Tj Hughes

You may have been scolded as a kid for playing with your food, but with Tj Hughes’ new game Nour: Play With Your Food, that’s the primary objective! I had a chance to speak with Tj, the creative lead behind Nour, fresh off of the game’s release on PlayStation, Steam, and Epic Games.

We spoke a lot about the intersection of art and game development, and Tj shared how teaching himself and gaining knowledge working with a studio helped shape his perspective as a creative. Tj also talked about creating Nour’s unique gaming experience, the challenges and rewards of indie game development, experimentation, and what he wants to do next now that Nour’s been released. If you want to create something truly special, then be like Tj and think outside the box!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Tj Hughes:

Hi, I’m Tj Hughes, and I am the creative lead on Nour: Play With Your Food, which recently launched on PlayStation 5, PC, a few other platforms as well. Yeah, I just make 3D art and shaders and just colorful stuff on the computer. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. And I definitely want to talk about the game; we’ll get into that in a minute. But first of all, congratulations on the launch of the game! I know that the game dev process is arduous. It is often not linear. So congratulations on publishing.

Tj Hughes:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s been a crazy and very long journey. It’s wild to see it just finished. Yeah, it’s hard to process and wrap my head around and also figure out next steps.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the reception been like so far?

Tj Hughes:

Mixed, which I fully expected. Honestly, it’s a weird game. It’s a weird game and it’s a weird format for consoles, but I’m still confident in it because it works so well at events and stuff. Like, I’ve seen many people enjoying the game. I’ve seen when I was at PAX last this last month, it was super well received. Like, folks were really enjoying it and commenting on it. There was, like, sort of a crowd around it at the time at one point. The Panic booth was really cool and like really fun to be at.

Spaces like that, it really works. But the whole time I was making the game, I kind of feared, like, “oh, once it’s an at home experience that people can run on their consoles, folks might not get it” or they might not see the appeal, or they might have just, like, a different experience with it. Yeah, that kind of turned out to be the case.

We tried to do as much as we could to, design wise to, sort of curve that, but, yeah, it still kind of came across as just like, “oh, what is going on?” But then again, there were other folks…like, there were streamers that played it on stream to a Discord call or while having the chat open and they had a good time with it. And so it’s weird. It’s the kind of game where I feel like in a crowd of folks, it’s a really fun experience. It was an experiment, for sure. It got received like an experiment kind of would.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like all games are kind of like that, right? Like you hope that the story and the gameplay and everything that you’ve envisioned as a developer and as part of the creative team, you hope that that’s going to be received on the other end by the player. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s such an exercise in communication of just, like, how well do the concepts in this game communicate? Does it resonate with people? Do they enjoy it? And so, yeah, it’s an interesting thing because games are just such a weird medium in that just two people’s experience can be so different just because of how much is possible in games. There’s just infinite permutations of your setup or what you can do in the game. And so, yeah, it’s just really interesting to see that see folks kind of rate that experience because one person will have the best time ever and then another person is just like, what’s going on?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s the way for a lot of games, I think. I watch streamers kind of play modern games versus retro games and things like that, and it’s funny how even I think the language in which people talk about games has changed a lot. I’m in my forties; I am a first generation gamer — I guess that’s kind of a good way to put it. And the way that we talked about video games, like when I was a teenager or in my twenties is totally different than how people talk about it now. People are obsessed about framerates and DPS — they’re spitting out all these terms and stuff and it’s like, “how about you just get immersed in the game and not try to technically pick it apart?”

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and there’s a lot of focus these days on bugs, too, and how finished the game feels and all that, which I understand, to an extent. Folks are looking out for their value and making sure that folks aren’t trying to penny pinch and whatever. But, yeah, I feel like that has kind of gone overboard and led to folks really technically picking apart a game where that’s not what it originally ever was about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I just finished playing and beating two other Kickstarter-backed games. They’re both RPGs. One is called Chained Echoes and the other one is called Sea of Stars. And maybe this is my fault — I went on Reddit to kind of see what the discourse was, which…I went on Reddit. But it’s so amazing, like the spectrum of how some people love the game or how some people are picking little things apart. And some people love the music. Some people hate the music. “Why is the plot like this? Why are the characters like that?” It’s like…just play the game. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Just put it down. Play something that you like. Maybe I’m looking at it too simplistically. I don’t know.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I feel that sometimes where it feels like the energy spent hating on certain games could be redirected to games that that person actually enjoys. Yeah, I don’t really know what that’s about. I think it kind of satisfies a lot of folks to kind of just, like, I don’t know, just heavily criticize stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s something unique to the game space or not, but yeah, it surprises me too when it’s like an indie game that’s being picked apart where it’s just like, “hey, a dude made this in his free time. Maybe not fair to compare it to the game that’s made by a team of hundreds of people.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like indie developer versus AAA studio. Of course there’s going to be a big disconnect in a lot of things just because of that, because of resources.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, just the medium of Reddit and Twitter kind of connects folks directly with the developer, which can be a double edged sword. I’ve received a lot of support and a little bit of hate as well, so that’s been interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s like a media thing in general. Whether you’re a developer, if you’re a musician, if you have a television show, a movie, a podcast. I mean, in the early days when I did this, I would get so much hate on Twitter and it’s like…if the show is not for you, then don’t listen. People would call me a racist because I only have Black guests and I’m like, “what’s racist about that? It’s the focus of the show. Like, did you not know that’s what the show was about?” It’s crazy.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s wild. It’s not like you weren’t warned.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? And also we’re not trashing anyone. I can understand it. Maybe if it was like a hate-filled kind of show or something like that, but that’s not the case.

People find fault in what they want to find fault in. I find — and the Internet and social media really particularly, I don’t want to put this all on just the Internet — but social media tends to just exacerbate that because it’s given people the illusion that their voice matters.

Well, let me walk that back. It doesn’t necessarily give them the illusion that their voice matters. It gives them the illusion that it’s sort of like “the customer is always right.”

Oh yeah, that’s not always the case. I don’t know who came up with that, but that’s not always the case. Just because you feel away about it and you express it doesn’t make it like law or anything.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how I’d put it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s a delicate thing. I mean, a lot of creatives I know have sort of even walked back from social media because of that. It’s like, yeah, it can be a great thing for telling people about your work, but then the feedback you get can be just so caustic.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I’ve experienced that. And also, just, no folks who have experienced that firsthand, I completely understand it. It’s not for everyone. You do have to develop a thick skin about it. Just kind of learn how to not react to certain things.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ll get more into the game, but now that it’s out, do you have anything else that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends? I’m pretty sure a lot of this year might have been just all leading up to this launch date.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, pretty much all of this year. And I’ve been working on this full time. And that, first of all, is just really cool that I’ve been able to work on a passion project for this long because not everyone gets that opportunity [to] just sit down and just make what they want to make all day. And so that’s something about this project I’ve been super grateful about. It was able to be funded long enough for me to do that. It’s been awesome. But yeah, this year has been just leading up to just the launch of Nour and yeah, now that it’s out, I kind of told myself I was going to rest for a while and so that’s what I’m in the middle of kind of trying to do is just kind of take it easy. And of course we’re updating the game, like fixing bugs and stuff like that, but just in between that, I’m trying to just relax, take it easy as much as I can.

Also kind of let the next steps kind of naturally come to me because this project started out of just me messing around, having fun with a different kind of art medium. I think my best work kind of comes out that way, so I just want to kind of make sure I nurture that a bit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you earned a break. You definitely have earned a break. So if you get a chance to take some just R&R, please do that because you definitely have earned it.

Tj Hughes:

I appreciate that. I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s hard in game dev to just tell yourself to take a break because it’s just like, oh, wait, but there’s so much I could be doing, could be updating the game, could be pushing out this and that. It’s easy to just kind of let it run your life. Yeah, I’m just trying to get away from that habit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s go more into the game. Like we mentioned, it just launched in September. We’ll put a link to the game website as well as the trailer in the notes. I’ve played the game. I have it on PS5. I love that it starts off with your face so people know it’s from you. It’s from a Black person. I love that. I love that when you start it up, you’ve got that little…it’s like a 3D model of you with the terrifying jellyfish.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s photogrammetry.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So much of the game reminds me of, like, Katamari Damacy from Keita Takahashi. It’s kind of this unfettered play. There’s some ambiguity to it. You kind of just have to figure it out as you go along. I mean, granted, the subtitle of the game is “play with your food.” So that’s the premise. You play with your food, and you have a number of different sort of food-related scenarios that you can work through.

What was the idea behind that? What was the idea behind the game in general?

Tj Hughes:

The game didn’t start off as a game idea, necessarily. It’s kind of interesting how it came about. It was a very just, like, nonlinear path towards making a game. So Nour kind of started out as an art test. I was basically figuring out how to make shaders for the first time ever and just, like, practicing being a tech artist. And I needed a subject for testing out these new art techniques and whatever. I looked at food immediately because I just recently had started branching out as far as food goes.

I was traveling. I went to my first GDC. I had discovered bubble tea, and I was like, “oh, this stuff is great. I love this.” And, yeah, it was just the perfect subject because it was colorful, it was playful, it had all these different elements that had a kind of physical component to it. I was just like, “oh, I can make this in 3D, like, using 3D models.” And in doing that, part of my inspiration was also anime food and how lovingly food is rendered in 2D by animators and how, say, with Ghibli movies, like, how the food looks so good, you want to eat it, you just want to eat it. Makes you hungry. And so, yeah, I was just hoping that video games as a medium could give the same kind of love to food.

Because food is usually a background prop in video games. It’s usually this low poly thing that an artist spends maybe a little bit of time on. It’s not the focus. I always thought that was really interesting. And also shout out to the low poly grapes in Final Fantasy XIV, I believe it is. But yeah, to the point of them even becoming a meme is just, like, low poly background food in video games. And so I just kind of wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to be like, okay, what if it was just, like, high fidelity, super detailed, foreground food where just, like, everything’s, like, way too many polygons and just, like, HD and so, yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

It was me just making 3D models with different effects on them, different shaders and stuff, and as detailed as possible, and then just taking a screenshot and putting it on Twitter. And folks were super into it. The response was immediately just like, “oh man, that makes me hungry. That looks so good. Wow, that’s great.” Yeah, just super positive responses about it. And eventually I got to a point where some local friends of mine wanted to show…they wanted to show the art at an event, at an event about just, like, interactive art. Just saying anything that’s like art plus tech.

And I was like, okay, it’s not interactive, so it probably wouldn’t work at this exhibit. Not exhibit, but like, event, but I’ll see what I can do. And so I just hooked it up to some controls. Pressing a button on a keyboard just makes a food appear and fall down from the top of the screen. And that’s it. That’s all it started out as. The response was great. Folks were super into it, they were having a lot of fun with it.

That was kind of my moment where I was just like, oh, this is something. I’m onto something. And my background was already making video games, but I kind of didn’t expect this to really be a game. I was just like making stuff because it was pretty and just putting it out there. The game itself kind of evolved from folks, like sharing feedback, just being like, “oh, it would be cool if this food was in it”, or “what if this button did this? This button made the food fly up”, or like, “hey, you should add a meat grinder”, or whatever different things folks would say about the game. And then I would just be like, “oh, that’s great”. And I would kind of like, add it and then see how folks reacted at the next event. I was doing a lot of events and so it was this kind of back and forth of just like, I could directly talk to the folks who were playing the game and get immediate feedback about what folks really wanted in it.

And so, yeah, it was just like a really fun process and yeah, just like a weird way to make a game because I didn’t really start off with a premise or like a concept. I just started just making it from scratch, like no game design document or anything, just directly from my brain into the game engine.

Maurice Cherry:

So there wasn’t really like a story that you were trying to tell. It was just an experience you wanted people to have, it sounds like.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I had some visuals that I really wanted to make and I just wanted folks to kind of appreciate that without really needing a ton of context. Yeah, there wasn’t really much set up or anything like that. I was just kind of like, “hey, this is a really pretty food. Look at what games can kind of be and look like. You can use this medium to do a lot of crazy stuff. What if we just appreciated the visuals and textures of food?” So, yeah, it was just like an art exercise that was just really heavy on the visuals. That was really what I wanted to accomplish. It was just getting folks to kind of appreciate that side of things.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, is there an optimal way that you suggest people play the game? Because I played it on PS5 and I’ll admit that it felt like the controller was holding me back. I think there are certainly parts where if you, I think, pull a trigger, like a magnet will happen. Or if you press a button, it can change the color of the food or it can change the rate at which the food drops or something like that. It almost felt like, I don’t know if a controller is the right way to play this, and then I’ve seen videos of you playing it and you’re playing on this almost like 16 button, like MIDI controller almost. So I’m curious if there’s like an optimal way that you think people should play the game.

Tj Hughes:

The original version of the game played with a MIDI controller. The first first version was just like…keyboard, but then after that I started getting into MIDI controllers and just like music production and stuff like that. And I hooked up a MIDI controller to the game just for the fun of it. And it’s the Midi Fighter which is this board of 16 buttons and they’re like, arcade-like, fight stick buttons. So it was trying to be like kind of a reference to fighting games, but repurposed for music production. But then I’m kind of like taking it back into video games, which is sort of funny. That was originally how I presented it at museums and stuff. I would just bring out this controller and yeah, it was a really good way to play because it was just the satisfying nature of pressing a button and then seeing a really high-quality visual appear or being able to interact with it in some way.

It was a really satisfying thing. The initial release. We don’t have MIDI support in the current version of the game, but it’s something that we’ve been meaning to put back in because trying to support consoles and stuff, I couldn’t really have it, the MIDI tech back end, in there. But yeah, we’re trying to put it back in. It kind of just got broken along the way of making the game. Yeah, that’s something that we’re trying to get back to the roots of. It’s just like, okay, this game has been shown at a few exhibits with this controller. It would be great if folks could plug in kind of any controller of that sort and just play the game and just see what happens.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I like that experience, though, because it sort of reminds me of sort of like early gaming in the 90s, where I think developers were experimenting with a bunch of different types of input styles. I mean, of course, you had Nintendo with their standard controller. Sega had the same thing. But then Nintendo eventually also had R.O.B. the Robot, and there were like two games that you could use with the robot and then the Zapper. I think the Zapper came with when I got my Nintendo in ’85, I think it came with a Zapper. So it was like a combination [Super] Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, and so that’s an alternate way that you can play the game.

And then with Super Nintendo, you’ve got [the] Super Scope Six or whatever. And so there were all these sort of, like, alternate controllers for different games that you could play the games with. So I like that. This kind of harkened back to that for me because now everything is either Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, PC, like, it’s one of those four things and it doesn’t really give you a lot of variety onto how you play. It just the platform that you play it on.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and the folks would call all that stuff, like, gimmicky back in the day. And I always thought it was pretty fun, like, Nintendo would always try to be the ones to use those really alternative controllers. Yeah, I miss it. I genuinely miss that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, this game, to me, like I said, it really kind of harkens back to that and I think it opens up creativity for the gamer in a different way that’s not just — it’s pressing buttons, but it’s not in like a standard type of controller-esque format. It feels like to me, when you mentioned that sort of 16-button thing, that almost kind of feels like a good way to play it, especially because you were play testing this at exhibits. So you weren’t like play testing this in a play lab or something like that. You were out in open spaces and mixed spaces with people, so people could really interact with it any way they wanted to.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and even though we were kind of just siloed off to controllers with the console release of this, we tried to do as much as we could with it as well. So with a DualSense controller, we’re just like, okay, even though you’re just controlling the game in a regular way, we still want to find alternative ways to interact with the game. So we use the microphone for that. And in the game, you can blow into your controller and that will blow all of your food away. Or if you make a slurp sound that’ll suck all the food towards you. And then if you whistle or in pitch with a song that’s currently playing in the game, all your food will kind of levitate. And so we just wanted to just whatever way you’re interacting with the game. We wanted to make it to where you just had options that were just kind of weird to kind of complement the MIDI controller back in the day. It was just like, okay, so at least with this controller, there’s something special that you can do that you couldn’t even do on the MIDI controller.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I could see certainly something like this doing well on VR or even something like I know you mentioned like, Nintendo with these different controller things. I mean, like the Switch controllers, you can kind of have each joy con in your hand or something like that. I could see definitely a future of don’t. Like, maybe I’m putting idea in your head, I don’t know, but I could see a future where you’re using that as the inputs as opposed to like button presses with some stuff. And that could be another way to unlock more gameplay for people, more appeal.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, yeah, VR is an idea I’ve had for a while. I would still love to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about sort of the team and the game dev process because I know that the process can be long. You raised money on this via Kickstarter and you had a team behind you as well as you also worked with Panic for kind of helping to distribute the game. Talk to me about that.

Tj Hughes:

So it’s a fairly small team that we’re working with. So there’s Me. There’s Joey. He does programming. There’s Maximilian. He helps with initially music, but now it’s kind of just everything that he helps out with. Just programming just so much. He’s come a huge contribution to the game as well as James.

Also, like, on the music, we had like a two man music team who just kind of became developers over time. We have Mark who is on sound design and sound effects. So any of the foley or just kind of ASMR sounds that you hear throughout the game, that’s him. And so, yeah, just like small team of five folks just kind of making this over discord, basically. I’m kind of like leading the pack on that. It’s a really interesting process. Yeah, just like especially on a weird game like this, it’s kind of like anything goes type thing where there’s been just weird ideas presented to me, where I’ve just been like, yeah, send it, let’s do it. That’s how multiple things got into the game.

Like the jellyfish idea, just like having this character that comes and steals your food. When you say nonlinear, that describes everything about this game’s process from the funding to the idea, to its actual technical development. Yeah, it’s just completely nonlinear. But it’s been cool though. It’s been a really cool way to kind of make something because it truly felt like we’re just kind of playing around, really. And just like, any idea that sounds cool, we’re just like, yeah, let’s do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, we. Talked about this a little bit before recording. The game development process can be long, especially if you’re raising funds through a crowdfunding medium like Kickstarter. There’s been video games that I have helped to fund in the past that just took much longer, I think, than the developer originally might have thought of for it to come out. Like, we talked about Omori, for example. This was a game by an independent developer, Omocat. They got funding for it through Kickstarter in 2015. And I want to say it didn’t start coming out on consoles until like…I know it came out on the Switch in 2020. It might have been out on Steam in 2019, but it was years past when they initially said this is when the game is coming out. And Kickstarter, and you can probably attest to this, Kickstarter is a bit of a double-edged sword. Like, yes, you have people’s funding, but the people that fund it can be real assholes when it comes to, like, “where’s my game? Why don’t you have it now? You said it would be here by this date, I want my money back”, blah, blah, blah. Tell me about that, because I feel like the game dev process and then having to answer to backers kind of might have been a source of contention throughout this process.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s always tough dealing with folks who just really want the product. I luckily feel like I found a really nice corner of the Internet who backed this game because folks have been, for the most part, just super patient with it. It’s actually crazy because, yeah, we’re talking about Omori, but I think we took even longer as far as when the Kickstarter started versus when the game actually came out. It’s such a long process and through so much of it, I felt bad. I was just like, “oh, dang, folks are looking for this.” And I’ve definitely had folks kind of reach out when things were more silent because we’re just really heads down on the game and trying to make it happen. So folks have been super nice and super patient for the most part, but there are definitely a few standout folks that reached out and just weren’t so nice. I definitely had just like a few folks get in the Twitter mentions and it wouldn’t be like a majority by any means. It’s maybe like five people, but we kind of, as humans, remember negative experiences way more than positive ones. And so it was just really stand out how someone called it vaporware or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no…

Tj Hughes:

I was just like, “okay, you don’t even have the game yet, so that’s an early judgment.” Yeah, just certain folks, someone got really extreme with it, but luckily we have what’s called the block button, and so that is a fantastic tool to curb these kinds of responses. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m super grateful to have found just like a really supportive fan base and backer base. It’s a hard thing because you kind of can’t predict how development is going to go. Because straight up, I thought this game would be wrapped up by 2020, and then 2020 comes around, boom, hit with a pandemic, right? And I was just like, “oh, okay.” So this is kind of a great time for games in general, but terrible time for [the] mental health of tiny teams working on very ambitious projects. That was an interesting hurdle that no one was prepared for. But it’s hard to make such an ambitious project around such an unpredictable hurdle, right?

Maurice Cherry:

For people that are listening, Kickstarter is not a store. If you pledge something and you get your pledge rewards, that’s great. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m not going to spend time on it on this podcast, but there are a lot of campaigns that I have helped crowdfund. Where the money? I’ll never see that money again. The developer or the creator, whomever, has just took off with the church’s money, as they would say, you don’t know where they’re at.

I think one campaign I did, the person…it was for tea, of all things, this guy had a tea company and he was trying to raise some money for new blends, and then he just never sold the tea. And then he used the money to come out with an LP because he was starting his music career. It was so stupid.

You have to kind of vet, of course, how this goes. I tend to vet more projects where I can see the people have had some track record of success. But it’s tricky. I mean, I think whenever you’re crowdfunding, it can be kind of tricky, but just realize there are real people behind this. There’s real people behind this. And that if stuff happens, stuff happens. But curb it a bit. Don’t get all in people’s faces about it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I think it’s very fair to be like, “hey, we’d like some communication about this” and all that. When it veers into the realm of harassment, of just, you don’t need to attack their character. I don’t know. You don’t need to send a death threat.

Maurice Cherry:

It was never that serious, especially for video games. It’s a video game! What are you getting that riled up about? It’s a game.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s a game, not a therapy session. It’s interesting. Also, he made an LP with the money?

Maurice Cherry:

I’m not going to shout out the name of the company, but they were making tea blends. I had gotten some of their tea before. I’m a tea aficionado and I really like tea. And so I was like, “yeah, I’ve had some of their tea before”, sure. And I think they raised maybe like $8,000. And then we just never heard from the person again. And you know how on Kickstarter you can see the person’s profile is sometimes connected to a Facebook page or like their Facebook profile. And so basically people in the comments had clicked through and was like, “wait a minute, he’s making music now?” Like, wait a minute. What? So we’re just never going to see that tea again because now he thinks he’s a singer?

Tj Hughes:

Okay, for a second I thought they posted their own backer update and was just like, “Actually…”

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no, they never updated or anything! They just went completely radio silent.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, okay. And people just kind of put it together. Okay, for a second I was about to say, that is so bold, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind know switch up a little bit here. We’ve talked about the game and we’ve talked about development and stuff. Let’s talk more about you so people know more about just kind of your background and how you got to where you are now. You’re in St. Louis, Missouri now. Is that where you’re from originally?

Tj Hughes:

Yes. Yeah, I lived here my entire life, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Did you sort of get exposed to a lot of creativity and design and stuff growing up? I’m guessing that you probably have.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. So my mom is a traditional artist. She does like acrylic and whatever medium she can get her hands on, really. And my dad was a jazz musician. Kind of just naturally got exposed to art super early on because of that. It was interesting because no one was really trying to push me in the direction of art. It just kind of happened just like naturally. And my dad was also really into tech and would have just like random trinkets and synthesizers and circuit boards just strewn throughout the house and yeah, I just kind of had this subconscious interest in tech that I never really noticed as being weird or different until later on when I just kind of said it all at once.

I was like, “oh yeah, I was kind of exposed to this stuff from way back in the day.”

Maurice Cherry:

That’s awesome.

Tj Hughes:

I grew up just like drawing comic books and stuff. Not to expose my brother and I, but we had our own Sonic characters and stuff. That’s how we started out. We just draw our own Sonic characters and that was huge for us. We would just make these comic books. That was kind of just the early influence. And then, I don’t know, just as the Internet was a thing, we started playing more video games. I was just interested in both those things at the same time.

And as a kid I would just always be like, “oh, I want to be a game designer when I grow up.” I said that without any kind of confidence at all. It was just kind of like a kid’s dream sort of thing. And I remember the moment where I kind of really questioned it, where I was just like, “oh snap, I’m not good at Math. How am I ever going to make video games? This is going to be so difficult.”

But then fast forward to when I was 13. I discovered Unity while procrastinating some homework. One day, I was like, “oh, what is this? It’s an engine that anyone can download. That’s crazy. Let me go and do that.” And, yeah, I just started going through these PDF tutorials on how to make an FPS game. I made this really crappy little first person shooter project, but I was learning the engine, and it was before I was even realizing it, I was just like, “yo, wait, I’m actually doing this. It kind of makes sense. It’s just like, logic.” Yeah, that’s when I kind of realized, like, “oh, snap. I have a really self-learning oriented brain” because I wasn’t particularly good at school. I wasn’t really good at Math, but just figuring things out and putting things together and disassembling them, I was just like, “wow, I’m great at this.” And so, yeah, it just kind of really worked for me. Just, like, teaching myself the video games and how to make them and how to make my own art really.

Yeah, that kind of just worked out.

Maurice Cherry:

First of all, I have to say that’s excellent that you were picking that up so young and that it was available for you and you were in an environment where I’m guessing it didn’t sound like your parents at all were trying to hold you back from doing that.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always realized I’m super lucky about was like, they’ve always pushed me in this kind of direction or just been supportive when they learned what I was making. Yeah, they’re just like, “wow, that’s really cool.” They’ve always been okay with me going into art because they did it themselves. And anytime I would show them something, they’d be like, “wow, that’s really cool.” Even if my mom didn’t really understand it, to this day she’s like, “what do you do? You do, like, the computer thingy?” But she’s still really supportive. She set the donut from my game that’s her wallpaper on her phone. I’m just like, “okay, that’s really cute.” I feel really honestly supported.

The only hard part was when I decided to not go to college for any of this. That was something that was very controversial for a lot of the adults in my life. They were just like, “no, you need to go to college. You got to get a degree. You had to have a fallback, and you had to get the proper education”, blah, blah, blah. But it was also just like, “yo, we can’t afford that. Student loans and all that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have debt. I just want to make money and also create cool stuff.”

That was really hard. Part of it was just, like, convincing folks that, hey, I know how it looks, but I have a plan. Yeah, I think I can say that it’s worked out and that school wasn’t exactly necessary for this kind of work, but I know it is helpful for a lot of people to have a curriculum and go through that path. And so, yeah, I’m not knocking it by any means. Just with my set of circumstances, I don’t think it would have been the best move.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s something that the prior generation, I think, is always going to try to impress upon the younger generation. Not necessarily so much the value of education because you were teaching yourself, so you were getting your own education. You were learning about this at a young age prior to college, you were creating projects. I mean, a lot of that is honestly stuff that you would do in college anyway, just with a price tag attached to it. But I think specifically for game development, that’s such a different type of field than say, being a doctor or an engineer or something like that. I mean, game development as we know it is still a very young field and so the ways that you get into it are not necessarily through a four-year institution.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Another part of it is that things change so fast that by the time you get through your curriculum, it’s just like, boom, everything’s different. There’s a new tool that everyone uses. Everyone stops using this engine because of the weird PR or whatever. There’s so much that can change so rapidly. I think it really lends itself to self teaching because then you can just find all the latest, most up to date stuff and yeah, people make tutorials out. People make plenty of tutorials nowadays. Even when I got started, there was a lot of stuff, but I can’t even imagine having access to the amount of content there’s out there now. Yeah, I feel like you can kind of make anything nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, everything you mentioned is 100% like it was in the days of the early web. I’m talking like maybe 98 to from 1998 to 2008 was such a huge jump in web development because the browser went from being this tool of presentation to now a tool for development. And so you started having people developing tools in the browser, using the browser not just as a viewport, but also as your development environment and everything. And there were no programs back then to really teach web design. Like, I went to school and majored in computer science initially because my dumb ass was like, oh, if I’m a computer science major, that means I can be a web designer. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Everything I learned about web design has been self taught because back then there were no courses unless you went to like an art institute or something like that.

And even then, as you mentioned, the technology changes so fast that the curriculum is out to date. It’s out of date as you’re learning it. So it sounds very similar to the early days of the web, is what you’re mentioning with game development. So it seems like you certainly went in the right. I mean, look, you have a video game that’s out now on PlayStation Steam. You’re doing something right. So I think the way that you went certainly is what’s worked for you, which is all you can ask for, really.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Super grateful it’s worked out this way so far. It was also great just being like, “oh, hey, this is a possible route. You don’t have to fork over just like a bunch of debt just to get into this field and make stuff that you care about.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, you did start your early career at a studio. You were at Happy Badger Studio. How did you get started there? How did you find out about them?

Tj Hughes:

Once again, through Twitter. Weirdly. Everything in my career has happened through Twitter. Both getting this game out there, getting hired there. Yeah, it was a similar sort of thing. I discovered Unity when I was 13 and kind of just throughout the rest of high school, I’ve just been just making little experiments and learning. Every now and then, I would do a game jam. I would do the Ludum Dare 48 hour game jam a few times. I would just make things to show my friends and I would take screenshots of what I’m making and put it on Twitter. I had a bunch of projects that were way too big that I was never going to complete, if I’m being completely honest. But I was just like a kid in middle and high school, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was still really fun stuff to make and it was still really pretty — the different kinds of projects I was making just from those screenshots and stuff.

I would show off this company, Happy Badger Studio, they saw my work on Twitter and they hit me up. They’re just like, “hey, who are you? Want to come by our studio and just hang out because your stuff is crazy.” And so, yeah, we did that. And they offered me a contractor position and me being fresh out of high school, this was right after I graduated, I was like, “this is really cool. This is a dream job.” Like, exactly the kind of stuff I want to be doing. Yeah, absolutely. And so, yeah, I worked with them for a bit and then became a full-time employee there after a few years. It was just really fun. I got to do the exact part of game dev that I wanted to do, which is technical art. I really just like the art pipeline, the art side of things.

And so, yeah, that was just like a really good situation. And there we made SmuggleCraft, which is a hovercraft racing game with procedurally generated tracks and customizable ships. And yeah, it was a super fun project to work on and [it] really got me started with tech art. And I got to really control the art in the game, which was super fun. Like, all the colors and particle effects, that was all my domain. And so, yeah, that was just, like, super fun and a really good experience. I feel like that was honestly my college course.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d say that was your college course, your first real job…I mean, that kind of work right out of high school? I mean, that’s the dream. That’s the dream. Like, if you’ve been doing it, especially as a kid and you’re able to go right into working, I mean, that’s the best kind of education. Especially like, as you said, you learn by doing, so that’s perfect. That’s perfect for you.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really good situation. That’s actually where I met Joey, who’s on my team as well. And he taught me so much of what I know about programming because we just have sessions of C# just sitting down and he just tells me that he’s a wizard programmer. He knows so much. I know just enough to get by and actually make a game, but he’s who I go to when I’m just like, “okay, I need to do this very specific thing. How?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s in the future for Terrifying Jellyfish? I mean, we’ve talked about the game coming out. We’ve talked about sort of how you’ve gotten here and everything. And now that the game is out and it’s getting that reception and you’re in this sort of rest period, I should say, what do you want to do in the future? What’s next?

Tj Hughes:

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. I definitely have ideas for projects, but I definitely need to take some time to think about how I would make them happen. Like what the ideal setup is, whether I have a publisher yeah, just what the setup would be. But right now I’m focusing on just kind of resting up and just taking a break and letting what happens next come naturally. I don’t really want to force a project. I want to make something that folks are actually genuinely interested in.

I think I’ll do a lot of what I did for Nour. I think I’m going to just kind of mess around a bit for fun and try to fund that as much as possible, but just mess around with a few different art projects, put it out there, show folks, see what they like the most, and then just see it evolve from there. I think that’s kind of my formula now, is not just taking bets on what I, as my ego thinking, is the best idea possible. I want to actually get feedback in real time of just like, “oh, folks other than me actually like this. I’m going to pursue this idea now.” I think that’s kind of going to be my approach. So, yeah, my plan is just mess around a bit, throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.

Maurice Cherry:

Basically that’s a good strategy. I like that. I mean, it’s certainly different from what you would see maybe, like, a bigger studio might do, where they might make — and I don’t necessarily mean a game studio, but like, say a television studio — might make a bunch of pilots and then they will do testing on them and then they’ll sort of go and see, “okay, this is the first one” where instead maybe they could put all the pilots out on YouTube and let people sort of see which one they respond to instead of going with what the studio might think. So I think that’s a good tactic.

Tj Hughes:

I like that, yeah, thanks. Also, like something I’ve been talking about because I want to put the seed out there. I feel like if I talk about it, that’s an easier chance of kind of manifesting it. I want to do more museum games because Nour started out as a museum game, just being installed somewhere with a controller and then folks can walk up and interact with it at an event or something like that. I really love that format of game. I kind of feel like I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about the tech of it all. I don’t have to worry about performance and optimization.

I’m just like, “okay, it runs on the computer and it’s interesting and it’s wacky and attention grabbing” and that’s all I had to worry about. I love making stuff like and also I got to travel to a lot of really cool places with this project as well. I got to go to South Korea, Amsterdam, like South Africa, just bringing this game to different exhibits and stuff. And so yeah, I would just love to do more of that. I don’t know how much of that it’s going on post pandemic, but yeah, any events like that I would love to be a part of again and they would just kind of find me as well. I have no idea how these opportunities were kind of come to me, but definitely want to do more stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s awesome. I mean, I can certainly see this kind of thing being done in design museums. Like Atlanta has a museum of design. Atlanta. I think they just had a gaming exhibit earlier this year where they I think it was called Pixels and Code. I don’t recall it, but I could think like design museums, that would work. Conferences could work. There is a conference and it doesn’t go on anymore; maybe it will in the future, but there’s this conference in Portland called XOXO….

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, Nour was actually there one year. I think it was like 2018 or 2019.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh wow, okay. I was there in 2018. My team was there in 2019. The startup I was working at at the time, we did an event in 2018. We did like this art and code event, but they had this game expo that’s where I played, like, Hair Naw and a couple of other games. I assume they probably had it the next year, so if it was 2019, I wasn’t there, but members of my team were there. That’s cool. I could see it being done in something like that where people can really interact with it in an open space.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really cool setting for it because the screen that they got, I guess it was a projector, it was gigantic. They really knew how to present the game. And so I thought that was great, seeing just this HD food up on this big, giant screen. And so, yeah, just more things like that. I just loved how just wacky and just different that convention was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Tj Hughes:

I just hope more things like that exist, like post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:

So for people that are hearing your story, they’re listening to you, how you came up in terms of learning about game dev, and now you have your own game out there. What would you recommend to them? If they’re looking to create their own game, what kind of advice would you give them?

Tj Hughes:

I would say just use what resources you have and go for it. It’s completely okay to just google everything. That’s basically what I did. I just googled my way into a career. I have no formal education about any of this. And so use your confidence and ask people as well. Ask people who’ve done it before. There are so many folks that are more than willing to share expertise.

Mentorship is kind of how I really got through most of this. Just folks from Happy Badger Studio just being like, “oh, here’s how you do this. Here’s how you start an LLC and get your business organized. You want to start your own bank account as, like, that’s separate from your personal funds.” There’s just, like, a lot of little pieces of knowledge that aren’t actually hard to execute, but once you know them, it just sets you up. Yeah, I don’t know. Just like tax organization. Don’t ignore that stuff.

Like, taxes. This is if you’re making it commercially, like, if you’re actually trying to make money from it, I would say the biggest thing is start small and ramp up incrementally. Think of it, I guess, like. working out. [That] sort of thing. You don’t go right to 300 pounds on your first deadlift or whatever. You want to work your way up there because you don’t want to tear a muscle. You don’t want to burn out. You want to do what you’re capable of. That was something that I really had to just learn.

It had to just be nailed in me because, yeah, starting out, I wanted to make the biggest FPS project ever. I wanted it to be multiplayer and have, I don’t know, like, be an MMO at the same time. Just a ton of players on the same server, zombies everywhere. It was just like I was in way over my head. I was never going to do that. But still fun to start out and mess around with.

Then I scaled it back and my first game, Feesh, that’s when I made that. I made that during a Ludum Dare game jam, like in 48 hours. That was the tiniest possible little arcade game. I released it on Steam for like 99 cents and with no marketing; folks bought it. That was a great experience. And so I think there really is something to keeping it simple, scaling it back and cutting things. If you have an idea for a feature, just imagine the game without it. I can’t stress that you can never cut too much from a game.

Just actually done is so much better than having it be perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nour, about the game? Where can they find that information online?

Tj Hughes:

Terrifyingjellyfish.com is the main spot, but social media-wise, Instagram is the most active — @terrifyingjellyfish on there. I post anything I’m working on to there. I’m on Twitter, X, or whatever the heck you want to call it, at terrify– @jellyoccult or at @_Teejay5 online, everywhere. Food.game, if you just want to look up Nour and buy that game. Yeah, everything’s linked. So if you just look up “terrifying jellyfish”, you’ll kind of find everything all right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. Tj Hughes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you, one, for just…I mean, you’re such a creative force. I mean, I feel like I’ve learned a lot just from hearing your story and hearing you talk about game development and your process. I think what you embody is kind of the core thing that I try to put forth with Revision Path is to let people know that there’s more than one way to get to what your definition of success is. And I love that for you. You’re really creating what you want to see in the world. It’s coming from this really pure place and I’m really going to be excited to see what you do in the future.

But yeah, definitely take your rest now, but in the future I’m going to be so excited to see what you accomplish. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, thanks for having me on here. Yeah, it’s been really fun talking about games and through the whole process.

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.

André Foster

If you’ve been listening to the podcast over the past year or two, you know that the use of AI has been a constant thread through nearly every episode. And this week’s guest, André Foster, has embraced this new tech as part of his creative practice while still producing top notch motion design and animation work through his studio, First Fight.

André gave a rundown on some of the client work and the day-to-day happenings at First Fight, and discussed the importance of perseverance and continuous improvement through difficult social and economic times. The conversation then dives into the use of AI in the creative industry, and from there André talk about his upbringing in Detroit, the city’s creative community, and Bond — James Bond.

For André, resilience, adaptability, and personal growth have been the keys to his success!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

André Foster:

My name is Andre Foster. I’m the co-founder and owner of First Fight, a creative studio and production house based in Detroit, Michigan that helps brands hit above their weight with style and motion. And what that really means is that we use our own unique style of animation, design and live action to bring our clients message to life. For broadcast or for digital, Disney+, Instagram, Fox Sports, StockX, and Dave & Buster’s are just some of the brands that we’ve worked with.

Maurice Cherry:

Impressive. Really impressive.

André Foster:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

How has this year been going so far?

André Foster:

This year has been rough and not just for us, but I think just for a lot of studios as well. I think the economy hasn’t been that great, so it’s really caused a lot of our clients to kind of tighten their spending. Layoffs, strikes…[it’s] just a lot of uncertainty in the industry. I think that’s been a part of this whole thing that’s just part of being a business owner is just going through the highs and lows of it. But I think what’s been good about it is that it’s really made us refocus on our brand. Just kind of hone in on the actual service of what we provide. I think we really came to the realization that the creative is just one part of it. It’s really just how you can network and how you can execute what you do and how you present that to your clients and even to potential clients.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you say — I mean, aside from just kind of the change like you said in clients and budgets and stuff — how would you say that you personally have grown over the past year?

André Foster:

Yeah, it really put me in a space where I had to really just keep going. I think this whole year just showed me that you have to just be strong and just be able to adapt and then just really just keep doing what you’ve been doing. And then just as I said before, just kind of refocus and make sure that you can just try to just be as good as the service that you’re trying to provide. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. So it’s really just, again, just making sure that you hone in on what it is that you do, what you’re good at and how you’re different. And then like I said, just keep sending the emails out and just keep promoting yourself and just keep trying to put yourself out there as much as you can and just really just trust in the process while you do that. And then while you do do that, you just make sure that you just concentrate on the craft and just figure out ways how to be better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, as you said that, it sort of reminded me of that saying people have when they say, “if you’re going through hell, keep going.” Like…just sort of find a way to persevere. And I mean, you and I — we talked about this a little bit before we started recording — but it’s been tough for, I think, a lot of creatives this year just in terms of budgets and clients and finding work. And it’s definitely a trying time right now in the creative industry overall. But it sounds like you’re weathering it pretty well.

André Foster:

Yeah, I’m not going to lie, it’s been extremely rough. But as you said, we’ve been weathering it and we’ve just been trying to find work where we can and just again, like I said, just make sure that we trust in the process and just make sure that we keep continue to network and just be able to try to continue to put our brand out there as much as we can.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s help with that. Let’s talk about First Fight, which you co founded back in 2016 and you just mentioned earlier. Tell me more about it. Tell me more about some of the services and things that you offer.

André Foster:

We primarily do animation and then we do live action as well. With that, we do a lot of design. We do a lot of illustration work too. Along with that, we also do a lot of strategy when it comes to the digital campaigns that we create the content for. So that’s really kind of a newer service that we’ve added onto our team. But really it’s just really just trying to emphasize the uniqueness of what we do and how we do it. Style, emotion is the thing that we always say that we have that we can owner our clients. But yeah, animation and live action and just make sure that we’re trying to get our clients message across in a unique way that stands out.

And for me it’s fun because it’s always interesting how we can try to do something a little bit different than what’s been done before. Our clients pretty much are kind of like in the same industry, but it could kind of range. We deal mostly in the entertainment industry, but lately we’ve been doing a lot of stuff for the self-driving industry, the autonomous, autonomous industry. So it’s kind of just switching it up and just seeing what’s out there and how we could try to bring our voice to their message.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to ask you about clients. I mean, you mentioned some earlier that you’re working with. Of course, you know, being in Detroit, big automotive center here in the U.S. — Chevy, Ford, Cadillac — but then you also mentioned Disney+. Dave & Buster’s is a client of yours, know, just to name a few. What are the best types of clients that you prefer to work with?

André Foster:

I think the best type of clients are the clients that can trust our expertise and just really just let us go. I mean, that’s not to say that we don’t like to collaborate because we definitely like to do that. But having clients that can really trust in what you’re able to bring to them and just let us go, I think that’s probably the best type of clients that we like to work with. And then also it helps too that they can pay you like how you should be paid. That’s a definite know. That’s something that we look for because we are in a business and we just want to make sure that the value of what we do, we get compensated for. So the Disney Pluses and the Dave & Buster’s, you know, those type of clients, we really don’t have issue with that. So it really just allows us to be able to come up with some great work for them and just go.

Maurice Cherry:

I know you said entertainment was kind of one field that you’re working in, and then of course, the automotive industry. Are those kind of the two main industries that you prefer to work with?

André Foster:

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, we’ve kind of just fell into that, I think, because we are based in Detroit. So the automotive industry is kind of like right in our backyard. But what’s interesting is that some of the stuff that we have done when it comes to automotive industry has been kind of cool because it’s kind of allowed us to be a little bit more creative in terms of showing the car. And actually there’s been some situations where we haven’t really shown the car at all. It’s just been like a lot of lifestyle imagery and stuff like that. So it’s kind of helped us in terms of just being a little bit more creative and just showing the car itself and just making it a little bit more interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

What does your day-to-day work look like at First Fight?

André Foster:

A lot of emails, sending emails out and just checking behind the status of some projects that we have in-house and then making sure that our animators and that our team, they know what it is that they need to do and just checking behind them. I probably shouldn’t say checking behind them, just making sure that what they’re working on is it fits what the project is and what the message is for that project. Just making sure that they understand the assignment, and do it in the brand voice of what First Fight is about.

Maurice Cherry:

What would you say kind of really sets First Fight apart from other studios?

André Foster:

Well, one, I mean, we’re one of the few Black-owned agencies — probably shouldn’t say agencies — or creative studios in the industry. So I think that by itself is definitely what they necessarily apart. But I think it’s really just the foundation of design and illustration. I think that’s one thing that kind of distinguishes us from other studios because we have such a strong foundation of that. I think that we tap into that with some of most of the work that we do, even though we do a lot of different stuff. We do editing and we do some visual effects, and then, like I said, we do live action. But even with those, there’s some fundamental things that we put in that that we take from what we learn with design and illustration, whether it’s compositing or composing a picture and making sure that there’s enough contrast to get the visual interest of what it is that we’re trying to show.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, let’s say when new work comes in, because you’re offering all these different services and you said strategy is even, like, something kind of new that you’re offering. When a new project kind of comes in the door, what does that process look like in terms of getting started and everything?

André Foster:

We get a request, whether it’s through email or we may just get a phone call, and the client will come in with a brief and then we read over the brief and then we kind of get a sense of what the vision is that the client is kind of going for. So I think it’s really the initial brief. And then from that, we just kind of figure out. Like, well, okay, whether or not it’s going to be 30 seconds long, is it 60 seconds? And then we kind of figure out what is the budget for it, and then we kind of craft a plan from that and then really just kind of get a better understanding of what exactly is the message that the client is trying to say with it within the constraints of the budget that they have. Because sometimes the budget is just not there. Sometimes, like I said, we just try to make sure that we try to do what we can within the budget and make sure that we still are able to give the client what they need to get the message across.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d imagine with maybe some of the bigger clients, maybe that’s an easier process. Is that true?

André Foster:

Yeah, they kind of just let you go. And the great thing about the bigger clients is that the budget is not really an issue. So it kind of allows us to be able to go for what we know and just have fun with it and then just really just have fun with it and challenge ourselves, because I think we always are trying to do that anyway in terms of how we execute these things for our clients, whether it’s through animation, video production, and even with the strategy. We’re always trying to figure out…what is the different angle that we can take? How can we make this project different than what’s been done before? And that’s something that we always try to do. I mean, that’s kind of the fight that we always go through. And really, sometimes the fight is within ourselves because we’re trying to fight against what we’ve seen before. How can we make it different than what was? Because it’s so hard to come up with something that’s original nowadays because it’s so much stuff out there.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I’m glad you said that, because that actually is a good lead into what I wanted to ask about with regards to AI and some of this emerging tech in the creative industry. I think across writing, design, animation, illustration, et cetera, we’ve started to see a lot more adoption of AI tools, both good and bad. I mean, the tools are often trained on other people’s work without their consent, so that’s a bad thing. But then some people are using them or trying to use them, I think, in effective ways. I know back when Disney+ had launched — not launched, they premiered — the season of…

André Foster:

Secret Invasion.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Secret invasion. Thank you.

And the whole intro was done with AI. And there was sort of this kind of big negative backlash against it and everything. I’m curious, are you using AI in any of your work, or do you have any just kind of thoughts around AI and any of these emerging technologies in the field?

André Foster:

Yeah. We do use AI. And I think what I’ve seen is that I think a lot of people are using it the wrong way, because when we started using AI, we kind of took it as a high leve, well, kind of a Pinterest. Like a high level of what a Pinterest would do for you.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like a mood board or something.

André Foster:

Yeah. But the only big difference is that you can really customize it to what it is that you’re trying to do in terms of getting an idea, or even just trying to figure out a different color palette. Because what’s cool about using AI, because…I use Midjourney, and what’s cool about Midjourney is it can give you an idea that you never even really thought about, or, like I said, even a color palette that you didn’t even think about. We’re kind of using it in that regard. I don’t think you should use or present AI as a final image. I think if you don’t go back in it, if you don’t try to alter it in some way and then kind of make it ownable to yourself and to what you do, I think that’s where the problem kind of comes in. But, yeah, I mean, we just use it as kind of like a really high level Pinterest.

Maurice Cherry:

I would tell people that ways that I’ve used it before is kind of almost like a decent intern to come up with ideas to bounce things off of. But I wouldn’t necessarily take what one of these tools like — say, ChatGPT for example — I wouldn’t necessarily use what they have flat out as my own, and certainly I wouldn’t pass it off as my own. But it can be inspiration for something else. It could say, “okay, well, I didn’t think about this”, or “maybe I can reword this in a different way now that I’ve got a spark of an idea that this AI has generated.”

André Foster:

Exactly. Yeah. And I’m the same way with ChatGPT, because I’ve used it in the past and I’ll have it write something, and then I usually have to go back in and just make it sound like myself. But for the most part, it does most of the heavy lifting, and it’s just really not meant for you to just have it come straight out the box or present it as yourself without even putting yourself in it somehow, some way. I think with Midjourney, there’s a reason why it’s called Midjourney. It’s really just meant to get you halfway there. That’s the way I took it.

Maurice Cherry:

I thought you were going to say, because the output is mid, but I get that, too. I like your explanation better.

André Foster:

Yeah. And I really thought that was the whole point of it. I mean, maybe the developers probably had a different idea of what the name meant. I like to think that that’s what they wanted it to do.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

André Foster:

Because it’s not meant to replace the artist. It’s just there to get them to a certain point and then have them finish it.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, how do you think clients would feel about that? Do you think they’d think, “oh, well, if you’re using AI, I could do that myself”?

André Foster:

Yeah, some clients may think that. I think any edge that you can have in this industry, you should try to take advantage of it. Because in an industry where things are constantly being due the next day and the budgets are getting a little bit shorter, you have to try to find ways to be able to be efficient and to be able to still play in this game. So I think any advantage that you can get, you should try to use it. I really don’t think that they really care because I think the whole controversy has been just more about what the artists themselves in the industry, I think with the clients themselves, I don’t think they really care. I think as long as you’re able to get their message across, make it look good, and it does what it needs to do for them, I think that’s all what they really care about.

Maurice Cherry:

I think so, too. I mean, it’s so interesting. Like, back when I had my studio and I had clients, it would be so interesting to talk with other designers and they go so much into their process, and they use this in Photoshop or they use Sketch or they’re using Illustrator and all that stuff, and the client doesn’t care about that. The client just cares about their end result. They really don’t want to know the nuts and bolts. I mean, some clients do, but as a whole, they’re not really concerned with how the sausage is made. They just want the sausage.

André Foster:

Exactly. Yeah. I think it’s kind of a bougie kind of attitude, like some artists take. I kind of get it. Well, when I say that toward using it, and I kind of get it. And I think there is a lot of training that goes into what we do, because I have an illustration major. That’s what I went to school for, so I understand the fundamentals and the foundations of it. I know it takes a lot of time to be able to get good at that and to understand it.

But what’s interesting is that with AI, what I see nowadays, I feel like everything kind of looks the same. And I can always tell when somebody who doesn’t have any traditional training, they’ll just put stuff out just because they think it looks cool. But I can see all the different things that’s wrong with it, right, because they haven’t developed that type of taste when it comes to design. Like, you can type in anything into Midjourney and have it spit out something, but if you don’t know how to filter it out and figure out, like, well, this image doesn’t look good, or whatever, that kind of goes back to how you’ve been trained traditionally. But if you’re just putting stuff out left and right, you’re kind of giving yourself away, like you really don’t know what you’re doing. Just typing in prompts.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, it’s another tool to use as the designer. You have the discernment, you have the eye, you have the experience to be able to kind of know what to look for, and know how to craft it in the right way. I do see…a lot of the AI art does have the very similar just sort of style to it. Like, you can look at something and just tell, like, “yep, that’s AI”.

André Foster:

Yeah, it’s a dead giveaway. It kind of reminds me of when…and I’m actually old enough to remember when people used to use airbrush. I remember when airbrush first started coming out and the look of airbrush was so different than, like, a traditional brush painting, and it had kind of that slickness and that real smoothness and stuff like that. And I think there was a lot of people who at least back then, thought that, well, it looks too perfect, it looks too generic, or it looks too whatever. And even back then, people were, like, just getting on airbrush artists like, “well, why don’t you just learn how to paint?” But it’s funny because I kind of see it happening now with AI, because it kind of has that same thing happening. It feels the same, and it doesn’t have any soul to it. That’s why I say I think anything that you use or have come out of Midjourney, you should be able to try to put yourself into it because that’s where the personality comes in.

Like I said, just make it honorable and make it your own and just enhance on it. Because, again, I can’t say this enough. It’s really only meant to get you halfway there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Like I’ve used ChatGPT. I haven’t used Midjourney or DALL-E for any of the other sort of image generation ones I have done. Like, I think this might have started a little bit last year when people were getting all of those AI profile pictures made. And it was so funny, the conversation around that at the time, because folks were like…one, they were astounded that they had to pay for it. They were like, “what do you mean I have to pay? Like, it’s $8. You paid $8?” And, I mean, not even a lot of money.

Like, $8 is not a lot of money. But people were, one, astounded that they had to pay, and then two, the way that they talked about the quality was just sort of weird. Like, some of them, of course, the art looks like the person. Some of them it doesn’t, because you’re not working with an artist, you’re working with an algorithm. So what you get out of it is what you put into it in that aspect. But, yeah, it’s now hit the mainstream in a way. I haven’t used any of the larger tools, like I said, DALL-E or Midjourney, but I think I want to try to get started with them just to see what it’s like.

André Foster:

Yeah, it’s fun, don’t get me wrong, because I think what I have seen is a lot of people who use Midjourney who I think maybe got sidetracked with life, and maybe they weren’t the best drawer or maybe they weren’t the best designer. And I think that program allowed them to just really tap back into that creative side. And I can see the excitement behind that, and I really do, because it’s just ignites that part of them that just kind of went away because they didn’t think that they were good enough. I think you need to be responsible with it, too, and just understand that it is a tool. It’s not really meant to replace anybody.

Maurice Cherry:

Right, absolutely.

André Foster:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

So let’s kind of change it up a little bit here. You mentioned being in Detroit, so I’d love to just kind of know more about you personally. Are you from Detroit originally?

André Foster:

Yeah, born and raised in Detroit. On the west side. West side of Detroit. I got all of my education here in Detroit. It’s funny because when I go to different places like New York and Chicago, people used to or even on the West Coast, I would tell people I was from Detroit, and they would always kind of give me this “oh, wow, you from Detroit?” Like…and this is pretty much why you still have kind of this negative connotation about Detroit.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

André Foster:

So it’s apparent to me, like, they haven’t been here, like, how it is now, as opposed to what it was back, like, maybe 20 years ago for something like that, or maybe even ten years ago. Because it’s different from ten years now. But I’m proud to be from Detroit. I think I embrace everything that it is to be a Detroiter. I love the swag that we have, the kind of blue collar, hardworking feeling that I think everybody who is from Detroit, they carry with them. So every time when I go out, I just try to represent Detroit the best way that I can.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, growing up in Detroit, were you always kind of interested in design and animation and that kind of stuff?

André Foster:

Yes. I owe a lot to my mom because she really was the one that got me involved into…I think it was Saturday afternoon drawing classes. She saw me drawing a lot, and I was a big comic book collector, too. So what I would do, I would actually trace the panels of the artists that were drawing in these comic books. So she really saw that I love to draw, and then I had just a real passion for it, but she was the one that really just kept on it and kept me going and got me involved in a lot of different after school classes, you know, as I said, Saturday classes, it just kind of kept going. She was also the one that really boosted me up. She was the one that kidn of, and I like to say that, she ordained me to be great. And I think every parent should do that with their kid. You’re like, you know, “you are going to be great one day.”

Sometimes when you say that to your kids, they look at you like, “yeah, whatever.” They just kind of blow it off. But whether they know it or not, I think subconsciously, when you have somebody that keeps telling you that, it does stick with you; it just really does make you kind of carry yourself in a different way. And it makes you a little bit more…a little bit more passionate about what it is that you do, because you kind of have this expectation put on you. So I think that what my mom did is she really put that expectation on me. She used to drive people crazy, like, just random strangers. I remember one time she had a guy come by the house to fix, like, the furnace or something like that, and he came in, did this thing, and I remember he was getting ready to leave, and so she said, “oh, wait a minute, wait, I want to introduce you to my son.” And so he’s just looking there, standing there, waiting to get his check.

He said, “this is my son.” And then she held her hands out like, “this is my son, the artist.”

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

André Foster:

And the guy was…I remember the guy was like, “okay, great. Yeah. All right, can I go now?”

Maurice Cherry:

No, I love that. I love that mom was bigging you up. That’s good.

André Foster:

Yeah. Back then, like I said, you really don’t pay attention to it or almost even kind of annoyed by it. But I’m really appreciative of her for doing that because even still to this day, I carry that kind of confidence in my ability and just that expectation. Like, I want to be better than what I was yesterday. I want the studio to be better than it was last year or even last month. I carry that with me.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about, you know, also being educated in Detroit. You went to the College for Creative Studies where you studied fine and studio arts. What was your time like there?

André Foster:

My time there was interesting. I was so focused and so determined to be as good as I could while I was going there. What was interesting, too, is that I was working part-time when I was going there. So I actually went to art school for like nine years.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, wow.

André Foster:

Yeah. So it was a long time, and back then, CCS wasn’t as diverse as what it is now, so it was majority white, and I was really the only Black guy in these classes. It was interesting, but I was focused, but I was also very competitive. I remember thinking that every time I would go into these classrooms with these other students and this is going to sound really bad to say this, but I wanted to destroy everybody in that classroom. I’m pretty competitive, but when it comes to the craft in a good way, competitive in a good way. But I didn’t really want to destroy them. I just wanted to show what I can do.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, from the numerous people I’ve had on the show have told me that art school is super competitive. So that makes sense.

André Foster:

Yeah. Especially only a Black guy, too. A little bit extra on top of that. It was an interesting time. I think it went by fast even though it was nine years. But I learned a lot. I was able to foster some good relationships from my time there. Actually, one of my mentors, that’s how I met her, because she was teaching her Laura Parloff. I want to give her some love. But yeah, she was a big influence to me while I was going there. Still to this day, she’s a big influence. So I was able to pick up a lot of good key relationships from my time there.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And I mean, you were also there during a time when I feel like the industry was starting to embrace technology and computers as part of the craft. I feel like that probably definitely was a big part of your time there, right?

André Foster:

Yeah. It’s funny because when I came up, I was right there at that transition where people started using Wacom tablets. And I remember for a long time I didn’t want to use a Wacom tablet. I didn’t really want to use a mouse to draw on a computer because, believe it or not, people used to use a mouse to draw on a computer. I would just scan in my drawings and then just take it into Photoshop and try to manipulate them. That way. Before then, I would do storyboards markers. I’ll be surprised if I know what markers are, but I used to draw with them and know, do it the old fashioned way.

So when I was coming out, when I first started going to CCS, that’s when that whole big transition started happening. So I was able to have kind of the best of both worlds, that traditional kind of upbringing, and then really just seeing the new beginnings of the new technology happening. So I feel pretty lucky. It’s funny because I feel like it’s happening again. It’s always constantly happening.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I’ve talked about this on the show before, how this time right now, when people are getting into using AI tools and the metaverse and all that sort of stuff, reminds me so much of just like, the early Web and people trying to figure out, well, should I even have my business online? And how do I design a web page? And all this sort of stuff. Like, it’s parallels to it as the technology innovates, I guess.

André Foster:

Yeah. And I remember when I started at Skidmore, when I graduated from CCS, I was the one who was teaching some of the older artists how to draw in painter and photoshop and stuff like that, because they were kind of like from the old guard. They would paint with traditional brushes and use traditional paint to make these beautiful paintings. I think when I first started there, that’s when they knew that, oh, wow, I got to learn this shit too. I got to learn something new. I spent all these years trying to get as good as I am. Now I got to try to switch gears up a little bit. But, yeah, I feel very fortunate that I did come up the way that I did because, like I said, I was able to kind of experience the best of both worlds.

And I think it allowed me to be open or even just know that nothing stays the same. You can’t get comfortable. You have to just keep learning. Learning. It’s just an ongoing thing, right? And you don’t ever want to be dated and you don’t want to be me. Just not relevant.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think that’s something now, again, to bring it back to talking about the AI tools and stuff, I’m starting to get my feet wet using some of it, just because I know that anybody can, I think, look at the news and see how much technology has been implementing all these AI features. So clearly the industry is moving forward with it at a pretty fast rate. So I’m like, “well, I need to get on it. I need to see what it’s like.” For me, I’ve started out with just doing ChatGPT and just trying to get really good at using it and prompts and stuff like that. But I want to get into DALL-E and Midjourney and just sort of see what I can come up with. I know that there are some other folks I’ve seen on LinkedIn that have been posting a lot of their experiments with it and it looks amazing. It looks amazing.

André Foster:

Again, it sparks that creative juice within you. And I think what probably was happening, like some of the tools kind of prevented the creative to keep going. And what I mean by that is, let’s say, for instance, because I’m a Maya guy — so I work in Autodesk Maya, which is like a 3D program — which anybody who ever uses Maya knows that it is a deep, hard program to get into. The biggest thing that I had to learn is that working, especially in 3D, is that it’s different in a traditional sense because you have to wait to see the result. There’s like steps to it in a lot of different ways. It kind of deters the creative because you do have to wait. And I think the creative happens. It really lights fires when you’re able to just keep going and just keep going at it.

You don’t really have to think about it too much. Yeah, I think that’s what AI does. It just kind of helps speed the process up and it makes your imagination go wild. You don’t have to wait on stuff like you used to do or still do in some cases. So I do understand the allure of AI, and AI is not going away. So people should just realize that and accept it. And I don’t think you definitely don’t want to be the person who is going to be left behind with that because I think you should understand it enough to where you can use it. You don’t have to get deep into it.

But again, like I said, you don’t want to be left behind because it’s not going away. You just won’t be able to understand the technology and how to use it for what it is that you do. This already is a big part of our lives and AI really hasn’t just shown up on the scene. I mean, it’s been around since the 50s. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. Yeah, there’s nothing really new. It’s just a little bit more prominent with some of these newer softwares that they’ve come out with.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, artificial intelligence is a broad field and if you just think about all the different ways it’s been implemented, I mean, you could say spell check in a way is kind of a form of AI. Or Photoshop, like content-aware fill or anything like that. So as the technology has gotten more advanced, we’ve just been able to innovate and continue to iterate upon it. So it’s been here for a long time, I think certainly a lot of people have been using it for research purposes and things like that. But now that it’s really gotten into the mainstream, people think that it just happened overnight. And it’s like, “no, this has been here for a long time.” Facetune, all that sort of stuff has been here for a long time, which is all parts of AI. It all falls under that umbrella.

André Foster:

Yeah, that’s the part that they kind of leave out or they really don’t say enough. And just going back to Midjourney. When Midjourney first came out, I remember I started messing with it and I started typing in some stuff. And some of the stuff that I would get back blew my mind because it’s stuff that I would have never thought about doing. Or even if I went on Pinterest to try to search for a certain image, it would never have given me what I was getting out of Midjourney. It actually sparked something in me. Like, there was one time I was getting pretty good at Midjourney, and I started understanding the language and prompts and stuff like that. And the images that it gave me actually sparked an idea for a series, I guess you would call it, like an FX series, like a really kind of hardcore streaming program.

Some images that I got back, it put me in the mind of Frankenstein. I was like, it’d be cool to have a show based off the story of Frankenstein, but told in a modern way, like set in the 70s, because some of the images that I got back kind of felt like that. So it sparked an idea; it sparked that whole thing. And actually the outcome of that is actually on our website, it’s called Suture. So if your listeners go to that, they’ll be able to see some of the images that I got out of Midjourney that sparked the whole idea. And I did like a whole intro for this imaginary show based off the Frankenstein story. Well, it was pretty wild, though.

Maurice Cherry:

I’ll make sure that we put a link to that in the show notes so folks can go and check that out.

André Foster:

Yeah, yeah, it was pretty cool.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, after you graduated from college for Creative Studies from CCS, you kind of went straight to work. You began working at Skidmore Studio, and you were there for 16 years, which is amazing to think about just in terms of tenure. I mean, before we recorded, I was saying how it sort of felt like the second graduation for you in a way. How did you sort of first learn about them and overall, what was your time like there?

André Foster:

Actually, when I first heard about them, it was through my teacher, Laura Parloff, and she actually had owned her own studio. It was called Color Forms back in the day. And she was actually their competition, Skidmore’s competition. And I actually wanted to go work for her studio because I thought her studio was really cool. She had a pool table; that was a big thing for me. I’m like, “wow, they actually got a pool table in the studio.” And I was like, “I wish I could work here.” And plus, they had a lot of the great artists working there.

But she told me that I should go to Skidmore because she thought my style was more in par with what they did back then. So that’s how I really found out about them. And then I did, like, a class trip to Skidmore and did the whole tour thing. After the tour was over, I actually requested to see if I can come back and show my portfolio. I did that, and I showed my portfolio to the owner and a couple of other creatives that worked there. They was very impressed, and they said, well, we think you’re very talented, and we would love you to join our team. And so it was just that quick. So I was like, “wow, all right.”

When I started working there, I started working in the matte room. For those of you don’t know what the matte room was…it was just like an internship type deal. So you’re not actually working on any real projects just yet. You’re just framing the work that went out. You’re doing the packaging, and you’re going on runs and stuff like that and getting coffee. But again, I was very determined to just try to fit in with these guys and try to be valuable with the studio. So, yeah, I think maybe after probably about a year or so, I got promoted to be on the board of illustrators, which was a big deal for me. I remember just feeling like, “wow, actually, I have arrived”, because the artists that I was looking up to, these guys were like, gods, the way they painted.

And mind you, this is nothing on the computer. This is all hand-painted stuff. But some of the images that they did was just beautiful. And I was like, “Man, I got to learn how to do this and figure out how to learn from this as much as I can.” Yeah, so I learned as much as I could. I was asking a thousand questions and kept getting better and learning new techniques. So the years flew by and ended up going from ten years to 15 years to 16 years.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, clearly you were doing something right and making a real impact there to have been there that long.

André Foster:

Yeah, I was pretty focused. I think I’ve always been pretty focused, but I think they saw in me that I was ambitious and that I was talented. And then I was able to contribute to the service that they offer. Because back then, Skidmore worked with a lot of different agencies. So I was able to kind of cut my teeth with the whole industry world just by working through Skidmore and seeing how that whole thing goes. So I did a lot of storyboarding, understood the technique behind that, what makes a good frame, what makes a good composition. I learned a lot from storyboarding. Dave O’Connell — I want to give him a shout out because he was my mentor back then at Skidmore. He was like the head storyboard guy. So he kind of took me under his wing, and then he showed me what to do and what not to do and how to make an image sing and make it as good as he can try to make it.

Maurice Cherry:

Are there any sort of projects in particular that stand out to you during that time? I mean, 16 years? I know you probably worked on a ton of things, but is there anything in particular that you really remember?

André Foster:

Yeah, I think it was a couple of ones that kind of stood out. I remember doing a illustration for Mazda. It was a campaign called Zoom Zoom. And I don’t know if you remember that.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, I remember that. “Zoom zoom zoom.” Yeah.

André Foster:

And I did the illustration of the little “Zoom Zoom” kid. Then I had the car flying by him. That was a big thing for me because when I first went to Skidmore, I didn’t really know how to do cars that well. But when I went there, I feel like every artist there knew how to do a car really well. So I was able to learn from them, and then I was able to apply that to this image. So it kind of stood out to me because that was like one of the first true advertising works that I did that actually that was put out there, that had a car in it that was illustrated and they used it. So that one stood out.

I’m trying to think of anything else. I’m pretty sure it was a lot, but just working on storyboards for Blockbuster. Remember Blockbuster with a little…I don’t know if it was a hamster or I think it was two hamsters or something, that was right across the street from a Blockbuster Video store? I remember doing storyboards for them for that whole campaign. It was just cool to really work on a lot of big name stuff back then Blockbuster Video and Mazda and a lot of other big brands. But the Mazda one, I think that really kind of sticks out because that was like my first real commercial piece that got featured.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, when you were at Skidmore, again, you were there for 16 years, but when did you get the idea to start your own studio?

André Foster:

It was something that was kind of always in the back of my mind. The guy that I kind of befriended at Skidmore, who was actually my business partner now, Guy Allen, we would kind of talk about it here and there because I think at that time, skidmore was kind of going in a little bit of a different direction than what we would have liked to be involved in. So it was always kind of rumblings between him and I, like, we should do our own thing. But in 2016, something happened, and it kind of gave us an opportunity to really go about making it happen. I think in February of 2016, we told our boss, “hey, we were thinking about going on our own.” That’s what we did. He didn’t like it that much. He thought, well, because I was there for such a long time, and he didn’t want to see us go, but he tried to keep us there, but he know our wishes to try to branch on our own and do our own thing.

So hats off to him. Tim Smith — may he rest in peace. He actually passed away not too long ago. But, yeah, it was tough, man. It was a big decision because I had been there for so long, it is, like, all I knew, but I knew that if I stayed there, I wouldn’t have been happy because of the direction that they were going in. I just wanted to just be my own boss. And Guy, he felt the same way, and he said, “this is our chance to just really craft something or make something on our own, to really just put something out there that we’re both proud of in terms of the type of work that we want to do.”

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’re doing it.

André Foster:

Now we’re doing it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

What are your plans for First Fight for the future?

André Foster:

I really want to try to expand our brand and our reach as much as we can more globally. I really want to try to hone in on the service of digital strategy. I think we got the content part down. It’s just really the execution of the marketing of that idea, and I want to make sure that we were able to offer that to our clients, because I think that’s a big thing for us. I just want us to be more of a complete studio.

I don’t want to say the A word — the agency word — because I think when you say agency, there’s kind of not all the time, but there’s kind of a negative connotation when you say agency just because there’s so many different layers of different folks that you have to go through, especially when it comes to the client for them to get their message across. So I just want to make sure that we stay as intimate and more hands on with the work for our clients, but also let them know that we can really expand their voice and their messaging, and we have the know how to go about doing it. So I really want to just make sure that we expand on that more and get that more known as far as what First Fight can do.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, being from Detroit, born and raised, educated in Detroit, you’ve built your career in Detroit. How has the city influenced your approach to the work that you do?

André Foster:

Yeah, I think it’s an influence because I think Detroit has kind of always been like the underdog to a lot of different places. We were saying earlier, like how when you go out well, at least when I go out of my region here in Detroit, there’s kind of like an eye raise when I tell them that I’m from Detroit. But I kind of wear that proudly now because I think I like the idea that we are the underdog and that we’re always trying to prove ourselves and we’re surprising people that we do have all this talent here in Detroit. They can do all these amazing know. You may know Detroit, but you really don’t know Detroit. So I always like to surprise know that way.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you describe the city’s creative community?

André Foster:

Yeah, the creative community here in Detroit is really good. I think what you’re seeing is kind of a renaissance of that. And I think Detroit has always been a pretty creative city anyway. But I think the automotive industry has kind of overshadowed that a little bit. I think people have found other ways to express themselves creatively other than just designing cars and whatnot. The technology also has been used here. The new technology, whether it’s self-driving cars or if it’s the half-res well, not the half-res, but the New Labs is what I’m trying to say. New Labs is a new tech sector here in Detroit that’s really blowing up.

And what’s cool about is that the creative community has kind of been driving that because it doesn’t always have to be automotive based. There’s other different sectors that you can know express yourself in. The scene here in Detroit has been great. I love it. I love the city now. How it is, what it’s evolving into right now has been exciting for me to see because I’ve been here since day one. The last probably last ten years has really just taken off. So I’m just very excited about what’s been happening here.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you wish you would have been told about this industry when you first started?

André Foster:

Patience is a virtue, especially with the motion industry, motion graphics industry. I would have loved somebody to tell me that what you do is cool, but there’s like 20 other people, or not even 20, like 1000 other people that can do the exact same thing. And it could probably do a little bit better. And I think when I first or when we I should say we when we first got into this, me and my partner, I think we went into it with a little bit of a naïveté because I think what we thought was really cool to us was groundbreaking. But we found out that that’s not always the case. It’s really just understanding that you have to try to figure out how to make yourself different and how do you stand out from the rest. So I wish I would have known that more back when we first started this to really hone in on that. And I think we have honed in on that since then.

What makes us different than other creative studios? Yeah, but I wish somebody would have just told me that you have the talent, you have the ambition, but you really got to hone in what makes you different, because there’s a lot of noise out there and it’s hard to really just set yourself apart from the other creators.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day?

André Foster:

Yeah, I would love to do the intro to the next James Bond movie. Yeah, I’m a big James Bond fan.

Maurice Cherry:

I could see that from your photo. I can 100% see that.

André Foster:

Yeah. I think in my mind, I’m kind of like the Black James Bond. They kept talking about getting Idris Elba to do it, but I think I could probably do that.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s your favorite Bond movie?

André Foster:

Not the one that just came out, but the one before that.

Maurice Cherry:

Was that Skyfall?

André Foster:

Yeah, I think it was, but actually, I take that back. I think Casino Royale was probably my favorite one because I like Daniel Craig. I love what he brought to that role. But when I was coming up, Roger Moore was like, that was my James Bond. Because he was, I think, that was back in the 80s, I think. But it was really cool because I felt like with Casino Royale, it kind of got back to that what the genre was really about. It was making him well, also just making him a little bit more human and a little vulnerable.

I thought that was really cool. So I think Daniel Craig was able to kind of pull that, um, when he had the baton.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. I’m looking it up now. Spectre was the one before; the latest one was No Time to Die. I saw that one. I thought that one was pretty good.

André Foster:

Yeah, it was kind of interesting because I was like, well, I wasn’t expecting them to kill off James Bond.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

André Foster:

And I hope I’m not spoiling it for anybody, but yeah, it was interesting for them to do that. I guess when you think about it, 007 could be anybody. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that character. So anybody can wear the 007.

Maurice Cherry:

They did. They brought in a new person. They brought in Lashana Lynch. She played 007. I don’t know if they want to continue having her as Bond. That could be interesting.

André Foster:

I would love that. That would be interesting. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I would love to see kind of just what they plan to do with it. Because I haven’t read the books like the books from John le Carré, but I feel like Bond has to be of a certain age. I know there were Idris and other folks were kind of being sort of bandied around for that particular role. But Bond is what, maybe like in his 30s, perhaps?

André Foster:

Yeah, I think so. And what’s interesting, too, is that any actor who thinks about taking on that role, I think they have to sign a contract that says you’re basically going to give the studio ten years out of your life to play this character. So it’s definitely a commitment. And yeah, I think they need to at least have someone who’s young enough who can kind of age into the role. So they’re 30 or maybe 40. Even 40 is probably pushing it a little bit. But yeah, that’s why I think I know. I keep hearing rumblings about Henry Cavill to play him. I keep hearing that his screen test was, like, off the roof.

Maurice Cherry:

Really?

André Foster:

Yeah. They keep talking about how good he was in it. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what comes from that. It’s interesting because it would be nice to try go in a little bit of a different direction with the character, whether it’s a Black woman or even a Black man. It’d be interesting to see what comes from that, what that will look like.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that would be really interesting to see how they plan on sort of pulling that off, especially now with all the technology and stuff that comes with Bond. It feels like they’re always upgrading him into some new sort of tech or new sort of scenario or environment or something like that. I could see Henry Cavill doing that. And also, he was in the Mission Impossible movie. Not the one that just came out, but the one before that. And he was in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

André Foster:

Yeah, he was.

Maurice Cherry:

So he’s done spy stuff. I mean, I could see that. I could see that.

André Foster:

Yeah. If they do go with him, I just hope that he’s able to bring something unique to the character because I think Daniel Craig was able to do that. I mean, for a long time. He’s probably really the only one that was able to do that to bring something a little extra to that character. So I’m hoping that if they do go with him, that he’s able to make it his own and make it different.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, James Bond aside, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what kind of work would you like to be doing?

André Foster:

I want to really become a better business person. What I’ve realized in the seven years that I’ve been co-owning First Fight is that there’s definitely a business component to this thing. And I think the creative is just one part of it. But the business part is something that I really want to get better at.

And I think I have gotten better at it because there’s definitely a science to it. There’s the whole networking part of it. There’s the constant putting yourself. Out there. It’s a lot to it. So I just want to become a better businessman within the next five years. Then also, hopefully, along with that, as I get better at it, first fight will be better as well, and then we’ll be able to have more of a bigger reach in terms of what we can offer our clients and even our potential clients. Yeah, just becoming I feel like as I get better, First Fight will get better.

I think that’s what I want to try to be in the next five years, just a more complete businessman. I don’t know if you can say complete businessman, but just definitely better.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I feel you. I mean, I remember when I was starting my studio, I didn’t know anything about business. I just had this sort of notion. I was like, I’ve been designing for a few years. I could do this. And there was so much in those first, I’d say probably in the first five years, that I just was like, I had no clue on how to run a business. I knew how to design. I knew how to make work for clients. But running a business and then having employees and payroll and all this stuff? I was, like, right over my head. I learned it eventually, but it was definitely like a trial by fire process. So I feel you.

André Foster:

Yeah, it’s a lot of stuff that pulls at you because I still do the work within the studio. So it’s always frustrating to me where I’m constantly getting pulled from that, because either I’m just trying to pay attention to what this artist is doing, what this checking up on this email, checking up all the status of this project, and constantly doing that on a daily basis. It’s hard because at the heart of it, I am a creative, and I would really just love to be in a corner and just say, leave me alone. I just want to draw something.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

André Foster:

I don’t want to get any more emails. I don’t want to get any more phone calls. It’s a lot. But I’ve learned to and it sounds kind of funny to say this I’ve learned to really embrace that, and I’ve actually liked the challenge of it. So that’s why I said I want to become better at it and just try to find a real nice balance between that businessman and that creative. I think the payoff is what you’re always trying to go after, like, wow. And it’s kind of that hunter-gatherer mentality. Like, if you do go after work, the payoff is that, oh, when they say yes, or if they give you a direct award because you’ve just been after them for so long.

I do like the rush of that when it does happen. But ask me, like, maybe ten years ago, the same question. I don’t know if I would have said the same thing. It’s just funny how you kind of change your perspective on things as you do this, as you go into the business part of it, because as creatives, I think most creatives are introverts for the most part. And I feel like I can be both. I can be extroverted when I need to be, but for the most part, I’m introverted. I get recharged when I’m by myself and just working on what I need to work on, but I can flip it. And I think over the years, it’s kind of changed because I can definitely become that guy, go after work or just do a cold call and say, “hey, we can do this, we can do that. You should use our studio”, which in itself is like unheard of, especially for an introvert. But I think when you’re able to do both, though, I think you have to do that if you’re going to try to become a businessman in this industry, especially if you’re going to try to own the studio, because you just have to constantly do that.

Maurice Cherry:

Very true. Very true. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about the studio and everything? Where can they find that online?

André Foster:

Your listeners can go to firstfight.tv. You can find our work there. You can also follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn. Just search for First Fight and not First Flight because sometimes we get that a lot. So it’s First Fight TV, it’s where you want to go to see our work and go to our site.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. André Foster, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you for putting Detroit on the map, for helping to put Detroit on the map creatively. Like you said earlier, you’re the only Black-owned studio that’s doing this kind of work, and I think it’s something that more people definitely need to see, especially, I think, at this time when the power of the creative voice is being uplifted in ways like whether we’re talking about unions or writers or things of that nature, I think people are starting to really see the value of creative work. And it’s good that you are doing this. You’ve been doing this now for over 20 years professionally. You’ve been working with some of the best talent in the business, working with great clients. I hope more people see that, and that really helps to kind of elevate the work that you’re doing. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

André Foster:

Thank you for having me. And this is awesome. Like you said, I just want to make sure that my story can resonate with someone else who’s even thinking about becoming a studio owner, and hopefully they can get some inspiration from this. And also, too, because you can’t become something that you don’t see, like a Black artist who’s even thinking about owning a creative studio or even going into animation for motion design. Just know that there are other people of color who are doing, you know, I want to be one of those people that can, you know, we’re here and you can do it too.

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.

Manny Ikomi

Photo: @queerjay

I love that Manny Ikomi has adopted a philosophy of “lift as you climb” as it relates to his career. Manny works as a UX design consultant for IBM iX, but he’s also a design educator and even streams some of his personal web development and UX projects on Twitch. It was great chatting it up and learning about how he balances his work with community outreach.

We started off diving into Manny’s journey from discovering interactive design and UX, to hitting a career ceiling and pursuing further education. Manny also spoke about teaching at his alma mater, his aspirations on working for public sector institutions, and his podcast Gay, Geeky + Tired. Hopefully Manny’s story will inspire you to make a positive impact in the world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

So my name is Manny Ikomi. I’m a UX designer at IBM currently, and also recently, I am adjunct faculty teaching an interactive design course at Bunker Hill Community College.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. How’s your year been going so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I think there’s definitely been some really good ups and some really low downs. But at the end of the day, I think the net ending of that is still growing and succeeding in the things that I want to do so far. And there’s still more to come, I guess. So, still with a lot of optimism, it’s been going well.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you say you’ve grown and improved over the past year? Have you noticed anything in particular?

Manny Ikomi:

So I started at IBM in June of last year of 2022. That first year was like a little trial by fire because of the project that I was working on. But I also had access to a lot of really great mentors; people in my network, both inside and outside of the company. And so professionally, I think there was just such an immense growth in that stretch zone, that I like to call it, within my first year. And so now that I’m a little bit over a year in, as of June of this year, I’ve kind of, like, leveled out. The honeymoon phase is a bit over, and I’m kind of just like doing the thing now. Things that I thought maybe I wasn’t capable of, like a year ago. I guess I’m capable of now — teaching being one of them.

I think probably most recent, a little bit of recency bias. But teaching has been something that has been on my mind to do for a little while, ever since a professor of mine kind of planted the seeds, like when I graduated from the college that I’m teaching at now, which is another story. But it’s been a really great experience so far, like, teaching IBM only like four weeks into my class. It’s my first time teaching ever, and for the most part, it’s also been going really well on top of just working at IBM and doing other things. And interestingly enough, there’s also a lot of overlap between some of the work that I’m doing now and some of the things I’m doing for my course this year has been definitely a year of growth and stretching and learning and teaching. So sometimes teaching also is a really great way to learn. So it’s been really great.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Let’s talk about your work at IBM, specifically IBM iX, where you work, like you said, as a UX designer. Tell me more about that.

Manny Ikomi:

So yeah. IBM iX. So IBM, for those of you who maybe don’t know, because they’re not as recognized, I guess, of a brand anymore, especially for younger folks, it stands for International Business Machines. It’s a very old company. There’s lots of history. They hold a lot of patents for things interestingly that I learned about. Most notably, I think, like the magnetic stripe on credit cards is something that I never realized that they had essentially invented. And so they’ve been a very large technology company for a very long time.

And over the years, I think they evolved from more like hardware and stuff. And then now they do mostly software and consulting, so they have their own cloud offerings. And then I’m in the Consulting part of the business. And then iX, which stands for Interactive Experience, is a smaller bubble within IBM Consulting. And what I do there as a UX designer, I guess, like all of us will say, it depends. It depends on the project, it depends on the client. Because ultimately I’m considered a consultant as opposed to an in house designer. So I don’t necessarily work on IBM’s cloud services and software and products.

I actually work on clients of IBM who come to the company and say, “hey, we need UX designers for this”, or “we need design services for some sort of initiative”. And through that, I’ve really gotten to do a whole bunch of stuff, particularly within my first year, I could be doing anything from contextual inquiry and design research, traveling to clients on site doing observational research, typical, like user interface prototyping, working in Figma, doing demos and things like that. Usability testing, enterprise design thinking, which is kind of like their methodology around design thinking and how we deliver design services. Yeah, I’ve pretty much done, I think, the whole gamut of user experience, design and really just design in general. I’ve really expanded my view, I think, kind of going back to the other question about how I’ve grown. My view of what design is and how it works and what I do has definitely been a lot more expansive beyond just the tangible artifacts and things that we make.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, it sounds like your day to day work is pretty varied then. Like you said, you’re either researching, you’re doing site visits, et cetera. It sounds like there’s a lot of variety in the work that you’re able to do.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, there definitely is. And some of that is for better or for worse, I guess, because it turns you into a little bit of a generalist, which some people have opinions about. But I think at least at this point in my career, because it’s a little bit more earlier on, it’s good for me to have that kind of exposure and growth opportunities to try and do different things, especially when the risk is low for me personally. Right? Yeah, I mean, I get to work on a whole bunch of stuff. Most recently, the project that I’ve been working on is a little bit more on the strategic end and getting a local state government to actually adopt some of IBM’s design thinking methodology, which really kind of lines up to what I was talking about earlier, about teaching people about design now as like an adjunct faculty instructor. So there’s also been some really interesting overlap and ways in which I’m now delivering design that I never really considered possible up until recently. So that’s been interesting. But yeah, it’s been a really great growth and learning experience so far.

Maurice Cherry:

I kind of want to talk a little bit about that generalist part that you just mentioned there. I know there’s this book by David Epstein called “Range”. I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.

Manny Ikomi:

You know what, it sounds familiar now that you say that. I think I might have saved a sample to my Kindle at one point and never ended up buying it.

Maurice Cherry:

But it’s called “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World”. And it does sort of make the case for why generalists are…they’re really sort of sought after in a way. I’m curious though, because you do so much, are you finding there’s a particular part of UX that you prefer over others?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve been kind of thinking about a little bit lately ,and I guess due to the fact of my generalist nature, it kind of goes beyond just design and also into web development too. And so this area that I’ve been kind of occupying, at least not necessarily within IBM, but just in general as I upskill and just learn different things. I’m also like a self taught front-end web developer and so I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersections of experience, design and web development and the opportunities there for people who have that kind of hybrid skill set and can really, I guess, specialize in there. Despite considering myself a generalist in some ways, I specialize in others. So the areas that I think I’m really liking the most is research.

There are things that I’ve learned about design research and psychology and humans and their behaviors just from watching them interact with designs that I’ve made or others that I just find so fascinating that just kind of lends itself to my own just like innate sense of curiosity and wanting to learn. But then there’s also, interestingly enough, the complete flip side of that, which is like the more logistical, I guess, x and y’s ones and zeros codes and things like actually developing and building the things that I design in some tool and actually making it a real thing, because that’s kind of where I started. And that’s how I really transitioned into the work that I do now, is I started as a graphic designer and then I became interested in web design and then I would create these web designs, but I couldn’t actually put it on the Internet and have it be a website.

And all kind of roads, basically, no matter how hard I tried to avoid coding, were just like, basically “if you want to do it, you got to do it yourself.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

So I learned coding through that and then now it’s just kind of been a skill that’s really stuck with me, I guess, along the way. It’s not a skill that I get to use or a muscle that I get to flex all the time, but it does surface in some other interesting ways, especially when it comes to collaborating with other developers and just thinking a little bit more logically about the designs that I’m creating and their ability to be feasibly implemented. So I would say between the design engineering part…so that kind of hybrid of making a design and actually being able to build it, but also some of the user research aspects of it and strategy, which I guess is kind of everything, but also specifically at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think it’s good to have that sort of generalist, I think, sort of mindset as well as skill set. I mean, back in the day when the Web was really just first starting to become something, everyone sort of had to become a generalist in some way. Like you designed it, you had to code it, you had to slice it up, et cetera, and put it on the Web. Of course, now it’s so interesting with companies because it seems like companies want specialists and yet when you look at their job descriptions, what they really want is a generalist that has a specialization. So they kind of want that…what do they call it?

Manny Ikomi:

T-shaped.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like the T-shaped designer or whatever where you’ve got this broad set of skills. Like, I saw something for this company; they wanted like a social media manager, but then they also needed them to be a graphic designer and they also needed to know motion design. And I was like, those are entirely different things. What you want is a designer. It sounds like you want a designer that has social media experience, but they were like, no, we want a social media manager, but then you want this person doing motion design. I don’t know if that’s also just a byproduct of how messed up the job market is right now, but I’ve seen a lot of that.

Manny Ikomi:

Definitely, I’ve seen a lot of it.

Maurice Cherry:

What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on that you can talk about?

Manny Ikomi:

For a lot of reasons, obviously, I can’t talk about a lot of details. Probably the level to what I can say is the first project that I worked on while I was at IBM was basically in the realm of safety. And so the idea was that people who were working in a manufacturing facility could record and take pictures of safety violations or safety issues that they might find and then be able to report that through a system that we developed. So the application of actually reporting and observing safety issues, and then like a whole process and chain of people involved essentially like a service design around people on the front end actually recording issues, and then all the way in the back end, actually analyzing issues and doing some predictive analytics and things like that. And then the most recent project that I’m on right now with a local state government is basically helping them adopt human-centered design thinking processes and methods and frameworks. And the way that IBM does that is through their enterprise design thinking framework, which I’ve come to really like and appreciate. It was one of those things that I wish I had known about as a student and definitely kind of opened my world to the possibilities of what design can be and how it can manifest itself, I think. And then ever since then, it’s kind of just become this thing where I’m like, “wow, it’s more than just the artifacts that we make.”

It’s also the way that we think and how we convey our ideas to others, how people interpret our ideas. And it’s really just kind of expanded my view, I guess, of what it is. But yeah, those are probably the highest level I can get with those two specific projects. The first one I was on for just under a year, and that was pretty much the majority of my entry level experience, getting hired into IBM as an entry level professional hire. And that first project was really great. I had a great team that I worked with. I got to travel a little bit as part of it, and it was a really great experience. There were parts of it that were challenging, definitely, as with any project or design engagement. But ultimately I’m really thankful for that first project and the people that I got to work with and I’m hoping to reach out to them again the end of this year to just kind of check in and see where the work has gone since I’ve left the project.

And then this more recent project that I was talking about in terms of design adoption, that one just recently kicked off like a few weeks ago. So we’re still in the early stages, but the team is also looking really great to work with and so far it’s been great. So the work has just been very varied and interesting and every time I just feel like I’m learning something new or learning something different about design than I thought was ever possible, like maybe like two or three years ago. So it’s just fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked just a little bit there about one of the projects having predictive analytics, which of course makes me think about sort of this current era that we’re in of artificial intelligence and machine learning. And there’s a number of different sort of cutting edge technologies now that have clearly bled into the mainstream that I think have been going on for a while, like AR, VR, et cetera, but now they’re becoming mainstream sort of things.

How do you see UX evolving with these new technologies?

Manny Ikomi:

I haven’t put too much thought into this. I think, obviously you know, obviously the glaring kind of observation here is with generative AI, right? And like ChatGPT and OpenAI and all this stuff that’s come out recently. I think ultimately, at least in the specific realm of generative AI, it kind of offers an opportunity to actually augment the work that we do as designers. And in some places, I guess, yeah, it will replace some jobs, but I think ultimately it will also kind of augment the way that we do work. And there are products now that are out that kind of help user researchers find patterns in their interviews and the transcripts using AI and things like that that are just really interesting. So there are areas where AI is kind of like enhancing the work that we do and allows us to kind of augment the work and be more productive. Things like AR and VR. I actually haven’t had too many experiences with, not really even in college. However, the Apple Vision Pro device that was announced by Apple earlier this year, I thought that was really interesting and had a bit of a rabbit hole of thoughts around that in terms of experience, design, and how.

For the longest time, a lot of our designs for user interfaces have kind of been at least for digital user interfaces have been kind of confined to these rectangles that you’re probably looking at right now in these screens. And so with AR and VR experiences and mixed reality with products like the Apple Vision Pro, it’s kind of like it allows us to step outside of those bounds, really, of that rectangle screen that we’re so used to designer for. And it really opens up a lot more possibilities for a lot more intuitive and natural interfaces for us that maybe we just have not developed even usability patterns for yet, or rules of thumb for. And so I find that like a very interesting area that’s kind of opening up. I imagine there are much more qualified people than me to talk about that, but it is something that I’ve been thinking about, especially since technology, it’s kind of hard to stop progress in that sense. And so as experience designers, I guess we’re also kind of well positioned in the sense that almost everything is an experience and almost everything is designed in one shape or another. I think we’ll end up having a hand in it and potentially not only just consuming the technology, but also producing ways for people to interact with it too.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think, as you mentioned, the way that the technology is rapidly advancing, I mean, I feel like this time last year, companies were just starting to kind of test the waters a little bit to see what they could do. And now I think within that past year, every major tech company has made some sort of announcement about how they’re using AI or they’re using like a ChatGPT or some sort of generative type of new technology in the work that they’re doing, almost kind of shoehorning it in in some mean. Let’s just talk about the obvious — Google Search. Google Search now will bring up AI stuff right along with these SEO-optimized results that will come up in your regular search engine results page, and it’s a little difficult, I think sometimes to be able to discern what is good with that and what’s bad with that. Like, I think everyone’s trying to sort of race to find how they can use technology, how they can make it work without really stopping to think, is it necessary? Do we have to do this?

Is it just a competition thing? Like business competition? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I mean, I feel like after a while we’ll start seeing appliances that have AI. We already have stuff like smart fridges and smart toasters and stuff, but I don’t need my toaster to have ChatGPT or whatever, just toast the bread. I mean, that’s an extreme case, but you know what I mean.

Manny Ikomi:

I totally get what you mean. I think that’s where I have the negative sort of perspective on AI particularly, is really with any sort of emerging technology, especially for these really larger tech companies, like IBM included. it’s kind of like the rat race to figure out who’s going to be able to monetize it and make the most revenue with the technology and kind of have their moat. So to speak. In that case, that’s where we end up with like, oh, let’s just slap AI on everything and see what happens. Without really, to your point, stopping to think about the impact, whether it’s positive or negative, to the people that AI is being deployed on, in the same way that it can be a really immense help and benefit to society in some case, it can also be very dangerous. And I don’t think companies are really incentivized right now to really think about it in that more ethical or social impact lens because that’s just not going to make the money. And that’s the way the world turns, essentially, right?

Maurice Cherry:

So there’s this startup, I’ll say it now, I was thinking about if I should even mention this, but I’ll go ahead and say it. There’s a startup based out of Seattle that does like AI text to speech. Essentially they cloned one of the host voices of Planet Money for NPR and did like a whole episode with this person’s voice and it sounds pretty mean. You know, I think there are still going to be certain eccentricities in the human voice that humans will be able to discern, but of course the models are getting better for it and things like that. But they’re one of the few companies, the company is called WellSaid Labs. They’re one of the few companies I’ve seen that actually has like a code of ethics behind the work that they do because it could be so easy for someone to use their service that they offer use that technology for extremely nefarious purposes.

Manny Ikomi:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But they actually have a code of ethics behind about what customers do with that technology and how they even plan on implementing and using it, which I would like to see more companies if they’re going to be implementing. These features I would like to also have them talk about, like we said before, those ramifications of what it means to include all of this. And who is it really serving? And this is something that we saw with, like, Bitcoin and with Web three and all this sort of stuff, where the use of all this generative AI also uses a lot of natural resources, which is something that I don’t think we regularly would think about because computers have been such an ever present just an ever present sort of thing. But I remember I was reading something I want to say, I don’t know, a couple of days ago about how Microsoft’s water usage or something has increased by 30% because of the fact that they’re like using AI within oh wait, I’m looking at it now. AI usage fuel spike in Microsoft’s water consumption, it spiked 34% because they’re using it in all these other types of programs and stuff, which you would think water, why water? But it takes more servers, space and power to do all this AI stuff, which means it has to be cooled in some way with air conditioning. It’s all tied in, so it’s not really happening in a vacuum. I would just like to see more companies talk about the ethics behind why they’re doing what they’re doing instead of just rolling out innovation after innovation that I guess we’re supposed to OOH and awe over in some fancy presentation.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. My perspective is obviously kind of biased because I work for IBM. But recently, with the whole Watson X announcement thing that you may or may not have heard of, I think part of it, and IBM does, I think. Have pretty decent programming and ethics and training around the use of AI, because that’s kind of like, one of our strategic areas that we’re trying to be leaders in. And so the whole rollout for Watson X was kind of centered around three different areas. There was Watson X AI data and then governance. And governance, I think, is really that part of it that kind of talks about making sure that it’s responsible and transparent and explainable. And then we also have even like an enterprise design thinking course where the methodology for design thinking is tailored around.

Like if you want to implement AI and you’re using a design thinking framework or initiative to do that, there’s also training that’s kind of specific to that as well. That kind of goes into some of the what is the ideal outcome or impact that we want to have, and is AI really even necessary for that in the first place? Right, so it wants you to think about those things. Now, in my personal experience, have know deployed AI in some way with IBM? Not really. So I haven’t actually gotten the chance to user these learning materials, but I think at the very least, they’re there as a resource for us employees to use. And it is in IBM’s interest for us to be very smart about the user of AI because in some ways we are kind of seen as leaders or innovators in that space. There is definitely an aspect of companies need to have more ethics and intent around how they’re using AI, where it gets deployed, what the impact is, who’s using it, who’s being affected by it. I think I would like to see more from that from every company, IBM included. But from what I’ve seen so far, I think at least at a programming and learning level, IBM seems to be very aware of that.

And it’s also from a risk and compliance perspective because we’re mostly operate as a B2B or enterprise to enterprise business. Privacy, security and compliance are things that really large businesses that IBM really care about because it kind of is what amounts to their risk and being litigated against. Right. And so when we deploy AI for a client that uses IBM’s technology, we do have to have a certain amount of ownership over what the technology does and who it impacts because we’re. Like, the designers and deployers of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we all have to, I just think, be a bit more cognizant of the usage of these tools and what they mean and what the greater sort of impact of it is. But I think we’ve nerded out enough about that. So let’s kind of shift the focus here and talk more about you. Let’s learn more about Manny. Tell me about where you’re from.

Manny Ikomi:

I’m mostly from the Boston area. I grew up mostly in towns called Saugas and Malden, and a little bit in Revere. And that’s kind of like, known as, like, the North Shore area of Boston, I guess you could say. But I’ve pretty much lived like, within 20 to 15 minutes outside of Boston for my entire life. And I’ve worked around the same area pretty much my entire life. I went to school around the area pretty much throughout my entire life, too.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, growing up, were you always kind of interested in technology? Was it something that your parents kind of tried to get you into?

Manny Ikomi:

I would say I’ve always been interested in it. I think what led me to becoming a designer and my interest in it was that combination of being able to merge my creative interests and creative outputs and curiosity with more technical implementations and things like that. I remember in high school, I went to a vocational high school for context. So we had kind of like vocational programs as part of the regular high school programming.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And so that’s kind of where I got my first taste of, like, I can be creative and make something and have it be like a physical, tangible thing. And I just thought that was so cool because, one, I was really bad at drawing, even though I was trying to be creative. But I did find that I had an affinity for things like the software and tooling that was available in the computer labs that we have. The shop was called Graphic Communications, by the way. So that’s kind of what led into my whole six years at a printing company and things like that. But that’s really where I started to develop that interest for the combination of creativity and technology. Although at the time the technology was printing, not as we would think about it, I guess today from a UX standpoint.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about Bunker Hill. Of course, you mentioned earlier that you are a teacher there, which we’ll get into, but that’s where you started off in college. You went to Bunker Hill Community College, majored in graphic arts and visual communications. Tell me, what was your time like there? Do you feel like it really kind of prepared you?

Manny Ikomi:

Bunker Hill was kind of interesting because I was kind of facing some, I guess, conflicting realities. That was actually a very huge period of growth for me, I think, relatively to where I’m at now. If I really reflect on it so with Bunker Hill, I think the programming that they had there at the time was pretty good. I think from a design perspective, it was definitely skewed more towards those kind of typical graphic design programs where your first year is kind of like your foundation year, you’re required to do a whole bunch of drawing and painting and kind of like more artsy stuff. And then in your, I guess, second year of the Associates program, that’s where you start getting into more specific studio level courses around typography, which is where I think my trajectory in design kind of started to skyrocket when I finally recognized the importance of it and my ability to influence that as a designer. Now that’s always the one thing I tell people if they learn nothing about design is Typography is like 90 or 80% of the stuff that you need to know if you want to become a designer or at least design something well if you’re not formally trained as one from there. I spent quite a few years there because I was a part time student and then I was working full time at the Print Shop, and that was mostly because I couldn’t afford to go to a full four year institution. I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of taking out a whole bunch of student loans.

And although I had pretty decent support from my parents, it wasn’t something that I also felt like, I guess I didn’t want them to be fiscally responsible. I don’t really think we were in a position to do that, especially at the time that I was doing community college classes. So it was really just kind of me like, finding my way, figuring it out. When I first started there, I tried to take twelve credits worth of courses and work full time at the print shop, which lasted maybe all of like four to six weeks before I was, this is definitely not going to work because that was just a lot. And then finally I found like a good balance between two classes a semester, which ultimately ended up requiring me to go twice as long to finish my associate’s degree. So it actually took me four years as opposed to two, but for the most part I was able to go through community college without any loans whatsoever, which was extremely helpful to me. Now I’m thanking myself much later in the future for being smart enough to think about that during that time because I had to be so, I guess, independent in that sense and really think about myself and my needs and ultimately my own personal finances. That’s kind of where I started to really think about my personal finance money, what success meant to me, becoming more financially literate in the decisions that I was making and the impact that it might have on me later.

Learning about debt and compound interest and investing and all those things. And luckily I made a lot of really smart choices during that time to the point where now, financially, I’m doing things less so out of fear, which was kind of like the original motivation for me to do that because I didn’t want to be broke. And I had some minorly traumatic experience around involving money and things like that when I was growing up. So it kind of started from that place of fear. And then now that I’m finally in a place where I feel much more well established, much more secure, not only in my professional life, but also my personal life and just who I am, those things are more so. They’re not top of mind for me and I don’t have to obsess about them, but I have enough of a foundation to think about it more as an opportunity rather than a risk, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, college is a transitory time for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. And for you, you were going to college and working at the same time. Tell me about how you sort of balance that.

Manny Ikomi:

I was not very good at it. I guess work-life balance, I guess, is something that I’ve always kind of struggled with a little bit. It originally stemmed from like, I always need to have something to do. I always need to be busy, I always need to be productive. And that was kind of a very unhealthy way of thinking about it because I was kind of motivated by that fear of not having money or opportunity. But the way that I balanced it was thankfully the company that I was working with at the time, they were actually pretty supportive of me going to college and doing what I needed to do. So there were some days where I had class during the middle of the day and they had no problem with me leaving the office to I was working in the office five days a week for that job. They had no problem with me leaving work to go to class for like four hours and then do what I needed to do to get my degree at Bunker Hill. And so that was really helpful because it gave me a lot of autonomy and really, as long as I got my work done, it really wasn’t a big deal for them.

So that was like a huge help. And I know a lot of people just don’t have that sort of opportunity or luxury. That being said, they definitely did not subsidize, nor were they in a position to help me subsidize my education, but it definitely gave me, I think, the flexibility I needed. And then it was really up to me to just be very good about time management, make sure I was keeping up with my assignments, making sure my work obligations were taken care of. Sometimes that required really long nights. Other times it required really early mornings. I wasn’t as much of a social butterfly, or I didn’t really get to do all of the social things that are part of a college experience that people might want or be accustomed to. I didn’t really have a dormitory experience.

There were sacrifices in that, but I think ultimately I came out better for it, and I would definitely do it again if I had to. I just might be a little bit more forgiving with myself in terms of working myself too hard, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

Trust me, you missed nothing about the dorm experience. There’s nothing about that you have missed. I don’t know if you have siblings or not, but you’ve missed nothing. Consider yourself lucky.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. It ended up working out, I think, a little bit, because once I transferred to Lesley and finished my bachelor’s degree there, although I didn’t get the full know experience there either, I did end up, you know, slowly making friends throughout the entire college experience who did have the dorm life. And we did go over each other’s places and play video games and hang out and do homework together. And not all of them were from the same college. But Boston is…there’s a lot of college-level institutions here, so I got to do some of that. But I guess you’re right. I didn’t really miss much, either.

Maurice Cherry:

I feel like Boston is a pretty extremely diverse college mean. Of course, you have the well known colleges like MIT, Harvard, et cetera, but then you’ve got, like you said, Lesley, you got Bunker Hill. There’s other universities in and around the sort of Boston metro area, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of commingling like that. Yeah, I mean, Atlanta, in a way is sort of like that, too. I mean, I went to Morehouse and there were opportunities where you would, of course, hang out with students from Georgia Tech, from Georgia State. Spelman is right across the street, Clark-Atlanta is right across the street. So you’re just all kind of commingling together. I mean, Atlanta really is a big college town. I don’t know if a lot of folks realize that it’s a pretty unique college town because the number of HBCUs we have, but it’s really a big college town, so you have all these opportunities to meet people doing all sorts of things at all sorts of different places.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I never really thought of ATL like that, to be honest. I think one person who I met was from the Savannah College of Art and Design, which I think is in Georgia, if correctly based out of Savannah, Georgia.

Maurice Cherry:

We have a campus here in Atlanta, too, right? Yeah. And you mentioned this kind of before we started recording, but one of your professors at Lesley was actually a recent guest on Revision Path.

Manny Ikomi:

Yes. So, yeah, shout out to Shanae Chapman. Ever since you reached out to me and I discovered the podcast, I’ve definitely gone in and done my due diligence. And I just think what you’re doing is really cool again. And it’s really kind of surreal, actually, I think, to kind of be part of this in the same way that they were, knowing that some of those people I either looked up to or I learned from or had some sort of influence in my life, personally or professionally. And we’ve also had some other IBM designers on the podcast as, like, I listened to a couple episodes way back with Oen Hammonds and Shani Sandy, who are both, like, design executives at IBM still. Yeah, it’s kind of a very small, interesting world, I guess, as we were speaking earlier. But, yeah, it was a really full circle moment.

I haven’t talked to Shanae in a little while, but recently we did kind of have a bit of a go back and forth because she was interested in the talk that I had done earlier this year. But, yeah, I just think it’s really cool and it’s honestly kind of an honor to be doing this right now.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m kind of…I have a question about sort of…I just kind of want to go back to your college experience for a bit because, like we said before, you were working and you were going to college at the same time. What made you want to continue your studies in design? Because it sounds like you already had — if I’m wrong here, please correct me — but it sounds like you had a nice kind of set up because the company was very flexible about you going to class and still working for them. It sounded like they really supported you. What made you want to continue your educational career?

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, so that was a combination of quite a few things. I think, for context, the company that I worked at for six years, it was a small, family-owned business. We weren’t like some large…we weren’t like a Vistaprint or anything like that. And although it was a really great experience, I think I hit my ceiling there in terms of growth and opportunity relatively quickly, probably in hindsight, within the first three years. But the reason I stayed was, like you said, because of that flexibility that I really liked, and also the pay was decent enough to get me through college, do the things that I needed to do, have a little fun on the side. It was good for what it was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Manny Ikomi:

And then I think as I started to become more interested in things like interactive design and user experience and things like that, that I really didn’t even know existed as career paths, really, I kind of stumbled upon them by virtue of learning how to code and kind of self teaching myself that stuff on the side. Hill I was working there. I just basically hit a ceiling there. And then when COVID happened. I graduated Bunker Hill in the fall of 2019, and I had applied to Lesley. I had got my transfer papers, and thankfully they had a matriculation agreement, which made it really easy for me that they just take your associate’s degree, no questions asked, that the credits all get applied where they should, and you start as a junior in their bachelor’s program. And at the time, I was reluctant about doing it because it was going to require that I took out student loans, but I did get a really great scholarship. And the fact that they took all of my credits was really huge, because when I did the math, financially speaking, it actually made it lower cost for me to go there and do the program that I wanted than, say, to transfer and go to a state school like Salem State or Mass Art were probably the other alternatives that I looked into.

So even though the sticker price of Lesley was a lot higher, it was actually going to be net cheaper because of the scholarship that I got. And they took all of my credits, which some of the other colleges may not have been willing to do.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s great.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. And so from there, that kind of made the decision really easy for me. And then when COVID happened, the world blew up in the spring of 2020. I actually decided to take a gap for like a semester and then start in the fall of 2020. Of course, when I had planned to do that, I didn’t know COVID was going to blow up the entire world, but thus it did. And so in some ways, I actually kind of avoided that initial shock to my education experience, because, like everywhere else in the world, everyone was trying to figure out how to do virtual class instruction if they’ve never done that before. There was a whole bunch of new challenges that happened as a result of that. And so I kind of skid by those for the most part.

And then when I started in fall of 2020, I was still working at the print shop. But because I was working at the print shop remotely now, because it just wasn’t safe for us to be in the office, still, I was able to do Lesley full time and work remotely for the print shop.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay.

Manny Ikomi:

And then in 2021, in January, because my hours and income from the print shop was drastically reduced just because business was slow and it was really tough time for everyone. And so, thankfully, I had prepared for some of this. Because going back to financial literacy stuff, I had prepared an emergency fund and kind of knew, worst case scenario, I would be able to make it through college for the most part, even if I wasn’t working a full time gig. And I could just find maybe some freelance work and stuff on the side. So in 2021, I decided to leave. I put in my notice. I left on really great terms with them overall. Actually, recently, I ended up asking them to do some print work for me for a side thing with IBM.

But, yeah, from there it was just like full steam ahead with Lesley. I was like, I just want to get my education done. Out of the way. I know interactive design is the area that IBM interested in. I know it will somehow bring me to some interesting path with coding in some way. And at the time, I didn’t really know what user experience was until a particular studio course that I had, which just so happened to be with two IBM distinguished designers who were my faculty and they were the ones who ended up asking me to apply, like, a year later when I was a senior into the role that I’m in now, essentially.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, nice. I was going to ask how you sort of came across IBM with the work that you were doing, but it sounds like you already had this kind of support system in.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I think it really started kind of like, way back in vocational school because I had a pretty good technical understanding of the tooling and the software and some of the processes for design in terms of the tactical aspects and visual design, working in hind design, all that stuff. And so for me, the real value that I got out of college was the networking, the mentorship, the one on one time. And a lot of the theory and history behind design was most valuable to me, so I could really focus on that rather than trying to struggle with some of the tooling and learning new methods that I was already familiar with. And so when it came time to really work on projects, the technical aspects of doing the design work and making the artifacts and deliverables was actually relatively easy for me. What I was most challenged by was, like, the strategic parts of it and kind of training myself to think like a designer, not just make pretty designs.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear you. Okay. And now, let’s talk about what you sort of mentioned before about teaching at Bunker Hill. I feel like that might be an interesting experience to go back to your alma mater years later and now teach. What made you decide to go that route?

Manny Ikomi:

It’s definitely been a full circle moment that I’m still kind of, I guess, pinching myself for a long time ago. So when I had graduated from Bunker Hill in 2019, a professor of mine who I developed, like, a really great relationship with while I was there for four years, she asked me when I graduated. She said, when you finish your bachelor’s degree, I would love for you to come back and teach the college. And when she said that to me, I was kind of like, what? Because I was like, I just never really considered that as a possibility before. And then ever since she said that, I have kind of noticed getting really positive signals from people that I might be good at doing that. And so over, like, I guess it was kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, where if I found it interesting and I thought it was nice, maybe it would happen. I maintained a relationship with that professor for quite a while, and even while I was going through Lesley and doing things, I would always go back to the college and even before I got the role there, do design crits with some of their students and provide networking and opportunities and portfolio reviews, things like that, to kind of give back.

And earlier this year, I had went to a design conference. It was like the first in-person design conference I got to go to since COVID kind of unleashed everything she had just so happened to be there. The professor ended up asking me to teach, and we were just kind of, like, catching up a little bit because we hadn’t talked in a little while, but we email back and forth every once in a while, and she had told me, like, hey, we have adjunct positions opening. We’re looking for people to teach certain courses. I want you to apply, basically. And even still, I was kind of like, well, I’m still just barely my first year into this role at IBM. Am I really even qualified or ready to do this? I was hoping, I think, realistically, to get another maybe four years or five years or so in the industry and doing more practice as a practitioner. But I kind of just kind of said to myself, self, take your own advice.

Like, if the opportunity presents itself, just apply and see what happens, just like I did with IBM. And so, long story short, it was like the worst that they can say is no. Right?

Maurice Cherry:

Right.

Manny Ikomi:

So I applied. I did the interview, I did the teaching demo, and then, yeah, now here I am. So I’m only teaching one class. It’s Wednesday evenings, which works really well with my schedule, considering I also tend to go into the office on Wednesdays, and it’s right down the street from my office pretty much too. And the topic that I’m teaching is interactive design, which is kind of right up my alley since that’s what I studied in college, and now that’s what I’m doing for my job, pretty much. So the stars aligned, I guess you could say.

Maurice Cherry:

How’s the teaching experience been so far?

Manny Ikomi:

So far it’s been, I think, a net positive. I think the teaching aspects of it, working with students, kind of like digging back in some of my own archives and coming up with my own content and assignments. I also spent a lot of time reaching out to some of my own professors and also students that I went to Bunker Hill with and at Lesley as well and kind of doing my own design research. I kind of just approached it as like, well, if I was to design a student experience, I just kind of treated it like any other experience design project, except my users are now students. So approaching it with that mindset kind of really helped me. And from there, I think the parts of it that I like are really going well as far as in class instruction, working with the students, providing feedback on their work. I think it’s probably one of the most valuable things I got out of my design education is like, getting critiques and feedback from other people and getting that other perspective on your work that you might not otherwise get if you’re trying to learn by yourself. And then the parts of it that I don’t like so much really are kind of like the more logistics and administrative stuff around it.

I really struggled with grading in the first two weeks to kind of figure out, like, I probably need a rubric. And then also the learning management system that we use isn’t the most user friendly thing either, which is kind of meta hilarious in a sense because I’m trying to teach my students how to design interactive systems like that. There are parts of it that are bad that come with the good, but I’d say overall it’s been going well. And despite currently maybe potentially having to fail one student if they don’t show up next week, it’s been going overwhelmingly good, I think. But ideally I would like to make it to the end of semester without failing anyone. I definitely did not set out to do that when I started teaching, so it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re just not participating or engaging. And I certainly don’t want to make any assumptions as to why they’re not doing it or assuming that they’re a delinquent of some kind because they may have things going on as a student that I just don’t know about and probably never will. But I did try to make an effort to reach out to that person and be as supportive as possible, as opposed to being punitive and penalizing, despite having to uphold the rules of my syllabus in the classroom and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I was an adjunct for two years. I think I taught for two years. It’s 2012 through 2014, I think. I taught a web development course to business majors, and it was a BIS course, like business information systems. And I get that struggle that you’re talking about, like, you go into it. Well, for me, I think the Virgo in me wanted to be like, “hey, this is all wrong.” Like, the way that you’re teaching. I remember going to the dean, like, the first week saying, “we are setting these students up to fail if this is what we’re teaching them, because this is not what we use out in the real world.” Like, if this is what you’re teaching business students, they’re going to go to a company and get laughed at, or they’re going to try to apply for a job and no one’s going to hire them.

And I offered to redo the whole rubric. I’m talking about the grading, the tests, the lessons. I was like, “I’ll redo it and make this into my course that I think they should have.” And they were like, “okay, it’s fine. We don’t care.” And also in that same vein, yeah, you go into it not wanting to fail anyone, and it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. It’s one of those sad eventualities, and it’s because, oh, how could I put this and I don’t mean this in a derisive way, but students will always try to get one over on their professor. They always will. It doesn’t matter how old they are or anything. They will always try to get one over on their professor. They will give you all kinds of excuses just out of everywhere as to why something did get done, why something didn’t get done. In this case, the syllabus is your friend. The syllabus is the contract between the professor and the student to say, if you’re in this class, these are the things that you have to do in order to succeed in the class. And we had office hours. Students would come to office hours and would wonder why. And it’s not that office hours were included in their grade, but then they would come at the last minute, like, “oh, well, can we meet on this day?” I’m like, “well, that’s not my office hours. “My office hours are on the syllabus because I’m also a working designer, so I can’t go out of my way.” You want to help the students because you’re their teacher, so I get that.

But it’s going to be an inevitability that you’re going to have to fail someone. Students are going to go cry bloody murder to the dean or to whatever, because you’re not fair. You’re a bad teacher. They’re going to leave bad reviews. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen.

The best thing that you can do is to follow your syllabus, teach the students that are receptive, because there’s just going to be some people you’re just not going to reach. Because I’m assuming you’re doing this in person. Yes, there’s just going to be people that you’re just not going to reach. I think ours was a mix of in person and online, and the online students were the worst. I mean, copying straight from Wikipedia. I’d run it through TurnItIn and get 99% plagiarized. I’m just like, oh my God. And they would swear to you up and down that they wrote it. And it’s like, “I can look at the quality of your written posts in the forum and tell that you didn’t write this. Don’t lie to me.” But it’s one of those things, unfortunately, that’s just going to happen.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it’s interesting that you say that because one of the things that I had done that I had conversations with some people about when I was developing all the content, because the college basically kind of they didn’t really direct me on. Basically, it was like, here’s the course description. Here’s a sample of a syllabus that’s been used previously. Make it your own. So I had a lot of academic freedom, I guess, in that sense of being able to develop the materials the way I wanted to do it. Because, like you were kind of saying when I took this very same course when I was a student, it was not very good. One of the courses I actually took ended up being so bad that I actually went to the dean as a student, complained about the course, got a refund and then still got the credits for the course.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

But I was also a fairly advanced student because I had already had prior experience. I had already kind of known some of the things that were out there that were happening. I also spent a lot of time investing in my learning and education outside of the classroom. So I was very aware of where the college was doing well and not doing so well at the time. And so now coming back into it, I kind of had the same mindset of like, there is no way I’m doing it this way, I’m going to do it my way. Which ultimately creates a lot of work for me in terms of having to come up with all the content and things like that. But it’s also just been kind of like an interesting way to think about my design skills in a different light in terms of designing for instruction and learning as opposed to making profit off of people, I guess. Yeah, so that’s been kind of interesting.

And then on the topic of plagiarism, one of the areas that I talked to people about is, like, using generative AI. I kind of went into it with a mindset of, like, I would rather students use it and use it liberally and experiment with it and not be afraid of it. But come to me with questions because I think ultimately, if I was to put in my syllabus, there’s no use of generative AI allowed one. It’s really hard to detect whether someone’s using it or not, unless, to your point, you’ve kind of gotten to know them a few weeks in. You can kind of see where people are at and kind of what they’re capable of to a certain extent. Right. But for me, it was kind of just like, I know. And I told them on the first day, I was like, when we were going over key parts of the syllabus, I was like, I know that you are going to use generative AI probably whether I allow you to or not.

So just use it, but be conscious of how you’re using it. Cite your usage of it when you do, and provide documentation to me so that I can see how you’re using it. Because there may be parts like kind of we were talking about where it could be harmful or misleading or maybe it’s not giving them the right information that they need and things like that. So that’s been kind of an interesting thing to also navigate. There are a few students who I suspect of using generative AI without disclosing it according to the rules of our syllabus. But for now, I’m kind of letting it slide, mostly because I just haven’t gotten that sense of familiarity with where they’re at and being able to tell one way or another. And I also have seen the negative effects of accusing students of plagiarizing their work or doing something that they are capable of that you just don’t believe. And that can leave a really lasting and poor impression on students because I remember experiencing that once a little bit where because I was working at the printing company, I had access to all kinds of printing equipment, tools, materials, and quality paper, quality design.

I also did a lot of prepress. And so I knew what it took to design something and actually have it be printed in a way that is high quality. And for one of my first projects I did that, I tried to pull out all the stops, like my work let me use what was available. And when I brought in my project, I remember they didn’t believe the work that I did was really mine and that I actually bound the book, printed the book, designed it, and did all of that. And although it wasn’t as relevant to the conversation on generative AI, I still remember that to this day and feeling like, well, if I’m in a student in this scenario who’s really excelling at their projects and doing to the point where you don’t even believe the work is mine, then why am I here, right? You know what I mean? So I try to be very careful about who I accuse or not of using it. And I think ultimately at the end, if they are going to use generative AI to essentially cheat their way through my course, they’re not going to get the return on the educator investment that they’re putting in. So I think ultimately it all ends up in my favor anyway, but the initial impact of that may work in their favor in the short term.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m glad I didn’t teach in the age of AI. I’m so glad because I can only imagine now that it’s and I mean, that was sort of a thing that came up a lot as sort of a stopping point for educators. Like, I think maybe about a year or so ago when Chad GPT really started to become used more commonly was in educational spaces. Professors really being like, prohibiting it, of course, but then also curious about it because the work is sometimes actually kind of good.

And yeah, it’s like if a student is going to mortgage their future away by using generative AI, why are you in school? Why are you even doing it? I mean, I taught business students, so these weren’t even design students. So maybe I came into it with a little bit of a bias because they really were just like, “look, this is an elective. I just need to take this so I can get my business degree and go get my MBA or whatever.” They didn’t really care about design. And not to say that I wanted to make them care about design, but I also didn’t want them to think this was going to just be a cakewalk for them.

Manny Ikomi:

Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Not to say I made it hard on well, I might have made it a little hard on purpose. I would kind of change the course as things went along because like I said, I came in and I really wanted to change things up. I would edit it from like, semester to semester. I would change some things up. And I remember this one student who I failed three times. Not on purpose. I didn’t fail them on purpose. What I’m trying to say but they failed the course three times, and it was because I would change the course slightly, like change certain things, and they would keep using the same homework and materials from the first time that they failed the course.

I would change the nature of the assignment, and they would just turn in the same thing. I’m like, did you not read what the assignment was? Why would you turn in something that’s completely different? Just…students.

Manny Ikomi:

Oh, my God, that’s so funny. I hope a year or two from now, when I’ve hopefully taught this class again, more in the future, that I don’t have students like that because I am a very patient and lenient person, and I often see the big picture of these things, I think, more than my students do. But I really hope I don’t get to that point because that’s when it’ll really start. Like, the shade will start coming out and…are you for real for real? You’re just gonna submit the whole same thing? I really hope I don’t get to that.

Maurice Cherry:

I don’t think you’ll get to that point. Again, you’re teaching design students, so they want to be there for that for the most part. I think you’ll be fine.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, it is a requirement. And one of the things that I did on our first day was do, like, a little intro survey to kind of understand where they’re at in terms of their interest in the topic of the course, but also how many hours they’re working outside of the college versus how many credits they’re taking. Mostly to make sure I’m saving students from the mistakes that I made when I started college, because I had no idea what I was doing. But it’s also just good contextually for me to know a little bit about each individual student because that may be one reason or another why they aren’t participating as much or miss a few deadlines here and there and things like that. So it’s good for me to have that kind of in mind here and there.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now along with teaching, along with your work at IBM, you not only stream on Twitch, which I really want to get into, but you have a podcast also. What made you decide to kind of branch out into these other forms of media?

Manny Ikomi:

The way that I describe it to people is…I just like making shit and putting it on the internet. Oh, sorry, I don’t know if I’m allowed to swear, but…

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, you’re fine, you can curse. It’s fine.

Manny Ikomi:

So that’s really kind of the mindset that I guess I kind of approached it with is just, I just want to make stuff and put it out there. Well, I guess I’ll start with, I don’t know, should I start with streaming or the podcast? Which one do you want?

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk about streaming first.

Manny Ikomi:

Okay, so for streaming, the way that it kind of happened is during the pandemic, like at the height of lockdown and quarantines and things like that, we were all stuck inside for the most part. And originally I had started as a viewer on Twitch like most people do, and I would primarily watch people play video games and they were mostly within the queer community. I am a gay man for context. I don’t know if I talked about that yet, but yeah, I’m queer as fuck. And I just started watching queer streamers on Twitch who play games and I started playing with them and then I forget what it was that really kind of crossed me over in terms of the boundary of going from Twitch to entertainment, but now as a way to learn more about web development and design, because there are a few of us that stream about design on Twitch, myself included. And then there’s also quite a few and quite a bit more people who stream web development and software engineering within the software and game development category, which is typically where I stream as well. And probably like a year into being a viewer, that’s when I started to think about, well, I’m stuck at home, I’m doing some freelance and consulting work here and there, I’m doing my own thing. Let me just start like a co-working stream and see what happens and just share my work.

And then, because I had been so embedded in the Twitch community and the streamers that I had watched some of which who were still very much my good Judys, as I like to say to this day, even outside of streaming. One of them actually, coincidentally ended up living down the street from me during parts of the COVID quarantine, which is also hilariously coincidental. But those people from the queer gaming community really gave me the viewership that I needed and that initial push of support to become a Twitch affiliate. So that’s basically at the point where you can monetize your stream a little bit, you can have subscribers make emotes and do things like that. That happened within the first two weeks of me streaming and everyone was just so extremely supportive despite having little to no idea what my content was or what I was actually streaming because I was streaming my design work and some of my process. And then one thing led to another and probably now I’m a little bit more removed from that kind of like queer gaming part, but I still do participate in some of the communities and lurk in some streams here that I like to support here and there.

But then I started to really find more of the software and game development community and all of the streamers, and now some of them are also like my friends. I met some of them at TwitchCon last year for the first time, which was really great, and actually this year, later this month or in October, I’m going to TwitchCon again and we’re actually going to do a panel about programming on Twitch. And so I don’t have a significantly huge viewership around my stream or anything like that, but the people who do come and who hang out and who stay, whether it’s other streamer or viewers that I’ve had for years now, some of them have been subscribed to me for over, like, three years. And I’m like, oh, wow, this is crazy. Thank you so much for your support. And some of those people still to this day have no idea what I do, but they just support me and who I am and what I like to share and put out there. And so it’s been a really interesting and net positive way of putting myself out there. Kind of like how you’re talking about in terms of building my personal brand, I guess you could say.

It’s kind of taken on, I guess its own thing, I guess. I definitely don’t do it as much as I used to just because now that I work full time and IBM doing my own course, it’s really hard for me to stream on a regular basis as much as I used to. And so as a result, my viewership and other metrics have kind of gone down since the kind of height of my streaming career, if you want to call it that. But I still do it for funsies and I always did it for fun and I never really cared about the metrics anyway because all I really just wanted to do was just make stuff and put it on the Internet. And so streaming just happened to be the lowest barrier to entry, coincidentally enough for me to do that because when you’re live, you’re live. It’s not like a recording like this where maybe we could potentially edit out some things or something like that. For me, it’s like what you see is what you get. And also, at the same token, I don’t have to worry about editing, I don’t have to worry about scripting or being like a perfectionist on it, which kind of can take away the fun because sometimes I do have that nature about my work.

And so for me, it’s a fun way to put myself out there to share what I know. And also it’s part of the reason why I think I’ve become a bit of a better public speaker, why IBM more willing to engage with public speaking opportunities, do things like this. And also people have learned things from my stream, which kind of goes back to the whole you might be a good teacher someday. And so people on my stream have literally told me like, oh, I’ve learned so much from you, or thank you so much for your feedback on my work, or something like that. And it’s just become a really positive outlet, I think, for me whenever I get to do it, just not as frequently as I used to.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there like a big web development community on Twitch? I mean, like you said before, there’s obviously gamers and such, but it sounds like there might be a pretty big community there for web development.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I would say so. We’re relatively unknown, I would say, in terms of the grand scheme of Twitch, but there are some people who have an upwards of an average of 200 viewers and there are some people who have upwards of 1500 viewers when they’re live.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Manny Ikomi:

And they could be doing anything from coding in Rust or building a silly website with animations and things like that. One of my really good friends, mewtru, I think she’s like the perfect example of how you can be a streamer and a content creator and have fun and just like, she’s just really awesome. And I met her through streaming and we’ve kind of become good friends since then. And we’ve always been supportive of one another despite not really even knowing or meeting each other up until Twitch last year. And so, yeah, it’s just interactions like that with people, whether they’re fellow streamers or viewers, it creates a community around what we’re doing. And even though I’m a designer mostly by trade, I still kind of, I guess, hold my own in terms of programming and web development. And my stream is kind of unique in the sense where I add a design lens to things from that. Again, how are you talking about the design, engineering and hybrid perspective that I think a lot of people in the category may not have except for a very small handful of us.

Maurice Cherry:

Twitch sounds like one of the rare places online now, like in 2023, one of the rare places where you can really carve out a niche for yourself. Because with things like Instagram and Twitter and things like that, a lot of stuff is very algorithmically driven. And it feels like, at least from what you’re telling me, Twitch is really more community based in that way.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah, I mean, that’s actually perfect because that was going to be like my next soapbox to get on. When it comes to creating content on Twitch is…the way that I frame it to people is Twitch is kind of unique as its own brand of social media, like you were kind of thinking about earlier, because it has kind of its own unique culture, to be quite honest around it with emotes and chat and how people interact with the streamer while they’re live. There’s also the kind of aspects like you were talking about around community where people who are creating content on TikTok and YouTube and podcasts and even blog articles, any form of media that you put out there. A lot of it is a one way interaction and a lot of people do it with the goal of building an audience that then they can later monetize. But with streaming on Twitch specifically, what I found is that what you’re really doing is building a community because discovery and algorithms and search on Twitch kind of suck, to be quite honest. That’s why a lot of people don’t really know there’s a whole community of us out there. But for the ones that do know and for the ones that discover us, they tend to stick around and they tend to support what we do, even if they may not like all of the content that we stream.

When I first started streaming one day out of the week, on Sundays, I would just stream League of Legends, which is a game that I like to play for fun with some of my friends. It had nothing to do with the content that I streamed two days a week during the day when I was coworking and things like that. But for the people who wanted that, they came and they stuck around and then when I was streaming other stuff, sometimes they would still come and hang out anyway. And so it really builds on that two-way interaction that I think a lot of people don’t get from other social media platforms that Twitch is really good at enabling. And in hindsight, it also kind of really aligns with, I guess, desire, you could say, to have a two way interaction with people and not feel like it’s just a transaction of like this post or subscribe to my newsletter and things like that. It really is a two-way interaction and I’ve created some really great friends out of it, some of which have helped me with the course that I’m doing right now, some of which I’ve helped with their content and vice versa. And it’s really created a nice little community around what I do, even if my particular streamer and viewership isn’t as strong as it used to be, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:

Interesting. There was a time when I was thinking of doing a live show via Twitch for Revision Path. Like I was thinking of doing Revision Path Live like one day a week. This was before the pandemic. If we manage to get the resources to be able to do it, I would love to try to branch into doing something like that because like you mentioned, it’s a totally different sort of dimension in terms of reaching people and then also in terms of communicating.

Like this conversation that you and I are having will be edited. If it was live, it could be a totally different thing in terms of where the conversation goes and what we talk about or anything like that. So I’ve been thinking about it, I’ve really been putting a little bit of thought into it, if we are able to do it. I’m kind of working on some things behind the scenes just in terms of securing funding for the show and stuff. So I would love to do a live thing maybe like once a week or something as sort of a supplement to the podcast because the podcast has been such a constant thing over the past ten years and we’ve had blog articles here and there. We did a literary anthology for a couple of years and I would love to sort of add a different sort of component to Revision Path. But yeah, Twitch sounds like it could be it.

Manny Ikomi:

That’s great. And honestly, it may not even have to be Twitch. It could be another live platform. I mean, obviously if you want help with that, definitely feel free to reach out to me. I could probably help you in some way or another. One of the things that just in hindsight that I caution people about is there are some people who maybe come from other platforms and they’re trying to diversify their viewership, their audience and things like that. And one of the mistakes that I’ve seen and that people make, what they tend to do, especially if they come from YouTube, is they still treat Twitch like an audience and not a two-way interaction.

And so what you get is people streaming their content and talking into the void, but they’re not interacting with chat, they’re not engaging with the people that are there. And that’s where I think a lot of people tend to maybe fail, I guess you could say, or not get the results or outcomes that they want out of streaming. And mostly it stems from, I feel from my very limited anecdotal evidence and observations that the reason is because a lot of them just aren’t used to that mindset shift, whereas for me it just kind of happened naturally because I started my content creator journey on Twitch. And so now when people come from other platforms, it may not, I mean people in general tend not to convert between one platform for another. So if you have a really strong audience in one type of media or platform, like the podcast for example, it’s going to be really hard to get people to move over to something else and that’s universally regardless of which type of social media or interaction you have with your audience. But it is challenging and it’s especially challenging for people to go into live streaming on Twitch for that reason I believe too.

Maurice Cherry:

No, that’s good to know. I mean, like I said, if I did it, it would be a supplement to the show and also honestly for scheduling it would be so much easier. I think it will be so much easier but in the future we’ll see. But since we’re talking about podcasting, you also have a podcast that you said you started kind of during the pandemic.

Manny Ikomi:

Yeah. So that kind of ended up just starting as kind of like an inside joke between me and a really close friend of mine, Kevin, who’s my co-host on our podcast Gay + Geeky and Tired. Hashtag ad. And we started, you know, during the height of the pandemic amongst all the other content creation things I was doing for fun. A lot of times the way I would socialize with my friends during the pandemic was through discord and with my friend Kevin in particular, we would have a group of us, some of us, I met my friend Kevin while I was in college, which was part of Know ancillary college experience. And so a lot of our friends would just joke with me and him about how we should make our own podcast and how we talk about so many things around current events and pop culture and queer culture and society and things like that. And so particularly music and gaming are like two kind of key areas that we tend to talk about a lot. And at one point I think we were kind of just like “should we do it? Should we do this? Is this for real? Should we really make a podcast?” And then long story short, we did. We ended up releasing the first episode, I think on my birthday in June of 2021.

It started as Gay + Graphic and Tired because initially, well, we’re kind of both in the design trade but he more approaches it from like an architecture perspective where I’m more user experience and so we thought that would be a cute title and then we ended up changing it to what it is now. But we talk about all kinds of stuff. I just explain it to people. It’s like we just talk about gay shit. We do it very casually. It’s very unscripted, unfiltered. We come prepared with some topics; we tend to rant a lot. It’s a little all over the place and you probably won’t like it, but for the people that do, and some of them have come from my twitch audience as well, they listen to it whenever we release an episode because it is something we do for fun and something we don’t really monetize.

We have had some spurts and lack of consistently or consistency around posting, especially recently now because of my adjunct role and the kind of demands that both of our jobs now require of us. But we are looking into getting back into it and for the most part we’ve been putting out episodes pretty consistently now since then. So we don’t really have a posting schedule or anything at the scale that you’re doing with Revision Path. But again, it just kind of started as one of those things that we wanted to do for fun and we still do it for fun and probably will until we don’t want to anymore. That’s what it is.

Maurice Cherry:

Now have you found that that sort of helped you out in a similar way that Twitch streaming has in terms of communication?

Manny Ikomi:

I think so. I would say Twitch definitely moreso because there is kind of like you’re talking about that multisensory experience of like you’re visually there talking to people and then they can obviously hear you because it’s a video format. I would say, with a podcast, because we have the luxury of being able to edit it and because they can’t see us. There’s aspects of it that outside of the technical parts of learning what it takes to produce a podcast a little bit and some tips and tricks here to edit audio and understanding what that process looks like. I’m not, like, an audio engineer or anything, and I’m sure your editor could probably do way better than I can at editing our pod, but it’s just one of those little technical skills that I’ve always just been able to pick up really quickly just to do something and get it out there. And nobody really complains about our audio, so I think it’s okay. And outside of that, I would say I’ve definitely gotten more personal growth and value out of streaming. But for the podcaster thing, I think it’s also just half of it is just an excuse for me and my friend to get together on Discord and just talk a bunch of crap.

So it has had value but in less, I guess, tangible monetary ways.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s more like it’s a personal thing. It’s cathartic. I got you. Okay, what does success look like to you at this point in your career?

Manny Ikomi:

When I was listening to some of the episodes with some other people, I figured this one was coming and of course I did not prepare a very well-worded response. I think success is a really tricky word and the way that I tend to think about it and the way that I frame it to people is that success is different for everyone. And for me, it’s not necessarily tied to a monetary amount of money or becoming a millionaire or doing anything like that. I think ultimately my idea of success is being able to have a positive impact on the world and the people around me, whether that’s in small ways or big ways, whether I become some notable designer, Lord, someday or something, I don’t know, I don’t care. But just being able to have a positive impact with people, preferably through my profession and personally, and being able to do that sustainably, I think. So although money is not like a motivating factor for me, it is just a reality of the world that we live in. And there are certain ways, like when it comes to the lifestyle that I want and the flexibility that I want and the security and things like that, to where money does play a role in it. But it’s not necessarily my sole motivator, I guess, like kind of going back to the key takeaway that we were talking about, it’s really lifting as I climb.

I think it’s just been something that especially ever since I got my job at IBM, it’s something that I take maybe a little too seriously. Because I recognize that there is an immense amount for someone like me who is a queer black person who may not have had the most affluent upbringing, but somehow managed to have this beautiful story of overcoming adversity and all that stuff. There are elements that I still recognize are due to elements of privilege in some way because it’s on a spectrum. And so there are privileges that I’ve had, there are opportunities that I’ve had because of that. But there are also ways that I may have been disenfranchised or oppressed, whether internalized myself or externally.

And so lifting as I climb is kind of a way that I like to give back and uplift people in ways that I can, where I have the power and privilege to do so. Like, one of the ways that I try to do that is, right before coming on the podcast, someone who I’d went to college with at Bunker Hill actually reached out to me and said, like, “hey, I saw you posted about consulting opportunities at IBM. I want to learn more about your role and what you do and how to apply and things like that.” And although I’m not in a position to hire them outright, I can at least meet with them, give them feedback on their portfolio, give them some advice, insight into what it’s like, and really just mentoring people. And that brings me joy, that brings me satisfaction. I feel like I’m helping people. I think that’s why I also like teaching so much. It’s a way to just be successful, but also make others successful with me as I go. I guess. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:

If it makes sense to you, it makes sense. It makes sense. It makes sense. I’m not messing with you. If you didn’t get into UX, what do you think you’d be doing?

Manny Ikomi:

Oh boy. To be honest, if it had started the other way around, I probably would have been a web developer. It’s probably the closest alternative, I guess. And then maybe my roads would have crossed elsewhere into UX design later on. Probably, like, out of the wild the answer would be maybe working somewhere in a nonprofit or in healthcare or in the public market somewhere like either, again, teaching — maybe not teaching design — but teaching in some form or fashion design. And it’s just something that’s been with me that I known I’ve wanted to do in some fashion or another ever since my vocational training in 9th grade. And that kind of hyper fixation and just knowing what I want to do that early has really propelled me to go really far, at least relatively to people in my age group, I guess you could say.

So I’d never really considered alternatives outside of maybe becoming a web developer and leaving design or potentially becoming a teacher. But all of those things still include design, I guess, in some way, now that I’m doing both of those things.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

One of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently, aside from my craft and that intersection of design and engineering is just putting my design skills and knowledge to work in places where I feel like it aligns with my values. And so I’m trying to move towards, at least within the short term in some way, moving towards doing more consulting projects and gigs with public sector institutions, so education institutions, colleges, local and state governments, healthcare providers, things like that. And I want to do that because as close as I can get to, I guess, public service, while still very much maintaining what I do as a designer and being able to bring value there in terms of inclusive design where I can add intersectionality and a lot of those things, like socially, that some people don’t always get the opportunity to bring to their work or maybe just aren’t to because they don’t represent or have the identities that intersect in the way for the people that they’re designing for, I guess. So I guess it would be being a design consultant in some shape or form, working with local and state governments, educational institutions or healthcare.

Maurice Cherry:

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

Manny Ikomi:

Online I basically compiled if you want to know where I am on the Internet, basically just go to mannyikomi.com/links. It’s kind of like my own IBM a web developer, so I’m going to make it myself version of Linktree essentially. And that just lists all of my links to places where I show up online, including my blog, my stream, my podcaster, my portfolio is also there on my website if it’s even vaguely up to date. Yeah, I would say mannyikomi.com/links will take you to anywhere I am on the internet that you may also be.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good.

Well, Manny Ikomi, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show.

I think one for talking about your story, talking know, just sort of what you’re working on and even what you’re teaching and everything. I feel like you’re kind of at this point in your career where it’s all going to start to come together for you like in the next few years. I feel like it’s all going to gel. I’m listening to what you’re doing now and that it sounds like kind of what I was doing back in the day. Like I was trying to do all these different things and creating stuff and putting it online. I feel like you’re at that point where it’s really going to start to come together and gel in a really positive way and I’ll be really excited to see what you come up with when that happens.

So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Manny Ikomi:

Thank you so much for having me. This was fantastic. I’m just so obsessed with what you’re doing. I think this is great and maybe hopefully one day I’ll have the kind of impact that you’re having right now on the community. I think it’s really cool what you’re doing. So thank you so much for having me. This is really an honor to be here.

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.

David Perrin

How are you using your creative talents to create a more equitable world. For David Perrin, his focus is on the world of nonprofit design. By day, David is the design lead at The Ford Foundation, and he works with an in-house team of editors, copywriters, strategists, designers, and developers. Outside of work, he’s an instructor with Social Movement Technologies, a nonprofit organization that provides strategy, training and campaign support to build people power and win in the digital age.

David gave me a breakdown about The Ford Foundation and what it does, and also provided a sneak peek at the variety of work the Foundation handles. We also talked about what fueled his background and his career transition into social justice, along with the challenges and opportunities it presents. David’s story is one of determination, self-reflection, and the power of using design as a powerful tool for change. Get ready to be inspired!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

David Perrin:

So, my name is David Perrin. I’m an art director, graphic designer, and illustrator. I use photo collage as my current graphic style to help kind of portray complex issues pertaining to social justice politics. You know, in my off time…Black joy and Black culture.

Maurice Cherry:

How has your 2023 been going so far?

David Perrin:

It’s been going great! Busy. Done a lot of traveling. Soul searching. Got into grad school, started grad school right now, so currently in that…and yeah, just really gearing up for the fall. Just kind of heads down, I think, for the first half of the year. Took a lot of trips to go see friends and family and everything, and now I’m like kind of just hitting the ground running. So it’s been a busy year so far.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, congratulations on grad school!

David Perrin:

Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Where are you going?

David Perrin:

So I’m currently at Baruch [College] studying arts administration. So getting a master’s in that. I’m super excited. It’s really going to help me bolster my leadership skills in the nonprofit space, specifically around art. And kind of on the back end of this, I do want to get into teaching and being a professor. I really love the work that I do, and I think it’s just going to just give me a stronger foundation moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. So I saw that you recently illustrated a children’s book. Tell me about that.

David Perrin:

Yes. “Amadou Goes To School.” So a friend of mine is Senegalese. He pitched the story to me a couple of years ago. At the time, the only person he knew that he would want to illustrate this book. And so the book primarily is about his experience, really through this character Amadou, and what the first days of school might look like with just dealing with just different cultures and just finding common ground and where people can kind of — or children, right? — can kind of see eye-to-eye on things and really just come together through that unfamiliar process of getting to know one another and stuff. So we’ve gotten a lot of just very just positive energy around the book. We’re working on a second right now. We’re hoping to make it a series.

This has definitely pulled me out of my comfort zone. I think, the last couple of years, I’m kind of undoing a lot of years of slight impostor syndrome and wanting to get into new spaces and things. And so slowly peeling back those layers and stuff. So this is definitely a project of love. Yeah. I really appreciate my boy Jonima Diaby who’s the writer on it. We’re heads down, trying to figure out what the game plan is. We want to do more readings in schools and get this out, you know, as the school year is kind of, I think, jump starting right now, as a matter of fact. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

Was this your first children’s book?

David Perrin:

Yes, first children’s book. All original characters, content, all the things. Been drawing since I was in first grade, but to kind of do it in this platform…yeah, it was a little, like, nerve wracking. Finally, I think we released it last year, fall, and so, yeah, we’re gearing up, like I said, for the second book. So, yeah, just super excited to have it out there. And every now and then, I get a ping from a friend who just had a kid and they’re reading the book to their child, that type of thing. So I’m just happy it’s making the rounds. And like I said, I’m being able to touch my community in this way and…yeah, more to come.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice, looking forward to that. So you’re currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. That’s pretty epic. Talk to me about that.

David Perrin:

Yeah, so I’m currently the design lead at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is a global philanthropic institution centered around the mission of social justice at its core with the goal of expanding equitable experiences for all. The organization is global. We have eleven different offices. We cover a lot of ground and a lot of work. And so it’s really exciting, simply put, just because of all the different bodies of work that we contribute to. As a designer, I feel like I’m kind of a kid in a candy store, if you will. Being able to work on all these different topics, to be able to work on so many different types of bodies of work is really cool. And again, to add a bonus of us being global and working with the different regions as well and seeing how the work touches just different parts of the world is also pretty awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to go a little deeper on what you do, like your day to day. I realized when I just asked that question before, I was like, that was real open ended. “You work for the Ford Foundation. Tell me about it.” I just realized as I said it, but what does a typical day look like? Are you in office? You’re working remotely? Do you have an in house team? What does that structure look like?

David Perrin:

Yeah, so we have an in-house team. So currently our team consists of so we have a creative team and we’re on a broader communications team, right? So the creative team consists of two editors, two writers, copywriters, if you will, and then two designers. And then our broader team consists of strategists and web development folks. So we’ve got a pretty robust team, I think around like 24 folks. So that’s our team as a whole.

The work? Yeah, it’s pretty vast. We have a lot of grantees, so we do grantee profiles where we reach out to our grantees, bolster up some of the work that they’re doing on their end, create these grantee profiles, which then kind of get condensed into maybe a blog format or social media. We’re here in New York, so sometimes our program officers will make regional visits to some of the regional offices and vice versa. So constantly creating content around those visits and kind of like information exchanged. We have a video series. We get into video a lot. Events. The Ford Foundation, as a building, as an entity, houses a lot of events throughout the year. We also have a gallery where we do gallery showings. I think we have one on AI that premiered a couple of weeks ago.

But yeah, we support everybody. Our small team, we have a group of fellows on constant rotation of fellowships that kind of happen throughout the organization. A small bite-sized list of things that we could be working on, you know, on a day to day [basis].

Maurice Cherry:

So it doesn’t sound like there is at any point in time, like a lack of work, because it feels like there’s always going to be something coming in, whether that’s, like you said, new grantee profiles or maybe that’s seasonal type campaigns or things that you’re doing. It sounds like it’s just a constant stream of work.

David Perrin:

Yeah, our grantees are moving and grooving. They’re constantly giving us things to put out into the space, and again, to bolster up. And yeah, the organization is constantly going through these different rotations. Folks coming in and out, fellows coming in and out. I mean, I will say the summers kind of are like a safe period where folks…we try to give ourselves some time off, right? So we’re trying to create some work/life balance there.

Like I was saying earlier, in the fall, yeah, it kind of heads down. Right. So right now we just have a lot of things going in constant rotation. But the summers, we try to keep it a little open ended for folks to take off.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s good to mention that because a couple of weeks ago I had Vasheena Brisbane on the show. She is…I’m going to butcher her title, but she’s like the director of communications for Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

David Perrin:

Got it.

Maurice Cherry:

Which is a pretty big church, pretty well-known church. And we sort of talked about kind of like how when you’re doing the type of design that maybe not is, I don’t know, product-based or software-based or things like that, sometimes it gets overlooked and sometimes it has like a stigma to it.

I’ve had designers on the show. I mean, I’m a designer myself, where there can sometimes be a stigma against church work or nonprofit work or things like that because it’s not as, I don’t know, glossy and sexy as like, advertising or software or anything like that. So I think it’s good to note that there’s just a variety of design work that you do with The Ford Foundation and that it’s all kind of pretty encompassing a lot of different types of media.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. For example, we have a 60th anniversary of our East Africa office happening pretty soon, and I’m making a stage design for them. Some of these are firsts for me; wayfinding stuff, banners that kind of take up full columns of buildings and things. Yes, to nonprofit work and some of this stuff feeling, tone wise, really, I guess to your point, maybe not as sexy as advertising or some branding studios and stuff like that, but still get the work done. And we should be held to the same standard as everybody else, I believe.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? I mean, you get the work in and it’s a variety of work. I mean, I think sometimes if you’re working with a company, particularly if you’re just a product designer, you’re kind of doing the same type of thing day in, day out, you don’t really have a chance to kind of stretch yourself creatively. And it sounds like even though you’re the lead and you have a team, there’s always going to be something new and different coming down the pike for you to work on.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. I mean, yeah, we try to keep it interesting too. We’re also trying to push ourselves with our grantee profiles. We want to do more original artwork, original photography…really meet our grantees where they’re at and bolster the work up to, like, a New York Times or The Atlantic. We are really striving for just a higher standard of design and design thinking and reimagining of what this work can look like. We just went through a brand redesign. Yeah, I think it embodies some of these newer ideas and trends in the design community. So I think great design is accessible. Just because it’s nonprofit doesn’t mean “doesn’t have to be stale, doesn’t have to be all these things.” It could really be as energizing and exciting as anything that we see out in the private sector.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the most challenging part about your work?

David Perrin:

I guess even going back to my days at Dēmos, sometimes visualizing some of this work because it’s so nuanced, right? I’m thinking on when I was working at Dēmos, this racial justice think tank, right? Like coming up with visuals for ending the filibuster, right? Like, what does that look like? It’s not a very tangible thing. You can’t just throw that into Google and a bunch of images are going to pop up. And so, yeah, for some of these more nuanced, more sensitive topics, right? The Supreme Court ruling on abortion, what does that look like? That creates an approachable tone, right? It’s so sensitive. What does that look like? What’s the tone that we want to strike with that? We deal in some pretty heavy topics. And so I think that’s always a difficulty in trying to establish a tone of empowerment, but also making clear what’s at stake and what’s actually happening in the space without being, I guess, disruptive or disrespectful. We do want to respect all the imagery and our grantees and the people involved. These are real issues, and so there’s a lot of sensitivities around that and we want to just be mindful as much as possible creating a message, but also, again, just really thinking on the communities involved in the work. So, yeah, sometimes there’s not always a balance. And so it’s tricky sometimes coming up with how to really set that tone and make sure everybody is fully represented in the right way.

Maurice Cherry:

And I would imagine aside from that, because you’re dealing with different cultures, you’re dealing with different just…topics and mores and things like that. So you’re always having to sort of strike that balance between, of course, something that’s going to be visually and aesthetically pleasing, but then also is going to work for the context that it’s being used. Like, for example, you mentioned doing this conference in East Africa. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t style that, like, you would do maybe an event in Silicon Valley. Like, it would just be a different type of thing, I would imagine.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. And to that point, and I’ll probably touch on this a little bit later, but yeah, bringing folks in, getting the right feedback. We’re very much in touch with the folks in that regional office, and they sent us, like, a mood board, right, to kind of help guide us on some principles and some rules of the road, right? Some things that they wanted to stay away from, as far as stereotypes, and I’m very appreciative of that. I want everybody, people that we are speaking behalf of trying to grantees, who are trying to bolster communities, all that to really come to the table, right? And really help us, guide us as designers and visionaries, so that we’re not misrepresenting the work at any point. It’s a fine line, but always, always here to hear from folks, like, what they want to see in the visuals, and what’s empowering and what makes sense to the work.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, along with the work that you’re doing at the Ford Foundation, you also teach you’re an instructor with Social Movement Technologies. How did you find out about them?

David Perrin:

At my time at Dēmos, I was still trying to get a handle on what organizing work looked like and felt like. And so my director at the time, I guess Smt, had kind of fallen into her inbox. She encouraged me to take the they had a Certificate course right on basically design tools for graphic designers in the organizing space. Right. I took the course. I learned a lot, met up with a lot of great designers, and just kind of got to hear the stories and just kind of be alongside of other organizers and grassroots folks, researchers, people who aren’t designers, that just wanted to learn and to help their organizations out in any capacity, in the design capacity and everything. So, yeah, it was just a really good learning experience overall. And so after the program, the head of the program reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be an instructor, and I jumped at the opportunity. I haven’t turned back. And so, yeah, I feel fortunate to be in a space again, to be on the other side and to kind of help usher in just this next class of folks year after year. It’s been very rewarding, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:

What sort of topics are you teaching?

David Perrin:

We’re starting from the ground up, right? So just teaching like, basic typography, color palette, mood boarding, brand guides, visual tone with photography, sourcing animation, illustration, whatever. We can kind of really pack in during the time that we have. We really try to pack it in. And yeah, we’ve created a pretty decent formula as far as pace goes. But yeah, we really just try to give people the building blocks on what to really think about when thinking about brand and how to start. Right. So really, like I said, from the ground up. And putting this against folks are limited resources too, and giving them a lot of open source material that they could use to kind of just get started. Like Photoshop. Adobe sometimes can be a little inaccessible, can be a little daunting, right? So we really just try to meet people where they’re at and help bolster their skills so that they feel more confident talking about visual identity and what to really think about when it comes to strategy for the organizations.

Maurice Cherry:

How do you sort of balance this teaching work along with your 9-to-5 work? Because it sounds like The Ford Foundation work is already a lot to do.

David Perrin:

It is. Full transparency, right? Like a couple of years ago, I was on the more teaching end of this and now I’m more of supportive…more of like a supportive role, looking at students’ work and being able to kind of guide them on next steps and things. So more of like a small group kind of feedback session type of thing. And I try to do my best to really prepare folks as far as next steps and help them again, just try to meet them where they’re at, whatever the desired needs are at the time.

Maurice Cherry:

Now let’s kind of, you know, change it up here a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about your work, you know, your teaching as well. I do want to ask more about Dēmos, but before we get to that, let’s learn more about you. I know you’re currently in Brooklyn, New York, but you grew up in Miami, is that right?

David Perrin:

Yes. So North Miami Beach, to be specific. But I have a kind of a very roundabout story.

My parents are both from Jamaica. I wasn’t actually even born in Florida, but that’s where I spent most of my time. So born in Texas, moved to North Miami Beach, where I think I did maybe, I don’t know, preschool to maybe the top of first grade. From there, moved to Michigan, spent a couple of years in Michigan, moved to North Carolina for a couple of years after that; each stop, like, averaging about three to four years, landing back in Florida, moving to the panhandle, going to the high school in the panhandle, going to college down in Fort Lauderdale. I spent some time in New York and all that. That mixture. And then finally moving to Brooklyn, where I’m at now. So that’s just a little bit of that journey.

My background as far as a creative kind of started in first grade, drawing dinosaurs and things. I was really involved with Jurassic Park and stuff. Then kind of moved on to Dragon Ball Z, anime, all that stuff. In high school, when I made it back where I made it to the panhandle, I went to a collegiate high school where I was basically taking collegiate classes with college students. There I was able to kind of dig in on artwork in a very specific way, right? So I’m doing live paintings and live drawings with models and sculpting, taking guitar lessons and all these things, kind of almost making up for some of these moves, right? I moved around a lot, so I wasn’t able to really hone in on the artistic side of me until I had a couple of years at this collegiate high school where I was able to kind of lean in, more specifically.

Graphic design really doesn’t start to take, I guess, even a role until I moved to Fort Lauderdale for college, where I’m studying accounting, of all things. And I was kind of doing that in the background. I was a part of a fraternity. I’m making flyers, diving in photoshop a little bit, but not that much. And then eventually after college, I worked in nonprofit worked on the nonprofit side in accounting for a little bit. I told my parents straight up after college because they’re Jamaican. So they’re like, “hey, you got to be a doctor, lawyer, business…something.” Like, you got to make it make sense type of thing. You know what I mean?

Yeah, I told them after a couple of years of doing the accounting thing, I just said “the arts.” I was like, I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to be in the arts. And so I think around the time of maybe my second year of working in accounting, my sisters were getting ready to go to SCAD. They had made the jump, right? So they went to UCF down in Orlando, and then they wanted to go to SCAD. And they kind of propelled me. I’m like, well, they get to go to art school. I’m the bigger brother. I’m like, I want to go to art school too.

So I start doing some research. SVA is high on that list. I decide kind of then and there, I’m moving out of state. I’m going to New York. I create this portfolio, like, to this day, it amazes me because, like I said, I don’t have the most artistic background. Like, I’m drawing, I’m dabbling, doing little things here and there. But yeah, I cobbled together this portfolio for them of these sketches here and there, and some of these Photoshop files and things that I made along the years, and they accepted me.

And so, yeah, right after the acceptance, a buddy of mine was heading up to New York. His parents were moving up there. I moved up there with him, and I started taking night classes, continuing it at the School of Visual Arts. So by day, I found an accounting job on the nonprofit side. Again, by night I’m at SBA taking classes and things to try to make ends meet. But also with this battery in my back of “I need to make it,” they were very upfront with me when I got to SVA. They were like, “hey, you have a cap. You have a financial cap, and so you have a limit as to how much government support you’re going to get.” I think I had my back up against the wall kind of going in, and so I felt like really, really had to make it. But I also knew that from early on that I wanted to get into social justice work or work that’s community based. The commercial thing really wasn’t clicking for me, even in my early inceptions of learning about graphic design and typography and all the things a lot to think about.

But that was kind of like the early beginnings of design for me and school and everything. Fast forward and I eventually make my way to Dēmos, where I’m working on all these issues pertaining to racial justice, voting rights, I’m blanking on climate change, all these different buckets of work, and then eventually make my way to Ford. That’s the long…that’s the abridged version, but yeah, here we are.

Maurice Cherry:

So I saw, you know, and that you kind of — I guess, I don’t know, maybe skipped over this a little bit — but we can talk about it. I mean, you freelanced a bit in 2015 and 2016. And then after that you were working — this is before Dēmos — you were working at AMC Networks as their lead graphic designer. How was that experience? Because this is before you sort of went into the nonprofit space with Dēmos and now Ford. What was it like at AMC?

David Perrin:

Early beginnings was cool. I get to work for a big brand, right, and I finally get brand recognition. Brand recognition is such a big thing in the design community. It’s really like who you work for. If you don’t work for a big brand or something, it’s like your social capital is really low. You know what I mean? So I felt I got to kind of finally step into that a bit. And so, yeah, early stages of that job was really cool. But things started to kind of turn for me around, I think, like 2016, a little before 2016, just seeing how the politics kind of permeated through the workspace.

Early start’s great, met a lot of great folks, learned a lot. Working with a big organization of that size being able to kind of dabble in between different channels and meet people from different teams and things. It’s a full on learning experience. But like I said, toward the end, I had to make a change for my own moral benefit.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I figured when you said “it was cool”…that sounded a little bit loaded. I was like, okay. I think sometimes you have those experiences where you hope it’s going to be one way and then they’re kind of just throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you, especially if it’s at a place like you said, that has that name recognition.

I can say this now because I don’t work there anymore, but back when I worked at Fog Creek Software, which later became Glitch, Glitch was sort of known, I think in the 2018 to 2020 space, as being like this really progressive software company that’s sort of doing these things. But internally? Whoooo! I mean, I had several different titles. I even had personal slights with management. And then I became management and then they didn’t want to train me as a manager. There was like a lot of stuff that happened. I mean, I don’t want to go too much into it, but I mean, also, I’m not a big fan of really trashing places where I used to work. I mean, it’s in the past, like move past it, but I know what you mean because sometimes that name recognition does mean a lot. I mean, it’s something that I think now people are even finding out, especially if they’ve been laid off in the past year from a company that used to have better reputation. Yes, I’m talking about Twitter. They might be finding it a little difficult, I would say probably in the market to maybe get placed somewhere because that name now has I mean, despite the work that they might have done there, the platform is almost in the dirt at this point. So, I don’t know.

It’s a tricky thing, I think, for designers, especially with career mobility and trying to make sure that you’re doing work that is important, that means something to you, but then also unfortunately means something to other people once you get out in the job market again.

David Perrin:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

It sucks. It absolutely sucks. I just want to put that on the record. It sucks.

So after your AMC experience, you start at Dēmos. How did you find out about them? I mean, I’m sure you probably knew about it just in terms of general consciousness, but that’s a big shift from something like AMC to nonprofit.

David Perrin:

I think at some point, like I said, 2016, it’s like I made a pledge to myself, right? I was just like trying to manifest it was before I even knew what social justice meant. Organizing. My view of that space was still tied to places like the NAACP. I did the NAACP Youth Council growing up. And so I’m thinking, “man, I can’t get a job in this. Like a design job.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

David Perrin:

My view is just so small, and so I’m applying around. I’m on these job boards. I applied to Dēmos twice, right? They took a while to get back to me. I think just because of internal processes and things like that manifest. I manifested it, it happened, and I ended up there. Everything else in between, I have no idea. So I really thank my lucky stars on that one. Trying to listen to a kid like me in my pitch to get into the space because, yeah, none of my work really reflected that. I’m coming off of entertainment, right? So how does this translate into that type of thing? So happy that they took a shot on me.

Maurice Cherry:

And, I mean, it sounds like it really paid off just for you in terms of solidifying yourself in this particular realm, because now you’re at The Ford Foundation. So clearly your experience at Dēmos must have been pretty transformative.

David Perrin:

Me being the lead, the only designer on the team, I got to experiment. Shout out to my director at the time. She really let me spread my wings on what was possible kind of under the organization. We just got a new president. We just redesigned the website. I kind of used that as, like, a proxy to pull new fonts and new colors into the new body of work. I used that kind of like the template to create what our reports would look like moving forward and what art might look like on the site. I kind of just hit the ground running. Folks just let me know they saw one collage. They were like, “oh, this really resonates. Let’s do this again.” And it was just kind of like rinse, wash, and repeat. And I felt like a lot of the stories that we were telling, the organizations that we were uplifting, the communities that we were talking about, really internally, for me, really embodied the work that I wanted to be doing. So I was really appreciative for just having so much floor to experiment, just really build up this tool of collaging and talking about the work in a way that I feel kind of brings people to the table.

Dēmos can be wonky at times in how they put out their reports, right? They crank out these lengthy 10-page, 15-page reports and things. But, yeah, you want to bring folks into the room and bring it to the table and everything. So I felt I was able to do that with what was them and just rich copy. I mean, we’re talking about really good research that’s done, so things based, in fact, organizations based in reality. And so, yeah, it just kind of gave me a firm leg to stand on. But I did at times miss kind of the allure of an AMC or a bigger brand, right? I feel like I’m working on all these things for an organization that maybe didn’t have the biggest digital footprint out in the space, in the nonprofit space, in the organizing space, think tank space, they are pillars. But outside of that, it’s kind of like (sighs). But love the work, though, nonetheless.

Maurice Cherry:

And a lot of your design work has this basis in social issues, which it sounds like is definitely something that’s really important to you. You mentioned 2016 being sort of this nexus point for you. Why do we need more designers in the social justice space?

David Perrin:

Well, because of the work. The work is we are talking about communities that are on the margins, right? We need folks that represent those communities in this space because I think the work presents itself very differently. You know what I mean? And so, yeah, when you’re not attached to these communities, I think you’re detached in a way. And yeah, I feel like these opportunities should be given to the folks that, again, are from these spaces, that are speaking to these spaces.

Sometimes that’s often not the case. Some of these jobs are low paying. I’m also going to advocate for more pay for nonprofit designers. I’m also going to ask for more of a leadership track or a track to leadership in the design space on the nonprofit side. Yeah, designers are kind of left out these conversations, right? And we’re such a big and pivotal part of the work and how it’s represented outside of the organization and into these spaces. Using Dēmos as an example, we’re making work to put in the hands of policymakers. So like, it’s transformative, right? You’ve got the right policy into the right policymakers hands. I mean, you know, government is slow, but you just don’t know what can happen putting these things in the right hands and stuff. So really important work across the board.

I do want to see more BIPOC designers like instance in the space and also being able to maintain a life in this space. I don’t think it’s temporary, right? Like, we love this work just as much as everybody else. We definitely should have more of a space to live a sustainable life, to create this work over time, you know what I mean? I should be able to retire, working on the nonprofit side, that type of thing. And everybody else should too. Making a huge push for that, for the grant makers, the foundations, policymakers, whatever, for them to really create that budget line item when you’re creating those grants, like, really try to build out more of a creative team. I’m advocating for designers, but more creatives that exist in the space. There’s a lot of people that want to do a lot of great work again, [they] deserve to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. And to your point, they deserve to retire too.

David Perrin:

Absolutely. 1000%. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

I had Cheryl Miller back on the show for episode 500. And I remember…I think we might have said it in the interview, but we definitely talked about it afterwards about how there’s no retirement plan for designers. And I was like, well, I kind of get what she was saying, but I think in the grand scheme of, like, if you’re a designer today, unless you work for, I don’t know, maybe like a big tech company or something like that, you kind of end up going from job to job. Like, the life and career of a designer is not as structured as, say, a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, or even something more blue collar, like an accountant or something like that, where you could be somewhere for X number of years. I mean, I think just in our lifetime job security, to be somewhere for four or five years is admirable. Whereas my mom was at the same job from like ’74 to 2016. It was an easy thing. And she worked in STEM, she worked in biology. But we were talking about how there’s no retirement plan for designers, which really got me to thinking, what would it look like to retire? Would I just have to keep working and doing gigs until I’m dead? Or what does that look like? Which is morbid, but a reality. Especially like…I’m in my 40s, so it’s a reality.

David Perrin:

Yeah. These are the things that I’m also thinking about, right? Longevity in design, resilience in design. And yeah, I want to figure out what the answer to that is sooner than later. It’s not a magical thing. It’s a process that should also be, again, rewarded with stability at the end of the day, just like everybody else.

Maurice Cherry:

Absolutely. What keeps you motivated and inspired with your work?

David Perrin:

I mentioned the Master’s program earlier. I really want to teach. I really want to teach BIPOC students what this world looks like, the possibilities of a designer. Try to, again, just build a bigger, broader community of future thinkers. And so, yeah, I’m really just, primarily, I want to do this for this next generation coming about. I feel like my design journey? Happenstance, right? I mean, a lot of work, right? A lot of grinding, all these things. But, man, I would have loved to have even this book — “The Black Experience in Design” — I would have loved to have this at 16 or like an earlier age. Who knows what life would have looked like for me if I had just a couple more years? Just being able to get a better grasp of what design is, the possibilities. That’s what keeps me up at night and wanting to really get to that space and just social justice in general.

2020, 2016, like the pandemic, like these inflection points, it really shook up democracy in a way to where you could, you know, scratching your head. Like, what does democracy even mean? What does liberation even mean in this country, specifically and abroad? Yeah. And what does that look like from a design standpoint? What are we going to do to kind of help maintain the steady rhythm of just organizing and getting people together. These are the things that I think about is what does the future look like for this space? How do we contribute to it? How do we keep it fresh? How do we keep feeding it and keeping it energizing and inclusive and bringing more people to the table and bringing them in? That’s why I’m calling for more nonprofit designers to come into this space and share their expertise from all different points of life, because we need it. There’s a lot of noise out there, politically and everything. And yeah, we definitely need the support.

Maurice Cherry:

Do you have, like, a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It could either be through The Ford Foundation, it could be a personal project…anything like that.

David Perrin:

Yeah. So through this medium of collage, I want to do murals. I see a lot of vector art murals, painted graffiti, all these things. I think of…I think his name is, like, JR. Artist. When I first came to New York, he had a lot of just big murals, right. With his collage work and everything. And so, yeah, we have a piece at The Ford Foundation. So that’s been a dream of mine, is like yeah, to be able to do a big collage piece on, you know, one of these walls in the area. So I’m constantly driving around and being like, “man, like, a mural would look really good here.” That type of thing. Also just more editorial work in general. I’d love to see my work in [The New York] Times or The Atlantic, that type of thing. So I’m kind of moving and grooving about. Yeah, I want to be able to kind of be on everybody’s radar and be able to tell those stories for those publications and murals and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Do you think it’ll be doing that kind of work?

David Perrin:

Absolutely. Yeah. I want to have a couple more of these Amadou books under my belt. We do want to make this a series. Yeah. Some murals and eventually, like, teaching. Like I said, I want to be at a school, ushering in that new generation of thinkers, communicators, and mentorship. I really want to give this stuff back to my community in a way that feels impactful and meaningful, and I want folks to come back around and ask me questions. I want to be the design elder. I’m putting that on myself, that type of thing. Anything I can do to just build my community up in the ways that I think are going to be positive moving forward in the realms of design, artwork, that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to sort 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?

David Perrin:

So I am on Instagram under my artist’s name, @dpicting, right? So my name is David Perrin. So DP, right? So D-P-I-C-T-I-N-G. So using my first initials. And then I-C-T-I-N-G. So that’s @dpicting on Instagram. I’m online at dpictingstudio.com. Also dpicting.com on the website. Yeah, I’m working on want to get an exhibition out there of my artwork. I’m working on After Effects as well, trying to create more moving collages and things like that. So that’s a slow and steady process. So that’s going to be coming. So show coming soon. Yeah, you can find all the updates and things on Instagram, on LinkedIn as well. I’m on LinkedIn. David Perrin. That’s where I’m at. Right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. David Perrin, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. First of all, I just love the work that you’re doing at The Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation already does so much great in the world, so much philanthropic work. And when I was doing my research and I was like, “wait a minute there’s a brother that’s leading all this.” That’s when I was like, I had to get you on the show to sort of talk about that. I mean, I think it was one thing, of course, it was great for you to talk about your history with working and doing design with social justice issues, but also kind of, I think, giving folks the opportunity to see that you can switch career paths and stay true to yourself. Certainly you sort of started out, like you said, doing this accounting work, and then you kind of wanted to work at a design place that had a big name. And then 2016 happened, which I think was a nexus point for a lot of people, not just designers, but a point to have them think, “well, how can my work make more of an impact?” And now you’ve done this work for Dēmos, you’re doing this work for The Ford Foundation. I hope that others will hear your story and realize that this is something that they can do. Nonprofit is a space that they can go into and that they can often find success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

David Perrin:

Thank you so much for having me. Yeah, super overjoyed. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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