help navigate ambiguity and figure out what it is that I want. He just sort of built in these habits of constantly seeking new information on a daily basis. I used to start my day by combing through like a folder of ten to twelve websites and blogs that would post about new marketing and technology experiences and news, and then I sort of put that together into an email to send out once a week for the team. I was already a curious individual, but being able to focus that curiosity in a way that tied to whatever productive endeavor that I was trying to achieve at the time, I think was a really formative bit of knowledge. You also helped me just sort of find the calm in the storm of being a producer in a high paced environment with lots of conflicting objectives and demands, just really being able to settle in and say, like, I’m not going to solve everything, but if I can solve one thing, what is that? And let me do that first.

It really sort of grounded me and allowed me to gracefully navigate some of the more tumultuous projects and moments in my career. So, Kay Gowda is a huge influence. The executive producer of that team, Bridget Shields, really looked out for me both in sort of setting me up for success in some of the smaller pitch projects that came in the door during that year that I worked there the first time. I mean, I did my first pitch to Nike and landed the job under her guidance. And she trusted me to do this, having not seen any real evidence that I could. She just trusted me and gave me the support to make decisions and was always available to talk through any questions that I had. But more than that, she looked out for me. When we all got fired, I was on that team for about eight months before, similar to your Slack, your #goodbye Slack channel, we were all individually called downstairs into the conference room one after another, and every time somebody came back up.

They came back up silent, closed their laptop, grabbed their things and walked out of the room. Yeah. Eventually I understood what was happening, started saving some files, but yeah, we were all sort of let go unceremoniously without notice. On a Friday and the following Monday morning, Bridget had an email in my inbox of three different places that she had already called to let them know that I was available for work.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Jonathan Robinson:

She told me exactly what salary to say that I was being paid, which was not the salary that I was being paid, but it was definitely going to be a healthy increase. She told me exactly what projects to reference and how to represent my impact and what title I need to speak to. Interactive producer or creative producer. And that’s sort of where that naming convention was first introduced. For me, those connections, those calls that she made really paved the way for every job I’ve had since then. I really appreciate the way that she looks out for her team because I got to admit that wasn’t even something that was super special for me. She does that for everyone she works with. So, I really appreciate those individuals.

I think more recently, I got to give credit to that second Mill crew, the second stint, particularly on our Executive Briefing Center experiential multiyear project. These folks really helped me sort of figure out that I was more than just a good producer, that I could be a good creative leader as well. Kinda. Akash is top of the list. She’s my partner now. I met her there at The Mill. Our creative collaboration really expanded the ways that I felt comfortable showing up in executive meetings and representing creative work, not, you know, the X’s and O’s of a schedule or a budget. Collaborators like Will Arnold, whose endless curiosity really inspired me to continue to explore the visual concepts that I wanted to introduce into some of the work that I was exploring at the time.

And he actually came through and provided a lot of the projection visuals in the music video that I ended up directing a couple of years ago. Eric Chang, who’s a creative strategist and writer, and his wild imagination and reserved intellect…just a really grounding force that helps me cut the noise out and really focus on what matters while also finding joy in really small things. Yeah, I mean, I could probably go on and on and on. There’s so many people who have made it possible for me to be where I am today, and if I keep going, I’m going to go forever.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give to somebody that they’re listening to this episode, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to sort of, I don’t know, maybe just try to figure out where they are right now. Like, maybe this has been a tough year for them and they’re feeling a bit unmoored and trying to kind of find their way in this current space. What advice would you give them?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think first I’d say slow down and listen. Look around, see, take note of where you are and how you feel. I think ultimately one of the things that has been most emphasized over the last couple of years for me has been that you’re always exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where you go next is entirely up to you. We can only actually live in the present, but when we are able to be our most present, we actually get to expand the idea of what present is in order to reshape the past and what it means for us and to be able to sort of look further into the future as to where we want to go and what our next step should be for us anyway. Because ultimately, the only person who can tell you what to do next and where to go is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what you want and why you want it. There’s plenty of noise in the world that can sort of interrupt, obscure or even manipulate that knowledge.

I mean, we’ve talked about it over the course of this conversation. The technology, the corporations, the capitalism, the politics, all of it. All of that noise makes it really hard to hear your own voice. But when you seek that voice through stillness, through rest, through reflection, it becomes a lot easier to know that your next step is the right one because it’s your step and that is really all that matters.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, first I want to be on set of major Sci-Fi production, hopefully making my story come to life. Even if that is an optimistic projection. I want to be involved in the conversation around how these new forms of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, don’t have to be at odds with the most precious aspects of our human experience, our genuine humanity. In fact, if we take the time to understand ourselves and the technologies in full context of how either came to be, then we can find parallels that can between those sort of evolutionary journeys and use the relationship between the human interface and the technological interface to better ourselves from a truly human perspective. I don’t mean, like, escaping into fantasy worlds and ignoring deteriorating physical reality that we all live in in this planet or even sort of like replacing aspects of our humanity with technology to make things easier or more convenient. I do mean truly improving the human experience, deepening our connection with each other and with the natural world through experiences that teach us about those relationships as we interact with these technologies that are so complex and so immersive. Those are the kinds of projects that I want to bring to life. From an experiential standpoint, five years from now, I want to be having the conversation of how these experiences that I’ve created for both installation and virtual reality have really tried to hammer home that point and bring that conversation to a larger audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work? Where can they follow you, follow your journey? Where can they find that online?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, you guys can follow me on Instagram for my musings and ramblings. That’s at U-A-T-J-O-N-C or keep up with me via my website. Jonrobinson.me. That’s J-O-N-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N me. Honestly, those are the two best places to keep up with what I’m doing. And a lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is shouting about our current realities. So, brace yourself and bring your thinking cap. I love a discussion.

Always happy to hear from anybody on any of these topics. Don’t be a stranger, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, Jon Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea how I thought this conversation might go and then once you started talking, I feel like it just sort of went in a completely kind of free form direction, which I think is good. I mean, I think we touched on a lot of different topics that are, I think, on the minds of a lot of creatives right now. Particularly, I think, a lot of creatives that work in the tech industry and such. I really feel like you’re at a place where you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to figure out what your next move is. And I think you gave such great advice about just slowing down and listening and letting that be what guides you next. And I’m really excited to see what’s going to guide you next once you come sort of at the end of this personal journey. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

I appreciate it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Thanks for having me, Maurice. I enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, I look forward to the new individuals you have on. This has been an amazing platform, and I really appreciated the opportunity.

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. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

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Sam Viotty

We’re exploring the intersections of design, music, and social impact with this week’s guest, Sam Viotty. Not only is Sam an extremely knowledgeable program and experience designer, but she’s also the co-owner of a record label and she’s an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. And that’s just scratching the surface!

We started off by defining program design and experience design, and from there Sam talked about her label, Rosedale Collective, and her dedication to showcasing BIPOC voices in country music. She also dove into her previous work at The Obama Foundation, and how that opened her world to the importance of design in project management and social innovation (and for starting her own company, Viotty Design Studio). Sam even talked a bit about her current role at Adobe, and shared her plans on what she hopes to accomplish in the near future.

Sam’s career is a lesson in how we can all reshape our perspective on the conventional borders of design — something important to learn in this ever-changing world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Sam Viotty:

I’m Sam Viotty. I’m a program and experience designer, a creative at heart, and someone who really just loves design all things design.

Maurice Cherry:

Just before we really kind of get into the conversation, I’d love for you to explain just off the top, like, what does experience design and program design mean to you? And the reason I’m asking this is because oftentimes and we’ll, I think, get to this later in our conversation oftentimes when people think of design, they’ll only think UI/UX, visual type of thing. What does experience design and program design mean to you?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I think a lot of the time when I say program design, people are like, you design computer programs? I’m like, no, not that kind of design. Or they’re like interior design. And so program and experience design really to me is thinking about service and experiences for people. It really is people design in how I see it. So when we’re designing the ways that people interact with one another, build relationships, operate in the world professionally, develop themselves, that’s how I see program design. So really designing programs and experiences that people go through and then experience design, I think is a little bit more broad than program design. So it includes program design, but also thinking about events and experiences and things that people kind of experiencing go through. So events, conferences, those types of things, all thinking about not just what people are going experiencing, but seeing, smelling what they’re taking away.

A lot of it is like learning. So overall experience.

Maurice Cherry:

So it’s kind of like an encompassing it’s funny you mentioned event because that’s really sort of something that indulges or can indulge all of your senses. What you see, the swag you pick up, any sort of beverages or drinks or food or anything like all of that kind of can fall into the realm of experience, design, it sounds like.

Sam Viotty:

Correct? Yeah, absolutely right.

Maurice Cherry:

How have things been going for you this year?

Sam Viotty:

It’s been a busy year. I was traveling a lot. I took on just, like, really trying to spend a lot of time thinking about what is my life outside of my professional work. I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. Started hiking this year. Yeah, I just really trying to absorb a lot of the outdoors now that I live in a warm climate. I grew up on the East Coast, and so it’s really nice to spend more time outdoors more times during the year. And I feel like it’s definitely ignited my creativity in a way that it hasn’t before.

So I’m really excited about that. So, yeah, spending lots of time outdoors reading, trying to figure out this has been an exploratory year, and I think next year will be more of the taking action on those exploratory ideas. But I’ve been thinking a lot about I’ve always thought of myself as a designer and a creative and an artist, but recently have more thought about myself as being a curator. So really trying to dive into what that means.

Maurice Cherry:

And also, I should say congratulations are in order. I was doing my research, and I saw you were recently selected to participate in something called the 2023 Keychange US Talent Development Program. So congratulations on that.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you so much. Really excited about it. It kicked off at the beginning of October with a cohort of 25 really incredible human beings. It made my heart really warm to spend, like, three days with all of them started in October and it ends in March. So I’m really at the beginning of the program right now, and so far we’ve only had a few interactions, so one in person and two virtual events together. And I already feel like I’m a part of a community, which is why I applied. I was really excited about being a part of a larger music and artist creative community in Los Angeles. But it’s a Los Angeles, New York and Nashville based program, so we’re also the first US cohort.

So I love being a part of a pilot program. We’ll probably get into this later, but yeah, I’ve been a part of a lot of pilot first time programs, which really is exciting to me to kind of lay the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s been really fun. We’ve spent time working together. We went to Joshua Tree Music Festival together. I’ve never gone to a music festival for work before as fun, so that was amazing. Yeah. Being a professional at a music festival is interesting.

It was really so four of the participants in the program also performed, and it was the first time I got to see them perform. So just seeing the people who are your peers do their thing on stage was just like a proud mom sitting in the audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Sam Viotty:

So, yeah, it’s a really beautiful community that they’ve built.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you said it’s the first US based cohort. Is it normally international?

Sam Viotty:

It sounds like yeah, it’s an EU funded program, so they mostly do projects in Europe, and so this is the first time they’re doing a cohort in the United States, which is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:

And now what will you be doing as part of the program? Is this affiliated with some of your other work?

Sam Viotty:

It is. So I applied as an innovator. So it’s twelve innovators and 13 musicians or artists who come together to work just professionally develop. So really thinking about what is your career? I’m the co-founder of a small indie music accelerator and label focused on uplifting the voices of people of color in country, folk and Americana music. We’re expanding to other genres of music. So think like genres that you don’t normally see people of color on the charts. We’re helping amplify those. I applied thinking, how incredible would it be to be a part of a cohort of people who are working towards similar things, trying to achieve equity in the music space, trying to change the music industry.

I’ve been working in the music industry for a few years now, and it’s very interesting. It is unlike any industry that I’ve ever worked in. I used to work in nonprofit, I moved to the private sector. But music feels very different. And living in Los Angeles, on any Wednesday, you’ll go grab lunch and you’re like, Why is it crowded? Because everyone’s having a lunch work meeting within a different culture than I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, it’s very different. I applied thinking, how do I build my music community and work alongside other musicians and innovators to change how the music industry operates. A lot of the label is called Rosedale Collective.

We really often think about how do we change the way that artists are treated and supported and how do they have ownership, in particular, Black and brown people having ownership over the work that they create. So how do we revision no pun intended, actually, how do we revision a way forward for how artists create work and work with labels? And so we’ve designed a residency program that is a year long. We’ve done a few that are shorter. We have not launched our long term, one year long program yet, but we’re working on that. But the long term vision is you support a cohort of artists throughout a year. You pay them a salary and they get to focus on making the art. And then instead of owning the It or the masters to the work that the artists create, we revenue share throughout across all of the different categories that an artist to make money. So through merch and royalties on streaming and touring.

So we split those and instead of just outright owning the work, an artist gets to keep ownership. So we’re really trying to rethink how the industry makes money with artists, and right now they’re making money off of artists. So we’re like, how do we make money with you instead of off of you?

Maurice Cherry:

First off, that is a fascinating model. I mean, I think there’s no shortage of horror stories about musicians getting shafted in some way by the music industry or taken advantage of or something. So I love that you sort of have this revenue share thing and then also the fact that the focus is on a genre of music. I know you said you want to expand it, but you’re focusing right now on country music, which, again, is probably not seen as very super diverse. Like, I can probably count the number of Black country artists. There’s more now than when I was a kid. I’ll say that in terms of visibility, but yeah, that’s such an awesome I mean, I feel like there’s a great story behind even the fact that you co own a record label. That is amazing.

Sam Viotty:

It’s a fun, actually. I met my co-founders at a conference in DC while I was working at the Obama Foundation. We got tickets to A Day of Healing and Restorative Justice. And so I was like, I’d love to not go into the office today. I’d rather be at a conference. And so met these people who are working at the intersection of social impact and entertainment. And I was like, this is such a cool job. You just get to use celebrity money to change the world.

That’s awesome. I was 25 then, so I was still doe-eyed and excited…a little jaded now. So I was very excited about that. And so I kept in contact with the people who were working there, and they reached out to me in 2020 about starting a record label and thinking about designing programs for people of color in the country music space. And so I was like, I don’t know a ton about country music. I know a little Shania Twain, but I do know that it feels pretty racist and so that I can get behind challenging that. And so how do we really think about what music would look like and how it would be different if Black people or people of color kind of were at the forefront? So country music was made by people of color. And so Charley Pride is one of our people that we look up to.

And so, yeah, how do we just reclaim a genre that really was made by Black people? And now the face of country music is not a Black person, not in the United States and not on the top charts. So how do we reclaim that? So we spent a lot of time thinking about narrative change and really redesigning the system of the music industry.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like there’s a lot that has to go behind designing a label. I mean, of course you think of general things like album art and logos and things of that nature, but the design and business of putting something like that together, that seems like such a huge undertaking.

Sam Viotty:

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. And I think it actually has been really beneficial that I stepped into the music industry not knowing how the music industry works, because I’ve just been doing what I think makes sense, and that doesn’t necessarily align with what actually happens. And so I’m like, yeah, I think artists should own their work. And people are like, well, it doesn’t really work that way because we don’t make a profit. I’m like, well, that doesn’t make sense. We could figure out a way to make money while also letting people own things that they make. So let’s just design that.

I very lucky. My co-founder is an incredible…I don’t think he would consider himself a designer, but he designed our logo, and I think it’s genius. It’s a circle that has lines going through it and it’s the middle of a guitar. It’s a really amazing logo. I’m very proud of the logo. So we put it on everything. I wear a sweatshirt. I have a hat. Stickers.

And so thinking about how do we take symbols of country music and redefine them? Because I think right now people think country music. I think or before this, I used to think cowboy hat, cowboy shoots, cowboy boots. So what are the symbols of country music? And what are the symbols of country music for people of color. The guitar is one of them. We work with some other organizations who really like to uplift Black and brown artists. One of them is Black Opry, and so their logo is also a guitar. So just thinking about the symbols and iconography for black country music has been really exciting because I think it’s a different language. Like, we’re speaking a different language to a different audience.

And so I spent a lot of my time in undergrad thinking about symbols and iconography. And so it was exciting to bring that piece to the label. And thinking about a label, it’s like developing a brand. We developed a brand before we did anything. We came up with colors and a logo and a design and a deck. And so so much of it was like, how do we communicate who we are and what we do before we’ve even done anything? Which lots of conversations, lots of talking to people before we did a single thing, we did a listening and learning tour where we talked to tens of musicians, like 100 music execs and people in the music industry and in the nonprofit space trying to change things, social impact people. So just spend a lot of time talking to people to be like, what are people looking at? What do people feel and how do we communicate what we’re trying to communicate? And who is our audience, actually? So goes into a lot of the design work. When I went to grad school, I went to grad school at Emerson in a pilot program.

It was called Civic Media Art and Practice. And so that’s where I learned about design thinking. And so I’ve brought design thinking into ever since I’ve learned about it, I’ve brought it into every single job. And so I think when I don’t know what to do, I just rely on that process. I’m like, it’ll be good, we’ll just figure out how. It’s like the scientific method. I’m like, I don’t know how to get an answer, but if we just use this process, I can get us to figuring out how we get an answer. We did a lot of that.

And so that first stage of talking and listening to people is very similar to the empathy stage and the design thinking process.

Maurice Cherry:

I say that all the time to people about how design thinking is very much like the scientific method. So I’m glad that we see eye to eye on that.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I explained it like that. I’m like, it’s the same thing. People just yeah, anthropologists looked at it and I guess the design school looked at it and then rebrand it’s all branding. They rebranded it, but it’s the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:

I think what you’re doing with one, shining a light on country music and also promoting and uplifting artists, BIPOC artists, et cetera, in country is great because I grew up as a musician. I grew up as a jazz musician mostly, but there was one thing about like and this might be a bit of a stretch, so if it is, please let me know. But I feel like a lot of could do really well as contemporary country songs. I feel like there’s a thin line between Toni Braxton and that being a country song. I’m thinking love should have like “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” could totally be a country song.

Sam Viotty:

I absolutely could be a country song. We used to jokingly make a criteria checklist for what is a country song. One was like, is it about love or heartbreak? Check. Does it have a Twang check? I think you’re right. The only thing missing from the twang, like, if they all had a twang, they would absolutely be country.

Maurice Cherry:

Yes. A lot of, like, Anita Baker songs could definitely also sound like country songs. She has like, a slight Twang. But I get what you mean though. There is sort of a checklist of like, is it heartbreak? Is it lament in some capacity then it could totally be a country song. Now, we talked about Rosedale, but also you have another job where you work for Adobe. Can you talk a little bit about what you do there?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, that is really exciting. I spend most of my time working at Adobe now. It’s one of those companies that when you’re young and in college and you think about design and education and what’s the coolest job you could have. It is the job I have now. And I think that’s incredible. College me would be very proud. So right now, I lead all of Adobe’s higher education professional development. So training programs for faculty and students in higher education in the United States.

We’re expanding to the United Kingdom and Australia. Starting to think globally about what does it mean and what are the skills that a 21st century college graduate needs in order to operate in the world. Adobe is notorious for being extremely challenging, having a high learning, a very difficult learning curve and being quite know one financially. And also, just like, the tools are complicated and there are a lot of them. Adobe has launched something called Adobe Express, which is the kind of premier product that I work on and work with schools to use. So think of the rival Canva as…Canva was a response to Adobe being really difficult. Adobe Express is a response to that. And so it’s an incredible tool.

I think the thing that’s exciting about Adobe Express is it has the generative AI in it, which is really helpful now and interesting, brings a conversation about ethics and IP and copyright, which Adobe is big on, especially because we’ve been working with artists and illustrators and graphic designers for ages. I spend a lot of my time helping faculty and schools and instructional designers think about what does it need to be a digitally fluent individual? And so how do you redesign your curriculum so that students are getting the skills that they need to be successful beyond college. So instead of maybe writing that ten page paper, what does it look like to help a student create an assignment that is actually a video storytelling project or create a podcast instead of the paper? So what is the alternative to the typical research paper? Because in my personal job, I am not writing research paper long things anymore. I am doing research and then applying it to a project. And so how do we do a little bit more project based learning at the higher ed level? I think a lot of K Twelve and high schools have taken this on, which is incredible. But I think the project based learning often happens either in really vocational or technical student projects. So if you’re in a graphic design class or create this poster or create a project for a client, those things happen. But in the kind of social sciences and English classes that’s not really happening.

It’s still pretty static and it’s like write a paper to respond to this. And I’m like, the world that we live in now doesn’t really do that. So how do we change how we’re thinking about it? And how do we cultivate the skills that people need? Creating presentations, marketing on social media, creating posters, creating graphics like everyone video and short form storytelling. Short form video is the primary way that people communicate now. They cannot scroll on any social media without seeing video. How do we cultivate those skills to make sure that students are signed up for success? So I spent a lot of my time doing that, which is really cool because I was really interested. I started my career in education and then I also just have always had this passion for being creative and working with creatives and just thinking about arts and culture. And so I feel like I get to bring those worlds together in my role at Adobe.

Maurice Cherry:

Now that is fascinating. You’re designing education or you’re designing the way that people are learning about these new tools and these new methods. And I’m curious, does that work and the work you do with Rosedale collectors, does that bleed into each other in any way? It feels like that could be a lot to possibly try to balance it.

Sam Viotty:

Is it’s like, you know, corporate world and also working at a small indie, but I sit in between the education team and the marketing team. And so I’ve learned so much about corporate marketing through working at Adobe, which as an Indie label and accelerator, we have the finances to play small. But I’m like how do we play big? Because that’s how the music industry works. There’s so much like everyone’s a musician, everyone can be right. And so how do you get the people that you want to bubble to the top? And it’s marketing. I was talking about those interviews earlier and we talked to so many artists, and I’d say, what do you need help with? What’s your biggest struggle right now? It is not songwriting. It is not making the music. It is not finding a producer.

It isn’t even touring. It is marketing. They’re like, how do I get someone to hear my music? It’s marketing and distribution. And so I’ve learned a lot about marketing and distribution in this corporate role and seeing how that plays out and being able to say, okay, if that’s true here, how do we apply it to how do we use some of these strategies for our artists and teach them how to do it for themselves? And so I see my role in both of them as I’m professionally developing people. They’re just different. But coincidentally, the artists that I work with are about the same age as the students who faculty are working with. I have a similar audience. Like, how do I prepare these 18 to 25 year olds with 21st century skills to be successful in the world to either market themselves, market the things that they’re working on, and really tell stories?

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think what you’re doing is just such extremely important work because I think what we’ve definitely seen over the past few years is that our systems are changing. I mean, definitely with the advent of AI and things, we’re seeing how that’s been affecting certain industries. But even like you said, with marketing and getting content out there, it’s even weird to call it old school. But the old school ways, which we knew about how to market things and how to learn things are changing. And a lot of that is due to technology. So I think you being at the forefront of that, particularly with sitting kind of between marketing and education teams, that sounds like a dream. I mean, I’m speaking for myself, but that sounds like a dream job to have.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. Again, I think college undergrad me would be like, if someone asked me what job I wanted, it would be this one. And so I’m excited about that. The other thing that I just so excited about is generative AI. I know that it’s a hot topic, but working at Adobe and seeing just, like, how these tools have allowed people to make things that they wouldn’t have created before, same. Like, I also am an illustrator. Not a great one, but it’s my hobby. It has enabled me to create things that I wouldn’t have been able to create before.

And not in a plagiarism way, but I’m like removing the background from something. Used to take ages in Photoshop. Now in Adobe Express, it’s a like, it has saved me time. Technology is catching up with how quickly and how fast the world is. Like, things happen and then it is online in seconds, and the tools are starting to catch up to that. So I’ve been really excited about how do we leverage those tools to ignite creativity because I’m someone who procrastinates, and I also get really stuck. I think generative AI has helped me get unstuck as a brainstorming. Like, you know, let me just pop it in and see what I can start with.

Whereas before, I kind of just sit and wait and then never do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Just recently we had Andre Foster on the show and he has a motion graphics company in Detroit called First Fight and he talks about how he uses generative AI, kind of in the same way that you mentioned it. He uses it like a I think he likened it to a Pinterest board or a mood board where it’s a good place to sort of just take the idea from your head and start to instantly visualize it, to see where you could possibly go next with it.

Sam Viotty:

Love that. I totally agree with that.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about growing up on the East Coast, so I would like to kind of shift the conversation towards that and learn more about just sort of how you got to where you are now. So you grew up on the East Coast. Were you kind of always exposed to a lot of art and creativity and such growing up?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. I grew up in New York City, so every field trip was to a museum. When I was in school. I also had parents who were really excited about the arts. My mother was a dancer, just really excited about performance arts. And with my grandmother and then my dad and my dad’s mother. My dad’s mother was a teacher. I was excited about reading as a kid.

He spent so much time at the library. I used to pick out books, and very often I would pick books based on their covers in contrary to what you’re told. I was like, if it looks cool on the outside, I’m sure it’s cool on the inside. And so I was just really excited about that. I used to draw a lot. Like, the Christmas gifts that I used to get as a kid was like, I don’t know if you remember those. Really big. I hope they still make them.

I haven’t seen them in a while, but it’s like pastel crayons paint.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, those 130 piece art kits or whatever.

Sam Viotty:

Yes. And they’d have a bunch of pencils, and I never used to use they had, like, four types of pencils, and I was like, I don’t know what anyone’s doing with this. I like the color, so I used to get those every year. I’d ask for a new one. I didn’t always need a new one, but, yeah, I used to run the cray pods down to the bone, and so I used to play with those all the time. And so I’d, like, draw pictures of our family, draw pictures of the sky, draw pictures of the books that I’d read. Spent a lot of time drawing and. Creating.

I’d like, do cutouts. I used to play with paper dolls all the time, just always thinking about what I can now see in retrospect is design. And my dad, who just was so proud of me, used to, in our basement, created kind of like a little curatorial gallery of my work on a string through the basement. So anytime I came down or people came down, it felt like a gallery show. And so I always loved museums and art. Yeah, my art was all over the house. Like, it was on the fridge, it was on the walls, it was upstairs. And so I was really encouraged to express my creativity.

My dad was a computer nerd, and so he tried to teach me computer programming when I was younger. I think it was called Logo?

Maurice Cherry:

Logo, with the turtle!

Sam Viotty:

Yes, with the turtle! So my dad was…yes, he tried to teach me that. I hated it. I was like, this is so boring. I can’t stand this. He’s like, but you can create art with it.

I was just, I’m not interested. I really regret it. I wish I became a computer scientist, but I just constantly encouraged. I used to use the Paint app on Microsoft and on, you know, all kids, but I was really into just, like, creating, and I was really encouraged to create, which I’m so grateful for now. I think my parents really let me explore, at least when I was a child. This changes a bit when I get older, but while I was a child, in my adolescence, I was very much encouraged to paint, create, make things get messy, do whatever, and explore my creativity, whether it was, like making my own clothes, designing clothes, designing paper, making notebooks, writing stories, like, anything. And I think that I brought a lot of that into how I kind of exist now and explore my creativity now.

Maurice Cherry:

Did that shift happen in high school?

Sam Viotty:

Yang it did. And I think it’s funny that, you know, that I was not encouraged to explore art when I was in high school. I remember I liked our art class, and I did quite well. My dad was excited, so my mom passed away when I was six. So a little hard. My dad had to take on being a single parent and then remarried. My parents were divorced at the time, so it wasn’t like that stark of they’re dating someone else difference. But I was close to the woman who is now my stepmother, who I’m very close with and who helped raise me.

She was a nurse, and so registered nurse. And so just like a very practical human in a way that maybe my dad and I were not. And so she’s like, you need a practical job. Need you to get a practical skills, like, what are we doing? Which I think she’s brought the logic to my creativity, which is wonderful. But once I got to high school, I was not discouraged from taking art classes, but it was like, well, then what are you going to do? I used to use my room as a curatorial space. I’d buy as many magazines as I could, and then my walls were completely covered with images, and I just would always do that. I’d look at font type and ads. I was like, how do I create this? And I wanted to go into advertising and market and communications, but my parents were just like, maybe I don’t know.

My dad was like, Please go into science. I was like, I’m really not good at physics. And my mom was like, Please do something practical. And so I was kind of, like, torn. And all I really wanted to do was change the world. Then I just became privy. I went to a predominantly Asian school in New York City. So 50% of the population was Asian, maybe 20% was white, and then the rest was, like, Black and Latino.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, maybe Southeast Asian. It was a very interesting mix, but just was starting to become more privy to racism, I think. Growing up in New York City, I’d always thought in high school, thought, I’d go to such a diverse school, I’ve gone to diverse schools, everything’s fine, and then realizing the world just doesn’t operate in the ways that it should. Extreme poverty exists. I want to work in that. How do I do that? And my parents were not excited that they were proud of me, but they were not excited about that career path. My mom’s like, you want to go into nonprofit, you’re not going to make any money. And so I ignored them and went to college.

So I went to college at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Small liberal arts college, about 1600 students. So very small campus was like, you could run around it. I couldn’t even really get my laps off when I go for a run because it was only a mile and barely. So it’s a very small campus. And so I was like, I’m just going to major in English. I wanted to go into marketing, communications, but small liberal arts college only had English as a major. I was like, Seems close enough.

I major in English. My parents are like, sounds fine. It seems like a scale. Great. And I start applying to internships, and I’m not getting anything. Like, absolutely nothing. I’m like, I can write things. This seems practical.

What’s going on? But I was applying to things that were a little bit more creative, a little bit more ad comms marketing, and I think they were, like, looking for someone who was in that. My junior year, there’s a new major called Film and New Media Studies, and so it sat within the English department, and so I could take film classes as an English major, and so I did. And the first class I took was race and racism in U.S. cinema. Blew my mind, was excited. I was like, this is all I want to do forever. I need to change my major right now. I know I’m getting ready to graduate, but I have to.

And I also need to study abroad. So how do I make it happen? My professor and advisor at the time. Incredible. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to switch your major. You’re just going to change it, and you’re going to go to Australia because that’s where they have a mutual program. And you’ll study film and graphic design there. You’ll make up your freshman credit for the major, and then you’ll come back and you’ll finish the credits and you’ll graduate on time.

I was like, great. Sounds lovely. I changed my major to New Media Film and New Media Studies on my resume before even changing it formally on paper. And all of a sudden I’m getting responses back on internships. People are so happy to talk to you. This is ridiculous. And that to me, is the epitome of that’s. The power of branding and marketing.

Yeah, pursued that. I was excited about Film and New Media Studies. I didn’t love actually being behind the camera. I was like a senior in freshman classes in Film Production 101, learning about Aperture. I was like, I don’t want to do this. This is not fun for me. I was like, Can I just tell someone what to do? Isn’t that a thing? And someone’s like, oh, you want to be a director? Yes, exactly. So, yeah, I moved a little bit away from technical film and really loved the theory and things like that.

And so I was able to explore ideas of concepts of social justice and equity and race and representation through that studies and then took that into my hope. I was hoping to take it into my professional career, which I did, which quite different as my first job, which was I was helping first generation college students get into college when I first graduated, which there’s more similarities than I thought. I was really excited about that role, and I wrote a lot. I helped every single student tell their story, writing college essays. I reviewed lots of college essays, lots of supplemental essays. They ended up being more connected than I thought they would be. But yeah, I did not go into a Film and New Media Studies advertising role right after college like I wanted to. But I think supporting students to get into college was really an impactful, one that led me to the career that I have now in education.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like, and I’ve said this on the show also before college is really that time for you to experiment and explore exactly what it is that you want to do. And I think it’s specifically for the reasons that it sounds like your parents didn’t want you to go into some specific field. I mean, K through twelve, we’re kind of booked or we’re sort of subconsciously shaped and molded into a particular trajectory that we may not even want, we may not even want to do. I know for me, when I was growing up, I really wanted to write and I wanted to major in English, and my mom was like, no, you stay on that computer. You’re going to do something with that computer. Like, you’re going to major in something with that. And I liked web design, but I also went to a small liberal arts college, and this was in the oh, my God, I’m dating myself. This is in the they didn’t have web design, so I was like, oh, I’m going to be a computer science major.

And that was not web design back then. I mean, we’re talking 1999, 2000. That was not web design. That curriculum did not exist. You learned it on your own, and you just kind of hoped to make a way for it. It wasn’t something you went to school for. But I say all of that to say college is really that time where you’re able to branch out and see where your interests take you. I mean, there’s very few places outside of that particular type of institution where you’re allowed to explore and play and do different things, and it won’t have a detriment on your status as a human in this capitalist world.

Maurice Cherry:

You know what I mean?

Sam Viotty:

Totally. And I wish I knew it. I guess I felt it then that that’s what it was for. My parents were like, the tuition money four years, so explore all you want within that amount of time. So I felt like there was a ticking time bomb. And I was one of those kids who was like, I literally cannot go back home after college. I can’t live my parents. I am an only child who is just constantly being helicoptered.

I need to live elsewhere for all of us, for everybody. And so I really need a job. I need a job that pays me enough to leave. And so, yeah, I moved to Boston. So my school’s in Massachusetts. I ended up moving to Boston right after college and lived there for quite a bit. But yeah, college was an interesting time, and I loved school. I was one of those kids who loved school.

When I was younger, I looked forward to going to school. I think part of it was being an only child, because I make all these designs and stuff, and the only person looking at them was my dad or friends who came over occasionally. So I was so excited to go to school and get affirmation from teachers.

Maurice Cherry:

I 100% know what that’s like. I mean, I wasn’t the only child. I had an older brother. But yeah, to get that sort of validation that the work that you’re doing means something, it’s actually making an impression on other people. I was very much. Oh, yeah. Especially in college. I was very much like a school kid.

Like, I did not want to go back to Alabama. I’m like, we have to make it out. I don’t know what that looks like, but we got to get out. We can’t go backwards. Now. In 2017, you started working at the Obama Foundation, and you sort of touched on some of your early career things that you did right after Wheaton. How was your time at the Obama Foundation? Like, how did you sort of start there?

Sam Viotty:

That was like I remember getting my offer verbally, and I just was stunned. I was like, I cannot believe I’m about to work for the person who was the first Black president of the United States. It meant so much to me. I think it was after he was in the presidency, so he made a foundation really focused on organizing community work for young people. I worked on the education team at the Obama Foundation, which, again, mixing education with what I was excited to end, like, changing the world. I was like, my goodness, dream job. And it’s so, like, at every stage that I’ve had a job, it’s been like a dream job only. And now I’m in a job that I also think is my dream job.

And I’m like, what will I think years later when I have another job? Anyway, it was incredible. I have made the closest friends I’ve ever made. It was an interesting time. I think a lot of I never worked on a campaign before, but I imagine some of the campaign culture had seeped into our workplace. And so all of us were very close, spent a lot of time together trying to work towards the goal of empowering 18 to 25 year olds to change their worlds and their communities. I loved it. It was incredible. I was hired as an experienced designer, so thinking about our program, so the education team had one program at the time.

I was there for a few years, and so we developed more programs, but the original program was like a one day experience for 150 18 to 25 year olds in Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix, Arizona. And so we went to each city, and we work with community organizations. We’d work with designers and organizers to really fire up these 18 to 25 year olds, get them passionate about the thing that they were excited about. So we’re like, what aren’t you passionate about? What do you care about? And how can we drive you to a plan of action to organize towards that? And so I saw my role as one just understanding our audience. So I spent so much time talking to the 18 to 25 year olds that we worked with. I set up design workshops. I would work with them. So I used a lot of my design thinking stuff from grad school that I learned and would go through that with them.

I taught a lot of our design thinking sessions, so I go from city to city just going through project based learning and talking about, how do we like, well, if this is what you care about, how do we develop a plan for that? How do you understand them? Who is your audience? A lot of 18 to 25 year olds are like, I want to end poverty. And I’m like, yes, where do we start? Like, poverty, poverty where? And so that was really exciting for me, and it was really impactful. I can still remember the day that we brought President Obama to meet all of the students who had been in the program. Not students, community members who had been in the program. And it was just, like, the most joyful I’ve ever seen. People are crying. They’re, like, falling down. He decides to shake every single one of their hands.

He was supposed to be going to a meeting with donors, and we were scheduling him to just take a photo. He was supposed to come and take a photo with the group. We’re very excited about that, that he was going to be able to do that. But he is supposed to be rushing to a donor meeting. He was already late. He was late to come get us for the photo. He finds out that he’s late to the donor meeting and is like, oh, well, and just stands there and shakes 350 hands. And so I’m so happy I got to witness that.

And so that was the power of his brand. I was so lucky to be able to I felt like I could walk into any room and just be listened to because of who we were representing and the power that that had for people in many communities across the united States. It just symbolized change. It symbolized hope. And I’d never been a part of a brand like that. I’d worked at many nonprofits, but obviously nothing like that. And so that experience is yeah, I loved working there. I met so many incredible people, so many smart people who have worked and lived all over, had different experiences, but everyone came together for this one central mission, which was to empower people.

To change the world is absolutely incredible. I think about that experience very often.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, if there’s any brand that could get you probably in the foot of any company, it would be Obama. I mean, God, that has been such an amazing experience to be able to do that kind of work. I think you kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier when you said, like, making I wrote it down. You said something about using celebrity money to change the world. That is awesome.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, it was so great. And the other thing that I was able to do was, because I was our experience designer and helping to design our program, I got to choose who we put on so or who we got to put on a platform. And I was so excited about that. I was like, this is it. I get to choose the people of color that I want to be on stage or the people who I think are making a difference. I can get to curate that experience. So lucky. I’ve worked with Antionette Carroll and Chris Rudd, who have also been on this show, who were a part of that amazing program that we ran over the course of a few years.

So just really excited to be able to give opportunities to people who really deserve one recognition, the amplification, and just, like, the connection with the community that we really thought they were already doing but wanted to uplift them. So absolutely incredible. Got to work with a ton of designers and creators because I was working in that space, and you send an email with Obama.org attached to it, and people responded, which was, you know, there’s.

Maurice Cherry:

A saying that you can’t be what you don’t see. And I can only imagine, because you had that level of access that it probably opened up for you a lot of possibilities of what you could do personally out in the world. I know while you were at the Obama Foundation, you started your own design studio, via studio. Did that sort of come from that time of seeing what was possible because of the Obama Foundation?

Sam Viotty:

It did. I didn’t know how much money existed in the world until I worked. Mean, like, talking to donors and who you have access to and who responds and what people are willing to do, and how many people of color I’d seen and worked with who started their own companies. So many of the designers that we worked with ran their own design firms. And I was like, oh, I can see how it’s possible. I had never thought of it before. I knew I wanted to start something when I was younger, but I didn’t know what. And so I started doing design consulting, so designing programs and giving design thinking advice and doing design sprints and workshops for other companies and nonprofits at the time.

But, yeah, I was so inspired by all the work that I was doing with other people. I was like, well, if you’re doing it, I think I might be able to do this, which is really exciting. And I had help. I mean, the connections that I made at the Obama Foundation and the people and the designers that I spoke, like, I don’t think people were trying to gatekeep at all, which I thought was really beautiful. People were like, I mean, I work with them. You should totally work with them. Let me just make an intro, which I had not experienced before. I think a lot of nonprofits that I worked with before that were gatekeeping, and I understand why.

It was like, well, if I tell this company or this grant about you. Will we get the money next year, right? So it was a lot of, like, I want to keep things to myself, but it was not like that at all. I was like, this is amazing. So everyone wanted to help each other, and so I was able to make connections and get clients pretty quickly. And a lot of them came from I think all of my first clients are Obama Foundation related.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Now, you were there for a number of years, and then afterwards you left and you went to work for a biotech startup, Curative. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Because I could imagine it’s probably a lot different from nonprofit work, especially the Obama Foundation.

Sam Viotty:

So it was 2020. So the pandemic had hit, and I used to do programs in person at the Obama Foundation. 2020 happened. We’re doing programs virtually. I just was like, I don’t know that our programs virtually are doing the same thing that they were when they were in person. And so the world is in a really scary space. I want to be on the ground. And so I got recruited by Curative to lead all of their kind of expansion with communities.

So the job actually when I had that interview with Curative, the woman who hired me actually was in political organizing before that. And she was like, it’s actually she’s like, you’re telling me about your job at the Long Foundation, but she’s like, I think it’s really similar. I know it’s biotech, hear me out. But I think what you’re doing is, like, partnering and working with communities. We’re changing health care, and it’s the same thing, only it’s healthcare and not community organizing. And I was like, I think you’re right. So I partnered with community organizations to pop up COVID testing at the time and then vaccinations for communities of color in particular, where they didn’t have testing and vaccinations. And so I thought that I was like, this feels like a need, right? Like, people are dying.

I want to be of service. And so it was a crazy time. I don’t understand how I did not get COVID then. This is like, before, people were wearing masks. I was out helping set up test sites without a mask. And then I was wearing a mask, and I was traveling everyone’s at home, and I am on a plane to New Orleans to set up a test site alone on the plane because obviously no one’s flying. And I was, like, flying all across the country trying to make sure that people were getting tested. I thankfully, in the year and a half I worked there, never got COVID.

I got COVID last year at a conference. Yeah, literally, just like I was completely fine. But it was a really impactful experience. I got to use my design thinking skills. I did lots of marketing and trying to understand our audience. I worked with a bunch of different types of clients and customers. I worked with city governments. I worked with fire stations.

I worked with federal government. I worked with everyone private sector. I worked with schools. So many schools wanted to go back to in person, but they didn’t have a testing plan. So I was like, working with each individual school to workshop what will work best for you. And so I used a lot of what I felt like was my design thinking hat to design programs and processes that made the most sense so that people could return, not return to life, but be able to live lives that felt safe enough to live and still benefit. Yeah, it was a really crazy time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it feels like it’s a lot of that sort of practical application or continuation. Like the person that hired you said you’re taking that same energy and that same sort of skill of putting programs together, but you’re doing it on really kind of a more tactical level in that way, especially during a time when the pandemic affected. I feel like all of us in different ways, but the one thing we all had to do was sort of figure out how to kind of move through it, navigate through it, move forward, especially with information changing a lot. Like you said, pre masks is a time that now is a bit hard to think of because they were so ubiquitous. And I mean, people are kind of still wearing masks now because we’re kind of still in the pandemic. But in a lot of ways, because of work that people like you have done, we found ways to kind of manage our lives through it, which who knows how long that would have taken if that didn’t exist or if there weren’t people like you that were able to make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks. Yeah, I was able to hire an incredible team. Just could not have done it with a bunch of other people. And it was a wild time, and I learned a lot about healthcare. I used to hate the healthcare system. I still do. But I now understand why there are so many entities designing for healthcare. Now that I’ve worked in it, I’m like, it makes sense.

It needs redesigning. It was my first for private sector job, which I was trying to pivot. Like, the Obama Foundation was great, but I was kind of tired of being a nonprofit. I was tired of not having enough money and working really hard all the time and working to the mission, but not getting paid enough. I was like, I think there’s a way for me to get paid enough and work towards a real goal. Being in the for profit during COVID was very interesting. Healthcare. We’re trying to save the world, but we’re also making money.

So a conversation for another day about the healthcare system. But yeah, it helped me understand a little bit more about the way the world works.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’re doing Rosedale, you’re doing Adobe. You still have your studio, and you also teach. You are an adjunct lecturer at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. How did that come about?

Sam Viotty:

It’s an incredible am again. So I met two people. One was someone who was one of the first community members in the Obama Foundation program that we ran. Just stayed really close to her. She was one of those people that I called her our super user. She just would do exactly what I would imagine someone would do in our program. She’s ideal. I could predict her behavior.

It was amazing. And so we stayed in contact. She started working at the Baumhart Scholars Program at the Cleveland School of Business and asked me if I wanted to guest lecture her class, like, come and just talk. So I did. And then there’s another person who was in the program I did Starting Block, the Starting Block Fellowship a few years ago, probably 2018. More than a few now, but someone else who was a designer also taught another course and was like, hey, could you come to my class too? And so I did. He was getting ready to leave the following year because he got a very cool job at Capital One doing design. And so he left, and they were like, well, we don’t have anyone to teach class.

Do you want to teach it? I said, I’d love to teach this class. So it’s a project management and social innovation class, and it’s taken a bunch of different iterations. This will be the third year that I’m teaching it. It actually starts next week. Time for me to start designing the deck. But the incredible thing about the program in particular so the Bomb Harvest Scholars Program is within the School of Business, but it is for a select group of students who really care about social impact. And so a lot of their courses are focused on it. Obviously, you get an MBA, but a lot of courses that you have to take in addition to the MBA requirements are social impact focused.

So the project management course, I’ve done lots of project management, so I hadn’t thought about it as like, how do I teach it? I was like, It’s just something that I do. I’d gone to trainings for it throughout my career, but had not thought about, how do I teach this and then how do I teach the social impact piece? And so I actually really excited about how this class was taught. I have kind of mapped the class into different sections, and each section is a different aspect of the design thinking process. So it starts with empathy and goes to reflection. I also take the design equity framework. If people aren’t familiar, it’s the kind of typical design thinking process. Empathy empathize. Define ideate, prototype iterate, and do it all.

Over again. But I’ve added kind of equity pauses, which is a term that I learned from another designer, and reflection at every stage. So I talk about doing all of those things within project management because I think that’s really what project management is. It is like working with people. It’s understanding people. It’s trying things and then doing them again, and then trying it and doing it again. And so I’m really excited about it’s. A project based class.

Every single person in the course, it’s usually a small class, but every single person, I encourage them to choose a project that they are working on at work, or they’re all adult professionals who have jobs and do this MBA mostly on the side. And so they choose a project from work. And then I want you to change something at work or a project that you’ve always thought about doing, which you have never actually had the time to do. Like, let’s use this class time because you have to take this class. Let’s do it now. So people have come up with incredible things. Someone came up with a youth program last year, which I was really excited about. Someone revamped their entire board of directors processes, which I was impressed with.

She’s on the board of a nonprofit and was like, we just don’t fundraise right? How do we rethink the fundraising strategy and how do I lead my team through a process? A lot of the work is quite meta, where they’re redesigning experiences that will be redesigned. So they’re coming up with a project plan. So I bring a lot of the design thinking aspect to the course in addition to trying to give people practical skills on how do you manage a project, like what tools are we using, are you using Trello? Are you using Monday? Are you using Asana? How are you assigning roles to people? Are you thinking about equity when you’re deciding roles for people, how do power dynamics come into play? So really intertwining all of those things. And so I’ve learned so much from all of the students because they all work at different places. Some people are working in consulting, some are working in education, some are working at healthcare nonprofits, and so they all are working together. A lot of it is group work, but the end project is individual. So I hope that they’re learning from each other about what each other is working on and challenged with. So I love teaching that class.

It’s also not that long. It takes a few months. And so it’s what I look forward to every end of year. It’s a nice close out to the year.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it really feels like a perfect way for you to take all of these skills and things that you’ve learned throughout your career and pass that on to the next generation of, I want to say of innovators. You mentioned at the top of the episode that you had applied for this development program as an innovator, and the more that you talk about your career and the experiences you’ve went through, I’m like, I can see it plain as day. Like, you’re really out here changing minds and hearts. It’s so awesome.

Sam Viotty:

It’s nice to hear. I hadn’t thought about yeah. I guess when you talk to someone and hear it back, it definitely feels different. So thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I think what’s probably most interesting about you and your career and what you do is that you take design. And design is such a broad category. I think even when you tell someone you’re a designer, if you tell five different people, you may get five different definitions of what that even is. I mean, for you, what does design mean? Like, what’s your personal philosophy? When it comes to that?

Sam Viotty:

I believe everyone’s a designer. I also believe it’s people who want to take on that role. Like, if you want to be a designer, you can be. I think the most important thing about being a designer is understanding who you’re designing for. Graphic designer, and I someone who is a programmer, experience designer will have. What we have in common is, who are we designing for? The graphic designer is like, I’m making a poster, or maybe they’re making a poster, and they’re like, okay, well, who’s the poster for? I’m like, I’m designing a program. Well, who’s the program for? So really getting to the meat of how do I understand people? And for program design, I think it’s beautiful because it’s everything or experience design is everything. What I said earlier was, it’s what things smell like, what you’re touching, what you’re seeing, who you interact with, when you interact with them.

When we show you something, all of those things make an impression. So I think about design as design is everything. Yeah, I look at and now that I’ve been in so many different sectors, and I know that design means so many different things, I see design in everything. I can’t open a door without being like, someone made this and thought about how humans will open this door wild. So, yeah, designs and everything. I think it’s a branding. As I always say. It’s a branding, marketing.

Maurice Cherry:

It sounds like you’re really interweaving with design, at least with the way that you’re approaching design. Everything works together. All these processes work together. Nothing is in a vacuum. And I think that’s really a holistic way to look at design, because for years, people always say designers are problem solvers, but the problems they end up solving tend to be UX problems or browser problems or things like that when there are so many other things out there in the world. You mentioned healthcare. Government is another one. Government services.

There are so many huge systems that we encounter every day that could use that design eye and that design thinking. And so I hope that people listen to this conversation and start to think of design in a bigger way. Like, think outside of just what you see on a monitor or on a phone. Like, think of design in a broader sense.

Sam Viotty:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think you’re spot on.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s inspiring you these days?

Sam Viotty:

Thank you for asking that. Color. Color has been inspiring me. I started reading. I went to the library and I started reading Color — I have the book right here: “Colors for Designers: 95 Things You Need to Know when Choosing and Using Colors for Layouts and Illustrations”. And I’ve been having, like, a lull in inspiration, and I never really learned about color theory formally.

And so I’ve just been so excited about color. I’ve been going on hikes recently, and so I’ve been obsessed with the sky. I go on runs, and there’s a beautiful sunset on Monday, and I counted eleven colors in the sky. I was just like, wow, what eleven different colors? And so I’m, like, training my eye to see different colors and hues. So I’ve been really inspired by that. I started reading. I just finished the book “Stay Inspired” by Brandon Stosuy…or Stossai? Finding motivation to your creative work.

And it’s a book of just, like, a bunch of activities to get you motivated and inspired to do creative work. And so much of the book has you tap into childhood experiences. So I haven’t been writing all the activities. I’ve been at least thinking and meditating on them. And so that’s been really fun. So thinking about my childhood as inspiration for things that I create and do now has been really cool. And then, yeah, just thinking about color. Lots of color.

Lots of just trying to find inspiration and creativity. My end of year project right now is trying to create an art book. And so very similar to the fade on kind of like big coffee table books, I want to curate some type of yeah, I’ve never tried. So I’m going to just try and map that out over the holiday and see what I can come up with. Have a little theme. I love material culture, so I think that’s going to be the theme for the art book, is thinking about material culture and how artists use different materials to create meaning. So I’ve been doing lots of research. So that’s been my end of year inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:

At this stage of your career, even just looking back to where you’ve come from and where you’ve worked and the impact that you’ve had, how do you measure success now? What does it look like for you?

Sam Viotty:

So do I feel happy? Do I feel good? Do I feel motivated? Has been whether or not I feel successful or those are my metrics for success. Are things feeling right? Feels a little woo. Woo. I think it’s because I live in La now. I don’t think I’d ever talk like this before, but yeah, a lot of it is. Like, how do things feel? I think I’ve had a lot of moments in life. I have ADHD. I also have quite a bit of anxiety.

And so a lot of my life has been me trying to get around those things. And so my metrics of success now have been, do I not feel anxious? How often have I been feeling anxious? Is it less? That seems great. That feels successful. So, yeah, just kind of just like, monitoring my mental health and feeling good about where I am in life right now and being content, spending a lot of time just being happy with what I have right now. It’s hard because I think, how do you balance that with wanting more and being ambitious? I’m wrestling with that now, but just be happy with what I got.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I really want to curate a show. Like an art show. I say it every year. So now that I’m saying it out loud to you and shared with the public, I think I have to do it. So maybe it’s on the 2024 docket. Yeah, I really want to curate a show. I’ve always said I plan for it, I figure it out. But maybe 2024 is the year that I start actually doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

You’re right there in La. That’s a great place to do it. I know that United talent artists has an artist space, but, I mean, there’s just so much art and design in Los Angeles. I feel like you could definitely make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks for saying that. I live close to the UTA artist space, and I’ve contacted them before just for other stuff, so yeah, thank you. You know what? Yeah, it’s going to go into the like when I envision boarding for 2024. This is it. Thanks for this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What kind of work do you see yourself doing in the next five years? I mean, I feel like you’re someone that, because of the skills and experience you’ve had, you could really almost go anywhere. Because what you do is you help build systems and you help build processes to work through things. So say it’s five years from now, what kind of work would you like to be doing?

Sam Viotty:

The thing that I have not dove into that I would like to do more is or just curation in general. So I think I want to move to a space where I think I’ve spent a lot of this part of my career being like, I want to be the artist, I want to create, I want to work with people and uplift them. I think I can do that in a different way. Whether I’m curating music shows, which I’ve started to do with Rosedale curating an art show, just like doing more curation and leaning into, I don’t have to be the person that’s doing the thing. I can support the people doing the thing. And so I think that’s where I want to go, and I want to do it across I imagine it being across a bunch of different sectors, and maybe it’s not just visual art. Maybe it’s also fashion, and maybe it’s also interior design and objects and vintage and stuff like that. So I want to dive more into my creative self of putting things.

I feel like a lot of the work that I do ends up being behind the scenes or I don’t get to share it very often, or it doesn’t feel like I share it very often on a public platform. So I would like to move into that space a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here. Sam, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, your projects? Like, where can they find that information online?

Sam Viotty:

I occasionally post on my personal instagram, which is @samviotty, S-A-M-V-I-O-T-T-Y. But my art stuff is at @theviottystudio on Instagram, so both of those are on Instagram. I occasionally tweet. I’m @samviotty on most things. I think I’m also the only Sam Viotty. So if you google Samantha Viotty or Sam Viotty, I’m pretty sure you’ll find me anywhere that’s mostly I respond to DMs. People can also email me at hi at sviotty dot com. So happy to chat.

I love just talking to other people about what they’re working on.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Sam Viotty. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, when I was doing my research, and I think what really kind of blew me away was, like, this is a program designer that’s like, trying to change country music. It felt like this weird sort of combination. But now that I’ve talked with you and I’ve gotten the sense to kind of see how you work and how you think, you’re the kind of person that I feel like the design industry needs to have more of. Like someone that can really synthesize all of the things that design can do and use them in ways that can help forward, move people forward, move systems forward, move companies forward. I mean, there’s been so much talk about generalist versus specialist, right? And I think what you embody is, like, the true kind of generalist type of designer that I wish more designers were like.

I wish more people were able to take their knowledge and think of it and use it and apply it in ways that can really sort of benefit the world. I mean, we live in a very crazy time right now, and a lot of the systems and practices and things we have are designed and can be and should be redesigned. And it’s just so empowering for me to see someone like you that’s doing this work out in the world, and I’m glad to share that with the audience here. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you. I’m so happy that you have this platform. It’s incredible. Everyone I’ve listened to a few episodes and people are really inspiring. So I’m honored to be on the show. So thank you so much.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Phillip J. Clayton

We’re ending out the month of November with the second part of my conversation with the one and only Phillip J. Clayton. (If you missed the first part of this interview, check it out here.)

After sharing his thoughts on brand purpose, we started discussing our experiences with art and education, and he spoke about facing limitations in school due to dyslexia and feeling misunderstood by teachers and other authority figures. Phillip also talked about his experiences working with renowned brands (including PepsiCo), judging creative work, the evolving nature of packaging design, the need for a holistic view of design.

Big thanks to Phillip for such a wide-ranging conversation!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so we’ve spent a lot of know time, you know, talking about the work that you do through your studio; a lot of your brand identity work and such. But I want to kind of shift the conversation so we can learn more about you. Like, what’s the Phillip J. Clayton origin story? So…you’re originally from Jamaica, is that right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. Born and grew here.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you describe growing up there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I grew up on a high point of a mountain — like a cold area. A cold part of the country, in a parish. So I grew up in a small town where it was a lot of mostly religion. So for me, I grew up in religion, Christianity specifically. There’s this traditional kind of way of doing things, and I felt kind of trapped inside myself. That’s what it was like for me, artistically, creatively, it’s more traditional for me. It was very frustrating growing up, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, your father, from doing my research, your father was in advertising, and he was also sort of a fine artist. Was that kind of a bit of a dichotomy between this sort of difficult growing up?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Part of my childhood, I think, was spent trying to be this great artist like my father, then learning about his profession in advertising, trying to become that as well. A little pressure I guess, I placed on myself. That was an outlet, for sure. Spending time with him in his office and watching him do what he does and then mimicking him. It was an outlet where I could express everything.

Then he started teaching me how to do. My first lesson in art was drawing was a tonal scale. So he taught me how to use one pencil to create from dark to light. It’s a gray scale, basically. So that’s where I started. And, oh, music. He’s also a classical guitar player, so I learned that as well, each day with practice. So I had my outlets. My mother did embroidery, so I was surrounded by art books and design. And my sister, she also was a great writer. So I got all of this stuff around me. So they were in the house. It was great.

It’s when I left the house, that’s when I had my challenges. I wasn’t like most of the children I knew, my cousins included. So I guess I had this big dream of what my childhood should be. But I was still on a massive property. But at the same time, I wanted to maybe a lot more creatively. I wasn’t really into games and stuff like that. I just cared about being really good at art and design.

That’s the summary of my childhood, really. Everything I did was in art or design. Sports didn’t really work out for me.

Maurice Cherry:

So you had this, really, sounds like super creative home life. Did that kind of influence you once you went off to college?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. When I got to college, that was interesting. I felt like I knew so much already. That might be ego, but when I got there, it was definitely because of my childhood. And at that time, I still didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist or not. I was just doing it. It was a question of whether I was conditioned to do…to be creative or am I really someone who likes creating? So college was that journey for me, but I was mostly bored there because it was like, again, I want more. And what I was doing is what I did at home.

I learned techniques. I won’t put it all down. I learned new techniques, but it was too academic for me. It didn’t feel like a creative environment. It felt more academic.

Maurice Cherry:

What all sort of things were you doing there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

After my first year? You do everything in the first year and then you choose second year. I went into painting, and then I moved from that to sculpting. And then…what do you call them? Not majors, like your secondaries. I don’t know what they’re called.

Maurice Cherry:

Your minors?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, like minors. So I did photography, printmaking. I did not get to do graphic design. I was not even allowed in the class because I guess the teacher didn’t see me as a graphic designer. But ironically, though…so it was all fine art. It was photography, sculpting, painting, and printmaking.

Maurice Cherry:

The teacher didn’t let you in the class? Like, you couldn’t even enroll?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, they give you this test, and to this day I hate that. And when I was…any job I went to and they said, “there’s a test”, I turned it down and said, “I’m not interested in that.” Because of that experience, most people saw my work that I did for this test, and they said, “but you’re really good at this!” But whatever the reason was…this lecturer there, he didn’t see me as a valid candidate or something. And the same thing happened with architecture. For me, in terms of high school, I’ve been experiencing these kind of things, so again, I’ve been forced into art.

So I had to really decide what I like, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything technical for some reason. I don’t know if it caused my dyslexia, or I don’t know if I was presenting myself the right way. So I can never be sure, but I was turned down essentially, so I just stuck to art. Design was something I was really in love with as well, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get into design. Architecture is something I love, but again, I wasn’t in high school, I wasn’t allowed to do the technical drawing class, whatever the reason was. I do not know to this day. Industrial design, all these things fascinated me. But the art school didn’t have that.

It was art and graphic design, and I found it quite mundane. I was like, where’s the intrigue?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

So that was the experience for me. It didn’t work out well in the end. It’s a joke around my friends that I was asked to leave the art school. So, I think I can conform well — I think that was it, actually. Yes, I remember that statement. I think he asked me a question. He said that, the graphic design teacher. He said, “I don’t appear to be the student that will do what he asks.” So that was my experience constantly.

I don’t think they knew how to relate to me or relate or engage me. I was very dyslexic, and I have a lot of other cognitive stuff going on, and I guess I just didn’t fit into that mold that they wanted. So my entire college experience was me always feeling challenged to live up to some expectation, which I couldn’t because it’s not in my personality to do that. But I wasn’t being rude or anything. I just couldn’t fit into what they wanted. I was very expressive. My fine artwork was very dark as well, so there’s some personal stuff there. And I guess they couldn’t see beyond that.

But I did all my work. But if I may share this on here — when I was asked to leave, I don’t know why, but I found out some years later that it was for drug abuse and being a threat to the school. I was told all this is false, and I never did any of that there. There’s a lot of details to that whole process, so it was very insulting. I felt demotivated after that for a while, but today, it’s not true. Just want to make that record clear. I don’t know where it came from, but nobody asked my opinion on it. They just asked me to leave the school. So that was that college experience.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, as you describe that, that reminds me so much of my own high school and college experience in a different way, but I think in the same feelings of authority, not being able to know what to do with someone like you. And so because they don’t know how to handle — handle is probably not the right word — they don’t know what to do! That’s kind of just the best example that I can give.

I mean, when I was in high school, my teachers — especially my senior year — my teachers, my guidance counselor were like, actively not only trying to fail me because I was set up to be valedictorian, and they didn’t want that. This was a whole race thing in the South. There’s that. But then also my guidance counselor not allowing me to get certain applications to schools or to get application fee waivers, saying things like, “well, why don’t you…have you thought about learning a trade? Have you thought about going to the community college and learning HVAC or welding or something like that?”

And then in college, I mean, it wasn’t as similar as to what your experience is, but certainly…I started out in computer science, and didn’t like it because I wanted to be a web designer. My advisor literally telling me, “if you want to go into the Internet, that’s just a fad. So if you want to do that, you should probably change your major”…which I did. I changed it to Math, and I kind of sailed through on that. But it sounds like it’s just this textbook case of authority not knowing what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into their kind of rigid standards. And I feel like — and maybe I’m grossly generalizing here, please stop me if I am — but I wonder if part of it also was the fact that you said you grew up in this really religious environment, and that there’s sort of this kind of staid structure that comes with that. I mean, I grew up in a really religious town, too, so I know what that’s like.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Well, I mean, according to things I’ve heard in my own family, not my parents, like my relatives, I’m the only person like me in the entire generation. And we go way back. Chinese and European mix. Right? But everything you said is actually all my academic experiences. It’s everything you just said. And are you familiar with Frederick Nietzsche?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Right. So the will to power, which Hitler misused grossly, is what, in my adult age, that I discovered that, hey, this is the problem. And I love Jamaica, don’t get me wrong, but how I speak about [the] country professionally and academically, a lot of people don’t like it.

Well, I won’t say if you agree, but if you understand the concept of replacing managers with employees who want to be managers, was something I heard, that no employee hates the manager. They hate that the manager is doing what they’re doing to them. So basically they want to be the manager so they can do it to somebody else.

Jamaica for me, is very prudish, and that’s what I think leads to the academic experience we do have. High standards in terms of other courses or disciplines in the academic area. A lot of people do very well because we have this; I think we’re in Cambridge or something, I can’t remember. But at the same time, when you get into the professional space or the creative space, what my perception of it was, oh, you just replaced the Europeans with yourselves. So [you] use the same rules, same approach, same everything. Nothing’s changed.

The managers have changed. They’re now Black Jamaicans, and Jamaican is not even race. It’s an ethnicity. So you just replace the managers. It’s the same rules. So I’m supposed to not live up to my true potential by Frederick Nietzsche. I think it wasn’t even his originally. But anyway, the will to power, where the philosophy or the belief that society limits great thinkers from living up to their full potential. I was considered a rude child in my early school days, or not rude, or not paying attention, one of those two, because of my dyslexia and that knowledge of what dyslexia was, I guess, wasn’t that common back then.

So, yeah, the entire education experience was not great for me. I’ve helped put schools on the map regarding competitions I entered. I either won them or came second or something. I usually get one of three; first, secnd, or third, but the school was proud of that. And I’m not saying a lot of people…I’m not saying I was treated horribly by teachers or anything, but in terms of learning, they didn’t know how to teach me. And I’m probably one in the whole class that has this problem, or maybe more, or they didn’t know. So it was like, if you didn’t fit into this thing, you’re on the outside. And we know all the stories of successful people who have the same stories of teachers berating them, and they literally coming out in the exact opposite of what a teacher said they would be.

I’ve had that experience, and I guess that’s what my journey is on. But, yeah, everything you said about what you experienced is my entire education experience. And I had to leave to discover who I am and all that. Because sometimes these things come in disguise, right? So being kicked from college wasn’t…at first, it was demotivating, and I felt I didn’t feel valuable, which was a common problem with my childhood as well, not feeling smart, intelligent and valuable. I think all the experiences I’ve had forced me to discover myself and my strengths. So I guess there are blessings in disguise in spite of how horrible the experiences were.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, as you tell me all of this. It starts to make perfect sense as to why you started your own studio back in 2001. If all of this is going on and you know in your mind that you can do this and you strike out on your own and do it, it makes perfect sense.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And then keep in mind that I’m only starting with the little knowledge I knew then, right? I’m trying to sell a creative service or my talents. And without the business knowledge I have now, it wasn’t as great, but, yeah, I had to. I was like, “I can’t be these people. I can’t be that good student, that good employee, that anything. I need to show my value.” And that’s what I did. As you rightly said, I was forced to do that.

But it did help me get 9-to-5 jobs after, when I needed my sustainability sorted out. It was the freelance work that I did that got me the jobs, not my qualifications.

Maurice Cherry:

I didn’t go to design school. I got my degree in Math, and I worked jobs after I graduated, and I couldn’t get anything with a Math degree. I mean, one of my jobs –actually, I was still in school, but this was right after I graduated. I was working at the local symphony and art museum and stuff, like selling tickets. And I remember the day that I graduated. I had to go to work that evening. I still had an evening shift. And they had taken the calculator away from my station, because they have these little stations where people come in lanes and that’s where you sell tickets at. And they took my calculator away, and my manager was like, “well, you got a Math degree now, so you don’t need this.” And it’s like, just rub the salt deeper into the wound.

And the jobs I had after that were all, like, customer service type jobs. I did telemarketing for the opera. I was a customer service agent for AutoTrader, which is sort of like this used car marketplace kind of thing. And I was doing design stuff on the side. Like, I was going to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and taking pictures because I couldn’t afford to buy the books because they were too expensive. I was, like, taking pictures in the books and then taking them back home and using my cracked version of Photoshop to try to teach myself how to make gradients. You know what I’m saying? How to do all this stuff. And my first design job was off of that. It wasn’t because I went to school for it or anything.

Yeah, it takes a lot of guts to strike out on your own like that. Especially that young. So my hat goes off to you for that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I appreciate that. And just like you, I sort of learned design through jobs or freelancing because my father didn’t grow up in a time of…didn’t do work in a time of computers. So the first time I got a computer, I didn’t think Photoshop was even out yet. But when Photoshop came out, I dove right in. And this is the artistic knowledge that helped me with design. My knowledge of lighting and shadows and stuff like that. It helps me with design.

Some of the best designers actually studied art first. Whether they graduated or not is irrelevant, but they studied art first or they knew art first. But like you, it’s something I learned as well in my teen years, and said, put the best foot forward. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. So what you’re doing in terms of jobs, I consider that survival. But what you put up front when you get the opportunity is, I’m a designer, and that’s kind of what I did.

How I got into professionally doing design is like, yes, art, I’ll do whatever I need to do to survive. But when I’m really selling? I’ll never tell people I’m trying to work with that I’m an artist.

Maurice Cherry:

Now. You’ve worked with a ton of different clients, I’m sure, over the years. I mean, starting in 2001, you’ve worked with, I’m sure, dozens to hundreds of different clients. What are some of the projects that you’re the most proud of?

Phillip J. Clayton:

When I was in production entertainment, that was the first time I understood management, because the team left me in charge of an entire comedy tour for three days, meaning there’s no other management person there. They said they have to do another show, so they trusted me to do this one, and I did it. That was my first time, and I felt really proud of that because…I don’t know if you know Red Stripe Light, not the original red Stripe beer. They had created this light beer, and they were promoting it through this comedy tour. So I was literally traveling around with all the people that worked on the show, and I’m representing the creative side, the art team. So the set design, all of that, I had to ensure we had our plans and everything. I had to follow that three times, morning and evening. So set up, pull down for three days. I had to ensure that that show went on not just for live performance, but for television as well. So that was my first time.

My second one, which I think I’m most proud of, is how I got into brand design, was I helped to relaunch…I was one of the people that helped to relaunch the PepsiCo identity. 2008, Arnold Group Identity, here in Jamaica. I believe Guatemala had got the ownership at that time, so it was on their directive. But I left printing and went right into relaunching this new identity for PepsiCo America through PepsiCo Jamaica. And at first I was like, “can I actually do this? It’s intimidating.” But I was working with an agent, a small design house at a time, so the director there got a contract and we launched it off. But then I became the key person to maintain the brand standards, to make sure that everything went out. So now I’m learning about brand and understanding the value, financial value, and the value to the company, the importance of the brand. And we also rebranded a local Pepsi Jamaica water brand here. It was a full stack, like nine years. Whole nine years, we did it all. And that was the first time I really embraced this idea of brand design.

I was all around brands, but that’s when it moved from graphic design and, “oh, this thing is here, this is interesting” kind of thing. That was kind of the experience for me. So that’s my most proud career moment, I would say. It was a big responsibility and we did achieve the objectives. Yeah, to this day it still looks, when you look back at the work, it looks really good. And just to be part of that, I think just to say I worked on that, that’s something we’re proud of. Being in Kingston, Jamaica, that I actually worked on something, an international brand like that.

I’ll only mention one more. There are a few others. I can’t remember them all, there’s so many because I don’t have favorites. By the way, it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. My idea of favorites is that it’s too partial, I think, because every project I worked on, if I’m going to pick something that was really proud of, it had to be on the value and impact it had. So that’s why Pepsi is one of those. But every product I’ve worked on, when the solution comes together, that’s great for me. And I think they’re all great products, but in terms of magnitude, PepsiCo is one of those. The Guinness, I don’t know what year anniversary we had to wrap an entire entertainment location for the Guinness anniversary some years ago, so we wrapped it all in black with the gold logo, standing out and curated experience for the guest. From the dishes all the way up to the music. That’s another impactful project. But I guess more on the event side, less on the consumer experience side. But, yeah, PepsiCo is one that stands out to me this day. I think it was the launching pad for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Red Stripe. PepsiCo. I mean, those are two huge brands. It really sounds like those helped to…I think whenever you get a really big project or you get a really sort of visible project, it really cements personally that you’re on the right path. You know what I mean?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. It’s an acknowledgement that you are capable or you’re knowledgeable about this thing. And the fact that they even spoke to me or asked me, was something — was acknowledgment that I can actually help them. And I think that’s the most important part of any profession, is that you are not needed as much. So much so you’re wanted. I think wanted even in your personal relationships, when you’re wanted, is way better than being needed. And that’s what happened, is I was introduced. I’m often recommended for stuff. So that was a recommendation as well. I didn’t apply for it. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t know it even was happening. I was recommended for the project. So that was a great feeling for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now, it’s funny you mentioned that about sort of how it’s this kind of validating thing, because now what you’re doing is probably a lot of validation for other creatives and creatives teams, which is you’re judging. You’re a brand and a marketing judge with PAc Global for their Leadership Awards. How did you first get involved with them?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I was invited; again, another form of acknowledgment. I was invited through LinkedIn by the CEO, actually, in 2018, I believe, which is also happening this year. Again, I think I mentioned that off. I’m currently judging designs right now, but I was invited. Interestingly, I wasn’t thinking about being a judge, but I used to give my own critiques. I didn’t want to share things on any social media platform alone. I wanted to actually give my view on it, and I started to do that so I’d write my review of the thing I shared. Whether it’s a package design or brand identity, I actually write my perspective on what was done, the goods, anywhere that fell short.

I think just because I did that consistently and still doing it today, is that it got his attention. And I think we connected before, sometime before. And he invited me to be part of the commission, which is a global commission, and PAC has been around since 1950. I’m the only Jamaican on there, by the way.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m not sure if I’m the youngest. I’ll be 41 in December, so I don’t know if I’m the youngest, but I’m the only Jamaican on there. And I guess in many ways, everyone there is one person from their own countries as well. But because of the context of design and art in Jamaica, where it’s either traditional, there are some great people here, but you don’t really see it because everything dominates it. So being the only Jamaican in there, a small Caribbean island that’s really business-oriented, if I’m being honest with you, we’re known to be creative, but we’re mostly business. I think it’s a great stage for me to be on. Most Jamaicans don’t know that I have them on international stage just by being a member there. It’s a very proud moment.

I was invited on and I accepted, and it’s just been a great journey. But you learn from it. You have to be very objective. And I like to make sure that creative people understand that when you’re looking at design or art, you have to be. Critiques are supposed to be objective. Your subjective parts are there, but it’s really supposed to be an objective view. And that’s what the judging experience is, because you’d see something really amazing. And if you’re not careful, you end up giving that particular project really high marks, and then you realize “but then this other thing is here.”

So how do you judge these two things? They’re both great. So you have to really get into the objectivity of the design and the purpose behind it.

Maurice Cherry:

I was just about to ask this. It sounds like you’re kind of segueing into it. I’m also an awards judge, and I don’t think a lot of judges really talk about how they approach judging creative work. So I’m glad that you mentioned that objectivity. When you’re looking at work, especially now, since you’re in the middle of this judging process, how do you approach it? Do you have like a rubric, or are there certain things that you take into account as you’re judging creative work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, generally as a professional courtesy, it also helps you with client work as well. There are criteria that you have in mind of what makes this project a great product or this design a great solution. The good thing is PAC, and I’m sure other judging commissions, they have their criteria listed out as well. And you’re really looking for these projects that meet. They’ve already narrowed down the entries anyway, so you’re judging what you’re given and you’re going to basically see if these projects meet these criteria. Outside of that, you also have to use your own judgment on how they meet the criteria. You’re allowed to write your review of the project so you can rationalize the decision in the context of maybe it met one criteria, it didn’t meet the other one, or maybe it did in a way that is not as upfront, but it actually meets the criteria. It’s actually achieving the objective it stated it was supposed to achieve.

So it’s always approaching it based on, for me personally, it’s about the design. For me, it’s function and then aesthetics is part of design, but it’s more on what I call emotional responses. The aesthetics is used to wrap up a design solution to make it appealing the human response, but the design has to function as intended. Or unlike art, where it’s subjective, design has to actually work. If it doesn’t work, then it just failed. So I use that as one of my criteria.

In terms of packaging design, I always look for shelf positioning. That’s the first point of contact a consumer has with the design is before they even touch it, what got their attention, what will get them to go and interact with this design. So I look for shelf positioning in terms of packaging design. And I guess you could translate that into other forms of design where…how do you get people to interact with this? I always look for the function. I understand things like simplicity is often misunderstood with minimalism, but it’s not. Minimalism is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and simplicity is the functional side. So my favorite types of designs are the ones that are the simplest. If they’re really simple and have great impact. I love that one. I actually use the word love, not in my critique, but I’m saying it here. The simpler design with a greater impact, that’s a great design for me. So I look for those things. But the commission has its own criteria that we use.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you gain from being an awards judge?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Professionally, the learning never ends, and I’m always looking to learn more, add more knowledge to what I have already. But there’s also a professional status with it. The fact that you’re judging designs mean that you’re somebody worth talking to. I think it’s a big responsibility that you should never take for granted. I mean, anybody that’s put in charge of judging anything should never take that for granted. But it should also mean that you are a worthy conversation regarding knowledge and teaching, passing on that knowledge.

The lessons in judging design is you have to separate yourself. Detachment is a great thing that you can learn from design, from judging. You have to detach yourself, your personal assumptions. It’s invaluable regarding your client work. The same experience of judging can be applied to client work, and that’s how it has helped me in a lot of ways. I can detach myself from my assumptions or what I like. I can also speak to the client differently. I can listen more, to listen and observe before and respond appropriately. I know this is the right way and this is how you should do this and do that. But when you’re judging things, none of that really comes into play.

Because now it’s not about you. And in your client work, it’s not about you. It’s about understanding what the intent of the client is regarding speaking to you. And they have to trust that you are somebody who can help them. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you should be able to, in a very short space of time, through a conversation, be viewed as an expert, a professional that can actually solve problems, that you learn that a lot from judging other people’s work. That comes from art school as well. Judging art, critiquing art is the same process. When you’re critiquing art, it’s not about what you like or don’t like.

It’s always about objectivity. And I think a lot of that’s missing from the client process. So that’s what I’ve definitely gained from know.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s interesting that you mentioned that about objectivity, because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this is such the case with PAC Global, but sometimes awards are just sort of an extension of marketing for companies. Like they’ll just build it into their budget. Like whatever project they’ve got going on, they’ll just automatically submit them, not necessarily whether or not they fit within a particular category or they meet a certain standard level or things like that.

I often find that when I am — it depends on the competition I’m judging — but I’ll always see the same studios producing the same work, and then sometimes I’ll know the studio just from viewing the work. Like, I won’t even have to look at who it’s from. I’m like, “oh, this is from such and such because they use this exact same template with four different clients.” They just did a color swap and switched out typography or what have you. So, yeah, it helps to try to be objective about it, even when you can see what looks just like a lot of repetition, because for companies, they may not even be looking at the acclaim that they get from awards as something that has any other merit aside from just getting them more business.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. One of the reasons that I absolutely love packaging design is that it’s an extension of the brand, and it’s often one of the first point of contact for consumers. The unboxing experience for consumers is also a very tangible part of that whole design process. Technology, and I guess molds and stuff like that, can limit your packaging design capability, but creativity is found in the limitations, right? So if this is what you have to work with, then you find a creative way to leverage what you have. And that’s what packaging design. Well, great packaging design.

That’s what it does. It finds ways of making this mundane thing very interesting. It can be little changes, whether it’s the actual graphic design on it or is the type of cap, but it’s the same bottle. You can use the same container and do amazing things. And I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding templates because I’ve seen it outside of packaging. I don’t know all the judging. I’ve never been part of anyone. But in terms of designs that are shared on social media or case studies, there are some agencies that stand out, or some designers, because you cannot be so unique.

But it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, or they’ve leveraged something you’ve seen before in a much more interesting way. Packaging design with PAC, the submissions are always unique in that context of being unique, and that’s one of the best parts about it for me. The agencies, the clients — even clients submit their own packaging designs, or the agency submits it on behalf of them. So you get a diverse group of people submitting designs. We do have the big brands, obviously, and they may improve on something they already have out there. And you judge that, and that’s also a very valuable thing. But in terms of…my favorite part is either improvements on existing packaging designs from established brands or new products being launched from smaller agencies. They are very experimental on that side because they’re not as known as the big brands, but they submit some really interesting designs and it’s just exciting to see what they’ve done. Like, “oh, I didn’t know you could do that with this thing.”

And then we’re in an age of technology now, right? Packaging design is changing. We have the brand extensions moving beyond the package itself. What’s the consumer shopping experience like? So the ultimate goal in the end is to have the consumer have a great experience. So packaging design, for me is a great place to understand a lot about design, a lot about art, a lot about craftsmanship.

I only say this because you’ve mentioned that some of these agencies, the templates, you can tell who they are. Because if you have a style in design, I think you have a problem, because every strategy is supposed to be different, right? So if you have a style, it kind of means that you haven’t really giving different clients the same thing, doesn’t it? So, yeah, I like packaging design because it’s very difficult to be the same there. It’s just more difficult to stand out, more challenging. I don’t like saying hard. Difficult is a better word because hard probably means it’s never going to happen, but difficult means there’s a challenge to overcome there.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think you also just have more opportunities for innovation with packaging design than you do for the web. For what it’s worth, it’s a kind of staid medium. That’s not to say that there isn’t innovation that exists, but I judge the PRINT Awards from PRINT Magazine. And I am amazed every year —

Phillip J. Clayton:

I love PRINT.

Maurice Cherry:

— at the new stuff that comes through. I mean, things that I never would have thought about in terms of how people have packaged certain things. And the good thing with PRINT is that it’s not just packaging design, but it’s also experiential design. So you can see how people have designed spaces like a gym or an office building.

And to me…I just really love it. I also judge podcasts, and if you want to talk about repetition and podcasting, I’m not going to say any names, but there’s a certain company that rhymes with “water bowl” that sweeps every year, and I’m just like, it’s the same stuff over and over. You got some celebrity to get behind the microphone and interview other celebrities. Like, where’s the innovation?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m hoping to get into podcasts at some point. Maybe I’ll do something innovative there. But I love PRINT Magazine, by the way. That’s such a great experience to have. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s an opportunity to just see what other people are doing outside of, I think, you know, what people…. It’s interesting because design in and of itself is such a broad field, but depending on who you talk to, they may have a very narrow view of it. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, it depends, I could ask five different people. I could tell that I’m a designer. They’ll think five different things. For a long time, when I would tell people I’m a designer, they thought it meant, “oh, so you do UX?” “No, yeah, I don’t do UX. I’m not a UX designer.” Like, I have to sort of qualify that, what that means to me, because I’ve dabbled in so many different types of design, and it’s all design, but the viewpoint is skewed, I think sometimes.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I think you need, I think, I hope I have it because I support it or advocate for it. A holistic view on design is required. A wider perspective, and then you narrow it down based on the purpose that you need it for. That’s when you get graphic design and UX design all these things. A graphic designer, for example, should have the understanding of animation as much as they do stills. I guess what you’re hired for is completely different, but you pay a graphic designer well who understands those two things. They’ll do it.

But if you want somebody who does animation specifically, hire an animator. But for some reason, when you say design, you’re a graphic designer. Everything on the two-dimensional plane comes to you, and it’s unfathomable to say, “oh, I don’t know how to do that.” Right? And it’s okay to not to know how to do that. It would be nice if you did. But design is, it’s a plugin. Most people see it as a plugin.

It’s like, let’s get something and plug it in here. So let’s get the graphic designer to do these ten things, because they are a designer, and design is a process. What makes a difference is the purpose, the intended purpose of going to a design process. Evidently, if you’re doing print, you want a graphic designer. Or if you’re on the execution side, you might want a print technician, but that technician might not be a designer. But they may understand design, and they may do a lot of why I like print, by the way, which is why I’m such a big fan. I worked in printing as well, is that the things I used to do, because of my artistic knowledge and design knowledge, I didn’t print nothing amazing. That’s all over the top.

But there are little things that I learned about the machines and ink levels and the pigments that I was able to achieve when I’m printing. And then the experimental side of it is like, how about we just not do it the way it’s supposed to be done, for example? Well, you don’t damage a machine. But what if I could turn something off here? And I did that and I got different results. So, of course, my dream at the time was to have my own machine so I could go experiment at home, right? But it’s pricey. But it was like, yeah, printing machine is supposed to print this and print that, but how do we use it in a creative way? What if I wanted to do an entire exhibition and printing? How can I make it interesting? That’s how my brain works. So the machine, I was always trying to experiment with it. What happens if I…because some machines actually recognize the layers in Illustrator, for example. So you get a different result depending on how much percentage of ink you put on it.

Because the machine that I was using anyway, it automatically printed layers and layers of color depending on what I have on the artwork itself. And then if you print a rastered image, like a JPEG or a TIFF file, it would do something completely different because the colors are not layered anymore, which was amazing to me. I’m like, how does a machine know that difference? By understanding those things, it’s an advantage, I think, in design, and that helps me. And I’m sure with your knowledge as well, even your customer service experience, you can actually do marketing. A lot of people started in door-to-door sales, like David Ogilvy, and then now he has his own agency.

It’s three, four things I look for is business, authority, opportunity, and time value. Four things, right? Yeah, I said four. Those I learned from a business, from somebody who does business. And I apply to my creative development as well and processes. It has to be a business. You have to have authority of it, and there must be an opportunity, and then you don’t want to waste your time on something that doesn’t meet those three things. So for me, design is just a holistic thing of value, process and impact. That’s how I look at it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:

So on your website, you mentioned — and I thought this was really interesting, especially given how this conversation has went. You said that you’re not a self made man. Who are some of the people that have kind of helped you reach your current level of success?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, wow. It’s a very long list, but I can think of some key people. My very first professional experience while freelancing was when I went into production entertainment. My friend, she worked in the entertainment. She’s an architect, but she started a production company, and she used her knowledge in architecture to execute some brilliant event projects, and she became popular for it. What I learned from her was work ethic. She’s very meticulous about process, and I fell in love with process because of her. And I think my work ethic to this day, I would always give to her by working with her.

I learned from her other people. My last agency boss — or he’s a CEO now. I know his father’s around. At the time, I don’t remember his position, but he was essentially my boss. I learned from him how agencies are managed and how to handle client conversations.

And then there are the people that I never worked with, but just being around them. Michael Beirut said something. I think that’s why I did what I did was he said “hijack your mentors.” Because honestly, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know who to go to to get mentorship from, because what I was seeing was not anything that I wanted to necessarily learn from people. But when I got into the older I got, I realized I need to understand a lot of things, a lot about business and how agencies work. And I started hanging around people. A lot of my friends are way older than me because I learned from them, whether they’re bosses or project managers, that I was a part of a project. I learned from people like that. I learned from clients. I learned from going to unknown territory with clients, learning about their industry, learning how they manage their employees, learning how to have the client conversations with their clients. So I observed them talking to their clients. You learn from different people. It’s just that we don’t often don’t pay attention to it. And everybody goes to this self-made thing. I just one day said, “well, that doesn’t make any sense.” You can’t really be self made. You may put a lot of effort in yourself. Yes, because nobody’s there. You’re doing the work.

But what happened to me was that I said I don’t think I would be anywhere I am and where I’m going without the people that I worked with or the relationships that I’ve made over the years. When I looked at the value that I’ve learned from all these people, I said, there’s no way I can be a self made man. And I started to detest that statement. I guess I can’t say for sure if there’s actually no one out there who’s self made. I don’t know. But I think even entrepreneurs get help along the way. And I guess that help isn’t acknowledged. But I believe that you cannot be self made.

And I guess I just applied it to myself. My website is a bit of satire in terms of narcissism. It’s not seriously narcissistic, but at the same time, I wanted to have people understand how I perceive the professional space and my knowledge. So I put it up there. But it was mostly people I’ve worked with. That’s why I said that.

And I obviously put my father in there. My mother, I learned from both of them. My mother was the one who really gave me that drive that I have now. I think she is a trooper. She’s not somebody who gives up easily. So she taught me as well about discipline. And she told me, any job I’m doing, I should always do my best, even if it’s a horrible job, because you never know who’s watching. So stuff like that stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s funny, when I saw that on your site, it reminded me of…this was way back in high school. I had a…I guess it’s like a senior book. Like, there would be these organizations like Jostens or whatever, right? They try to sell you all this stuff leading up to graduation. Like, buy these invitations, buy this tassel. But I have a senior book, and I went back and looked through it recently, and I was…God, I was so angsty in high school. But there was a quote that I had in there that was like, “I’m a self-made man. Who else would help?” Or something like that. So when I saw that on your site, I was like, “you’re not a self made man. What’s that about?”

Phillip J. Clayton:

When we’re in the challenge, or the journey? It’s easy to say that because I deal with depression. And I’m only saying that to create and illustrate something. When you have an episode of any mental challenges, mental health issues that you may have when you’re in an episode, it’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just can’t seem to find that will or ability to get up and do what you need to do to get out of it. So no matter how somebody tells you to do something: “You need to start doing this. When you’re depressed, try these things.” All these things take practice. But no matter how much they tell you, you just can’t do it until you make the first move to do it and you start to do it. And what happens is that over a period of time of learning things and doing them and becoming proficient at them, you cheer yourself because it was difficult, right? And in your context, I’m assuming in high school, that being great, your great experience, you probably wrote that because you had to do a lot of stuff yourself.

I think that’s what happens. And we tend to block out the external forces, whether good or bad. Even some bad experiences contribute to your progressive movement. Right. It’s at least, at very best, it tells you, oh, I don’t want that experience. So you make different decisions, right? So I look at everything. I look at the good and bad. I don’t believe in trying to kill fair. I think that’s illogical. I think negative and positive energies are supposed to be balanced. You can’t really get rid of one or the other. When one is given more power or energy, it throws off the balance. So these things is what I think about. So I was like, there’s no way it’s after a maturity. Of course, this is something that you need as well. So I guess my maturity came into play here and I said, “what does it mean to be self made?” And you started to process that and you started to think and you’re like, “yeah, I got help with that thing.”

Should I be grateful for the jobs I had? Would I be here? I don’t know. I think about these things all the time. But I have to kind of…should contextualize it because you just said something that, yeah, when you’re in high school or along your journey, especially when you’re younger, you’re probably putting a lot of effort in trying to get what you want out of this world. So it does feel like you’re self made because sometimes people don’t see your vision and what you’re trying to do. But at the same time, I believe in being fair. And life isn’t fair, unfair: it’s indifferent, or it just is. But we can decide the fairness of that experience. And I think to be fair, we would have to start acknowledging all the people that has helped us along the way.

They may not have helped us build our companies or build our careers, but even my college experience, it was great. But I did learn some things from it. I have to be fair about that. I learned how to critique, for example, I never learned critiquing at home. I think it’s giving the chair to the things that help you to get where you are. And I’d go too extreme and say, on a bad day, if a store was open on a public holiday and I was able to buy something that cheered on my day, I’m going to thank that person.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So what keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Reading philosophy. Gratitude. Each morning I wake up, I always make an effort to spend a few minutes with my mind, whether it’s meditating or a prayer of some kind. I think it’s just a tone for the day. My mind goes into a place where I can deal with any challenges that show up. And it’s always easy but it’s really starting each day with gratitude. I’m reading a lot of books on…I guess I could call them the schematics of living. So I found this balance where it’s setting a vision. That’s what drives me.

I have a vision of what I want to achieve each day and the months in the years and so forth. So I think setting three goals at least each day, is what I do, and that motivates me to get things done because it induces fulfillment, I think. Is it a Chinese philosophy somewhere there? I can’t remember the exact philosophy, but it’s something about not trying to do everything all at once and setting smaller objectives, not try to achieve the big ones unless you can.

So reading is part of my objective each day, to read at least a chapter of something, to review work, to have a conversation with somebody, just setting daily objectives, waking up gratitude, setting daily objectives. And the reading definitely helps. I’m motivated by my vision mostly though, that’s my biggest drive, is I would endure great pains to achieve it, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing this kind of work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Wow. I’d love to have been in the sciences because I did pretty well in it. I like developing theories and experimenting with things, understanding how they work. I would hope that if I was able to be in the sciences, particularly biology or neuroscience, I’m an explorer. Archaeology was on the list at one point too. Yeah, my first desired job was as a child was to work with a Red Cross actually, but I didn’t know how to even do that. And I think I found out that you had to fund yourself part of it. I don’t remember. But yeah, I would like to be doing something that has impact on our society, I guess. Or humans.

I’m hoping design is doing that in some way, but yeah, science in some way or some humanitarian thing, as long as I can sustain myself. I like to definitely be involved in something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what do you want the next chapter of the Phillip J. Clayton story to look like?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’d like to be recognized or acknowledged as an authority in my disciplines or the field that I’m in. I’d like to know that I’ve had great impact through that discipline, whether it’s our society, whether through technology or something I’ve written just being conversations that are larger, that are beyond my skill sets. I like my thinking to be beyond everything that I do because I think that’s the ultimate point of self awareness and enlightenment is to be someone that people recognize as some kind of philosopher. I guess I would say I just want to be an authority in my field. I don’t know if authority sounds very aggressive. I’m not trying to say like this egotistical authority. What I mean by authority is that I have contributed something as an expert to the industry that’s worth something to a lot of people, that they would also come to me as a source of voice, of knowledge or something. What that means, obviously, is not just, I’m not going to go sit on a chair and counsel people.

What I mean is being an authority means that even my work should be reflecting that in a different way in five years. The type of work I do, type of conversations I have, I think being an authority establishes your prowess, professional prowess, in any industry you’re in.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear that. I mean, I think it’s certainly something where…and it’s funny, I think you definitely are at that point already. Like I’m wondering because you’re judging and you’re doing all this work, what do you think it would take for you to reach that sort of level of authority that you’re talking about?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Definitely through the work. I’m trying to do different types of work now, work with different type of clients. You’re right. I’ve been told that I am in an authoritative position at the moment. My value is strong and high. I guess it’s what Bruce Lee said: “be happy, but don’t be satisfied”…or something like that. Meaning that you should always deserve to be greater than you are, but be happy with what you have. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not greed.

It’s like, as long as I’m alive even if…I have a question. You asked about what else would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I make statements like this, and I don’t mean to be extreme, but I do make statements like this to my friends. And anybody that asks, is that if I can’t get to do what I want to do, I’d rather be dead. And I don’t mean that from a…I hope I’m not putting the wrong words out there. It’s not that if I can’t do it, I’m going to go die. It’s just, what is the point? If I’m not doing this, if I’m not doing what I’m doing, then why live? So it’s kind of like, be useful.

I think every human being desires to be useful in some way. And then when they don’t have that use or purpose, it’s hard to live. You start figuring out how to survive and you just never leave that place of survival. It’s like you’re always trying to find a reason to live. And I think purpose gives you that reason to live. So that’s my purpose, is to achieve that kind of level of authority where I don’t even have to go look for clients anymore. I would like to be in innovation, some R&D kind of process. If NASA had a creative department, for example, I’d probably want to be there.

I guess I would say this professionally. I like to be in a place where there’s a seamless process of innovation, R&D and innovation that leads into the brand design process and ultimately contributing to advertising and marketing output, adding meaning to the consumer — the consumer experience; people — the experience people have shopping or engaging in government services or anything. I like to innovate those things because the end user for me is always something important in our process. That’s who we’re creating for. Design is supposed to be having positive impacts on the lives of people. No matter what form is in. The only reason you’re doing it is because you’re trying to change something for an end user somewhere. And I guess that’s the kind of authority I want, is where I can develop something that changes the industry also, I guess, in how we work with people, I’ve been told, actually I’m a thought leader.

I’m not really clear on that definition yet, because I hear it used a lot. I think of myself as a practicing philosopher more than a thought leader, but maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know. But somebody once called me a thought leader.

Maurice Cherry:

I think the difference between that and this may be something that you’re already doing, but if you’re thinking of how to take the next steps to try to get there, it’s really all about — and this is, I mean, from a design standpoint, it sounds silly — but it’s all about writing and sharing your work.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That’s so…that’s well said.

Maurice Cherry:

Like people…I think of folks like Frank Chimero, Steven Heller, etc. I mean, they’re well known as designers, but they’re also well known as sort of just writing and talking about the craft. You know, Mike Montero is another one, for example. That sort of…I think to me, when I think of thought leader, and I think also just in terms of how your work spreads beyond the visual medium, how it spreads beyond, you know, a campaign or some sort of a visual project: writing is the way that I think that happens.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That is absolutely correct. I think even Blair Enns — not think, I know even Blair Enns shares that. He actually says in his book that the expert should write. And I started writing. I’m sure you think I probably shared that with you. You see them on my website. I’ve written articles and I’ve written other things, but writing, being somebody dyslexic, I didn’t see myself writing this much or reading this many books.

I used to detest both of those things growing up, but it was because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. But now I buy so many books and read them, and I don’t just read them, I actually put them into practice and I write. And you’re absolutely correct on that. We should write. That’s what professionals should be doing. That’s how you establish yourself. That’s absolutely correct. You have to write a thesis or theory or opinion we should be writing.

And that’s why I like to do case studies. I like to write out the experience. Everything else that follows that really is just the know, oh, we developed this philosophy, and here is the brand identity from that philosophy, that kind of thing. So you’re absolutely correct in that we should write.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Phillip, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, your writing? Like, where can they find all that online?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So the first place, I guess I’d say, because I have all the social media links I believe on there is pjclayton.com, my primary website. Outside of that, you can go directly to LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And it’s always Phillip J. Clayton. Phillip with two L’s. J. Clayton. And I think if you hashtag it too, somewhere there, I have hashtags for them too. PJClayton. Phillip J. Clayton. P-J-C.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good.

Phillip J. Clayton. Thank you for…I mean, such a wide-ranging and expansive interview. I feel like we went in like a dozen different places from your first interview, talking about branding, to this interview, which is certainly more just kind of personal about you and your upbringing and how you got to where you are now. I really do feel like that level of thought leader that you’re talking about. I think you’re already there, and I hope that this interview will help to elevate you to get further to that, because I really think that with everything that you’ve talked about, with everything that you’ve done, you’ve got all the components. Like, you put in the work. I think we’re right around the same age. You said you’re 41, right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, I’ll be 41 in December.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m 42 now. So we’re right around the same age. So I know the work that goes into it to sustain yourself this long in this creative industry. And you said one thing before we started recording, that you have sort of these six rules for a quality life experience. You were like: disciplined, patient, kind, acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go. Look, that can be your philosophical bent to taking yourself to that thought leader status. But I’m really excited to see what else you come up with in the future, man. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. It was, I think, my deepest conversation on a podcast. Most of it’s really about work, so I really enjoyed it. I appreciate the compliments and the chair. I do look forward to what’s next. And likewise, same to you. This is a…I don’t know if a lot of people know it, but since you’ve shared it with me through the invitation, being part of the Smithsonian Archives is a brilliant position to be in from a content perspective. I never knew that was something that could happen, and I want to celebrate you for that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you. I appreciate that.

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