Ayrïd Chandler

We’re off to the Caribbean this week to talk with the incredibly talented Ayrïd Chandler. Ayrïd is the head of her own studio, Ayrïd by Design, where she offers graphic design services with a focus on brand and identity design. She also teaches at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, where she’s helping to educate and inspire Trinidad and Tobago’s next generation of designers.

Ayrïd starts off talking about her goals for the year, and from there we get into the differences between being a designer in Trinidad vs. being a designer in America. She also spoke about what draws her to brand and identity design, and talked about entering Savannah College of Art and Design, moving back home, and how she’s making a name for herself there. Ayrïd’s path really shows us that as Black designers, we share a similar sense of community no matter where we are, so you’re never alone. Huge thanks to Rebecca Brooker of Queer Design Club for the introduction!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Ayrïd Chandler:
My name is Ayrïd Chandler. I am technically an officially a graphic designer. I run my own business firm studio, one-woman show called Ayrïd by Design here in Trinidad and Tobago. I primarily work on branding identity projects. Apart from that, I am a part-time lecturer for design at the University of West Indies St. Augustine, which is here in Trinidad. There might be other things I’m [inaudible 00:03:15] that I do, but we can get to that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How has the year been treating you so far?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Whew, it’s been interesting. I feel like 2022 has started kind of with a bang in a different way. I mean, things are changing with the pandemic, but then World War III question mark. I feel like a lot of stuff is just happening globally. I don’t know about you, but as a creative, all of those things kind of impacts me a little bit. I feel like because of the weight or the toll that can take on mentally consuming all of the information all the time. It kind of puts it own on things.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But apart from those obvious things, the year started actually with me doing a lot more than I planned on doing. I ended up being a creative director at the local agency here, working on ruling out some digital products. And then that got pause due to pause and investments. There was a lot of shifting happening, where I went from working on external products to focusing more on Ayrïd by Design, instead of juggling the two. Feel like that was a mouthful of your very simple question, but that’s all the year has been going for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting about as you kind of alluded to about World War III and I promise for folks listening, this is not a political podcast, but I’ve been kind of keeping my eye, just I watch the news every now and then just to kind of get a sense of what’s happening. I mean, as we’re recording, this conflict has been going on now for roughly about six or seven weeks.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It doesn’t show any sign of abatements. It’s tough to kind of see, of course, all the devastation that’s happening and the general pleas from the President Zelensky. Yet, I know people that are actively traveling to that part of the world without a care in the world, and I don’t get it. I don’t get it. I’m like, look, I know you’re a few countries away and maybe that distance means something, but like, I don’t know if my American self wants to be in a war torn part of the world right now, but that’s just me.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, no, I mean, I have friends and family in Europe and London and Germany and life is normal. Life is like every day, no big deal. Then I have a friend who is actually Russian, but she lives on this part of the world and she’s just like painting a picture for me of what that means and life, I mean, the war is really from what I understand only happening in, I mean, certain parts, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s not even affecting the country as a whole. It’s like say, and there’s a war in the US, but it’s really just happening in Washington. The rest of the US won’t really be in war. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I think it’s a very similar kind of situation where we just think, well, the whole of this thing is being affected when it’s really just a portion. But I think it’s just the fact that we are getting all of the imagery, we’re getting all of the information live. Like it’s not like before in the previous war, there was no social media. There was no, you know what I mean? It took a while to get news update. We’re getting everything instantly. I think that is what’s making this so different, at least for me. I mean, I haven’t existed in a war before, overtime.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s just new.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s also different to be completely honest that it’s happening to Europeans.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When this is what’s happening to Syrians and Palestinians, and there were news about these sorts of things happening, there certainly wasn’t this level of focus on it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Geopolitics aside, is there anything in particular that you want to achieve this year?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yes, I do, actually. I would like to achieve financial independence and stability. That is the main goal for me this year. And what I mean by that is actually having the profit that the business makes then stuck up to a point where the business kind of can run on its own and it’s more sustainable. Right now, I think we’re still very much in those early stages of, I won’t say paycheck to paycheck, but month to month, certain projects will definitely make a difference, that kind of thing. And so, being able to kind of get that stability within a personal business that one might have, they had a day job, I think that’s kind of the goal that I’m aspiring to for this. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your firm Ayrïd by Design, what made you want to start your own firm?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I came back home in 2012 after I graduated from college. I haven’t realized that I’m one of those people that didn’t go the traditional route of started off with a day job and then decided to leave and do my own thing. I kind of always worked on my own. I went straight from college, well, not straight, like mainly from college to freelance to registering my business. Honestly, I was freelancing for six years and I discovered all of the different things of how business worked in Trinidad and basically, my banker was like, “You’re commingling your funds, right?” I was like, what does that mean? She was like, “Well, you’re passing business funds into your personal bank account.” I was like, what do you mean business funds like money that I’m earning? She was like, “Yeah, you’re supposed to have a business account for those things.” I was like, oh, I did not learn this from school. I never heard this before.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I don’t know anything. And so, that kind of took me down a trajectory of the researching things and finding things out and talking to different people and that kind of thing. And also, it came at a point in my life when I really wanted to ground myself a bit and set roots on structure and stability. It was a kind of a natural make sense progression of, okay, no, you need to make things official. You need to go and register your business name. You need to be a legal, registered entity. You open your business banking accounts. I got an accountant. Like I did all of the things correct to make sure that I was set up properly and that led to so many different opportunities, which was great, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s interesting, you mentioned that about it, not you being taught in school. I know that there are some schools that do have some kind of entrepreneurial program, but even for folks that want to just strike out on their own like, I know so many people have done over the past year or so because of the great resignation, like that kind of information isn’t super, I don’t want to say it’s not super available, but it’s certainly not something that is I think talked about a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, when I started my first business, I had the same issue. I was co-mingling personal funds and business funds before kind of getting my taxes back and getting audited and then realizing, you know what? I should probably separate these funds, which makes more sense. It just makes more sense.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But that’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. For sure. Also, to your points of like information being readily available, I mean, I’ve a 100% agree from being in the US system, at least for my college and my education, that information is way more readily available for you guys. But in the Caribbean, information is still kind of pretty hard to get in terms of the structures of things. And so, you have to do a way more research. You have to actually speak to another human being. It’s not as easy as go look it up somewhere because our websites are still… We’re very much kind of a little bit behind. I’d say we are a decade behind in terms of that sort of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but decade is a lot though, I mean.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, I mean.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned that it is different like that in other countries, because certainly I think what’s shown here in the US is about sort of being a digital nomad and you can work from anywhere if you work remotely and this kind of thing, and I mean there’s limitations.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was blessing for us…

Maurice Cherry:
What did you say?

Ayrïd Chandler:
… in a weird way. The pandemic was a blessing for us in a weird way because it forced us to get things like online banking, which we did not have before.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. Things like apps on being able to pay someone who banks somewhere else in Trinidad was a challenge, which set up a challenge usually for business. At least to me as someone who, I mean, I learned banking with like Chase and Wells Fargo when I was in college. I was accustomed, getting paid by the company that I worked on in Atlanta taking out my iPad at the time, scanning it on the app and having the money in my account. Then I came back to Trinidad and someone would pay me with a check and I’d have to go sign in a bank line, deposits that check and then wait four to five business days to access the check. It’s very different realities and that affects business as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through like a typical day for you.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. I always like to say no day is typical and every day is very different, but to paint a kind of a picture. I would start the day, usually catching up on emails. I have an assistant who I work with and she helps me establish what my to-do list is and what are the priorities in terms of clients, et cetera. I usually would have a meeting or two and these will all be online. It’s usually me chat, checking in with a new client, having a conversation about what their project is like, that kind of thing. Then it’s usually like four hours, especially if I’m working on a new branding project of just computer one on one time with zero disturbances. Well, I try for it to be with zero disturbances, but I have a dog that likes a lot of attention.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I usually just go into this whole work where the world does not exist and I’m in my creation mode. Then after that, it’s kind of, I do whatever I want in terms of relaxation, et cetera, and prep for the next day. The reason why I say it’s like there’s no typical for me is because that might be like a Monday, whereas if you were to ask me about a Wednesday, what tomorrow, it starts with me teaching my students, because I teach on Wednesdays from 9:00 to 12:00. And so, a Wednesday would start with me teaching and then most likely doing, having no other meetings for the day, just to kind of clear my head and focusing on getting tasks off my to-do list kind of knocked off. But I would say like if it was to broaden it a bit and talk about a week and a general week, it would be typically a little bit of teaching, many meetings, lots of discussion with my assistant as well as someone that I recently started working with who was kind of helping me structure systems and processes within my business.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Like set it up for a more sustainable model. A lot of just talking things through, talking steps through, talking like, okay, what is the process from the time I engage with a client to the final stage where they receive the final artwork, like what are the steps? When do they fill out the creative brief form? When do we meet? When do they make their first payments? When do they make their second payments? So stuff like that is kind of, what’s been happening a lot lately. Of course, well, the actual design work within those probable period.

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work with? Do you kind of work along clients in the particular industry?

Ayrïd Chandler:
No, I would say I work across multiple industries, both within the creative sector as well as corporate, as well as I think anything in between, best clients would be a paying client.

Maurice Cherry:
Hello?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Those are always great. No, but the ideal client for me is someone who’s a little bit open and clients who trust me, I think is what I am leaning towards noting is so important in the creative process. I work a lot with, I mean, well, as an identity designer, someone who’s there at the beginning kind of creating the logo for your new business, your new baby, your new idea, your new project or whatever. That’s kind of, I would say like 75% of the work that I do. I’m there at the beginning, right? I’m there with this person and they’re like, well, this is this thing that I’ve always wanted to do. And finally, getting started and I want to open a bakery or I want to create a new product. Those are kind of the SME as we call them that come to me and who I work with. And so, those are, I would guess the ideals right now, because they’re fun to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it about identity design in particular that appeals to you?

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s an excellent question and I’m now like I have my hands down and I’m thinking deeply to answer your question. I think I’m good at it and I know that sounds kind of weird and conceited a little bit. I don’t mean it in that way. It’s just that it feels kind of second nature to me. It feels like the thing that I am meant to be doing and I’m able to do well. Even when I was studying design in college, like that was the thing, that was the part that made my brain tingle.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I guess when we did a different courses, maybe someone more into web, their brain might have tingled when we were doing that. But for me, being able to tell someone’s story visually is really, really appealing to me. And so getting into this, the background of why you’re doing this and how you want your customers to feel and what is the best way to put all of those things together to kind of become the new face or look of your business, your project, your company, whatever. It just it’s really exciting for me. Like I love it, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When a company or an individual contacts you about a new project, like talk to me about that, what does your process look like?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. It’s changed recently, so I now know it officially. Usually, an email comes in and it will go straight to my assistant and she would kind of be their first point of contact. They’d be like, hey, I’m interested in finding out more about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Most of the times, people want a quote. That’s usually where the first thing they want to know is like, if they can afford you or how much it’s going to cost and that kind of thing, at least here. What I do is we send a form that I’ve created that helps get information from the client to create a creative brief, because the typical client wouldn’t know what a creative brief is outside of certain industries. It’s just not common knowledge.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I created this form that allows them to answer certain questions that ultimately creates a creative brief for me. But it also does things like ask, what’s your budget, et cetera, et cetera. What are the actual deliverables that you’re looking for? It kind of lays all of that out for me. Then from that point, we send a quote and it includes things like the timeline, how long the project will take, and it also lays out the kind of rules of engagement. Like, when you’d get your first invoice, when you’d get your second invoice, who has ownership, who’s rights and credits, all of those things are kind of I include my, what you would call like a contract within the quote process. From there, the client either says yes or no, and usually it’s yes, thankfully.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sometimes, we need to meet and chat a little bit more about the project, sometimes we don’t. There’s some clients who I literally have never had a meeting with because they’ll just so very clear and they’re answering the form as well in their emails. And they’re like, “yeah, no, I don’t need to meet you, it’s fine.” But most of the times, there are instances where we’ll meet and just talk about a project a little bit so I can get a better sense of what it is that they’re looking for.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Then, I begin and head to phase one, which is usually sending, creating a document to send options for them, whether it’s one option based on their budget is on what they sent, whether it’s two options, whether it’s three options and I go through this process of research based on the industry. The great thing about what I do is that I get to learn about all of these different fields and lives and businesses that I would never have otherwise been exposed to. One day, I’m looking up all of the information about NFTs, the next day, I’m looking up real estate and how that works in Trinidad.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just go like a deep dive into whatever the industry is so that I can understand it. I can see trends. The great thing about this, that I get to go this deep dive into different industries, what people are doing, and so I research the trends within the industry. I research things like what colors do people use? What are the font styles? I’m really good at observing patterns for some reason. I feel like that’s like little secret thing that I have. And maybe not, maybe that’s what all designers do and I just am giving myself more importance than necessary. I tend to like just pay attention to all the trends, pay attention to all the details and then go back to the original notes that the clients gave me of what they want, what they want to achieve and marry it all together to achieve this perfect for them outcome.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I send that off, then comes the pain taken part of waiting for client feedback, which I think is always like, it’s like the best and worst part of the project for me, at least because it can go either way. It can go, I hate this and you’ve not understood anything that I said, or it can go, oh, I love this, and this is what we want to move forward with. From that point on, it’s just back and forth with the client, whether it’s edits, whether it’s tweaks, changes, colors, fonts, et cetera. Then we get to the end when they finally made their final decision, I package all the wonderful files for them and I hand it off and I say, here’s your child. Goodbye, good luck. That’s kind of how I do it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, your process sounds pretty thorough from start to finish.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. I try to get as much information from clients as possible because that ideally is what helps me create. I think I’ve kind of figured out a way to eliminate as much as possible that back and forth period. Whereas in the early, when I first began, the back and forth was long and tedious and I didn’t ask as many question upfront as I do now. I wasn’t really designing for them. I wasn’t solving their problem. I was designing for the thing in general. I was designing for like, say someone wanted a logo for real estate. I was designing a generic real estate something. I wasn’t designing real estate but based off of what they wanted to achieve.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, I think when I finally figured out that I needed to be more in tune with the clients as well and asking them the right questions so that they would know, like not necessarily asking them what they want, because that’s not really what I want them to tell me, but more so what are their goals? What do they want to achieve? Why are they doing this? All of those questions help me then make sure that they have what it is that they need. I have noticed in the past couple of projects that I’ve wrapped up, that the back and forth period is way shorter as a result of that because of those questions upfront.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s usually really good to get as many qualifying questions as you can, because one thing it does also like you’ll quickly find out whether or not this is a project you even want to do. If it’s something you want to take on, if this is a client you even want to work with and certainly like, as you do more projects and as you mature in your business, you get a lot quicker at getting to the root of it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good that you kind of have that thorough process.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago, tell me about what it was like growing up there?

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s been amazing. I enjoy being part of the Caribbean and I think growing up here was fun, I guess, would be the word I would choose. I am a carnival baby and what that means is that a huge part of Trinidad’s culture. And I say part of, or not the only thing that is Trinidad, because we have so much more to offer, but a huge part of it is our annual, I guess, street parade is what would be the best way to describe it. But it’s really a season that kind of begins right after Christmas, straight until the February or March, depending on the year, because it usually lines up with whenever Ash Wednesday is. It’s usually Monday and Tuesday before, so similar to Rio, I think also similar to New Orleans, all of our carnivals kind of line up around the same time, but I grew up playing kiddies carnival, which happened before the main Monday on Tuesday parade, trust that ability to express this freedom and creativity and this open way always really, really fascinated me.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, when I say I’m a carnival baby it’s because like from the time I was five years old, I was engrossed in this culture and I was playing these things. We say playing carnival, we say playing mask, that’s kind of how we refer to it. It was great. Like I was ready like the first time my mom told me, like the first time she took me, she was like, testing me out to see if it was something I’d be interested in. When I realized that it was only one day, because I thought I was going back like the next day, like how you go back to school every day.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And she was like, no, you have to wait until next day. And I was like, what? No, tomorrow. So yeah, I would say growing up is very unique. I would say, I mean, I don’t know how many foodies there are out there listening, but if you’re a foodie, Trinidad is definitely a place to enjoy all of the flavors. I mean, moving to Atlanta directly from Trinidad for college was an awakening because I didn’t realize how much I loved our food until I left Trinidad, so that’s always really interesting. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You didn’t run into any good like Trini spots here in Atlanta?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yes, it took me a while, because I mean this was 2008 to 2012 was when I was there. I didn’t have as much information and that first year was just me getting used to the fact that I am no longer home and dealing with the culture shock, which I didn’t think I would have. Because I was like, well its people where speaking English, there’s no language barrier, but learning, appreciate you or appreciate it, it meant thank you. That was like [inaudible 00:27:43] I guess. I was like, what do you say? Appreciate it, man. I’m like, what? There was a lot of back and forth with that in that first year for sure. And getting used to cafeteria food was also very interesting, lots of tilapia. It was weird time. It was very weird time, but I know I did eventually find some Trini spots there and I also started cooking for everyone and so it worked out, eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Atlanta has a pretty big like overall Caribbean population, especially for students. I went to Morehouse. In the whole AUC area, especially when I first got to Morehouse, that was first time encountering anyone from the Caribbean outside of a bad impression that I might have saw in a movie or a television show.

Ayrïd Chandler:
[Inaudible 00:28:34].

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Alabama originally so it’s just like one state over.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
But I remember getting to Morehouse and meeting Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Saint Lucians and at first thinking like everyone just sounded the same because I could kind of understand it, but I couldn’t understand it. But then also learning just the differences in everyone’s culture and the food, that’s where I introduced to roti and doubles and everything. Yeah, I know what you mean by the culture shock. I think Atlanta, I think for a lot of people when they first come to Atlanta from anywhere, it’s a bit of a culture shock.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, for sure. Also, I mean, I don’t want to sound like a little bit of an alcoholic or anything, but we drink at 18 in Trinidad, when you guys drink at 21.

Maurice Cherry:
Legally.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Legally, but like going to the club for me and being told that this was before you all changed the law. This was back when like at midnight on Sunday, the bar closed because y’all didn’t serve on [inaudible 00:29:42]…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
… on Sundays. That was huge for me. And not realizing that I couldn’t like walk along the street and drink a beer because that’s just a thing that we do here, Savannah was kind of like a safe haven for me because you can kind of do a lot down by the river.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so, I was always kind of running away to Savannah just to get a bit of what I learned for you a little bit just like a little bit of home, but yeah, all of those things that you like you don’t think about that are things until you experience it and you’re like, oh, this is something that I have never experienced before. Interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, now your dad worked in advertising, was that kind of your first introduction to the world of design in a way?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I feel like it could be, possibly. I grew up watching commercials and critiquing them with my dad. That’s just kind of a thing that happened in the household and never did I put the two and two together and be like, oh this is a Korean, this is a thing that I would then be doing in the future. It was never that direct or that straightforward. I would be… And my dad works at [inaudible 00:30:51] in Trinidad for many years and after school, that’s just where I ended up. And we would be the office until eight, nine every night because advertising, at least here, I know globally, it’s intense but here is many late hours and long hours of just making sure that clients are happy. I don’t know that I ever made the connection with this is like a profession or a thing that I can do or wanted to do.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I knew like very early on that I wasn’t never going to work in advertising because of the demand and the hours that it puts on someone. I think everyone was really surprised when I was like, oh yeah, I want to do graphic design because it was not a, well, I’m following in my dad’s footsteps or I’ve been exposed to this thing, to this long and this is what makes sense. After did languages in school afternoon, even do art and well, what we call secondary school that you guys would call high school. It really wasn’t like a very clear cut sort of thing that happened at all.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It kind of became a, well, what do you enjoy doing and what are you doing naturally? I was a person that was like creating event programs in school for our masses. I went to like Catholic girl school and we’d always have weekly masses and I was doing the program for those kind of things. I was there and illustrate [inaudible 00:32:13] in on my dad’s computer, that kind of stuff. It came that way, as opposed to like me watching this person that I’ve lived with my entire life kind of doing this thing and following him, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. I mean like, I mean, I grew up, my mom was a biologist and I never wanted to really go into science I think because I was always around it, and I was not to say that I didn’t have a passion for it or a proclivity for it. It’s just because it’s around, it doesn’t necessarily mean, oh, this is the thing that I want to do. Like, she was like super surprised when she saw that I was really into writing. Then when I went to college that I majored in math. She’s like, what? She didn’t really understand where that was all coming from because she thought I would either do… She thought I would either do biology or like pre-med or something like that, and I had no interest in it whatsoever.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Good.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What was it like SCAD for you? I mean, you mentioned that first year kind of being a bit of a culture shock, but how was it overall?

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was great. I mean, I was finally happy to be doing something that I enjoyed in a school structure because prior to school, like just to be completely transparent here. When I graduated from secondary school, high school, I had a 1.96 GPA.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I got into SCAD with a 1.96 GPA, let’s just put that there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
This system here just didn’t appeal to me at all. Like I was doing it because I had to and not because of… And I wasn’t interested, I wasn’t engaged, it wasn’t anything like that. When I got to SCAD, it was like, oh my gosh. Like all of a sudden, I’m getting to do subjects, I’m choosing. All of a sudden, I’m getting to participate in this thing that I have actively decided like I’m interested in. It was the first time of me enjoying an academic setting at all, and it was great. I think we had some really great professors in the graphic design field. They made a huge difference for sure. Definitely, finding community and bonding with different people in different walks of life, from different parts of the world was really fun as well.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was also really active in student life. So I was like an RA. I was the youngest RA at the time because usually you’re only allowed to be an RA once you get into your second year. But by the end of my first year, I was an RA and then I became CA and I also was one of the loud ones who probably administration did not like, but I got the food to improve in the cafeteria. Well, what we call the hub in Atlanta and I met with like the manager of the food, situation was like, how can we improve this? And can we change up the menus? Can the recipes can change? Like you’ve been cooking the same thing for the past two years, what’s going on? And so yeah, there was like a huge shift that happened literally my final quarter was when the results started to show. The food that they serve now is amazing in comparison to what we got. I still take small credits every now and then I’m like, you’re welcome guys, you’re welcome.

Maurice Cherry:
You paved the way.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But yeah, no, it was great. It was really, really nice to just be in a setting that foster learning a thing that you already figured out that, that’s what you want to learn. You know what I mean? Like it was fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. After you graduated, like tell me about what your early career was like? Because I’m kind of curious about this period right after you graduated and you were in Atlanta before moving back to Trinidad, because you kind of alluded to that a bit earlier.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Sure. [inaudible 00:36:16], well, for graphic design, we used to have this event called Out to Launch and basically it’s a reverse kind of portfolio review session where we set up booths. We, being the students, set up kind of a little booth about ourselves and our work. And then SCAD invites perspective employers and businesses and companies within our field to come and meet us. And so, we kind of sell ourselves at this kind of trade show kind of set up. It’s called Out to Launch and it’s for the graphic designers. It was meant to then introduce us to folks who we would then get jobs with after graduating. It’s in that final quarter and everyone, the pressure was on from that point in terms of, we were very much an interview stage and I was calling everyone and having interviews with folks, et cetera.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I had the option for OPT for a year, which allows non US citizens to stay and work in the US for up to a year after they graduate, legally. I guess the hopes is that a company loves you so much that they would then sponsor you so that you can get a work visa and stay on permanently. I interview with many folks and for some reason did not get through with many opportunities. Eventually, I connected with a company called Atleisure. I don’t think they exist anymore, but at the time, they were an outdoor furniture design company. They were based near Grant Park area, and they were looking for an in-house graphic designer to work with them, for things like instruction manuals and labels for their product. When I say outdoor furniture company, I’m talking things like patio furniture, umbrellas, that sort of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That was my first job. For three months, I was there, it was an internship. I was the in-house graphic designer. They would provide things to like Target and QVC. Those were like where they were selling these things. They had the furniture designers in-house who were creating their designs and then sending it off to China. Then I was like on the phone with China folks to get the instruction manuals and then design it with the established brand that they had. I had to tweak the brand a little bit because the brand was really rough when I joined. I was like, no guys, this is nuts, and I tried to tweak it a little bit, but there was only so much I could do because it was already registered and that kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was a really, really interesting time. I mean, looking back now, I see how that job helps me for a lot of the things that I’ve since done in a lot of the projects that I’ve since worked on. In the moment though, I will admit that I was very sad because in comparison, I had classmates who were interning at Nike and who interning at Apple and who were interning at Coca-Cola. Then there’s me like just interning at this furniture design company. I’m like, what gives guys?

Ayrïd Chandler:
There was definitely that internal sort of am I good enough? What’s going on? What am I doing with my life kind of thing. But I also was that person who even when I left to go to college, knew that I didn’t want to stay and work in the US. I knew I eventually wanted to come back home. I think maybe that’s what folks saw as well in my interviewing process, even though I wouldn’t have said that out right. I think maybe seeing that I was not as dedicated or connected to staying in the US, so work permanently because they would’ve been looking for folks who they could then hone and then have a staff afterwards, so maybe that was a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I wonder for young designers particularly here in Atlanta and this is something that I have, I’ve discussed it with business folks here with studio owners and things like that. For design graduates that are just coming out of school right now, Atlanta is a tough city to break into for your design career just overall for a number of reasons. One is, I mean, I would say the business culture here particularly, but it’s not like New York. It’s not like Silicon Valley. It’s not a city where you can sort of start out at maybe a more design forward or design focused company in that way. Like even some of the big names, like Twitter or Square or things like that. They may have offices here, but then they don’t really have a design department. They’ve got sales here or engineering or something like that. It can be tough to get in on the start like on the ground floor and then agencies are hard because agencies want you to have agency experience and you can’t get agency experience without working at an agency.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like that kind of rough go of getting in and so I know a lot of folks, particularly at… It depends on the school like I worked at AT&T for two years, this was way back in like 2006, from 2006 to 2008.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I worked at AT&T and there was a direct pipeline from the Art Institute of Atlanta directly to AT&T like a direct pipeline. People graduated from there, they got referred by someone that they knew and so they start in house at somewhere. Then from there, they would either go on to the CDC or they’d go on to Northrop Grumman and they’d live just kind of this mid tier designer life so to speak, nothing fancy, nothing great, but it’s a paycheck, that kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the design community in Atlanta and I’m firing shots here. It’s just not that… I think for a designer just starting out, if they really want to sort of make an impact, it’s really hard to find a company here where you can do exciting work. If you end up at a good studio or something, maybe.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s tough. And so, I know that a lot of graduates end up leaving, you left, but a lot of graduates end up leaving to go somewhere to a more exciting locale with better prospects.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Better career prospects in general, not just entry level stuff.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. Most of my class left, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I would say when they like maybe two or three folks stayed in Atlanta and they got through it like Coca-Cola. For the most part, people yeah, for sure. I think New York and LA was where folks ended up. That’s a huge relation to SCAD and just kind of the grip that they do and making sure that you get an opportunity somewhere…

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Ayrïd Chandler:
… once you’ve graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Because the school itself is a, I mean, it looks great on the resume anywhere you go, they say, oh, you went to Savannah College of Art and Design. That’s going to at least get you an interview, so that’s great. But here in the city, it’s tough. And I mean, I’ve heard this from art students that went to art school. I’ve heard this particularly from HBCU students. I’ve even heard this from people that have went to Georgia Tech or Emory or Georgia State. It’s just, it’s Atlanta is a tough design city in that aspect. I will argue it until the cows come home. It’s just tough. I mean, I had to start my own business to really further my career in design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
I graduated in ’03 with a math degree. Of course, I didn’t want to go into teaching so I did customer service jobs. That …

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… sold tickets at the symphony. I was a telemarketer for Atlanta Opera. Like I did boring stuff. Then I got my first design gig, believe it or not from answering a classified ad in the back of Creative Loafing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh, okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I answered it on a whim. That was my first design gig for the… It was for the state of Georgia. I did that for about a year and a half. Then from there, I went to AT&T, quit AT&T and then started my own studio. The reason I quit AT&T is because I could see my career hitting a glass ceiling already and I had only been a working designer for roughly about three or four years. I’m like, I’m not going to get any further here. I was registered at A Queens and I was like putting my resume out there and no one wanted to even interview me.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m just like, I was going to move. I was trying very hard in like the last, like 2008 or so, I was trying very hard to move to New York. I had friends that were up there that were like, well, we know a broker, we can connect you with because I’m like, I’m not going to further my design career staying in this city.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
It didn’t change until I broke out and started my own thing, which is very similar to what you did. You left, you started your own studio.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. How does one with a math degree then do design? Walk me through that.

Maurice Cherry:
I tell people that math really teaches you how to think and so what helped me, particularly when I started my studio with being a math major, and this is going to probably sound a bit weird, but you write a lot of proofs in math. Math is all about proving things once you get like past a certain level, like you leave the numbers behind. It’s all letters and symbols moving forward. And so, you’re proving things like why is zero less than one? Why does one plus one equal two? And you would think like, oh, because it does. But then you have to prove it through all these weird theories and all this kind of stuff. Going through all those logical steps taught me how to put together a brief for a client, taught me how to put together a proposal, taught me to look at a problem and find more than one solution.

Maurice Cherry:
Like being able to abstract that out into a way that made sense is how I’ve done that. I would say everything from that has been just honestly just self-taught. I read a lot of books. I watch a lot of courses. Oh my God, when I worked at AT&T, for example, there was a Barnes and Noble that was nearby my apartment and I would go to that Barnes and Noble on a Saturday and get some of those Photoshop’s tips and tricks books. And I have my little point and shoot digital camera and just sit and just take picture.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I’m like, I don’t have $40 to buy this book so I’m just going to take pictures and I’m going to go back home and I’m going to look at the pictures and try to recreate it in my cracked version of Photoshop that I downloaded from some sketchy place that hopefully won’t give my computer a virus and just did a lot of practicing. There was a time where I went through and tried to figure out what every tool in Photoshop did, every single one.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, I’m going to figure out what each one of these things does. And then that helped me out once I actually got into a production environment, because then I knew these kind of things that Photoshop could do, that other people didn’t because they only knew maybe layers or something like that. And I’m like, oh, well actually you can make an art board and do this, this, this and this. And folks were like, how do you know that? That kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It was a lot. I taught myself a lot about design. I’ve not taken a single formal design course.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I always envy folks who can be self-taught. I’ve tried to like try to learn things on my own and my brain, I don’t know what it is. I’m one of those people that needs to be in this formal setting and someone else is showing me the ropes in order to learn. I hate that about myself, honestly, because I’m so envious of folks who can just have that self discipline to learn a thing. I find it so fascinating and amazing, and I envy you right now, just a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’ll tell you, it doesn’t help when you have to go and apply for a job because you can put all that self taught knowledge on there and the first thing they’re going to look at and see is like, oh, you sold tickets at the symphony?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah. That’s what I did.

Maurice Cherry:
Or they see that A, you don’t have the education and B, you don’t have the work experience. Whether I knew it or not, it didn’t matter once it got into that sort of setting like. Certainly, for my first design job, I really had to prove myself by creating a portfolio overnight for the job that I ended up getting. Then even for AT&T, I remember they gave me a take home test. They were like, we want you to make a three page website and there’s two types of businesses you can choose from, a bridal boutique or a motocross event. I said, you know what? I’m going to take the bridal boutique, the person, the interviewer was a woman. She’s like, what? You don’t want the motocross. I’m like, well, first of all, I’m feeling some sexism here, but I’m going to take the bridal boutique and I’m going to work with that and I made a little bridal boutique shop and they were impressed and I got the job.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just feel like that’s the easier option as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Like motocross, what do you even do with that?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, dirt background.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I’m not [inaudible 00:49:39].

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Tire treads, rough stencil type. I don’t know.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I just feel like bridal boutique is a better way to show off your design skill.

Maurice Cherry:
But I have to do, but yeah, I did a lot of, oh my God, just so much playing around in Photoshop, just trying to figure out what stuff did, but eventually once I had design experience under my belt, when I started my studio, for example.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That was when I said my design career took off because clients don’t care where you went to school.

Ayrïd Chandler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
They don’t care where you went to school. They just to know if you can do the job that they’re paying you for. And so, I did that for roughly nine years and then I closed my studio down and got back into the working world. But it is what it is.

Ayrïd Chandler:
What made you close? Sorry, I feel like I’m interviewing you now.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, it’s fine. It’s fine. The market changed. I mean, when I started, I started my studio in like 2009, late 2008, early 2009. And back then, WordPress was really started to take off and so I had gotten good at making WordPress themes.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
That was something that really kind of let my career take off. I had gotten together with someone who was running for mayor for Atlanta. And wait, you were probably here during that time. What years were you in Atlanta?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was there 2008 to 2012.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Lisa Borders had run for mayor in 2009 and I was on her campaign. I was her director of new media.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
I made her website, her Twitter profile, her MySpace page to…

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
[inaudible 00:51:16] how long ago that was, and she didn’t win. She came in third place. But one, that experience really like connected me to so many other people, influential business people and donors and things like that. By the time the campaign disbanded, I had a Rolodex full of leads that I could then call on and be like, “Yeah, I can do this job. I can do that job. I can do that job.” But I’d say by the time 2017 really rolled around, the market had changed. WordPress was still a big thing but then you started having the rise of a lot of site builders. You had Wix, you had Squarespace, and then for clients, it suddenly didn’t make sense to have a $5,000 bespoke website from WordPress when they could just pay Squarespace $8 a month and throw something together themselves. It became harder and harder of a sell to make that happen.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Eventually I just kind of wound it down and got back into the working world.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Interesting. Interesting. Thank you for entertaining my question.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no problem. I mean, the thing is when you’re working for yourself, you always kind of have to keep an eye on just what’s happening in the environment like.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I picked up different services. I stopped doing different services for a while, I’d say, right around the mid 2010s, I started doing diversity consulting. I had no business doing diversity consulting. What they saw was like a black person in design and this was around, I guess, maybe year two or three of doing Revision Path. And they saw me doing this podcast and companies were like, “Yeah, we’ll write you a check to come and tell us what we need to do to bring in more black people. I got to do work for Netflix and I did work for Vox Media. Now, I would say in hindsight, that was purely situational.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Not to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, I would say that, because the money is spent now, but in hindsight I was like, “Yeah, you know what you need to do, change that job listing language.” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea.” And I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing here.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It did. You definitely did, because that sounds like good advice.

Maurice Cherry:
But it helped though. It helped though.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I think it’s obvious for us, but it’s not obvious necessarily. Like if you don’t live it and if that’s not, like if you’re not aware of the mistake you’re making, it’s very easy for us to… It’s your design training, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s very easy for you to… It’s your math training. You’re seeing what the problem is and you’re calling it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s very simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s one company. I can say the company it’s Vox Media, but I remember I was doing consulting for their product team and they were saying that, well, we don’t know, like we’re trying to get a sense of how many people of color on our team and we just don’t know how to find that out. I was like, “Well, did you do a survey? Did you count?” They were like, “No, we haven’t.” I’m like, “Oh my God, how do you not count?” That’s like the… But they didn’t know that so they put out a survey and they got numbers behind it because this was at a time when a lot of tech companies were starting to first report, like the percentage of black people as part of their creative workforce.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, they’re like, well, we want to try to get behind it and figure out the number and see what we can do to improve it and everything. I was like, “You should do a survey.” That’s a great idea. Here’s $5,000. That’s a great idea. Okay. Look, I’ll take it. If that’s all you need to hear, pay me 5,000 more, I’ll tell you something else. But in hindsight, I would say very situational that it sort of occurred in that way, but in general, yeah. I just wound it down because the market itself was changing. It was harder to do the kind of business that I had did before. And while I was changing, my business was changing with the times, also the podcast was taken off.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There was a point where the pod… I was bringing in more money with the podcast than I was with the studio and I really had to look and be like, well, what am I doing here? I could just focus on the show.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And not have to chase down checks from clients.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s amazing. Congrats.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s something where every year you kind of just have to like take stock and see what you’re doing, see what you can change and improve.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
If you can go where the market goes.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. I feel like, so my thing is like, I’m always, like I have a foot in terms of observation of the market in the US. Then I have the very real reality check of the market in Trinidad, which is completely different. I think this year as well, I’ve been trying to stop comparing the two. I’ve been trying to stop kind of beating myself up a little bit about, well, if you’d stayed in America, maybe you would’ve had this much and blah, blah, blah. And kind of just dealing with the reality of what it is to run a design firm in Trinidad. It’s definitely a challenge for sure, a 100%. No one’s going to pay me 5,000 US to tell them the things that I tell them all the time. That’s just not the reality of our situation here. It’s kind of sad on one end.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It’s kind of like, oh, I wish you people would just get with the program. Then on the other end, it’s like a nice challenge because it’s like, you get to be at this start of hopefully something different, something new, helping make a difference, helping improve a culture of what design could be in Trinidad. I mean, when I graduated from college, when I came back in 2012, at the end of 2012, there were no graphic designer jobs, like people don’t know what graphic design was. That wasn’t a thing. And the fact that now, like when I look through job listings, there’s graphic design of those, there’s graphic design of that, et cetera. To me, like that shows like, okay, in 10 years there’s been change. At least, I can say things are improving. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Now, we just need to get them to pay graphic designers what we’re actually worth and stop trying to get a graphic designer, who’s also an animator and a copywriter all in one, which is a huge thing here, locally. No, we want one person to do all the things and pay them a quarter of the price. That’s like the realities and I guess it answers one of your first questions as well of like, how come I would’ve started my own thing is because you could make more money doing your own thing than you could working somewhere, which is wild. That’s wild to me. Like the fact that there’s more stability as a designer, like freelancing and working on your own and trying to figure things out than having that stability of well a paycheck.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, that’s absolutely how it was when I started my studio, I felt like I could make more money, but also, like I said, I had just hit a plateau in my career. I don’t know where I would be now if I would’ve stayed at AT&T and didn’t break out and do my own thing. Because aside from just the freedom of entrepreneurship, it gave me a lot of confidence just in my skills overall, because…

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… at AT&T and T I was like part of a team. The way that they had a structure was they really pitted you against your coworkers. Like it was really more of a competition than a team kind of thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s terrible.

Maurice Cherry:
Once I left, I really felt like I’ve got a couple years of design knowledge under my bill. I know what I’m doing. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I could at least figure it out and come to terms with the kind of work I want to do and the kind of teams I want to be on and stuff like that. Because I was calling the shots myself, it made just a lot easier in terms of me being more confident, because at the end of the day, you know this, you have to hunt what you kill, I guess is how you put it. Like, no one’s going to be responsible for bringing the work in, but you.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Unless you happen to have a salesperson, but other than that, you have to be the one that’s the face of the company, especially if your name is part of the company, like you got to be out there…

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… selling it all the time.

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. Definitely. I definitely learned that very quickly. It kind of happened naturally though, similar to how you kind of leap off points would’ve been working with that mayor. Well, going up the mayor person, I guess my equivalent project would’ve been working with our local film festival. That was one of the first design jobs that I got. And back when I moved back home, it was really just an internship, but I got to work alongside an art director, Melanie Atro, who is pretty awesome.

Ayrïd Chandler:
It was a really strong brand that it was already created. Every year, we just kind of roll out all of the different elements for the festival, whether that’s signage, whether it’s the poster, but what that allowed me to do similarly to you was network in a country when networking is not as… It doesn’t happen as organically, or as officially as when I was in Atlanta, I’m going to AIG, AIG buzz events and that sort of thing, like that was what I was accustomed to. I was like, oh, I’m going to go to this networking event and meet these people and talk and blah, blah, blah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And then I got back to Trinidad and I’m like, where are the networking? And everybody’s looking at me like, what are you talking about? All of a sudden, I’m in this festival with all of these different creatives, doing all of these different things and I’m meeting this sponsor. I’m meeting banks and all of these different folks who are part of this community that I would have been completely removed from for four years while I was in college.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And that definitely led to all of the connections, like some of the friendships that I even have to this day are from that moment and that time. Definitely, would not change it. I don’t know where I would be now, similarly to what you’re saying, I don’t know where I would be now if I was still working on Atleisure, for example, or right after Atleisure, when I came back home, I would say, my equivalent of your AT&T job might have been like this bank take that I took where they advertised it as a desktop publisher.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And this is a time when I have my graphic design degree and I’m not seeing any jobs with graphic design on it. I find this thing, I’m like, what is a desktop publisher? I’ll look it up. It was like, it said something like someone that designs long documents or brochures and annual reports and that side of things. I was like, oh, okay, well, I can do that for a bank.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Day one, I had no computer. Day two, they gave me no… Like I was sitting at the desk, no desktop on it for me to do any desktop publishing. It turns out they just wanted someone to design PowerPoint presentations for their managers to do a transitionary, blah, blah, blah so I didn’t last, I didn’t last a month, I don’t think. I was like, no, this is [inaudible 01:02:31] I didn’t have to open PowerPoint any time in my four years at SCAD. And right after that was when I found out about the festival looking for a graphic design intern, I was like, oh my gosh, someone wants a graphic design or specifically in Trinidad right now on that, and the rest was history. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, aside from your design firm, you’re also a writer, talk to me about that.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was [inaudible 01:02:59] an aspiring writer. I’m not a writer. I won’t put myself just yet, but what I do is in my downtime or my free time, I go to a lot of writing workshops because like I told you, I’m not a self-taught person. We have this other festival here called Bocas Lit Fest, which is our literary festival. They put on different events and workshops all the time and I’ve been to a couple of them. I mean, I’ve been writing since I was a teenager. I’m like one of those people, I was always writing cheesy poems. I kind of over the years, just put a little bit more energy towards writing every now and then but this year, I put the most energy, I would say towards it, because I entered emerging writer’s thing. I entered Bocas Emerging Writers like competition, scenario, fellowship, sorry is the term.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I was actually shortlisted in [inaudible 01:04:01] and I was like, okay, you really need to start putting a little bit more energy into this writing thing and stop seeing you’re an aspiring writer and just be the writer that you want to be kind of thing. But yeah, really, I use writing as way to get out of my head a little bit. I find as a designer and as someone that works primarily alone and not necessarily on a bigger team, that it’s a lot of thoughts just floating around in there always, like the brain is constantly flowing and writing allows me to take all of those thoughts and kind of put it somewhere, which I really, really enjoy. So yeah, and I write about me or about experiences that I’ve experienced. Yeah, I like it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’ll ever kind of branch out and write about design?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I would love to. So I have a blog. I do write about design on there, sometimes, but usually it’s in a critiquing manner or it’s in a, this is how, this could have been better. It’s more like me critiquing the design society in Trinidad rather than me writing about design formats or structures kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But I see myself doing both because it’s something I’ve been wanting to do simply because we don’t have it, one. Actually, technically I did write about design. I actually co-wrote a book called How to Get Paid for designers here locally in Trinidad and like talking about what the pricing is like and how to get those things done? Why you should I have a contract, stuff like that, but I guess that’s more business of design than design specifically.

Ayrïd Chandler:
But I also had this feature on my social media page on Instagram called Just A Tip, and I used to give design tips on Tuesdays and I wanted to turn that into something that I do on my blog or maybe a newsletter that continues and it’s a little bit more direct in terms of suggestions and that sort of thing. There’s room for it to answer your question, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
You could be the voice of Trinidad design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Some people would say that I kind of am and I run away from that a lot. Like that terrifies me the idea of being the person for anything that’s… I feel very badly about speaking on behalf of other people. I just want… Let me, I’m speaking for me, myself, Ayrïd Chandler. I’m not speaking for Trinidad or Trinidad graphic designers or anything like that. That’s a lot of responsibility.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think a lot of writers are like that. They have their own quirks and stuff, but I think as long as you’re talking about your work and your process and even just writing about yourself, like you mentioned, that’s a good thing. Writing is one of those things it’s called a practice for a reason. You kind of have to keep doing it.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from writing, you also teach, you’re doing a lot.

Ayrïd Chandler:
I do.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re running your business, you’re writing, tell me about your teaching at University of West Indies St. Augustine.

Ayrïd Chandler:
A couple years ago, I was hanging, I was on a rooftop event and met a fellow designer who was one of the folks that I first worked with here and kind of guided me and did local design scene. And he was like, I just started teaching and they’re looking for more lecturers, are you interested? And I was like, I don’t know. I was like, I’ve never given teaching a thought, like I am I qualified? They’re like, “Yeah, you just need to be a practice and designer and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I was like, “Hey, sure, let me try.” And literally within 15 minutes, he had messaged the person and the person messaged me and I had a meeting the next day to talk about lecturing to university and my mind was blown and they were like, “Oh yes, we were looking at your work and we think that you’d be great for this blah, blah, blah.” I was like, okay.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Before you knew it, I was teaching year two students about design basics and going from practicing design and to applying all of the things that I tried to search up all of my SCAD syllabi to get some kind of inspiration. Then before you knew it, I was putting together my own syllabus and the rest is what it is. And so, I started, this year was my third year teaching this course. I’m a part-time lecturer. It’s only during the first half of the, well, first quarter, third of the year, I guess, for the second semester that starts in January. And yeah, I get to talk about design and teach design and kind of help shape what other folks are doing that process and cut in conjunction with working with interns at my business, kind of inspired me to then start teaching courses as part of my business.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Because I realized one that I actually really liked teaching, which really, really surprised me more than anything else. I was really, really shocked and I’m not sure why I was that shocked. I guess I just never thought of myself as someone who would have the patience to teach, because I feel like it’s very much like a devotion on one of those things where it requires you to remove yourself from yourself a little bit and kind of very much make sure that what you’re seeing is resonating with someone and helping them. Teaching is basically helping another person. And I guess design is also helping another person and they’re both kind of the service industry thing.

Ayrïd Chandler:
And so maybe it does make sense that I enjoyed doing both, but I also noticed, and working with the interns that I worked with, they were coming from another local school and a lot of things were like lacking. They didn’t know some basic design things that I felt like they should know. We also have a huge self sort community in Trinidad. And so I thought, okay, cool, let me put together some design foundation basics, at least, that folks can reference. I’m talking about things like knowing the difference in a JPEG and a PNG and a PDF, like basic. And that also really went really well and so I’m actually preparing now to do the next, which would be my third offering of courses so far, but yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re writing, you’re teaching, you’re running your own business. Like what’s the best thing about all this work that you’re doing?

Ayrïd Chandler:
What do you mean the best thing?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean I could ask what’s the worst thing. I mean, I would imagine that you have some enjoyment out of this, Ayrïd?

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. Honestly, I am one of those people that likes connecting with other human beings. I never thought I would’ve like, if you asked me this 10 years ago, that would not have been what I said. I very much am one of those people that enjoyed my alone time. I’m an only child. I like doing stuff on my own, solo traveler here, like all of that stuff. But I quickly realized over the past couple of years that I enjoy connections, I enjoy connecting with other human beings. I enjoy that experience. All of the things that I’m doing, I’ve realized that is the one common sort of thing that’s happening. I am able to step out of myself a little bit, step out of my world and connect with someone else in their world. That’s great. Like I enjoy that so much and it kind of makes life a little bit easier to live, at least, for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel creatively satisfied?

Ayrïd Chandler:
For sure. Like right in this very moment in time, I would say I need a little bit more and I think maybe that’s what writing does for me in terms of satisfying that creativity. I think, yes. Sorry, I feel like I am creatively satisfied, especially when I wrap up a branding project and the client is happy with it. I was like, I know I did the right thing and I know I hit the mark on what it is that they were looking for and also, what it is that they needed?

Ayrïd Chandler:
When they say things like, oh my gosh, I wasn’t expecting this, or like I get a lot of those kinds of reactions, which is pretty wild and fun and interesting. I think that does kind of satisfy that creativity, but I am also at that point where I’m at that 10 year mark. Because I moved here 10 years since I graduated from SCAD. I am feeling that itch of like, what now? What more? Where else? What can I do differently? Like what is the next step for me? You know what I mean? Like where do I go now? Do I pivot as we’ve been talking about so much on these past two years? Do I learn a new skill? What’s the next step in terms of that creativity and that flow and what I want?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Where do you see yourself for the next five years? What do you want this next chapter of your life to be?

Ayrïd Chandler:
I definitely want to teach more. I would love to be able to get to a place where I can go from being a part-time lecturer to maybe a full-time lecturer. I think that would be really awesome. I kind of really see myself becoming, I want to step more into that brand identity designer shoe out of that whole graphic designer shoe, where I still kind of float around, meaning I still do anything under the hat of graphic design.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Even though, I focus a lot on branding, I kind of want to like be like, I am a brand identity designer and I am the person that you come to for that specifically and that alone. I kind of I want to eliminate as much options and kind of zone in and be more specific and intentional with what I’m doing. In five years, I’d like to be able to impart that knowledge more, more talking workshop opportunities. Hey, if I can give a TEDx talk in five years, that would be awesome. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ayrïd Chandler:
That’s kind of where I see things.

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

Ayrïd Chandler:
Ooh, I make it very, very easy. So I have my website. I technically have two, but for my business Ayrïd by Design, A-Y-R-I-D bydesign.com. That’s my website. I’m also the same thing Ayrïd by Design on Instagram, I have a very kind of unique name. I think I’m the only Ayrïd Chandler of there. So from a time you type that in, I think most of my stuff comes up, but those two places are kind of where you can start. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Ayrïd Chandler, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for just sharing, not just your story, but also I think giving us kind of a behind the scenes of what it’s like to run a business, particularly running it from another country and showing people out there, as you said, kind of right before we started recording, you said you wanted to let folks know that they’re not alone and that there’s a sense of community. And so, I hope that people will listen to this and they’ll sort of get exactly what you’re talking about. Like a lot of the experiences you shared are universal experiences to a lot of designers, to a lot of entrepreneurs. And so, even as you do your work with writing and teaching and everything, you’re not alone out there.

Ayrïd Chandler:
Yeah.

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

Ayrïd Chandler:
Thank you for having me. I enjoyed this.

Monique Jenkins

It takes a lot of hard work and determination to be a successful entrepreneur, and sometimes, you can lose yourself in your path to success. But not Monique Jenkins! As the CEO of J.kins Creative, Monique bolsters the successes of Black and brown entrepreneurs by creating holistic brand identities with thought leaders who deserve to leave their mark upon the world. And she does it be being the best person for the job — herself!

Monique talked to me about what she started her own company, and talked about the varied processes she has to ensure clients receive top-class design work. She also spoke about growing up in Baltimore, how she juggles her studio with a full-time job (and a baby on the way!), and gave some insight on the type of legacy she wants to leave in the world. According to Monique, being an authentic version of yourself is a guarantee for living your best life!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Monique Jenkins:
My name is Monique Jenkins and I am the CEO of a design agency called J.kins Creative, also a mentor and teacher at Towson University. And I run a non-for-profit called Ladies, Wine and Design Baltimore, which focuses on creating spaces for women and non-binary creatives and industry.

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

Monique Jenkins:
So far so good. Actually, it feels like we’ve lived the whole year in this first quarter going into the second quarter. I’m ready for 2023 already. The year didn’t start the greatest because I caught COVID in Jamaica. That’s when we initially talked, but it’s been getting better since then.

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

Monique Jenkins:
I think my ideas of what was going to happen this year have kind of pivoted. I have since found out that I’m going to be a mama, so that’s-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. That’s going to be my major 2022 thing as far as personal life is concerned. But in my business, one of the things that I want to get better at doing is managing life and work. I am constantly doing speaking engagements and mentoring and doing all these other things. And the tone of this year for me was really putting down some of the extracurricular activities that I was doing and really honing in on my business. Because I would like within the next two to three years to kind of take that into a more full-time stance. So that’s really my focus for the year is gaining clients, understanding marketing better, understanding kind of the ebbs and flows of a couple of different things within my business and really honing on the type of clients I want to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about your design studio, J.kins Creative. What was the impetus for you to start your own studio?

Monique Jenkins:
I have worked for a wide range of companies from smaller kind of startup companies and to larger fortune 500 companies. And I think in all of those respective statuses, it kind of taught me that people who look like us weren’t always represented regardless of which of those organizations I was working in. But then more specifically I had read so many articles about black women in particular starting their own businesses. And I was like, oh, I see all these wonderful women starting these great things, but I don’t see that the marketing and the branding is there for those companies. Or we don’t get to that point until we have probably launched this business two or three years down the line. And it’s important to me to help foster the information that I’ve learned in these respective environments in order to grow, to help people grow and sustain their business and figure out what their respective visions are and how that translates into a larger and more holistic idea of who their business is.

Maurice Cherry:
Walk me through just like a typical day. How do you sort of start out the day with J.kins Creative?

Monique Jenkins:
In a typical day, I am probably using the morning to reach out to existing clients. So if there’s something that I was supposed to finish up the previous day, I usually email them early and send over files for them to review or ask questions about things that seem a little sketchy or that we can’t exactly pinpoint right this second. As I’m moving throughout the day, I’m continuing to maintain those emails or phone calls from clients. Having kickoff meetings with potential new clients who are going to becoming on board. Asking them questions about what type of metrics and goals they want to hit for this project. Because generally when people start a design project, I like for them to start it from the process of like, what do you want to achieve by this? Design is pretty, but it’s also supposed to be functional in some capacity. So trying to understand their motivations for their business and get a little attune with what they’re doing is important to me.

Monique Jenkins:
And then after initial kickoff calls, we generally send out contracts and then we walk through those with our clients. If we’ve already done a kickoff call and we’ve already sent contracts before we kind of walk through that. And then the latter half of the day is used for actually getting work done. So designing respective assets for those clients and really just trying to putting those to the grind. And then usually by the end of the day, I connect with our front end developer who we’re just walking through what she’s done for the day and checking over websites and assets and things like that before we give those to our client.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like you’ve kind of got the day pretty well structured out.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. Some days are easier than others. I mean, in design, nothing is certain. Some days it’s more client calls and that’s going to be the base of my day. Some days I don’t have any client calls and I can really dig in to the design work. Some days it’s more about trying to gain a better relationship with the engineer and dig into the code and understand why something isn’t working or interaction patterns aren’t working the way that we need them to. So, every day is a little bit different but every day is fun in some respects.

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

Monique Jenkins:
I would say clients who are a little bit more established in their business are better to work with because they kind of know that you’re the expert in the situation. I would say that any client that I have probably worked with who spent under 5,000 is someone who’s much more hands on. I think when you get to a specific level, you understand what your skillset is and you trust professionals to kind of do their work. So I love working with clients who are super enthusiastic about their business. I love working with people who have a strong vision for what they want and have metrics and goals that align to those visions. If someone comes to me and they aren’t sure about their budget, or they’re not sure about how this business is going to track or it’s relatively new, like everything is new. So they’re not really sure how this is all going to come together. People who have a sound idea of what their business is and what they’re trying to accomplish are incredibly fun to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember back from when I had my studio, it was always the cheapest clients that were the worst one to work with just in terms of, they’re always on your back, they’re always asking about something. That’s not to say, well, maybe there is a correlation between low budget jobs and the amount of client and action that you get. But even as you said, with the higher price or the high ticket clients, sometimes they like to be hands on, maybe just in a different sort of way. But the interaction is different because like you said, they trust you as the expert. I’ve often found that if the client is trying to nickel and dime you, they don’t trust that you know what you’re doing. They don’t trust why it costs what it costs, et cetera. And with a more established business, they’ve hopefully already done this before and they know what the value is.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. The way that my business coach likes to explain it to me when she’s like, this is how you want to set up your price points. She’s like, “If you are going to do the work, then you’re going to charge a relatively okay price point.” So say a project is going to be $50,000. If they’re going to co-designed with you, that costs more money because it takes you more time. You’re doing more iterations. If they want to do a majority of the work, then you charge them the most amount of money because what you’re doing is acting as a production artist and that’s not a favorable place to be.

Monique Jenkins:
So I always tell client like, “We can have as many conversations as you want. I build into my contracts now that like three iterations and then we start to charge you after that.” It’s just about trying to understand where a person is in their business and what they believe about their business. And I find that people who have a little bit of a lower budget, not that they can’t be fun to work with. It’s just that they’re just a little bit more nitpicky. And I will say, I agree. Clients who have a higher budget are nitpicky, but it’s just in a different way. And I think that they trust you a little bit more. They probably have experiences working with other agencies and they know that you can bear fruit for them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. So when a company or an individual contacts you about a new project, like talk to me about that. What does that process look like in terms of onboarding, working with them throughout the project? Walk me through something like that.

Monique Jenkins:
Generally, what I ask people to do is to go to my website and fill out the new project form. It tells me some basic information about them, about like their name, address, or not address, email phone number, gives me a website URL if they have one existing, what type of project that says what the budget they have in mind is and what their deadline is. And then after I have that initial project form, I send them a project brief and that gets more into the specifics about metrics. So what exactly are you trying to accomplish? What are you trying to do? What are your intentions? It just starts to, and I make our clients make smart goals. It just makes sure that they understand what the accomplishment is of this thing. We are not building designs because they’re pretty, we are building something that’s going to be functional for you.

Monique Jenkins:
So what’s the task that you want to do. Do you want more engagement on your site? Do you want more unique visitors? Do you want to promote a specific campaign or book or something? When I find that I make people start to think about why people are actually coming into their site we can help to define what should be the main CTA versus what are secondary actions that you want someone to commit. And once we go through that project brief and kind of distill that information down together, I tell them a bit more about myself, my background, help to bring in some of those validation points that clients want to know about you. I learn more about them. Hearing someone else’s story is crazy, interesting. Understanding why they started their business or what they’re trying to accomplish is super fun.

Monique Jenkins:
And then after we have that call, I send them over a contract, an invoice listed out with all of the things that they’re telling me they want to accomplish in the timeline that they’re saying they want to accomplish these things. So then we run through all of that information together. They understand what’s a part of the project. What’s not a part of the project. If we break timeline or add additional assets, what the price point is for those things. And then once they sign the contract, submit the deposit, we go off to the races.

Monique Jenkins:
So initial phone call, just like a kickoff call with the client. Give me whatever existing assets you have. Let’s talk about creative concepts. Let’s get all of those things nailed down and then we start getting the work on our end. I also might ask them depending on how clear they are with visual assets to create a Pinterest board of some websites that they love, that they want to incorporate into their own respective business as they see as a potential path to visually or stylistically how they want their website or assets to look. And then we use that as a starting post.

Maurice Cherry:
And just to be clear earlier, when you said smart goals, you mean the acronym SMART like specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound.

Monique Jenkins:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. Okay. Just wanted to be clear about that. I know that when people probably heard that they’re thinking, yeah, I want my goals to be smart. But that it’s more than just that. It’s like a framework that you have to follow.

Monique Jenkins:
Yes. So specific might be like what needs to be accomplished? Who is responsible for it? What steps or actions need to be taken? Measurable kind of self explanatory, what is this going to accomplish? What are the numbers around it? Specific, like 15% of people that’s what I want to drive toward this specific thing. Achievable is like, it’s a reality check. Is this achievable in the timeline that you’re providing? Relevant is like, how does this compare in the bigger picture of things? And then time-bound is like, this is how much time that we have to actually complete these things. So whenever we create smart goals, I just think that it helps people to really hone in on what they’re asking me to do and to be incredibly realistic about what’s going to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you. So let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit, so people can kind of learn more about the dynamic woman behind J.kins Creative. Tell me more about you. Tell me about where you grew up.

Monique Jenkins:
I am from Bridgeport, Connecticut originally. I moved to Maryland when I was 15. That sounds right. Yes. I couldn’t remember because I had just gotten into high school and my parents were like, “Come on girl, we’re moving to another state.” But originally from Connecticut. I went to a predominantly Hispanic speaking school for almost the entirety of my adolescences. And then when I came to Maryland, that was the first time I think I went to an all African American school. I had seen that many African American people in one place that’s different in Connecticut than it is here. So yeah, I will say when I was little in Connecticut, I had no idea I wanted to be a designer. I did not figure that out until I got well into college. So I always thought that I was going to be a lawyer because I’m so good at arguing with other people.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about college. You mentioned that really knowing about kind of wanted to study design until you got there. You went to the Towson University and you still studied communications. Tell me about that experience.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. I had multiple majors and minors when I was at Towson University. I really did not… I had known for almost the majority of my life I was like a lawyer. I’m so competitive. I love arguing. I love to bring up points. I like to fact check those points. This is going to be it. And then when I got to college, I was like, well lawyers have… It’s a long time. I don’t know if that’s exactly the right path. I don’t know if I want to stay here that long. And I had really liked marketing too. This was at the time that Facebook was coming out so you were able to create your own visual graphics. And there was a lot of coding and stuff involved and different applications and social media applications that were coming out.

Monique Jenkins:
The computer was really big and I just assumed marketing and advertising was the way that I wanted to go. And I really did love marketing and advertising, but I think I love the visual components more than I liked all of the numbers behind it. So while I was in the middle of getting my communications degree, I was like, this is cool. I like this. I think I could do this forever, but I think I would like to take a more visual approach to marketing and advertising. I don’t know if I want to be in that world specifically, but I think that I want to be on the edge of it or work with those type of people. So I got my undergrad in Mass Communications with a concentration in advertisement, in marketing. And then I swapped over to the university of Baltimore a couple years later and got a degree in Graphic Design.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I want to kind of talk about that, because there’s a little bit of time that sort of happened between you leaving Towson University and then going to University of Baltimore. What was your early career after Towson? What was going on during that time?

Monique Jenkins:
I don’t remember exactly how this happened, but when I was at Towson, I got an opportunity to become an insurance agent. So I got my property and casualty license and I was working for Liberty Mutual as an intern, reaching out to customers who had inquired about auto insurance policies. And I hated it. I really didn’t, it wasn’t my thing. I did not like calling people and trying to force them into something that they didn’t want. I just liked cold calling people and being like, “Hey, have you thought about your auto insurance?” And people be like, “I’m at work girl. I don’t have time to talk to you about this.” So it really wasn’t my thing. But I worked for the insurance company and there were aspects of it that I loved.

Monique Jenkins:
But it was a really great experience because all of the agents who worked in our office wildly had what I would consider incredible degrees. One of them was a microbiologist, the other one had gotten a law degree, but ultimately they all decided, I want to do that and had gotten into insurance for one purpose or another. They liked the flexibility of the schedule and they had other outside ventures. So the microbiologist was also a real estate agent. We had a bunch of properties and that had me thinking like, I don’t want to waste this degree that I just got. Going into a field, that’s completely irrelevant. Let me figure this out. So after I kind of did insurance for a little bit, I transitioned over to finding a position that actually utilized my degree, which is, I was a publisher intern at AOL for about a year and a half or two years where I got to work with sales professionals, which was familiar because of the experience I had at Liberty Mutual and focused on advertising campaigns and online banners.

Monique Jenkins:
And it was my responsibility to put all of our bull websites for our advertisers into tiers. So different tiers of websites get different type of ads. So if you are… What’s a website that would be a D-tier. Any type of a TMZ, they’re probably a perfect example. TMZ would be a tier-D website. So you probably wouldn’t put Disney ads on that type of site. And then Disney is a tier A website. You probably could put a majority of the ads that you want to run on a type of site like that. So it was my responsibility to classify all of our new clients into respective tiers and then give them off to their marketing agents so that they could work more specifically with them. That was fun and I liked the coworkers. But again, I was just like, I like the looking at the websites. I like dissecting the websites. I like looking at the banner campaigns. I’ve been starting to develop a relationship with the designers who worked there.

Monique Jenkins:
So I was like, I missed something. I didn’t get what I needed to get in college and I need to go back to get the thing that I actually want. I think I had found out about the University of Baltimore’s program at the time and I was like, okay, I’m going to go back. I’m going to go back and get a Master’s degree in Design because I really like that. And I feel like that’s where my soul was telling me that I want to be. And again, I’ve been designing flyers and stuff for the church that I went to and birthday cards for friends and baby announcements and stuff like that.

Monique Jenkins:
And I was like, I think this is it. I just need a more formal education. I am certainly one of those people who’s like, I can’t watch YouTube videos to get it. I’m not that person. I need the structure of a classroom and a teacher being like, you have homework in order to pick up these concepts. And the weight is heavier for me. When I paid $5,000 to take a class, I’m like, girl, you going to class and you going to read this book and [inaudible 00:21:01] this stuff. When it’s a free video on YouTube, I’m like, I could watch five minutes of this and then I could go watch TV for three hours and then. So I needed the structure of that environment and the University of Baltimore at the time felt like the best fit for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting when you know that you’re paying for it, that you’ll sort of put more value in it because you’ve got skin in the game, essentially in that way.

Monique Jenkins:
That is exactly what I needed. I needed skin in the game in order to be like, okay, you have to take this seriously because college is not cheap. You spend a lot of money on this class and you will not be taking this class again because there were other people who were… It’s whatever. I don’t care if I have to take this again. I’m like I spend $5,000 on this class, so I’m not going to be taking it again. I got to pay another $5,000 for another class. You think I can take this class twice, no. I have to keep going. So once I had a little bit of skin in the game, then I was like, okay, Monique, you can sit down and you can focus so you can concentrate under this environment.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you also touched on something interesting there that you kind of had to get out there in the working world a little bit and discover through that, something that you didn’t want to do to bring you closer to the thing that you wanted to do.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. I don’t think that… I think that sometimes we’re sold this idea that after college it’s a clear path to working in the industry, but it’s hard. At Towson University hadn’t done any internships that were specific to my field and I think that should be a requirement for college. If you were spending all this time and money on a degree, you should at least have to take two or three internships specifically in the field that you want to work in. Because it’ll help you to be like, you know what? This is not truly what I wanted, once I got into the environment. But once I started working at AOL, I was like, this is fun, this is wonderful. It’s a great company. There are great coworkers. There are fun things in the office like skateboards and there are free snacks, but I’m like, something is still missing. I’m still not getting exactly what I need. So I need to think about this and change paths a little bit. So that’s what worked for me at least.

Maurice Cherry:
Now what were those kind of early days of Jenkins creatives like for you because you’re running your studio, but you were also working full time at a few companies, right?

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. I remember feeling like I don’t even know what, I don’t even know. I didn’t even know the right questions to ask. I didn’t know the right people to talk to. I’m much more into networking now and facilitating relationships with other people. But at the time I was very much an introvert and I was like, I don’t want to talk to nobody. I don’t want nobody to talk to me. I just want to figure this out on my own. And I think that’s a very hard stance to have. So it was lonely and I wasn’t exactly sure what I should be doing. I was taking maybe some classes on how to run a business. But I never really felt like any of the curriculum that I was participating in, gave me a full grasp of what was necessary in order to run a business and time gave me that. It let me know what worked and what didn’t work, where I should invest my resources, where I shouldn’t.

Monique Jenkins:
But also in addition to time, physically meeting people out in the world and understanding how they ran their businesses and understanding what worked or didn’t work for them or avenues that I could potentially go down our path, that was what was most helpful for me. Because I feel like all of the people that I worked with since the time of Liberty Mutual had some type of outside or source of revenue or income and had always put it in my head that, you can’t just have a nine to five, you got to be able to do something else beyond that. What happens if you get fired tomorrow? Can you still pay your bills? Where are your additional revenue streams? And that really stuck with me about being like, okay, you work for a company who sometimes has to make a hard decision and they’re not going to say, Monique has to pay her grant. So we shouldn’t let her go. They’re going to make the decision that’s best for their organization and you have to have something to fall back on. You can’t just be out there with nothing to do. And that started to help me be like, okay, I need to figure out how this businesses run.

Monique Jenkins:
So in the beginning it was a mess. I’m not going to lie. There was no website, there was nothing. It was just me randomly reaching out to people or meeting people. I have 17 different business cards. I would be redesigning those things on the weekly basis. I’d be like, this isn’t good enough. No one’s[inaudible 00:25:32]. Aside from me like this and all of that stuff it just didn’t work in the way that I thought it was supposed to work. So it was a little bit of ebb and flow. Some things were useful and helpful for me, some things not so much. But just understanding how larger organizations worked, helped me to hone in on how I wanted to run my business and what was acceptable and not acceptable for the type of clients I work with or the type of environment I wanted to work in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like with studios like that, especially when you’re just starting it off by yourself, you really have to try to… You’re kind of doing a lot of trial and error to figure things out on your own. And for you, it was good that you also had a full-time job kind of to back things up while you were figuring out the ins and outs of the studio. So that’s a good thing.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah. A funny story is that I made an Instagram called Trial and Error where I would… I was testing out different design methodology and things like that. And it was a way to hold myself accountable and be like, you should be designing something, you should be building your skillset. And I think I did that for a couple months and then I was like, Monique, this is so much work. But it was really just a place where I could be like, if I put my designs out there in the world, people will see them. They’ll be interested and they’ll potentially come to you as clients. That did not happen. I don’t think I got one client from that venture, but it helped me to be like, okay, how do you build your skillset to get you to a place where you can make all of these very beautiful and extravagant thing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your work years, prior to starting your studio, what lessons do you take from that time?

Monique Jenkins:
I think the biggest lesson that I probably could take from that is that people are so kind in so many ways… When I look back at my career, I think about all of the awesome women specifically, black women and more specifically, who just had my back. Who just took me aside and gave me knowledge and information that I just did not have and could not fathom in a lot of different respects. And even when I was going to make very wild errors or I was acting emotional in the things that I was going to be doing, black women saved me every single time. They helped me to steer my direction and navigate and make better decisions because I was working at a check burning company and I dislike these I was like, this is ridiculous. I don’t want to do this. And I wrote what is the nastiest probably resignation letter that anybody has ever read. This is stupid. Y’all are stupid. It just wasn’t kind.

Monique Jenkins:
I was friends with the HR, director and she was like, show me your resignation letter. And we looked at it together and she ripped it up right in front of me. She was like, “You will not be giving this to anybody.” And I was like, “What?” She was like, “When you work for a company, you don’t want to burn bridges. These people that you think are not confident or don’t know how to do their jobs, you will face these people again in other environments. So you don’t do that. You don’t burn bridges in that way. You can respectfully say that you did not have a good time here or you can keep your mouth shut. And you could say this was a great learning experience, which it was, it taught you that you did not want to work with these type of people and you take that on.”

Monique Jenkins:
And 10 years later I got an opportunity to work with one of the same people that I worked with in that organization, loved her. She was great. Once we worked one on one, but working as the low person on the totem pole in that context, when I was really young, I was like, these people are… I don’t like this. This ain’t going to work for me. But her pulling me aside and having that conversation about not burning bridges was incredibly a shaping moment. And every single organization that I have worked out since I have been able to find that person who is more knowledgeable than me, who can help me navigate spaces in ways that I did not think about or think about things in ways that I just don’t inherently have in me.

Monique Jenkins:
So those people incredibly wonderful. They help shape me. And then I guess the other thing that I’ve taken away from a lot of the organizations is the structure that I like and don’t like working in, is super important. So, some of the bigger companies that I worked for I really felt like a number. I was like, these people don’t know me. They don’t really know anything about me. And I started to find my sweet spot and being like, I don’t know if I want to work for a fortune 500 company. Maybe I want to work for smaller companies or a mid-tier company where there feels to be a little bit more of a, and I use this loosely, family structure around who you are with. Because I always think it’s a red flag when someone’s like, “We’re family.” I’m like, “No we not, we’re coworkers y’all.”

Maurice Cherry:
Same. A 100% same.

Monique Jenkins:
I’m like, we’re not we just like each other outside of work. That’s different. I have to stick with my family forever sometimes. But it really helped me to figure out like, I don’t like being one of 75 designers on a team. I want to be in a smaller team where I actually get to know these people and understand their perspectives or know the other team members that I’m working with outside of the core team. And well I have never go back to working with a fortune 500 company. It depends on the salary offer. But for, right this second, like I think the sweet spot is really a smaller company where you get to know actual people and then they get to, they open up and they share things with you that I don’t think they necessarily share in a larger structure with more people working at an organization. I find that people more reserved in that setting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve worked in startups for the past, I’d say roughly the past five years. And I don’t know if anyone from my current job is listening to this so I won’t say what I feel about startups. But I think it’s important, like you say, to have those different work experiences to know what you like, what you don’t like, because once you start getting out there and I’d say, this is probably the case, even for starting your own studio and finding clients and stuff.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
At the beginning, you’ll kind of just take any work. Any work that’s coming in the door, as long as it’s paying, but then eventually you learn what are the best types of clients for you to work with? What are the best kind of jobs? What’s the client match for that will allow you to do your best work? That takes trial and error.

Monique Jenkins:
Exactly. I always tell people that I’m mentoring specifically, because I’m been mentoring with Thinkful for new UX and UI designers that are coming out of their program. And I always tell them, “It depends on what you want to gain. So, if you’re going to work for a startup, generally, you’re the only designer there. You’re going to do everything. You are going to have to do research on your own time. You’re going to be digging into a bunch of different worlds. You’re going to be learning a bunch of different things.”

Monique Jenkins:
If you are like, I want the guardrails of working with other people in a structured environment that has a design system that is already established work for a bigger company, get that under your feet. You’re never going to put a million dollar campaign or something out the door without any oversight. There will be guardrails there to help to protect you. And then once you understand what the structure is like, then you can transition to a mid-year company or to a startup and feel more confident. But originally coming out of college, it was probably helpful to me to work in an environment that had very rivet you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Monique Jenkins:
Yeah, so, because there was a design guide and I could look at that for reference when I building something and feel more confident about the thing that I was going to produce or that I was showing and at a manager. I could go to that person and be like, “Hey, what do you think about this?” The first startup that I worked at, there was no design director. I was the only person. I was on the marketing team and they are wonderful, but they’re not designers. So they couldn’t really give me feedback. They were more so telling me, I like this or I don’t like this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Monique Jenkins:
But that’s not logical. They’re telling me what their preferences are, not who our core customer is and how this design can relate to them.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said a 100%. Are there certain types of projects that you want to do in the future?

Monique Jenkins:
Yes. Recently in my business have been picking up a lot of clients in the solar energy space, which is super interesting. So I like that client. I like helping, or I like thinking that my work is going to help in a bigger way or have a bigger impact than outside of a redesign. This is for someone actually coming to gain knowledge. And I also think it’s a environment that I don’t think as a black person that I read enough about or know enough about, like be informational. So I like the solar energy clients. I like startups specifically. I want to help craft and create brands from the beginning and help them to discover who they are and create an entire branded existence for an organization. That seems like a super fun and challenging thing for me. I like the challenges is what it is.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of challenges, in a way you’ve kind of come full circle. You mentioned attending Towson University several years ago. Now you’re a teacher at Towson University. Talk to me about that.

Monique Jenkins:
That actually happened because when I was at the University of Baltimore, I graduated with a master’s degree and I went back to college, again, for a third time to get a certificate in User Experience and Interaction Design. And I got that and I was like, you know what, as I think back across the entirety of my experience in college, I don’t think I’ve ever had a black professor. I was like, I don’t remember that ever being a part of my college curriculum. And I talked to a couple friends too, and I was like, “Have you ever had a black professor? I’ve never. Have you?” And they were like, “Now that I think about it, I don’t think I had.” After I went to college for the third time, I was considering going back again to get a doctorate. And I can’t remember what podcast I was listening to, but I was listening to a podcast and they were talking about validation as a black woman in spaces.

Monique Jenkins:
And I had reached out to the University of Baltimore and I had talked to the recruiting counselor there and she reached back out and she was like, “Hey, we’re having open house or something and I want to make sure you can make it.” And I just got real honest with her in a way that I don’t think that I am with some people sometimes. I think I’m better at it now, but at the time I really wasn’t. And I sent her an email that said like, “In all honesty, as a black woman, I think I’ve used my education as validation that my opinion belongs in the room and it validates that I’m worth listening to, to those people. And I’m trying to redevelop how I see myself and how other people should see me in the spaces that I’m in. I don’t think I need the validation of another degree in order to get that. So I don’t think I’m going to go on and get my doctorate right now. I think I’m just going to focus on me.”

Monique Jenkins:
And this was at the time that I was just starting with Ladies, Wine & Design, Baltimore. I had just off boarded from AIGA, Baltimore. And I was just like, I don’t want to do that. But I also was like, I don’t want another person to go through their college experience and not have a minority be a part of that. Not have a person who looks like me or not see another woman who looks like me go through their education experience and not experience that with some of the joy that it is to have a professor who is African American in our space. So I want to teach. I want to show people that it’s possible. I want people to see me and be like, “Oh, I can do that one day.” And understand the path of what it takes to get there. And that’s how I started teaching. Is that I thought about my own college curriculum and what would’ve made that situation better for me and I was like, I’m going to go and teach.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Monique Jenkins:
So much. All the new latest TikTok trends. I’ll tell you that. I cannot get away. I’m like, “Y’all, I don’t get it. I’m a mom now. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to use this thing.” I think what they teach me is that failure is okay. I took college incredibly seriously. When we were talking earlier, college was very much a job. I came from a family who financially could not afford for me to go to college. I took out a lot of student loans to get this degree. So college was always very heavy for me. And it was always like, you need to be doing your best self and you need to be doing your best self because your family is counting on you. You don’t have the option of being lazy. You don’t have the option of not doing your best. You have to put everything in this because it’s a lot of money to waste.

Monique Jenkins:
So when I see them and they’re interacting with me and they’re interacting with the work that I’m giving them, it’s okay for me to be able to tell them like, “Hey, this is not make or break. This is okay If you’re not going to do your best on this one project or that you’re having a hard in life, sympathizing.” And I think they helped to bring back some of that humanity to me in some respects where I’m like, it’s okay to be like, I don’t get this or this isn’t exactly where I know I want to be. Or I don’t really understand these things that are concepts that you’re explaining. They just help to ground me in a way that I don’t think that I was ever grounded when I was in college. They give me a little bit of… And they’re super honest too when they don’t like stuff.

Monique Jenkins:
They provide a little bit of lightness to the world and they see things in a… They’re growing up in such a different time than what I think I grew up in, which is weird because I don’t feel like I’m that old, but apparently I’m getting there. They have such a different perspective on life. I always say, “You guys are considering and are interacting with concepts and things that I don’t think I ever thought of in the entirety of the time that I was in college. And you’re introduced to things in such a early way that I don’t think that I ever explored when I was your age.”

Monique Jenkins:
So they helped to shape a large part of my world. Also, they helped me to realize what’s important and what’s not important in some respects. They give me lots of love and lightness and sometimes drive me crazy. I try to not be the Monique who’s a production person who’s just working all the time, but I’m also like, you don’t have time to be messing up. You’re in college. So they help to ground me in a way that I don’t think that I was at their age.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you had any peers or mentors that have kind of helped you out along your design journey? I feel like you alluded to one of them earlier. But I’m curious, who’s helped you to get to where you are today?

Monique Jenkins:
As I said, so many women whose names that I will not remember, probably have no idea that they had such an influence on me. More recently though, for Ladies, Wine and Design, my co-host or co-partner in that venture is Davia Lilly. And she has helped me to work smarter and not harder and to explore concepts that I just have never explored in design. She is a huge part of helping me to be the best Monique that I can be. I also recently hired two different business coaches, who I’ve worked with recently, Jessica Langley and Michelle Gomez, who both have been incredibly influential in helping me realize my potential and all of the amazing things that I can do. Dan Brown, who’s an information architect and principal designer at his company called EightShapes, who has a user experience consultancy has been incredibly helpful. They all have been helpful in so many different ways in helping me to shape who I am, where I’m going, how I want to run my business or how I don’t. Yeah. They are amazing people, every single one of them and teach me amazing things every day.

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

Monique Jenkins:
Absolutely not. It is not. I was one of those kids who journaled. So I have a journal with all of the stuff that I wanted to accomplish. I remember being when I turn 18 and go to college, I want to go to NYU and I want to live in New York. And I was just imagining a Sex in the City lifestyle where everything was fabulous or moving out to LA. And I never wanted to be an actor or an actress. That is not my God-given gift. But being in those environments with those type of people. And I think I’ve accomplished all of the things that young Monique thought that she was going to accomplish. I purchased a house. I finally got my puppy. I’m about to start a family with my husband. And I just didn’t think it was going to happen in this way. And I’m still working towards the dream of being in New York or Los Angeles.

Monique Jenkins:
I don’t know if those are dreams anymore because I’ve been to LA and I was like, “This is congested y’all.” I’ve been to New York and also been like, “This is all right, but I don’t know about this for a full-time basis.” I could get a summer home there or something. But it all worked out the way that I wanted it to. When I was young, I thought more materialistic. I wanted things. Now that I’m older, I’m like, I’m happy with my life. I’m happy with my spouse, with my family, with the interactions that we have with each other. I’m happy that I can pick up the phone right now and call my mama and be like, “Hey girl, we just got a contract for a $100,000,” and have her pray for me and love on me and have such good spirits. That’s the more important thing.

Monique Jenkins:
I think when I was younger, I was like, I’m going to move away from my family. I’m never going to talk to them. What do I need to talk to them for? But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve appreciated where I am now and appreciate all the things that I want to do. And every single time a major life event happens, I go back to my diary from 12 years old and I’d be like, let me add something to this because I wasn’t fully thinking about these things. But by and large, I’ve gotten to check off a lot of the things that I thought that I was going to do when I was younger. And that is good for my soul because I’m like, at least you weren’t dreaming. At least you can reference back to the dreams you had. You can check these things off, you were able to accomplish them.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s been one of the great things for me about sort of getting older and then being able to kind of look back at the life that you’ve worked hard to create. Looking back at what you’ve built and kind of being content with it. And that’s not to say that you’re settling for it, because I’m sure you have other goals and aspirations that you want to do. And I’ll ask you about that. But also looking and seeing where you are right now and being like, I did pretty good. That’s a blessing to get to that point.

Monique Jenkins:
Pair it with some pivotal moments. I think the first $100,000 job that I got was like, oh, that’s crazy. Nobody in your family has ever even thought of making this much money. And now that I reflect on that, I’m like, “Girl, you better get to two million dollar, three million dollar. You can get some more money than that.” But as a kid, that number seemed so big. That just felt like an incredible task. As an adult, I’m like, well girl, a bread be costing like five dollars. But as a child, it’s weird to get to this point. And it’s weird for your family members.

Monique Jenkins:
I will say by and large out of my siblings and my cousins and all that stuff, my mom was like,” Monique’s going to be the one. It’s just in her personality.” She even says, “When you were a baby, you didn’t even want nobody to hold your bottle. You was like, I could do this myself. I don’t need you for that.” And I’ve carried that theme through. She was like, “You have always been so self reliant. And so you set your own accomplishments.” She was like, “You put yourself on punishment when you were 10 years old because you got a B on a paper and you felt embarrassed” She was like, “It was so crazy. You took your TV out of your room and everything.”

Monique Jenkins:
And I was like, “Because I knew that I just had so much more in me and I wasn’t giving it my all.” And I feel like I do that now. I’m incredibly hard on myself, but I think that the good thing about living in the space that we are now is that I can see other black women who are like I was too. And I had to learn to balance. Being productive with sustaining a life and having a happy balance between those two. So its nice to look back and be like, all right. I know you wanted to be a lawyer who was also a doctor who was also a mechanic who was also this, but you got to this place and you are still happy. You don’t have to be productive 365 days a year. You can take some days to just chill and eat Oreos on the couch, watching Netflix and you’re okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s really something, like you said, to get to that point and realize, there’s more to life than just work. That whole thing about striking a work life balance, especially when you’re an entrepreneur is super tough. I know when I started out with my studio initially, I was working or I would tell people the joke about entrepreneurs can work half days, any 12 hours you want because I would just keep working because no one was there to stop me. There was nothing to stop me. I just keep going. And eventually you learn, if you don’t take the break, your body will take it for you.

Monique Jenkins:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And so eventually like I learned to of not put so much of that value on to know when to take breaks and all that sort of stuff. But being able to look back on the work that you’ve done and feel satisfied and grateful, it’s such a great place to be as an entrepreneur. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want your next chapter to be?

Monique Jenkins:
I have no idea now. I was not intending to be a mom this year. So I feel like my next four or five years will be incredibly important for the development of my child. And I’m super interested in making a bunch of Instagram videos that other moms can relate to. I think that’s where my heart is right this second. Obviously, my business is incredibly important to me because I think there is a purpose behind it. The intention behind my business is personal to me because I’m one of the women who my businesses services in some respects. So I want to grow my business over the course of the next three years. I would love to get it to a place where it’s same things or has the ability to pay my mortgage for my household and all that jazz because I think it’s important. But also I don’t want to be a mom who can’t spend all the time that they can with their children. I’m sure there will become a point in that child’s life where I’ll be like, “A break is good. You going to daycare soon or something.”

Monique Jenkins:
But I think out of the gate, at least the first four or five years of your kid’s life, is incredibly important to me to be present and to be there for all of those little moments and to understand how’re they are growing up and what their personality is and their expression. So dually for me, it’s crafting a business that sustains itself outside of me physically having to watch over it, hiring more employees who can service the business and letting go of the reigns in some respects, because when you’re a business owner you want to be a part of everything.

Monique Jenkins:
And I will say that because I said, when you have a lower budget, you want to be a part of everything. I’m the same way you all. I’m just there. And it’s okay to release the reigns to another person and trust them with some aspects of what you are building because they do have your back and they are building towards the same goals and things that you want to build towards. So building my business is equal to helping facilitate a relationship with my child and obviously a relationship with my husband. My whole purpose for my business is to help my family. It’s incredibly important for me to build a life where I can assist in whatever ways are helpful to the people and members of my family who have served me and continue to do so.

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

Monique Jenkins:
You can go to my website, jkinscreative.com. That is also the handle for my Facebook and Instagram, is J.Kins Creative. I’m also going to be a keynote speaker on April 30th at AIGA Baltimore’s Ink & Pixels event. So I’ll be talking about being prepared to get your dream job or leave your dream job depending on what you want to do. So those are the places where I’m going to be most present over the course of the next couple months.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Monique Jenkins, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I have to say, your passion for your business and your enthusiasm for the work that you do just really, really shines through. And I’m so grateful that we’re able to connect. Again, congratulations on the baby. I’m really excited to see what you do in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Monique Jenkins:
Thank you for having me. I’m also excited to see what I’m going to do in the future. In this future, I’m going to go get something to eat, because that’s the top priority on my mind right this second. But after that, I’m going to take over the world. I’m super excited to see all of my dreams realized and expectations grow over…what is this next phase of my life?

Liz Montague

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
There is?

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
Whoa. Intimidating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
Is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
I can appreciate that.

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

Liz Montague:
No. It’s just like-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liz Montague:
It really is. It really is.

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

Liz Montague:
Yep.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

Liz Montague:
Oh, for sure. For sure.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husani Oakley

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husani Oakley:
Netflix employees pay for Netflix.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Husani Oakley:
I want to write a Broadway musical.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Toynes

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Not well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Toynes:
There you go. There you go.

Maurice Cherry:
So for that I am very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
It makes dollars and sense, huh?

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Toynes:
If Vegas can do it.

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

Russell Toynes:
Yes, yes.

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

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

Russell Toynes:
I love it, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What?

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russell Toynes:
Judged for your art, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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