Corey Jones

I love when interviews sometimes bring out unexpected connections. Take this week’s guest, Corey Jones. As creative director at Forum One, Corey specializes in branding, animation, and interactive design. But as you’ll find out from our conversation, he got his start from a Black design studio we featured back in 2016! It’s a small world!

Corey and I talked at length about his work at Forum One, and he shared his story of growing up outside of Pittsburgh and studying design in college. We also talked about his early career, his YouTube channel, creative burnout, and his line of barbecue sauce with his twin brother. Corey is proof that with hard work and determination, you can make a career out of creativity for yourself!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Corey Jones:
Well, hello, I’m Corey Jones. I’m a creative director. I do visual design, and I’m curious creator. At work, I do a little bit of everything, so I’m in motion design industry, but I’m also doing interactive design for web experiences. It runs the gamut. But right now, I’m a creative director at Forum One.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the summer been going for you so far?

Corey Jones:
So far, summer’s good. The past couple days have been really, really, really hot, but I’m actually in the process of moving to a different part of New Jersey and so I’m been doing that. But the summer’s great. I got the chance to spend some time with my family not too long ago. And it’s been a while since I had seen them, and so it was great to get back to Pennsylvania, which is where I’m from.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What do you have coming up these next few months? Aside from the move, I should mention.

Corey Jones:
Yeah, well, aside from the move, I’m doing some work with my brother and thinking about what we’re going to do with the sauce. We’ll talk about that later, but what’s the next stage in Jones’en Barbecue. That’s something I’m looking forward to. But just outside of that, we’ve got a lot of great projects coming up. I’m excited to dive into those.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about Forum One. First of all, what is Forum One? And two, just let me know what your experience has been like there so far.

Corey Jones:
Yeah, so I work at Forum One. I’m the creative director there now. I started out as a senior interaction designer when I started there. But Forum One is a agency, their mission is dedicated to working with mission driven organizations; we have a some government clients there as well. But a lot of our work is centered around working with organizations that are making an impact in the world. And it’s one of the things that intrigued me and drew me to it, it was because it was a place that had a bigger mission. And something like that, as a designer, I found that to be very inspiring.
And so far, I’ve been there for oh a little over… Many years, I’ll say. I can’t even keep track. It might be seven years by now. But I’ve been there, and it’s been a great experience. I’ve been able to progress a lot faster here than I was able to at other places. And I found it to be a very supportive culture where I’ve got the opportunity to work on some really, really big projects.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a regular day look like for you there?

Corey Jones:
I get this question all the time, and people ask me, what’s my routine? “What’s your day like?” And I like to really control my daily routine. And I’ll explain that a little bit more, is I had this routine… And I’ve been actually doing this for years, even before Forum One. I like to come in every morning… Well, when I used to go into the office. I do this at home remote now full time, but I do the same thing. I come into the office or my office space and I don’t check email, I don’t check Slack or any messages first thing in the morning. I like to take that time where it’s the most quiet part of my day and just look at inspiration. I might do a tutorial because you never stopped learning. I dedicated that quiet space to writing positive influences, positive inputs, inspiration. And I just like to spend that time with myself, maybe even meditate. That’s something I’ve been doing more recently just to clear my head. And I found that that’s really made me a much clearer thinker, a much sharper creative. That’s my routine.
Now, as the day progresses, and you might know this as well, when you’re in the thick of it in the agency world, you start to get the pings from the emails later in the day, and so I try to just approach my day very organized. I organize my calendar at the end of the week each week, and then I think about the week ahead.
And the first thing I do after, say, about 10:00, 11:00, I’ll usually have some meetings. We have a pretty big meeting culture at Forum One so you’ve got to really be mindful of that and make sure you’re balancing out your calendar. And all in all, it’s a pretty chill place in terms of some of the other places I’ve been where you’re really in this hustle and grind. There’s a lot more balance, I find, at Forum One.
And so my day is spent either in the thick of it, designing, working, or working with other designers. I spend a lot of time mentoring the younger designers on the team. And I have these check-in times with them two times a week. And anybody can book this time with me, and I’ll review their work, help them with their career. I do a lot of different things as a Forum One mentor at the agency.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk a little bit more about the makeup of your team. You mentioned these younger designers that you’re working with. What does the team look like?

Corey Jones:
At Forum One, we’re split where we have designers that are part of the strategy team, and they’re mostly focused on brand identity brand strategy. And so we have designers there, but we also have a core web team that’s focused on interactive design. And I sit as an in between those two groups. A lot of my work in my career has been branding, brand development, so I work across the different departments.
Our interactive team is really a combination of user experience designers, UX researchers, and visual designers, kind of like product designers who focus mostly on web. And so there’s probably about, I think… Oh, how many of this are there now? Probably maybe 15, so we have a pretty good size team overall. But our divisions, our departments run the gamut from anything from strategy, branding, motion graphics. Animation is something new we’re doing now, and then web and interactive.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like a pretty big team overall.

Corey Jones:
Yeah, it’s pretty big team.

Maurice Cherry:
If you’ve got all these separate teams and they’re doing this different work, when a new project comes in, what does your creative process look like? Walk me through that.

Corey Jones:
We have a centralized resourcing department that really works closely with the managers and the department leads, and so I work very closely with that team to figure out who is working on what. And a lot of this stuff is actually handled by our VP of design because my role is a unique role in the sense it’s not like a traditional creative director role where I have to oversee everything. Each of our designers gets assigned a project, and it’s usually based on their interest and… their role and interest. And so my creative process is, really, I get assigned projects where I’m either the lead as far as design, maybe I might be leading some of the design or I might be working with another designer where I’m an art director, creative director working with another designer. Are you thinking walking through the actual process for our project? I can do that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah. Say there’s a new client that you get or there’s a new campaign that you have to work on. What does the process look like when you’re talking about it with your team and everything?

Corey Jones:
Yeah, so a lot of times we’ll start off with having a creative brief. A lot of times, there’s a lot of key discovery that happens before we even get assigned a project. Usually when a project comes through, we’ll have a big team meeting. All the key players who are assigned to the project will be in that first initial meeting. And this is an internal meeting. You would have your developer who might be on the project. And this could be front end and back end developer. You’ve got your project lead. You might have somebody from the strategy team. You’ll have a user experience designer, a visual designer, and then sometimes myself in addition to those, as well as a team lead or a creative director. And when that comes in, we really go through the scope of work. We look at all of the things that the client is looking for, and then we start planning when we’re going to have key discovery workshops where we go in and work with the client.
And the outcome of a discovery workshop really is where we actually… That’s where it really starts. We then would put together a creative brief. And this is really just a guiding document that we all follow that really highlights some of the things we learned in discovery, the goals of the project. And really, at that stage, we’re all figuring out how we’re going to work together, what areas that I’m going to focus on versus others.
And then we we all go our separate ways for a little while, and then we set up key review check-ins where we all come back together. Because there’s a lot of different things in the beginning that are happening, that could be happening. Say it’s a web project, for example. We’re going to have user experience that’s going to be doing interviews. They’re going to be learning all about the project from the client, but they’re also going to be interviewing the potential users, really gathering all that data that visual designers would then use to design to.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Corey Jones:
There’s a lot of pressure in being a designer to always have ideas. And you’re working on so many different things at any given time, and there’s a pressure, there’s a pressure to always deliver, always be original, always have a new idea. And I think the biggest challenge is really making sure that you’re able to stay inspired and stay motivated to keep generating these ideas sometimes really fast timelines. That’s probably the biggest challenge, but I think that I’ve developed ways to overcome that, ways to work through it so that it hasn’t been as a big of a challenge in the last few years as it has been in the past. But I think that’s a big one.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you normally have pretty fast deadlines for projects?

Corey Jones:
We’ve actually gotten a lot better. It’s not as much now. We have fast turnaround. And I say fast turnaround, typical project at Forum One is going to be a couple months. We’re working on large web builds. But those review cycles might be faster depending on… It really depends on the client, so if it’s for a conference or something big coming up, then we got faster timelines. Overall, I would say that it’s not completely chaotic.

Maurice Cherry:
Like you said, you’ve been at Forum One now for about seven years, so you’ve really come up through the ranks and seen how, not just the business have grown, but probably how you’ve grown within the business, right?

Corey Jones:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, I think that when you spend a significant amount of time at one place, you start to learn a lot about how that place works, how… You learn more. You learn the business side, you learn how contracts are acquired. And I’ve found that I’ve learned so much more about business just by playing a role in business development, pitching work to clients. And it’s been a great experience in the sense that I get to learn more than just visual design. And I get to learn the different areas of how to run a business and how money is generated and what’s important to companies to grow, and so that’s exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, let’s switch gears here a little bit, because you’ve talked a good bit about work, but let’s learn more about you, about your origin story. And we are going to get to the sauce, in case anybody’s listening and want to find out more about that. We’ll get to that, but tell me more about where you grew up. You mentioned Pennsylvania.

Corey Jones:
Yeah. Yeah, we’ll definitely get to the sauce. My origin story leads to the sauce, so this is going to be good. I grew up in a town called Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Not too many people know of Johnstown, but it’s a small town and probably about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I always say that because people seem to know Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Steelers, football. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
My early days in Johnstown were typical. I had a really good childhood growing up. It really did shape who I was able to become. I spent most of my childhood in my own head. I was always a creative person. I always loved to draw. That was one of the things that I… If you didn’t find me on a basketball court, you found me… I’d be drawing, because art was always an outlet for me. I have two siblings. I have a younger sister and then I also have a twin brother who is my partner in the barbecue sauce. Growing up was typical childhood. I had a really good upbringing, family life. I had some good influences.
But I always like to say that it wasn’t all sunshine growing up. There were some negative influences coming up. And I’ve had family members struggle with alcoholism, drugs, and those things shaped me. Because I didn’t have a lot growing up, we were shielded from the fact of what the circumstances were in our home life. My parents worked really hard, and I always just think back. And I think about my mother, who cleaned houses. And when I look back and I think about my childhood, I was really shielded from what was really going on.
And we had nice things. We had Christmases and we had all these things, but I just know my mother had to work really hard, so that’s always been something that stuck with me and really played a major role into who I am as a person and what I’ve been able to become and where I got this drive to just really work hard. And I look at that and I think about that as something that really shaped who I’ve become.
And the other side is I grew up in a very foody family. Family dinners, big meals we’re a big part of our life, so food has always been a constant thing: barbecue, cookouts, all these different things. And my brother and I just would… We’d love to cook. We were very entrepreneurial growing up. But we would sell candy at school or sell pizza season. Me and my brother would make our own season blends with whatever we had in the cabinet, we would take it to school and we would sell to the other kids because we ate school lunch, and school lunch isn’t always that good. I always remember us making things. We were different, but we were always creative in that way, and so that guided me into this self-discovery about what I really wanted to do, which I can get into too, if you want to dive into that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s get into it.

Corey Jones:
I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. Of course, I played sports growing up. I played football for a little while, and then I really latched onto basketball. I’m not a very tall person, but I had these dreams of playing in the NBA, and that quickly faded. I realized I’m not getting any taller, but also, it wasn’t something that was… I wasn’t a breakout star in my town or anything like that. But I enjoyed the game, the team, camaraderie, and I always enjoyed sports in that way.
Growing up, as I got older, got into high school, I really started to think about what the heck I wanted to do. I’ve always had this drawing ability, had a deep passion for food, and so my brother, he actually was thinking about becoming a chef, and he did become a chef. And so we would talk about together, was like, “Well, maybe we should go to school together and we’d be a chef, and you could be a chef too. We’d be twin chefs.”
And so while I thought that was a cool idea, I never saw myself working in a kitchen or anything like that. And so I figured, well, what’s the next thing? What else could I do? And so I’ve always grew up, like I said, spent a lot of time drawing and really was into art. I excelled really well in art. And so I had this drawing ability, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. It’s one of those things where nobody says, “Oh, be an artist. You should be an artist,” or, “You should go to school and be an artist.” It just wasn’t something that you ever talked about. It’s usually like, “Oh, you could go to the military.” I had some family members who went into the military and had successful careers doing that. But I just didn’t feel like that was for me.
There was this moment where in my high school art class where a older gentleman came to speak, and he was a commercial artist and he did animation. And I was like, oh, really intrigued by animation and this idea of making cartoons. And I figured, well, I could draw, maybe I should go to school for animation, thinking that, well, that could be a great career, making cartoons. I like to watch cartoons.
That’s actually what I did. I went to school initially for animation. My brother went off to culinary school. And last minute we were trying to figure out what schools we were going to go to, and we were looking at areas. We looked at Pittsburgh as a neighboring town. And we ended up going to the same school, which is the Art Institute in Pittsburgh. That by chance they had a two year old culinary program, and so we ended up going from being roommates at home to being roommates in college. And he went for culinary and business management, and then I went into their animation program.

Maurice Cherry:
You both went to the same school, both went to Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

Corey Jones:
We did, we did.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What was your time like there?

Corey Jones:
Well, I learned very quickly that I’m not sure that I want to be an animator. How it went down is I got into the program really based on my ability to draw. That program, you have to do some tests to see how well you can draw and make sure you’re able to handle the demands of the program.
And I got in there, and I really enjoyed a lot of my courses. I had some great instructors when it came to animation. But really, part of me just couldn’t shake the fact that I wasn’t sure that animation was a career that would really allow me to excel in. It just seemed like I didn’t fit into animation. I just didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t feel like it was a field that was very inviting, certainly to a person of color. I didn’t see any Black animators or anything like that, and that was important to me. And it is like that in a lot of fields, but I just was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of that.
And so I think it was maybe six quarters in, I decided to change majors to graphic design, and so that’s what I ended up getting my Bachelor’s degree in, graphic design. And that’s when my world opened up. When I learned about graphic design… And knowing myself, I’ve always been super curious about all forms of design, just different things, even just going into a store and looking at packaging and seeing the type on it. I never really thought until I got to school and learned what graphic design was that somebody had to make those things. And that really, really inspired me. And I was like, in graphic design, it’s so broad. You can do logos, you can do packaging design, you can design billboards, but you can also do clothing and apparel design. There’s so many different things you can do.
My brother and I have always been very entrepreneurial and we’re always looking at can we make money? Can we really grow? And so I saw the broadness of graphic design as something that I can really dive into that allowed me to really move and be flexible. And I just saw it as the right career move. And it turned out that it was the right move.
And I think that what I love most about my time at the Art Institute is I got a strong foundation in graphic design and visual design, but there’s also a lot of courses that you can take that were elective like traditional illustration, editorial illustration, and also things like learning Web and Flash; all of those things were a part of that program. And I was able to learn so many different things, but still also hold on to the fact that I’m an artist. I really wanted to be an illustrator for a long time, really go to illustration, or more of the illustration side of graphic design, but ended up really falling in love with logo design and branding. I steered my career towards doing identity design, and I spent a lot of time really focused on that.
But overall, my time at the art Institute was good. I learned a lot there. The school is actually closed now, and so that’s unfortunate. And I know a few of the Art Institutes actually closed. I learned a lot. There are some challenges that I can dig into that I encountered towards the end when I was like, okay, it’s time to find a job. It’s time to get out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah. Talk about those, because I think we have a lot of students that listen to this show, and some of them are in design schools, some of them aren’t, but I know that I often will get letters from rising juniors or rising seniors that are trying to figure out what’s their next step, especially I think in this current climate that we’re in. But no, talk about that. What were some of those difficulties you ran into?

Corey Jones:
In Pittsburgh, there was a lot of agencies in the Pittsburgh area. And when I was getting to the point where it was time to find an internship, I really felt like I struggled to land an internship. For one reason or the other, I just couldn’t find an internship. And I watched a lot of designers around me get internships at some of these places.
And so it was random, but I did my own work. I asked around. And sometimes if you’re not given a opportunity but you always have the power to go find your own opportunity. I took my career, I would say at that time, in my own hands and I started asking around other agencies, other students and peers. And the funny thing is I worked at Office Max at that time. And it was a office supply store, kind of like a Staples. There was a coworker there, and he mentioned that he had a gentleman that he went to church with who had his own marketing agency. And it was called Bynum’s Marketing and Communications. And shout out to Russell Bynum, who’s the founder and owner of that agency. They gave me an opportunity to be an intern, and that experience really was the foundation that shaped my understanding of how an agency worked, how work comes in, how work gets assigned. That was really, really important moment in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting you mention Bynum. Gosh, this is back in maybe 2016 or so, back when Revision Path had a blog and we had writers. And I know we did this series called Black Love by Design. And it was focusing on studios run by Black, married couples, and one of them was Bynum Marketing, Russell and Kathy Bynum.

Corey Jones:
No way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, out of Philly.

Corey Jones:
Oh man, I know Russell and Kathy very well. They gave me an opportunity. It’s sad that the world works the way it does. And I watched all these students landing these internships, and I’m like, what’s the problem here? And that was of those moments that you’re starting to realize how the world works.
And you can take that to two ways. You can be discouraged by it or you can use it as fuel to really push you through moments. And I used that as fuel for me. It was like, I landed this internship, they gave me the opportunity, and I seized every moment of it. Made sure that when I came in, I really gave them some value. I was bringing a lot of the things that I know to their agency. They were learning from me, I was learning from them.
I haven’t chatted with Russell in a while, but Russell and Kathy really gave me a springboard to really start that journey off and really give me some real agency experience, because to find a job when you’re first starting out it’s like chicken and a egg. You don’t have enough experience. And then those internships are really, really crucial in helping you land that first job and really being able to get out there and show that you can do the work, because the portfolio is important, but a lot of times it’s like, well, have you worked at a studio? It could be really tough. But that is such a coincidence.

Maurice Cherry:
It is. And shout out to them for, one, being a Black, married couple that… They’ve both been working in the industry for well over 30 years, and then them extending the opportunity to you as a Black designer as a place where you can start out your career, that’s powerful.

Corey Jones:
I remember being so inspired and so amazed because all these agencies are the same; it’s a couple white dudes who start an agency. And those organizations are just not diverse. And a lot of that, it’s by design.
And I just remember just being so impressed with what Russell and Kathy were doing, and seeing that really, really made me proud. And so I just wanted to add as much value as I could to that agency. I learned a lot from Russell in that time and be forever grateful for that experience.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing, that’s really amazing to hear. And from there, you went on to other roles. I think one of your first really big major roles was senior art director position at GA-1. Tell me about that.

Corey Jones:
Yeah, so there’s a couple series of events that led to a little bit before that. There’s another backstory here that I do want to bring up is I also used to do some freelance for… Around the time that I did the internship and right after that, a teacher of mine has his own studio called Old Creations in the Pittsburgh area. And he was looking for some freelancers, and so I was able to gain some real world experience there. And at that time, that was something that, along with the internship, I was able to use to land what was my first gig as a designer for a studio called Three PC Media. At the time, it was called Kisco. And they’re just right on the outside of the Pittsburgh area.
I’ll tell you the story. What happened was is I got this job. One of the founders actually used to be an alumni of the Art Institute, and he was looking for designers, and so I was one of those designers on the list in working with the departments there to try to help me find a job. And so this is about six months outside of school. And I remember being so excited to just have my first job. I didn’t even care about the salary. I didn’t even think about what they were paying me or anything, I was just happy to have a job and learn.
And so I get into that job, and overall it was a great experience. I learned a lot. I spent a good bit of time working for them. And I forget when exactly it was or how long I actually spent there, but I remember one day they came into my office and they were like, “Hey Corey, we’re going to have to let you go. We’re getting a lot of web work, and we’re not really able to keep you busy. And we could probably afford to give you maybe one more paycheck.”
And so I was done that day. I was done the day that they came into my office and said that. And it really made me just not upset, but it made me just question myself and my worth. And I remember thinking I did well at every task they’ve given me. I did really well. And what the thing was is what I didn’t realize is their business was changing. I didn’t really recognize it. I did mostly print at the time, branding work, and they were starting to move into web design and interactive stuff and I just didn’t have those skills.
And it taught me a really, really important lesson. What it taught me is that wherever you go, whatever agency you work for, you have to be very aware of how that business makes its money, the things that they’re working on, and making sure that you’re always able to add value. And I learned very importantly from that moment that you have to be consistently adding value, because I never wanted to be in a position where I was replaceable.
And so that moment was actually the thing that really lit a fire in me and really opened my eyes that I could have a solid portfolio, I can deliver, I can come in and do the job that I’m asked to do and still lose my job. Really, that was the spark that I needed to really set my career on fire. I never wanted to give anybody a reason to say that they can get rid of me. I wanted to make myself irreplaceable, and so I really just used that as the fuel, as I was saying earlier, to really just constantly add value, make sure I’m learning and growing my skills. I just never wanted to be in that position again. That’s what I did with my career is just I started to really make sure that I’m always looking at not just the thing that I’m good at right now, but the things that I could do that would be above and beyond, that would add more value.
And so I went from that experience. They wrote me a really great recommendation, and so I ended up with landing another job shortly after, and I worked that job for a while. And I saw this opportunity in the DC area for GA-1. And I remember thinking again, I worked with Russell and Kathy, and this agency was a multicultural agency, Black owned, husband and wife, and so it reminded me of that experience that I had. And I thought that, wow, this is great. I felt a sense of a belonging, I felt like you’re going to work with people who are like you.
And I went into that role as a senior art director. And all of the roles that I’ve had in my career, the roles were a little bit… the titles were bigger than you normally seeing somebody starting a career out. My first job was kind like they gave me the title lead designer because it was really just two other people in me. I’ve always had a higher title, but I never really had true mentorship at any of these organizations. When I talk to a lot of designers and who really think that they need to have a mentor and that they need that to grow, and I always tell them, “You’re not always going to have access to mentorship in the organizations, but through the web and the network, your mentor could be anybody. You can make up your own mentor through pulling in aspects of people you admire.”
And it’s funny, people ask me, “Well, who are your mentors? And who were some of your mentors coming up?” And I always say, “I don’t really have any mentors. I never really had somebody who was willing to give me their time,” so I would look at key attributes of people admired. And it could be somebody like Michael Jordan. You look at Michael Jordan, the way he played the game, his dedication, and then you take some of those skills. Or Anthony Bourdain, I was a big food person and I was introduced to the world of food and cooking through him. Rest in peace. And I learned a lot about storytelling and how food is the ultimate connector. And so you pull all these little aspects from people you really admire and you can mold yourself in those images and add those things to who you are and who you want to be.

Maurice Cherry:
I wanted to talk about some of these larger roles that you ended up taking later. You worked at the Borenstein Group for a while. What do you remember from that? What did you learn from those?

Corey Jones:
GA-1 was really the springboard for me understanding a lot more details about how an agency works, how business comes in. I was really heavily relied on in those roles. And I remember just feeling so insecure and a lot of self-doubt in that moment, feeling like I don’t know if I should be the one leading these meetings. But I felt like I was, as I say, was just dropped into the fire. And it was a lot of responsibility to be an active person in business development.
And mind you, this is early on in my career and I’m in these meetings talking to stakeholders and running client meetings, and at the same time I’m just figuring it out and trying to become a better designer. It was a lot of pressure to be able to come in, make sure that I’m adding value, but at the same time still growing and following my interest in different areas of design. And I’ve always been really, really curious, I’ve always been self-motivated, and I love to learn. I just love to try to do new things, and so it’s balancing that with the needs of the agency and the day-to-day grind of the agency life. GA-1 was that foundation of really understanding how an agency works.
And a little bit later, then I end up going to work at the Borenstein Group where I held similar director titles, but it’s where I first started really changing from this print first designer to this web first designer and web and interactive. Because a lot of the work we did at the Borenstein Group, it was branding work, but it was branding and website work.
Later on, more towards the end of that, working at the Borenstein Group, we hired a new director who really was a big time mentor, one of my first design mentors who taught me all about the web industries. His name is Joe DePalma. And he actually runs a creative studio called Punch that’s in the DC area. I think you’re in Arlington. But that was the first person to really spend some time really showing me how things worked, how web works, how to work with code, and all these different things that just was completely new to me.
But that was a crucial thing that I needed to learn because everything around me was changing. We were moving out of print first, we were moving into more interactive. And user experience was starting to become a really big thing. I learned a lot about how to design for a wider range of medium types.
At Borenstein Group, I was able to dive into a lot of different things. I was able to not only do print and branding work but interactive websites, and also, I got to work on an actual game for the iPhone. And it was like me going into the vaults of my background and animation classes. It was an agency promotional thing. The game was called Turtle Soup. I don’t think it exists on iTunes anymore, but the game was centered around this turtle was the mascot, and he would be racing through the DC area, and along the way… It’s like a racing game. And along the way, there’s these little icons like social media. And really, what it was was a self-promotional tool for the agency to use to promote itself to say, “Hey, you can use these other forms of media to really grow your impact and grow your brand using social media.”
Every day was different. You got to do so many different things. But I was also able to really refine my skills in working with clients. The funny thing is when I started that experience, I went from GA-1 where I’m leading client presentations and meetings, and then I go to this Borenstein Group where, for a while I wasn’t pitching, I wasn’t even talking to clients, I was behind the scenes for a little bit. I just remember really thinking about that and wondering, okay, no problem leading these client presentations. And why wasn’t I given the opportunity? I thought a lot about that.
And one day, I was able to do a presentation. It was a large board meeting and we were presenting some branding work. The gentleman was like, “I’d love to hear what Corey has to say.” And that was the first time I got what I called a speaking role. At that time, I really knew branding in and out. I love branding. I could talk about it all day. I really sold the project. I remember the guy saying, “I don’t know where you got him from, but keep him forever.” Then all of a sudden, now I’m in every meeting, I’m in every presentation. Once again, I had to prove myself.
And I just feel like I’ve been in all of these agencies and I’ve always felt this pressure, like I’ve got to prove my worth and prove myself, prove that I deserve to be in the room. And it’s a stressful place to be in to always feel like you’ve got to really show your worth, because going from being laid off, there was already some insecurity starting to brew up. I can’t give anybody a reason to lay me off again. I can’t get fired. And so I took that everywhere I went, and I tried to keep making sure I was making a dent, making value. And so finally being able to do a presentation, it was like, okay, I don’t have to worry about that one thing anymore, I can now continue to keep adding value.
And this is one of the things I always tell young designers is you want to get in these organizations, try to make yourself irreplaceable. When you see a gap, try to fill that gap, always looking for ways to show that you deserve to be in the room. And you do deserve to be in the room, and I think that you just got to always make sure you’re mindful of the business and how you’re adding value to that business. Yeah, great experience, learned a lot, ups and downs, but I was able to really, really start to hone my abilities as a creative director, really learning how to better communicate and better collaborate with those around me. That all came in my time, working at the Borenstein Group.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you still feel that way now?

Corey Jones:
I don’t feel it as much. I can’t shake the feeling that somebody’s always watching. I still feel it to an extent, and I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always had this lingering feeling no matter where I went that I just have to prove myself. I always feel like everybody’s watching me, that they’re just waiting for me to fall or waited for me to fail or do something wrong. This is really just of a me. And that burnt me out for a while, too.
I should say through all that advice of really making sure you’re showcasing your value, make sure you’re really feeling, you got to be careful not to burn yourself out. And I did do that a few years back. Just I’ve had this mentality of always being on, always being available. And really, it’s just not healthy, and really, that’s born out of toxic environments where there’s this expectation for you to always be on. And a good bit of my career, it was like that. The places I was in, they were go, go, go, and you always had to feel like you needed to be available, you needed to be on, on call, working on the weekends and those things. And I remember just doing it, just going with the flow and just taking it as it is. And just thinking that, okay, this is normal. And I realized, and now looking back in retrospect that those environments aren’t normal. It isn’t normal to work that way.
Now at Forum One, it’s different. There wasn’t that expectation to always be on and always be available. And I found that here, people are working the standard shift, they’re 9:00 to 5:00. And that was so foreign to me. I just didn’t understand that. I had never seen that before, and so I found it just great to be able to take a step back from this way I was used to working that was really ultimately leading me to be burnt out. And so I just feel so much more balanced. Now I’m really enjoying the work. And I don’t know how it was for you coming up. I do feel like balance is really, really key. And I think that I’m in a much better place now.

Maurice Cherry:
Certainly, I think trying to find a good balance between work and just trying to live your life is certainly important. I think it was different for me because I had my own studio for a number of years, for roughly nine years. From 2008 to 2017, I was running my own studio. And I didn’t have any business mentorship or anything, at least at the beginning during that time to let me know what the balance could look like. It was the running joke that I used to say is, “Oh, as an entrepreneur, you can work half days, any 12 hours you like.” I would work just day in, day out, wouldn’t stop. And I did it because, yes, I had the freedom to make my own schedule, but it wasn’t something that became sustainable, especially once I started growing in business, and certainly not once I started building a team. It’s like, why am I running myself ragged trying to do this? And I need to try to find a way to make that balance.
Now, for the past five years, I’ve been working for startups, and I’ve really found a way to compartmentalize my work hours are between this hour and this hour. And anything after that, I don’t even think about it. I’m moving on to whatever other stuff that I have to do. Some of it is just really staking those boundaries and really sticking to them.
But yeah, it’s a struggle. I think everyone has to find a way to come to that balance. There’s no one true way to do it, because everyone’s circumstances are different, everyone’s situation is different. You just have to find what works best for you. But I think what we can all know is that working too much in that respect will lead to burnout. Absolutely.

Corey Jones:
Yeah, absolutely. These are just things that you learn along the way. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. And I talk a lot about understanding and knowing the businesses that you work within. Like I talked about, me and my brother, we were always entrepreneurial. And so the barbecue stories, we bypassed the barbecue story, but I’ll jump back to it real quick.
What happened was my brother ended up going into this culinary program. And I’m in the graphic design program, or switching from animation to graphic design. He starts really learning a lot of different sauces and different things. And he had this idea, he was like… One day he comes to me, he’s like, “You know what would be really good? Is a barbecue sauce with coffee. If you think about it, coffee has this roasted smokey flavor. Barbecue has that same character. You know what’d be cool is if we made a coffee infused barbecue sauce.” And he’s like, “You’re in graphic design, you can make the label.”
And that’s literally how it went down. And he was like, “You can make the label.” And so he did all the groundwork. He did all the research into how to get it packaged, how to get the label, the nutritional facts, UPC bar coding, how all this stuff works. He just went out and started researching it, and then we collaborated together. The bottle we have now is a few iterations from what it was. I can’t even look at the first label. I was just like, “Oh, did I design that?” I can’t believe I designed that.”
We’ve been doing the sauce for, oh man, I want to say almost 20 years now. It’s so funny because it was back in college. We started this back in college. And jonesenbbq.com for those who are interested. This is something we did together. And having your own brand and your own business is really… that was the after hours learning. I’m at work and I’m looking at agencies, I’m seeing how agencies work and the business side of agencies, but at home I’m starting a sauce business, a product business, and I’m learning all about how to sell products and building my own website in my free time trying to figure out how to build my own website.
And so I’m after hour is really working on this has been our passion project. And we do well with it. It’s one of those things, if you want things to do well, you have to put more energy into it. But he and I are both career focused. My brother, he’s a chef. And now he actually is transitioning to… He just moved to the Atlanta area. He’s working on some things with a partner down there and really trying to do some interesting concepts, food trucks, and all that.
He was also on the Food Network four times, and won I think three times, he won three times. That’s his of claim the fame there. And so he and I, we’re always running in different circles, but we’re still similar in the sense that we both are really grinding in our own respective areas. And so the barbecue sauce is that one common ground where we come together and work on stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, very cool, very cool. I want to talk about your YouTube channel. This is something I think you started maybe a couple of years ago called Creative Director Studio. Talk to me about that.

Corey Jones:
Well, yeah. And I’ll tell you how that came to be. I always had this mentality for a long time that nobody really cares what I have to say, that nobody was listening. And I realized that that’s just not true. And the reality is there are people watching, there are people listening. And no matter what stage you are in your career, there’s always going to be somebody who is a couple steps below you willing to look at… looking up at you as a mentor, inspired by you. And so I think too many designers out there, or creatives out there often feel self-doubt, but also feel like people aren’t listening to the things that they have that because they haven’t won a major award or whatever it might be. Oh, I haven’t won a major award or an Emmy or anything like that so nobody’s going to care about what I have to say.
But I realized that in mentoring… And I mentor a lot of younger designers now. And then also working at Forum One, I’m a mentor to other designers, and they’re all looking up at me and they’re all taking my advice. And really, I found that that might be my passion. I’ve always been looking for a purpose and passion in this hunger to learn and grow and always adding on new skills to my tool belt.
I’m a creative director, but I went through extensive training in motion graphics and animation a few years back. And I kept asking myself, I was like, what is this new thing going to do for me in my career? What value am I going to leave? What dent can I make in my career? And is it learning the next new thing? And I realized that it’s mentorship. I’ve been so excited to learn that I can really add value to somebody else’s career. And I just found that to be super inspiring.
And so a coworker or colleague of mine, we’ve always talked about this for a long time, about starting some channel dedicated to mentorship. And so we decided to partner up to expand our reach and really make sure that we’re pulling in different perspectives. And so we decided to start the channel, Creative Director Studio, on YouTube. And it’s been a couple months here now, and we’re growing. And it’s a way for me to share what I know, what I’ve learned along the way. And then hopefully, we can inspire the next generation of leaders, of creative leaders, really by sharing what we’ve learned just as a way to give back to the community.
And we’ve got a lot of great plans for the show and thinking about how we’re going to evolve, if we’re going to… What guests we’re bringing in to speak, and really make sure we’re broadening in the voices that happen within creative director studio. And so it’s something we’re working towards. It’s really just a live version of what value I’m giving in my private mentoring sessions when I do those.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you at this stage in your career?

Corey Jones:
I think for a long time, I was focused on winning awards and doing these different things. And I’ve won someone along the way. I spent a lot of time working with the Smithsonian African American museum. I led to visual design of that. We won some Webby Awards for that. And I was able to win some really good awards in my career. And for a long time, I thought that that was the thing that I wanted as my success metric, and I realized that that’s not it.
For me, success is what I’m doing to give back and who I’m lifting up along the way. I am now focused more on mentoring, other designers, mentoring designers, who are like me, look like me. I believe that success is how many people I bring along the ride with me. What can I do with this position I’m in to lift up those around me and make sure that I’m giving back to the creative community, giving back to those of color in design and showing them that they have somebody there to support them and there’s people out there willing to dedicate that time to mentor you?
I didn’t have a lot of mentors, as I said, and so I can be of the mentor that I didn’t have. And so I used the channel, but I also used mentorship as an opportunity to do that. And I think, honestly, I would be happy with my career if I was just able to be that spark in somebody’s career. If I could just do that, if I could just keep doing that, inspire one person, go to the next person, then to the next person and really, really make sure that I’m just giving back to the community. To me, that’s success enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want your next chapter to look like?

Corey Jones:
I am enjoying being a creative director in and leading projects. I’m seeing myself diving into just new forms of design. I’m really excited by the new tech coming out. And there’s all this buzz around AI generated creative. I always live and thrive in that area of curiosity, so anything new that’s coming out, I’m on it. I’m willing to dive in and learn. It’s hard to say; five years is a long time from now, so I see myself diving into some new tech and really diving into just really bigger and better or more… I should say more innovative ideas. I see myself heading in that direction.

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

Corey Jones:
On social media, I’m on Twitter. I use Twitter most for the most part. I’m @coreycreative. You can find me at Corey Creative also on LinkedIn. The barbecue sauce is jonesenbbq.com. Try it out. The best sauce you never tried. And you can also check me out on my YouTube channel at Creative Director Studio. Yeah, that’s where you can find me. I’m always willing to work with people, mentor people, so if those of you out there are looking for mentorship and you need somebody to help you with your career, you can also find me on LinkedIn. Feel free to reach out, happy to connect with anybody.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Corey Jones, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think probably what stands out the most to me from hearing your story and hearing about all of the things that you’re working on is that you’re someone that has drive. And I think that’s rare nowadays because there’s so much that’s available to… For a designer that wants to start out now, you’ve got classes, you’ve got LinkedIn, you’ve got YouTube, you have so much stuff that you may not even have the passion to really become a great designer unless you really have that drive. And it sounds like you’re someone that has just always had that motivation to strive and do more and be better. And I think that’s something that we can all really get inspired by. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Corey Jones:
Thank you. It was all my pleasure. I was happy to be here and add to the series. Thanks a lot.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Dr. Perry Sweeper

Avid listeners of the podcast know that whenever I have a Black design educator on the show, eventually I’m going to bring up my alma mater, Morehouse College. And while I’ve had a few Morehouse alums on the show in the past, I’m really excited to have an actual Morehouse faculty member — Dr. Perry Sweeper — as a guest this week. Has Morehouse leveled up since I was a student there *cough cough* years ago?

After a quick summer check-in, we talked about Morehouse’s software engineering major, and about how it feels teaching at a school with such a historic reputation. From there, Dr. Sweeper told the story about growing up in Baltimore, attending Morgan State University, and how his post-grad career led him into education. With great minds like Dr. Sweeper teaching the next generation, I think we’re going to be in good hands for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Hi. My name is Dr. Perry Sweeper. I’m a Professor of Practice at Morehouse College. I’m a designer, an educator, and a researcher.

Maurice Cherry:
What is a Professor of Practice? What does that mean?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So there are different levels at universities. There are Adjunct Professors, who maybe teach one or two classes. There are also people who are on the tenure track, who might be in the Assistant Professor ranks. A Professor of Practice, by my definition, is someone who comes in from industry to teach a particular class or classes for a university.
And one of the benefits of having someone in a Professor of Practice role, is they’re someone who’s both working in industry and academia at the same time, so they can give you a right now experience, from the perspective of a person working in the field, for the students.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That makes sense. So it’s not like someone that’s a career academic essentially?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I got you. I was thinking, I know that there’s some trade schools I know that do that. I think the art institutes do that as well. They’ll have people who are actually working professionals, but then they also will teach courses and stuff.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So how’s the summer going for you so far?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It is busy. It’s really busy. It’s good. I’m going to try to take some time to rest before classes start in a couple of weeks, but it’s going well.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you ready for the upcoming school year?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. I am. I’m ready to talk to students again, interact with students again. I have some things that I want to do as far as the syllabus is concerned or the curriculum, some tweaks I want to make, but other than that, I’m fully prepared and ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Speaking of school, you teach at Morehouse College, and listeners of this show know I am an alumnus of Morehouse College. You started in the 2021 school year. I’m just curious, how has it been teaching during the pandemic?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It has been extremely interesting because you have to be agile and flexible, and in your work role, in the way that you assign, you also have to be transparent as well and you have to be empathetic to what’s going on with the students. So during that time, I tried to make sure that I was thinking about what was going on and also trying to get a cadence of where the students were physically, mentally, and emotionally because some of them were stuck at home and not able to come to campus, or they came to campus and they had to leave. There were so many different things going on personally with the students, so it was a really, really interesting time. I think it is actually a time where it felt like we were really, really far apart, but I think it brought the campus community closer together in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you haven’t been to the campus yet though, have you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, I haven’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you got to come down to Atlanta and come to the campus. I don’t live that far from Morehouse actually.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Oh, awesome. Yeah, I actually visited the Morehouse campus years ago, probably 10 or 15 years ago, but I haven’t been there since.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Morehouse is a college that has a distinct history, so I’ve heard a lot about it, read a lot about it. It’s actually an honor to be able to teach at the school.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s changed a lot since I graduated certainly, which is, my God, knocking on 20 years ago. Oh, my God, I just thought about that. I just did the math. I mean, the campus has changed a lot in terms of they’ve expanded in some ways. There’s a performing arts center now. They’ve got campus apartments and things like that. I think even the building where… You’re in the Computer Science Department I think pretty much, right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Correct, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
So even the building where that is used to be… When I was there, the computer lab and all that stuff used to be in Wheeler, but you haven’t to campus, so you don’t know this. There used to be a Wheeler Hall, which is right near the entrance of Morehouse, and then they built the Technology Tower, which is where they moved it, which is kind of near Sale Hall and near Graves Hall, which is kind of near the big lawn on Morehouse’s campus, the great lawn on Morehouse’s campus. It’s nice if you get a chance to check it out. Actually, I don’t know if this is true, but you’ll have to tell me, does Mrs. Banks still work there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Mrs. Banks?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
What’s the first name?

Maurice Cherry:
Martha. She’s the Administrative Assistant for the Computer Science Department.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I almost remember her retiring.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Don’t know if it’s the right person, but I’m not a good person to ask when it comes to… I know interacting with the department, I haven’t had a chance to interact with her.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
She was like my mom on campus. I was a math major, so most of my stuff was in Dansby I believe. I’m trying to remember the names of the dorm now that I’m thinking about it, or the names of the buildings. I think most of my stuff was in Dansby, but I was doing work study stuff, so I would always be in the computer lab. I would always be in Mrs. Bank’s office at the desk and everything. I don’t know if she still works there. I mean, I would imagine 20 years from now, probably not, because I think she had been there probably since the ’80s when I started, so I don’t know.
If she is still there, shout out to Mrs. Banks, who has been helping a generation of Black male technologists pass through that school. She is an unsung hero of Morehouse College.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. While we’re shouting out Ms. Banks, who I’m going to look up by the way, we have to shout out all of the Administrative Assistants who were like moms and aunts at HBCUs.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There’s always one. When you’re talking about Ms. Banks, I’m thinking of Ms. Brown. I’m thinking of countless others, and Ms. Ash in my experiences at HBCUs, so that’s really interesting to hear you talk about her.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the courses that you’re teaching. What are you teaching at Morehouse?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Right now I’m teaching Human-Computer Interaction. Last summer, I also wrote a Data Visualization course as well, and so I’m looking to teach that very soon.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were telling me before we started recording that what you’re doing is kind of… Or at least the program in which you’re teaching is not really a department. It’s like an interdisciplinary studies program. Is that right?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. It’s experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, and so there are various subjects in the department. I think that it’s a really innovative way to look at education. Morehouse is doing something very interesting as well because they’ve had some shifts in the way that they have designed their program, and even as I’m talking, very recently they’ve changed the structure, the departments, so departments, divisions, chairs, it’s really going to be more of a STEM-oriented environment, more so.
This will be the first semester that we’re under that structure, so I’m looking forward to that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you major in Design at Morehouse? I would imagine with this experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies, you can kind of mix and match kind of different fields of study. When I went there, and I’ve told this story countless times in presentations and stuff, I started at Morehouse in 1999, right around the early days of the web, and I remember telling my Computer Science professor there, Dr. Jones.
I started in a dual degree program doing Computer Science/Computer Engineering, and I remember going to him one day and telling him that I wanted to do Web design. I was interested in Web design. I had been doing view source on websites and stuff, and I told him about it. I remember him telling me that the Internet was a fad, and that if I wanted to study that, I would need to change my major because that’s not what we study here. He’s like, “We do hardcore computer science. We’re learning assembly. We’re teaching you how to be a programmer.”
I wanted to be a programmer, but just not, I guess, a computer programmer. I wanted to do Web design, and so I did end up changing my major, but I’m wondering now, since Morehouse went through all these shifts in curriculum and programs as you mentioned, is it possible now to major in design there?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
No, it’s not. There is an Art Program, and then there’s a Computer Science Program. So a lot of the students that I actually teach in Human-Computer Interaction are Software Engineering majors.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
And so you won’t get the design part, but my background is design, so I teach Human-Computer Interaction from a design standpoint or a UX-design standpoint because the fields are so closely knit. When you look at industry, typically when you look at the waterfall method of software design, you get an idea, you make it, and you give it to the users, and that’s it. Then you have agile and other methodologies where you’re constantly iterating on the design and speaking to users as you go along, so that what you actually produce is something that the users will actually want and need for what they’re doing.
So it’s really interesting to interact with computer science students and engineers because I take pride in bringing this perspective to them and teaching them about psychology and teaching them about doing interviews with your users and finding out about them and learning about the environment that those users are working in, whether they’re going to be looking at a computer screen for a very long time and they might need dark mode, or just a lot of different things. So it’s almost like looking at anthropology or ethnography and really getting to know the users.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really interesting that Morehouse has kind of branched out in that way. I mean, I knew that they had the art major, and I don’t know if they have any more art professors because the one professor they had I remember, Dr. Anderson, I believe he passed away. I’m pretty sure they might have another art professor now if they still have the major, but I often get asked from people when I tell them I went to Morehouse and because I’ve been a working designer for so long, they’re like, “Oh, did you major in design?” I was like, “No, I majored in math,” and they’re like, “What? How’re you a designer and you didn’t go to design school?”
That’s interesting. I would like to see Morehouse still have some kind of a design discipline of some sort because I feel like it’s something that the school is really greatly missing. I mean, they’ve got music. They’ve got so many other things. I just feel like one day, and I’m saying this probably partially out of vanity because I would like to come back and speak at Morehouse one day, but I can’t really speak to the Math Department because I don’t do math and I can’t speak to the Computer Science Department because I don’t do computer science, so yeah.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
We can make that happen now. We can make it happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about that offline then. We’ll confer about that.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It’s actually a desire of mine to one day see a design program at Morehouse as well, and so we’ll see how far we get that in the next five years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been teaching at such a well known institution? Do you feel any kind of pressure or anything?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, Morehouse is looked at… As far as males and Black colleges and excellence and all of the alumni and graduates who are doing great things out there, it’s a lot of pressure as a professor because I’m not a Morehouse Man, but I take pride in having a hand in the education of a Morehouse Man. So being able to understand the history and the distinction behind it is, I think, integral in being a part of the campus in a way, and when I say the campus, I mean just the academic cadre of folks that are there.
I haven’t gotten to interact with certain professors there, like Dr. Muhsinah Morris, who’s doing Morehouse in the Metaverse, or the Metaversity. I’m teaching on Zoom, but in the next year or two, I want to transition to VR headsets and looking at a hybrid way to kind of teach on that campus, and she has been just integral in making sure that that happened during the pandemic. It’s just amazing to see that grow at the university as well.
We had the COVID and all of that. It’s terrible some of the things that happened during that time, but it’s just a great opportunity for innovation in academia.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know last year’s commencement took place in the metaverse. I got an email about that. I was like, “Oh, isn’t that something?”

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. It is. Actually it’s a direction we want to go in. We are partnering with different EdTech companies and trying to make sure that we are looking at education in a different way and making it available to more students.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, if you’re looking for some Black folks that are doing stuff in the metaverse, I can certainly introduce you to a few we’ve had on the show before.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Absolutely. Yeah, definitely. I would love to get those recommendations, and I will comb through it myself and look at it because your podcast is basically a place to go for research at this point. So I’ll definitely do that homework, and I’ll look at those recommendations.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the rest of the department like? Have you had a chance to work with any other professors? Or talk with any other professors?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So the Division Chair, Dr. Kinnis Gosha, he’s been just integral in my development. He’s the one who posted the job, and so getting an opportunity to speak to him. He’s at the university. He’s an Endowed Professor, so he is been at the university for a while, and he runs the Culturally Relevant Computing Lab there, and so they’re doing some really interesting projects around Black male initiatives and technology. So being able to speak to him and Dr. Morris as well has been great.

Maurice Cherry:
Well man, you got to come down to the campus. I think you’ve got to come and spend at least a week on campus. Go to Crown Forum, see the King statue, definitely got to eat at Chivers. Got to eat at Chivers.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to go through the Technology Tower. You got to go see the view of the grass. Don’t walk on the grass, that’s the one thing. There’s a big great lawn in front of Graves Hall, which is the main… When you see the Morehouse logo, that building, that’s Graves Hall. It’s a dormitory. Don’t walk on the lawn, it’s supposed to be bad luck. Especially if you didn’t go to Morehouse, it’s supposed to be bad luck. People play soccer on that lawn sometimes, but that was 20 years ago. I don’t know what it is like now. But you got to go and experience really not just Morehouse, but experience the AUC.
You said that you’ve been to Morehouse before though, right? Didn’t you say came here several years ago?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yes. So I came to Atlanta. I saw the campus. I saw some of the campus. I saw a lot of Dr. King monuments and different artifacts. So I’ve been down there, but it’s been a while. During the pandemic, I planned it once, and then, “Oh, COVID is high,” and it’s all these different things. So it’s been up and down, but I feel it. How can I teach at the university and not actually step on campus? I just feel I have to make it happen. I have to do that. Even if you do it virtually and you walk around campus with some Oculus VR headsets on, I got to go and look at some of these things that you’re referring to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man. I’m telling you the AUC in the spring is lit. I mean, the Strip, which is this promenade. It’s mostly Clark Atlanta, but it connects Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, and Spelman. It kind of connects us together. I mean, in the springtime, I might be looking at this through filtered 20-year-old rose-colored glasses, but man, I’m telling you, springtime on the Strip is like none other. It’s paradise, just a cavalcade of positive Blackness as far as the eye can see.
People talk about a different world, and Hillman, which of course is based off of Morehouse and Spelman, it’s very much like that. Especially when Spelman opens up, and they have Market Fridays and you get to see Lower Manley and the steps and everything. Oh, it’s such an experience. I have pictures from that time because I was a photographer. Back then, I called myself a photographer, I had a digital camera. I just look back at that time like, “Oh, man. We were so young, just so crazy.”
It was such a wild time, and it’s funny because some of us now have went on to do great things in the world. The current Mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, we were in the same graduating class, in the same class.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
[inaudible 00:21:47].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So it’s really interesting. I don’t know. It’s funny because like I said, I don’t live that far from Morehouse. I don’t really go there because I don’t have a need to as an adult 20 years out of college, but it is right there in the neighborhood. It’s just good to know that it’s there and it’s still kind of doing great things in the community. So what do you learn from your students? What do they teach you?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Well, I had this project during COVID, and it was my attempt… So let’s go to Black Panther for a second. I’m super excited. November is coming, so we’re going to get… But there is this scene in Black Panther where they’re there and they go back, and they want to give this new technology to the United States, I perceive it as, that they’ve never seen before. You have the little kids, and they’re like looking at what looks like to them a spaceship or crazy looking car and this new technology, and their idea was to bring this innovative technology into this urban environment and see how it could improve.
So I thought about that in one of the projects that I gave. So the way that the course works, you learn the principles of the human-computer interaction during the first half of the semester, and as you learn those principles, you get small projects, but the students gain an understanding of what human-computer interaction is.
Then during the second part of the semester, they start putting those things into practice. So the project was to come up with a piece of technology that would be needed in a community like that, and I framed it based on that part of Black Panther. Just some of the projects that came out of that, so what did I learn from them? I learned where their minds are, where their focused at. I was just so, not surprised because I know they’re all bright students there, they teach me that all semester, but to see just a small example of the contribution that some of these students can make and will make in society, it’s amazing.
Some of the projects they came up with, for instance, was this one-line encyclopedia or anthology. So in 2020 and 2021, there are all kinds of things going on in the news and so forth and so on, so if you had to have a conversation or talk to someone about what was going on, a lot of people didn’t want to talk about it. Others wanted to talk about it, but they didn’t know how.
And so one of the students came up with this version of an online encyclopedia or resource, where it had all of these resources on things that were going on racially in the community, how to talk about it, different resources, and so he put his time into it. It’s a human-computer interaction class, so you don’t have to code it, but he went the extra mile and actually coded the site and put it up and running. Their projects, they always just blow me away, some of the things that they come up with.
So in the AUC, as you know, there’s Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, and Spelman, so I’ve had an opportunity to interact with Clark Atlanta students and Spelman students as well. I had a very large group of Spelman students in my class last semester, and it was just excellence. All of the projects, they were always on point. No matter what was going on, they were active in class, asking questions, so forth and so on.
They really, really teach me the greatness of this generation. In society we can go and look and say, “Oh, these kids don’t know anything about music and they’re doing this or doing that,” like generations before, but to see just excellence from the students is extremely encouraging.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I have a feeling that Spelman students are probably pretty good. I mean, probably better than Morehouse students, and I say that not out of rank comparison, but I keep bringing this back to my time there because that’s such a easy reference for me to pull from. But I mean, I went through a summer program before I started my freshman year, and I mean, the women at Spelman were just leaps and bounds above the guys at Morehouse. We were in a similar program. It was a NASA-funded program. I mean, just leaps and bounds. It was amazing, so I can only imagine.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. They’re exceptional.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s kind of switch gears here and learn more about you. Let’s learn more about your origin story. Tell me where you grew up.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I grew up in Baltimore City, and I grew up not too far from Morgan State University where I later went to school. So as a kid growing up in Baltimore City, all the schools I went to were less than five miles apart. We call it Smalltimore here because it seems like you know someone who knows someone else, and you end up being related to folks that you didn’t know you were related to, or people know your parents and different things like that. So I grew up in Baltimore, Smalltimore. I didn’t know about design growing up, but I loved art, and so I grew up getting Disney Adventures magazines.
When I got older, I used to take my allowance and buy Vibes and XXL and Black Enterprise and all of those magazines, and I would really spend a lot of time in the house, dissecting those magazines, finding out who those people were. It got to a point where I was dissecting them. I was looking at them so in depth that I found out who was designing it and what their job titles were. So going from being an artist per se and drawing all the time, I learned about graphic design. I learned about design.
Fast forward to high school, I went to Baltimore City College High School in Baltimore. There was an opportunity at the school to do independent study when you’re in 12th grade, and so I took two semesters of independent study, drawing, doing artwork, producing a portfolio at that point. That’s how my career started from that point, learning about graphic design.
As I’m matriculating at Morgan State University, I got more into my program and started to get more interested in graphic design, I volunteered to work on the yearbook at the university. They were somehow behind in years, so it might have been the year 2003, and they were behind. They hadn’t given the graduating seniors from the 2001 or 2002 graduating year their yearbooks, so what they did was they contracted us students who had graphic design skills to actually design the yearbook, do all the layout, and make it look like it wasn’t a yearbook, make it look more like a magazine.
That was our objective, to make this interesting. They’ve been waiting a really, really long time, let’s make this good. So for about two or three years, I worked in that office. It was right across the hall from the newspaper office as well, and so before the offices became integrated and it became Student Publications, I worked separately, giving some extra effort to help out with the newspaper and also help out with the yearbook. So while I was learning, I was looking at other opportunities to gain experience while I was on that campus.
It’s like all of these things just kind of snowballed together because I gained an understanding of publication design and that particular office, the Office of Student Publications, was run by Ms. Denise Brown, who was one of those people that felt like your mother. And if she didn’t feel like your mother, she at least felt like your aunt, and she ran those offices and we produced those publications. We caught up, and she gave us other opportunities as well. One of the professionals who was helping out with that newspaper actually worked at the Washington Post, so we talked, and he said, “Keep in touch,” and I kept in touch with him.
So I graduated and after graduation, I got an email from him saying, “Hey, we got an opportunity for a person to come and be a Production Assistant at the Washington Post.” The Washington Post had a Washington Post magazine, and so at the Washington Post, I got to work on that Washington Post magazine, helping to layout those stories that go in it.
I worked in Student Publications, but everybody knows the Washington Post in the States, so it was huge for me to get that opportunity to work there and sit in that room and see news as it happens. Even though I was working on the magazine, I still was in the newsroom or near the newsroom, so I got to see all of that going on. So that is how my story kind of evolved to publication design and graphic design, and I call that my origin story.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s back up because you just took me through 20 years, so let’s back it up. I get the sense that definitely design was something that you were always into. Clearly you went into that with going into school. I want to hear about what the program was like at Morgan State because you were studying design. I guess this was right around maybe 2001, 2002-ish, something like that when you started?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I started in 2001, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
What was the design program like? Because I didn’t even know that… Again, I’m basing this off my experience with Morehouse, I didn’t know that any HBCUs even had design programs back then, so tell me what that program was like.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Entering into that program, my first couple of years at Morgan I was taking general education classes, so I didn’t even get to the department until the end of my sophomore year or junior year. I didn’t really know what was going on, but when I got there, it was in bad shape. They had just let the building actually, and it was leaking and everyone was frustrated and the program didn’t have much money. It didn’t have a whole lot of support, and there weren’t enough professors teaching in it, so I walked into a department that was in chaos.
I think in 2003, they were moved to a brand new building. It’s called the Murphy Fine Arts Building. So, this was a state-of-the-art building, and it had a performance hall. Morgan is known for its choir. The choir is huge. They tour all over the world. People have successful careers as singers and musicians coming from the Morgan program, and so a lot of that building was built for that department. There were other two other departments there, the Theater Department and it was us, the Art Department.
And so our program was really focused. When you first enter in, they taught you the foundation. Even if you’re a graphic design major, you’re taking painting. You’re taking printmaking. You’re taking drawing. You’re taking a couple years of basic design. They want to really make sure that you get an understanding of how this was done before computers really took off, so that was the foundation there. So all of this stuff going on, they didn’t have money, and then they transitioned to this new building and it felt like a hallway in this huge building.
So although they weren’t in the position that they were in before, they were in a better position, they still weren’t where they needed to be. What the department did is they said, “We need to get a professor in here who knows about graphic design, who can come in here and build this department,” and so they hired a person named Joseph Ford. He worked on the campus previously in the Public Relations Department, so he had a hand in making sure that all of the publications that needed to go out, graduation, commencement, the Morgan Magazine, he was working on a lot of that. Any branding or logos that needed to be done, he was working on that.
But before he worked at Morgan, he had a successful career in advertising, and he also worked for TV stations doing graphic design for them, so he had an understanding of the campus, and he also had an understanding of the industry. He came to the department and really built the program, so those last couple years he was there, he was teaching basically almost all of the graphic design courses.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. One professor, and he is really just amazing, what he did with that program. You come to him with a problem, and everybody’s there and they’re like, “Oh, we only got this hallway. We got this, that, and the other,” and he is hearing it, but he’s focused on making sure that this program and the students get what they need. So what he did was he had some friends in the industry, and he somehow connected them all, and he made a way where famous Black artists got together and they produced a poster for the department. The proceeds from selling this piece of original artwork, and they had print made of it, went to scholarships for students there. Then it went to bringing these particular artists to the university to speak to the students.
And so he was bringing these particular Black artists to the department, raising money. Really, he took the money out of his own pocket, but it’s the crazy things that professors do to make sure that students have what they need. He supplied everyone that was there with a scholarship to an AIGA membership, and so he gave that to them. He promoted all of the events that they were having at AIGA in Baltimore and the AIGA Nationals, and he really introduced us to the AIGA.
We had no idea what it was as students, and we would go to the particular programs. We got to know the president of the AIGA, he would come to the campus and support what we were doing there. He also had made a connection where the AIGA brought a conference to Morgan State University. I think it was like a portfolio review, and so we got our portfolios reviewed by people in industry. I remember Ellen Lupton was there, a bunch of other professional designers, and so he came up with all these innovative ways. He bootstrapped basically the Graphic Design Program while I was there and graduated.
When we look back on it, a lot of the students there have had successful careers in graphic design. I mean, some of the students have graduated. They work for the NBA. They work for Major League Baseball, doing design. They work for IBM, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun. [Ogilby 00:38:38] was included in that, but having their own businesses and doing a lot of things, so we really were a program that started from the bottom, but made something of it. Really didn’t have much, but made something out of the program/.
And I think I have to give my hat off to him and all the work that he did. I still speak to him a whole lot now, but I have to give him credit for it. The other professors there absolutely, but as far as graphic design is concerned, he was definitely instrumental in making sure that happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So after you graduated, you talked a little bit about the Washington Post. You also talked a little bit about going back and working at Morgan State. Now also after school, you kind of ended up going back to school. You went to MICA for a while, and then you went to the University of Baltimore, which is eventually where you got your doctorate at. Kind of tell me about that time. What sparked that decision for you to decide to go back to school?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
There were two points that I want to make. One was when I was early on in my career at Morgan, I remember one of the professors telling me that you could get a Doctorate in Design. I had no idea. So I think that sparked something in me as well because I was like, “Well, how far can you go in this career as far as education is concerned?”
The other piece is that the graphic design world, the design world, changed so much. Even throughout college and starting out, it was all about publications. I had a love for publications. And then publications started to fold, and the industry started to go digital. It was convergence, where news reporters were now writing the story, taking the photographs, and almost designing the stories at the same time. Multimedia journalists were coming about, and so I really said to myself, “I have to learn more.”
I never really grasped coding a website, and I wanted to learn more about that, so I had a Bachelor of Arts in graphic design and illustration, double major in both of them, and I wanted to learn more about the integration of design. So that’s why I looked at the University of Baltimore and their program.

Maurice Cherry:
And so as you were going through that program, I’m curious, was it much different from what you were learning at Morgan State? It’s kind of interesting you kind of started out at an HBCU and then went to a traditional art school with MICA, and then now to University of Baltimore. Was that a big shift, just education-wise?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
It definitely was. So when I went to MICA, I was taking continuing studies courses. I just always had a love for learning. So after I graduated from Morgan, I automatically wanted to learn more, get better at my craft, and the best way I knew how to do that was to go back to school. I was taking digital illustration courses at MICA. Then I saw the program at the University of Baltimore, and they were one of the only programs at the time where you could get a Doctorate in Design. During that time, I think early on, it used to be a Doctorate of Communication Design.
That just brought so much together, what I was interested in with publication design, this integration of various forms of media and producing it, and seeing that program really attracted me to the University of Baltimore and the level of skills. So one of the first classes that you have to take at the University of Baltimore is a class about writing, so you have to write. You have to design the stories at the same time, so that’s challenging because they want your writing to be just as good as your design.
That’s what you talk about in the class, and that’s what you work on. The class was on a Saturday, early in the morning until in the afternoon, so it was a really long class, challenging subject. When I first got there, I really struggled with those first couple of classes because it was a different level. Not to say that the level of education that I got at Morgan wasn’t high, it was just different at the University of Baltimore. It was pulling different muscles, working different muscles in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re kind of in a rare echelon of Black design professionals with PhDs. Are there any other peers of yours that you work with or you do research with or anything like that?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Most of the time in the environments that I’m in or freelancing, people find out I have a Doctorate in Information Design, and they almost ask the question, “Why?” You may get an MFA, and that’s a terminal degree, but most people, they don’t think there’s a need for it, so it’s hard to understand the value of it. I think looking at the way that the different forms of media come together, and then adding a research perspective and understanding design research and understanding more about the user and pulling in these different disciplines, like psychology and anthropology and computer science, I feel like it puts you in a different class with all of those. You have more in your toolbox to add to the environments that you’re in, and so the peers that I have, sometimes I come into an environment and they’re like, “What are you doing here?” It’s like intimidation, depending on who I’m around.
In other environments, it’s like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this. Bring everything that you have. I’ll bring my skillset, and we can work together.” So the cohort of graduates, there are a couple of people that I still talk to that graduated from the program. There are people in the program now that I speak to. There are people in the industry, some people that you’ve had on this show, that could relate to just that level of education or that thirst for that education, so it’s a small cohort that’s growing.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career now, look back at the span of everything that you’ve done, what advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I would really say, “Be fearless. Just be fearless, and do it. Don’t be afraid of your own greatness.” I say that because I think about my career and how I walked into some situations timidly that I could have taken more advantage of, that I could have went all in and probably benefited more from it. So I think I would say that, “Be fearless.”

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of that, if you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you try to do?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Wow. I would bring a whole bunch of different things together. I think I would just take all the energy that I have and put it into making sure that as many people who are interested in design in my city, in my sphere of influence, knew about it. They had opportunities. They had internships. They had mentors. They had apprenticeships. They had jobs. I think that’s what I would do. If I could just do anything, I would probably do what I’m doing, just at a higher level.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I think success, to me, looks like not just writing down the idea, but following through and putting action to it. If there’s success in it, great. If it’s successful, great. If it fails, I learn from it. So I think success is either it goes really, really well or I learn from it, and both of those are success for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What are some projects and things that you’re working on now?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m really excited about a book. I talk a lot about the program that I grew out of at Morgan, and so I’m writing a book about that now, the Morgan story basically, and it’s called Design at a HBCU. It really tells my perspective of what went on there, and so I’m really, really excited about that. I just started my own studio, and so I’m at the beginning stages of building that. That’s called [LADS 00:48:00], and so I’m really excited about that, a studio practice.
Also, after I graduated from the University of Baltimore with my doctorate, one of the decisions I made was to start an endowment for Visual Arts students, and so far since graduation, we’ve raised about $10,000, and so I’m really excited about where we are now and I’m excited about growing that. So I think in the next five years, I’d love to see it reach $100,000. That would be awesome to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Overall, what’s the next step for you? What do you want the next chapter of your legacy to be?

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
I want it to be a growing a design studio and possibly entering academia full-time instead of part-time. I’m really thinking about that. So having a studio practice, interacting with academia on a regular basis, growing that scholarship fund, raising a family. I have two boys and a wife, so that’s important to me, making sure they get what they need and they grow, and just looking forward to the future.

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

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
So I’m available on LinkedIn under Dr. Perry Sweeper. You can find me there. You can find a website at www.psweeper.com. Send me an email. I’d love to talk to you.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dr. Perry Sweeper, I want to thank you so much for coming on this show, and I want to just thank you for sharing your story about how you really got into design. I could tell it’s something that you’re super passionate about, and the fact that you’re able to also help to teach the next generation of designers and technologists.
You’re teaching in that department at Morehouse, but you’re able to kind of teach the next generation and take your love for design and pass it on to them so they can know that they can make their own mark on the world, just like you’ve made your mark on the world. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Perry Sweeper:
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Agyei Archer

When I tell you I have wanted to have this week’s guest on the show for years? LISTEN. I’m so glad to bring you this conversation with the one and only Agyei Archer — typographer, design director, and all-around creative powerhouse.

We touched on a number of different topics, including his brilliant type design work, and how he built two businesses during the pandemic. He also shared how his motivation to succeed comes from his connection to the Caribbean, and talked about how he balances design, tech, his work with Unqueue, and exploring new type design projects. There are a lot of things to fix in this world, but if you’ve got skills like Agyei, then that just means your next project is right around the corner. Get on it!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Agyei Archer:
My name is Agyei Archer. I am a designer and entrepreneur currently based in Trinidad. My work extends in a few different branches, one of them is in making typefaces. So I work on typeface design, but primarily with a focus on typeface design, to support the cultures and spaces of the post-colonial slash new world and the global south. And I also, I’m an entrepreneur in my home country of Trinidad, where I run a design company called Unqueue, where we help small businesses sell online. And we also have a studio called the Unqueue Studio, where we help other startups and institutions, such as government bodies and large corporate entities build their own digital products, to move towards Trinidad’s digital transformation.

Maurice Cherry:
I believe your type design was how I first heard about you, like years and years ago. How’s the summer been going for you so far?

Agyei Archer:
In the type design world or just in general?

Maurice Cherry:
Just in general.

Agyei Archer:
It’s been good for me, I started off. I mean, I think it would’ve been probably in the start of the American summer at Facebook. So I did a talk for Meta’s OpenArts team. So I gave a talk as part of their visionary series and that was really good, but I think that kicked off my summer. And then I also gave another talk at a conference, called the Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis, that’s long ago. And those have been really good, I’ve been really enjoying this particular summer, because I’ve been so face down in dealing with Unqueue stuff, especially because Trinidad was so locked down for as long as it was. This summer feels like that I’m becoming an international person again.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So with that in mind, what’s coming up for you for the next few months?

Agyei Archer:
Right now we have at Unqueue, which is my startup at home we are working, pretty hard and growing. So we’ve just started working on connecting a lot of our local population with our local farmers. So we have a massive food import bill in Trinidad, which is wild because we’re a tropical country that can grow fruits all year round. But we have a massive challenge with people on the ground in Trinidad, purchasing produce from people who are making it in Trinidad. And we have recently built in an addition to our software, that allows local farmers to connect with the general public. So we are currently helping people sell vegetables, and helping farmers direct more organic produce to their shoppers.

And that for me has been my hugest kick, it’s not as great as writing a massive Python script or anything. But I think that I’ve been really appreciating recently, especially with Unqueue how much technology can help people on the ground. So that’s been what I’ve been mostly excited about, I’ve been working on that, and I’ve been working on a new typeface project with Darden Studio.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Can you talk about that typeface project?

Agyei Archer:
Sure. Oh, I forgot, it’s not recent anymore. So a few years ago, I started working on a typeface that was based on and inspired by the writing styles, that signed to be pervasive across post-colonial spaces. So there was this energy that sign painting and post-colonial spaces came with, that I was trying to see if I could capture into a typeface. And when I say post-colonial spaces, I’m not just talking about the Caribbean, but I’m also talking about post-colonial spaces like Ghana, and Nigeria, and India. And the really ferocious energy that a lot of those sign painting designs have come with, have been really inspiring to me for a lot of years. I’ve been obsessed with sign painting in Trinidad, and then beyond Trinidad for a lot of my life.

And I think that the project that I’m working on with Darden Studio right now is, trying to distill that hand painted sign energy into something that we could use for text, which has been a really interesting, challenging, not interesting challenge, but also really fulfilling. I’ve been really enjoying it, I’m working with Darden Studios designer [inaudible 00:07:59] on creating it, but it’s been really nice. It’s also frankly, nice to be building work for a studio that was founded by a Black typeface designer of whom there are so few.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. I mean, I know that you were known as Trinidad’s first typeface designer.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean, I’m not even sure that I’m… I think that there was a typeface that was designed before me in Trinidad. I think, that what I meant was that I am Trinidad first typeface designer, who is doing it for a living. But I think that even the idea of being the first, for me, is a lot less important, than it is the idea of being somebody who is making things that are culturally specific. I do think that there is a distance between who is making the work and who is the work for. And I think that who is the work for, is always a more interesting question, but who is making the work tends to be the question we ask. Which is something that I’m navigating, because I think that as a Black person who is making type in the world, I feel like that’s, yes, that’s a momentous occasion. Because up to 20 years ago, Black people were not making type.

But I also think that the reality is that, it’s far more about for whom the type that I’m making is than it is what I look like. Because to be frank, if there were a white man who were making typefaces that was inspired by post-colonial creativity, I would be as excited. But I do think that, that’s also because a lot of the work that I’m making right now, I am hoping that it does well commercially, but it’s not that it’s not for commercial consumption. But for example, with the typeface that we’re working on at Darden Studio, that typeface has a language support that is relatively rare among the type world. So it supports every single African tribal language in Latin, which is a rarity. But for me it was a little bit weird or inappropriate, to be developing a typeface that was inspired by these spaces, and not let that type face support the languages of the people by whom it was inspired.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Tré Seals on the show, goodness, that was years. I think there might have been 2017, 2018 before his typeface design, really started blowing up. And I see his typefaces everywhere, and it’s interesting that you say like, “Who it’s for.” Because granted, there’s a historical context in which Tré bases all of his designs, but I’ve seen them used in movie trailers, in yogurt commercials, I’ve seen them used everywhere.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah, for sure. I think that Tré’s work is really important, and I mean, I’m saying this as a non-American, right? So I don’t have the same relationships that Americans may have even to oppression. But I do think that Tré’s work is, I feel like you can make work that is really on the pulse of the moment that you’re in, and his work feels really responsive to the moments that we’re living through. And I feel like there’s a particular beauty to that for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Totally. Let’s talk about Unqueue, which you started a little over two years ago. Tell me about that.

Agyei Archer:
Well, I had just come back home from, I think maybe New York, and I had in a way closed my design studio. So I had a design studio for about 10 years in Trinidad, and we were doing a lot of work in the web, we were doing a lot of work in the branding space. But it wasn’t that I didn’t love that work, but it was that I loved making type a lot more. And I was starting to phase that phasing, branding, and web work out of my career, and basically trending toward being a full-time typeface designer. But when COVID hit in New York, I had just left New York, and then I came to Trinidad. And when I was in Trinidad, because we used to have this studio that provided design services, we ended up in this place where a lot of my old clients would call and say, “Hey, Agyei, are you still working. We need a website, we need to sell stuff online. We can’t keep the business open, we can’t have people in the store or whatever.” And this was a massive influx for me.

And there was this decision that I had to make of, okay, well I can take on this business, and it’ll be probably good money or whatever, but it’s not necessarily scalable. And also there was this problem that was really clear to me. Because I grew up as a very, I would say, proudly working class person from a working class background. And the amount of money that it would’ve taken people to get online, in that time would’ve been prohibitive to the working class. And I wanted to be part of making something that can help people who didn’t have the, how much of a thousands of dollars it was going to cost to hire us.
I wanted to give them the same ability to get online, do business, sell their stuff, as my other clients who would’ve been supporting my career however long, and I felt like the pandemic was a good opportunity. So I was working then with my studios lead developer, his name is Andal. And I called Andal, what do you think? And I was like, “Andal, do you want to make an app?” And he thought I was joking, and three months later we released Unqueue’s first version to the App Store. And since then it’s been something that has changed a lot, about how I see the value of the work that I’m making. But it’s also something that I’m really quite proud of it, because in a space with relatively low tech adoption, in which it’s a big circumstance in Trinidad, that we don’t have a huge amount of trust in technology.

So we do have one of the highest mobile penetrations probably globally, like relatively. So in the Americas, we have 110% mobile penetration, in Trinidad we have 142%. So we’re very online, very mobile society, but that transition of doing business digitally, didn’t really happen until we got forced into it by the pandemic. And something that I’ve been really happy about, is being able to be part of that transition and part of that change. So a lot of the work that I’m looking at with NQ is, not just about helping people sell things online, but there’s this movement of digital transformation that’s happening throughout the Caribbean. Yes, triggered by COVID, but also very necessary to help meet our sustainable development goals, necessary to reduce food import bills, et cetera. And as soon as I was able to realize, wow, we are building this thing, and not only is it’s a cool product to work on sure.

And I think that there aren’t product development studios in the Caribbean. So it’s not I think that a lot of the methodologies that we would’ve been importing, maybe even from Silicon Valley, we had to retrofit to work in our space, et cetera. So it was really exciting, but I think that for me, when Unqueue got kicked off, I started it as this thing that I thought would be able to help some people. And now I think that there’s this larger vision around, being able to guide the direction of the Caribbean. Because a lot of technology in the Caribbean isn’t made here, a lot of it is made for example, in Russia or in China. And angel investors bring software into the country, and try to retrofit it to the cultures. And we are the only people that are making the software that we’re using on the ground.

And there’s a particular magic to that because we are able to be responsive, but we’re also able to develop solutions that are tailored to our experiences. We have 80% cash dependency in our country, where 80% of the transactions happen on cash, and that’s not going to change anytime soon, our banks aren’t going to facilitate that. So we, for example, had to build an e-commerce software that was also able to facilitate cash payments. But things like that I’ve been really, really exciting, and I think that Unqueue has probably been one of the most fulfilling professional experiences on my life. But it’s also been something that in a material way, we’re able to help 200 plus vendors, we’ve connected them with 20,000 plus shoppers. And I mean, it’s a small country, so that’s like those actually important numbers. But I think that for us, and I say us now, because Unqueue is way more than just me. But for us Unqueue has been this very transformative project that we’ve all worked on, and discovered a lot more value than we initially wanted. Well, initially we’re expecting to.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like it really came about at a very opportune time. I mean, you have this quote unquote perfect storm of a pandemic and things getting locked down, and people not being able to have that regular access to places that they usually had. And now you’ve got this app, that now facilitates a lot of that.

Agyei Archer:
100%. Yeah. That was really huge for us. So because that looked in people’s eyes of, I didn’t know we could do this. I feel it’s part of that mentality, has a lot to do with being from a traditionally disadvantaged post-colonial space like the Caribbean, and not really not seeing a potential for yourself that is better. And I think that, what our work has been able to do is to show people, “Hey, you deserve technology.” This idea of design and technology, have been classically relegated to large business in the Caribbean. And what I have been able or wanted to be able to do, is to create something that could be democratizing and something that could be accessible across the board.
So I mean, Unqueue Studio, our tagline or motto or pedal driving principle is, design and technology for everybody. But that for everybody really is our big key thing, because the amount of change that we can make in one particular sliver or society, maybe a lot. But the reality is that if all I’m doing is helping rich people get richer, I probably would just go to work on Apple or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair enough. That makes sense. So let’s talk about Unqueue Studio, because that is something different from the app itself, right?

Agyei Archer:
It was. Yeah. So I started on Unqueue two years or two years plus ago. And something that really stood out to us maybe about, I would say less than a year ago, was the fact that we had won a bunch of awards. So that’s one thing, so we’ve won awards every year for design and user experience since we’ve launched. So we’ve won a total of five Addy Awards, which are the American Advertising Association Awards, we’ve won five of those over the past two years. And the reason that we’ve won them is, largely because we’ve been making good design. But I think that’s something that we had to acknowledge is that, we are one of the few providers that are able to do this in the space that we’re in, but we’re also the only people that are building the products that we design as well.
So I saw it as an opportunity for us to not just, yes, diversify how we build income at the company. But I also saw it as a real need, because this idea of design and tech being for everybody and this idea of design, I feel like it’s almost technology should be a fundamental, right? Just the ability to write or access to water. And I feel like companies like Unqueue Studio are there to help facilitate that, because there needs to be somebody between the general public and business interest. That can rip business interests, and their objectives into something that the public wants. And I think that I started the Unqueue Studio so that we could address that, but also so that we can make our contribution to the Caribbean technology sector and industry. Because we have so much in our tech world and industry, that is really good business man like a lot of pitch decks, hell of pitch decks.

But the reality is that, when it comes to materials substances products, getting made products, getting put into the world, we actually don’t have a huge legacy of doing that well. And I wanted to create a company that could change that narrative, among people in power in the Caribbean but also on the ground. And I do think that it has to do with a lot of post-colonial self hate. But I do think that there is this belief that we can’t do things properly on our own. So it has to get imported if it’s good, and I’m trying to make this case that actually it can be just as good as the imported stuff, if not better, if you make it here.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Walk me through what a typical day is like. Because I mean, it sounds like a lot to balance between the app work and the studio.

Agyei Archer:
It’s a lot. Yeah. But I mean, unfortunately they have a synergistic relationship, or they can because it’s the same teams. So the app for us is our social impact project and, yes, we do work with larger businesses to help facilitate their e-commerce. But the large part of our business is this idea of small entrepreneurs, and say small in terms of following of money that they’re making, but small businesses moving through and helping their businesses grow. But the studio is doing that, but for other businesses essentially. So I think that in a day typically, I try to wake up and start work by 8:00, 9:00. And I would say, I spend about, let’s say 40% of my day Unqueue App, and then another 40% of my day on the Unqueue studio, and then another 20% of my day working on type stuff.

But the Unqueue App and the Unqueue Studio work are really synergistic, because a lot of the methodologies that we’ve developed at the studio, are the things that we use to run the app. But also a lot of the success that we’ve been able to have professionally, is because of how well the app has done. And also because we’ve spent so much time and money building this app, we also now have a lot of software infrastructure that other startups are using. So a lot of the work that we’re doing now is in diversifying the work that we’re doing. So a lot of my days are half entrepreneur, where I’m writing a pitch deck for somebody. And then I stopped doing that and I’m reviewing someone’s design. And then I stopped doing that and I’m reviewing someone’s performance for example. But I think that in a way I feel more comfortable doing as much as I can, than I would feel like I’m not doing enough, which is probably something to talk about with my therapist.

But for me, that is a really huge thing. I think, that I have spent a lot of time wanting my work to be meaningful and purpose driven, and the Unqueue Studio and the Unqueue App have given me that capacity to do it here. Because I do think that the work that I do in typography and in language support, especially since a lot of the work that I’m doing, is for people who have classically been ignored by the type world. A lot of that work is really important, but they are all along the same vein of, I want to use the abilities that I have to make an effective positive change in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It sounds like that’s been a new discovery for you. Would that be accurate to say?

Agyei Archer:
I think so. Yeah. I think that when I got into type, and maybe it was just I had finally become a real adult or something. But I do think that there was this realization that I had, because getting into type can be a really, really fun experience, maybe if you’re not Black. But I think 10 minutes and when you’re Black, you start realizing, hold up, firstly, nobody here looks like me. Secondly, every single language that I am being taught to value, and all of the little accents that I’m taught to pay super close attention to. And respect everybody’s language, only language respect that are being taught is about European languages, right? So they’ll tell me, “Hey, you need to make sure if you’re supporting Polish, you need to have Polish diacritics.” Or maybe you should just lean on the side of drawing a diacritics to support Polish, but it’s like, “Okay, I get it. I get it. I get it. But who’s going to be supporting Twi or Fante, right?”

And the reality is that those languages aren’t thought of, and it’s not because of their population sizes, it’s just because the people who are making type are from Europe. And I think for as unfortunate as it is, it’s understandable to be able to see why you won’t want to look past these spaces that you’re in, when you’re meeting the work that you’re making. But I do think that if I’m not from these spaces that you’re in and I can see a gap, then I can either rail against the system and get mad at you for not doing something about it, which I have done to relatively negligible effect. Or I can choose to acknowledge that, “Hey, your limitations are around, how much you can see in the world, and your whiteness your privilege insulates you, from having to see a certain side of the world that may not be as comfortable to you.”

But the reality is that I don’t have a choice. People in Africa look like me, how could I be making type and not supporting their languages, it’s really basic stuff. And in the same way, I grew up really working class, people like me after the pandemic were mostly unable to make a living. Like this service industries were shutdown, hospitality industries are shutdown. There were a lot of people who looked like me that couldn’t do anything, but a lot of them probably had the little side hustle, that they could have advanced to a full-time hustle if they had the right infrastructure. So for me it was, well, let’s see if we can make the infrastructure, but it’s really about what can I do? And if I can do it, I should do it.
And I’ll figure out how I’ll get paid for it, getting paid has been always a thing that I think about secondly, but fortunately I’ve always made that work. But I think that for me, I think maybe for the past few years, a lot of the work that I’ve been making has been around, not necessarily a settlement or writing of any wrong. But I do think that the work is about seeing where I can fill a gap, and placing my energy there instead of wherever else. Because I don’t not acknowledge, that I could probably go and make type for a large company somewhere. Or I also don’t acknowledge that I could spend most of my type design work building brands, for example.

But I do think that if we think about what people need in the type world right now, it’s probably greater accessibility. Africa is one of the most exploding economies in the world, in 10 years that’s actually going to be really necessary that you support continental African managers. And while that opportunity is there, I also would be doing the work, if that wasn’t the case. Because I feel like there is a certain amount of accessibility, that people will get written out of in the design can, just because of how white it is.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, even as you say that they’re reminds me of some conversations I’ve had, over the years on revision path with other type designers. I think one of the first type designers I had on was episode 24, was this young guy named Kevin Karanja out of Nairobi, who had designed a typeface called Charvet. I don’t know if he kept it up, I remember when he designed it, I remember he got a good bit of international news for it. I don’t recall if he had kept it up, because he really was, I mean, when I was talking to him, he was 21. He was like, “I was just messing around and made this typeface.” And it wasn’t really, I guess, for a utility, he just did it to see if he could do it. But also I think he was leaning more into doing fine art, so I don’t know if Kevin is still even doing type design.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I have not actually heard of him. You said, episode 24?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Agyei Archer:
Have to check that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The other person and I haven’t had him on the show yet, I would love to. But he’s got me thinking about the work of [inaudible 00:26:22] out of Zimbabwe.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. He’s a huge influence. But yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. His book African alphabets, which took me forever to try to find.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. It’s like [inaudible 00:26:35].

Maurice Cherry:
It is. Because it’s out of print and everything. But it’s such a great work in terms of just the anthropological, just meaning of showing what African alphabets are. And how different that is from what we would know as Roman alphabets or something.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. One of my first type design projects on the project, that I gave my pep talk on was Surinamese language, that he had actually documented in his book. And if he hadn’t documented that I wouldn’t have found it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you talked a little bit about growing up. Tell me more about your origin story, you were born and raised in Trinidad?

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I was born in Trinidad, I grew up with my dad alone. And I think I had a relatively traditional growing up experience, which is that my father wanted me to be something, I’m not an artist. And what that means, is that I think I was quite good at all of these things in school, but I was just really unfulfilled. So I was a good student but a bad teenager, if that makes any sense. And I think that by the time I was ready to graduate out of what Americans would call high school. By that time I was so determined to do my own thing, that I already decided this is going to be tough but I’ll do it. When I got out of school, I had walked away from engineering path that I was focusing on, and I decided to be a bartender.

And while I was a bartender, I was also making software. I had learned a few programming languages in school, and my first job was actually as a software developer. And while I was making software, I learned I like making these layouts for these interfaces a lot. And I started getting into interface design, and this would’ve been old school, this is pre-cloud, pre-material. And I realized, I quite liked that, and then I realized, “Oh wow.” I was looking on a website one day and it needed a logo, and I just told the client, “Look, let me just take a stab at that for few you birds.” And I did. And as soon as it was done, I was like, “Oh my fucking God, I love this shit.” And I decided to be a graphic designer essentially.

So I got out of software and became a graphic designer. And I think that I basically got into software, became a graphic designer and was freelancing for a couple years, and then decided to go to school at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, because I wanted to get better. And I did okay slash great in school, but I was living with parents, who just didn’t understand a lot around why anybody would want to do design, which he would call art. And in his head it’s like, “I don’t want my child to be an artist, they stop.” So there was a relatively unsupportive environment at home then. And during that I decided, well, I want to be a designer and I don’t want to have to quit studying design. So I’m just going to move out and I moved out, and studying and living on my own was a difficult thing to navigate. So I just decided I would just start working, and I was always working while I was in school, just because I had a culture of getting classwork before.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. And so, I mean, going to the University of Trinidad and you’re studying and working at the same time, did you end up finishing up or no?

Agyei Archer:
I didn’t graduate out of UTT, I got into the program and dropped out almost at the end twice.

Maurice Cherry:
Twice?

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. The first time was really just because I didn’t have a choice. And then the second time was because I went to school to finish my associates, and my lecturer at the time was like, “Hey Agyei, happy you want to be in school, love that for you. But you’re working toward where you already are.” Not necessarily in terms of my skill but in terms of professionally. And a lot of these schools in Trinidad are there to help you get a job, far less than they are to actually educate. And I think that it just felt like a right time for me to get out on my own. And I started working at an agency after, which I was fired from that agency a couple months after, but that was where I got my start, basically. That was when I decided I was really going to do this for the rest of my life.

Because when I dropped out to school the second time I decided… Well, but I could do a bunch of things, I could probably go learn how to do math or something. But I think that for me, it was way more important than at the time, that I do something that was passion driven. And all of the things around my life had coalesced around me doing design for a living. And it was the first time that I did something and, yes, it paid my bills, but it was also the first time that I was able to do something. And look at the effects of it, and look at the effects that it had on other people and be like, “This is a good thing that I’m doing.”
And I feel like that feeling has been in a way, what I’ve been chasing, but chasing is the wrong thing, because it implies more satisfaction than there is. But I do think that what I’ve been doing is working toward working, in pursuit of my understanding of the fact that design can actually positively affect people’s lives. And if you know that it can then let it, and the only way to let it is to do design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I would say that your points, if you were already working, I mean, why stay in school? And I’m not saying this for people listening is like, you should drop out, but-

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. No, stay in school kids.

Maurice Cherry:
… based on the environment that you said you were in, if you were already working, what is the degree really helping you for at this point, you’re already making a living?

Agyei Archer:
That was it like, I was paying my rent, but I was paying my rent and barely sleeping, because I have a career where I’m on the laptop and I’m building identities, and then I’m going to school. And I’m having to cut out pay stops.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Agyei Archer:
It was something where it is like dissonant. I feel like I’m getting prepared for the thing I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was your early career like, you mentioned this agency, was that Abovegroup that you were working at?

Agyei Archer:
It wasn’t, it was not Abovegroup at first, Abovegroup was my dream agency. I applied to work at Abovegroup six times.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. They will admit for me being in the Caribbean and being a lover of design, and seeing the work that they put out for me was massively influential. Because Abovegroup it was founded by these two men, Alex Mills and Gareth Jenkins. Well, both had Trinidadian roots, but weren’t necessarily squarely based in Trinidad, but they were in Trinidad during the Abovegroup era. And something that really stood out to me was this, I mean, I don’t like this term, but it’s the best one that I have right now. But this internationalized approach to making design, which felt like it could stand up anywhere in the world. And for me, I was so inspired by that work that I told myself, I’m going to make work this for a company, or I’m going to make work this on my own, or I’m going to starve to death. But I’m not doing bullshit, you know what I mean?

And I think that after school, a lot of the work was struggling, but struggling, not necessarily because of any reason other than not wanting to produce, what felt to me the role to mechanicalized output that people are. I think in Trinidad, we have a culture of advertising is all big thing, so that’s what designers make most of their money doing. But the advertising culture in Trinidad has really flattened expression, and I think that for me, looking at that work was always really demoralizing. So I was telling myself, I don’t want to work for these people, while also needed to make a living. So my employment history has been shaky at best, I think I maybe was employed for my longest stint, my longest job lasted eight months. Everything else was freelance in the middle of that.
But I worked at a few agencies in Trinidad, and I think I would say that unhappy is a good way to describe how I felt. Just because I unhappy not necessarily because, I mean, the bosses were assholes, but bosses could be assholes everywhere. But it was more so I know that I’m not doing what I want to do, you know what I mean? I’m getting up, I’m making this artwork for these people, but I know that at the end of the day this isn’t how I want to… I don’t want to be known for this, I don’t wanted this to be what I’m carrying through in the future. So it was always in the back of my head, and then after many attempts I actually just got a job offer from it from Abovegroup. And Abovegroup was the first time that I was able to work as part of a team, and make the work that I wanted to make.

And I worked on Abovegroup for, I would say maybe a year or a little bit less than a year, but it was the most formative job experience that I’ve had, because here I was on a team of people attempting to make world class work, with world class, in my opinion, intentions and objectives. And eventually the company like design as a business internal that is hard to do, and it’s hard to make sustainable. And at some point in time, they had to realize that, “Hey, this isn’t going to work.” And they had to shutter their doors.

And when Abovegroup closed down for me, it was really demoralizing because I know I could have my own freelance career and stuff like that. But I think that what I learned from Abovegroup, is one how much you can do with people, as opposed to just yourself. But also I learned how much I enjoyed being part of a thing. And it’s only now that I’m able to look at the empty studio, and reflect on how much of the Unqueue Studio experience that I’m having, I took away from Abovegroup.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you mean about working at a place, and feeling like you know that you’re… And maybe I’m saying this wrong, but you feel like the work that you can do is better than this, like I’m better than this place in terms of-

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:35:59].

Maurice Cherry:
… the work that you know that you can do, but you’re still stuck in this. I know what you mean, I know exactly what you mean.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. And I feel like it’s also… And I don’t say from a place of ego either, it’s almost from a place of desperate frustration. It’s like, “Guys, why don’t we care about our clients?” Those kinds of things are those were always questions that remained so unanswered, that it was hard to feel comfortable in a space, where I shouldn’t feel more concerned about my clients than my boss did, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Agyei Archer:
And it felt like a lot of the timely work was this act of compromise, and lot of active compromise because we have to get it out, or because the clients is on a deadline. It’s always the compromise comes from, well, we don’t want to have another conversation with our client. And I was always in my head, well, okay, clients actually hire us to be the experts, they hiring us because they need somebody to tell them, when they’re fancy full ideas might not work.

And I think that the culture that we’ve had in Trinidad around business in general, and around the customer is always right quote, unquote, just didn’t allow for that kind of thinking. So when I wasn’t about group, it was the first time that I heard my boss say, “Yeah, I told our client, they could go fuck themselves, dude, they asked us to do some bullshit.” And for me that was huge because I didn’t even know we had that power in Trinidad. I knew we had that power elsewhere and it was nice to look at designers elsewhere, but at home it was wild for me to see that. So now even at the studio, we are probably one of the few studios that tells clients, “Hey, we’re not sure that your business model is really aligned, to what the kind of work that we’re trying to make.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s a more gentle way of saying that.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I had to think that they may have not been able to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know for me, I mean, I’m not going to lie, there was some ego in it. I was working at AT&T, essentially a production designer, just working on an assembly line with a team of other designers, just cranking out these boring websites for small businesses. And I just knew that I was better than this, I was like, “I can do better than this.” And it pained me how the other designers who I worked with, a lot of them who happened to be Black designers were just okay with this very sort of… To me, it felt like this is boring pedestrian station in life. I’m like, “You like this. You like these 15 minute lunch breaks, and then we have to go back to work for six hours, don’t you want better for yourself than this?” And for me, it was 100% ego. I get what you’re saying about kind of, especially with an agency, you would think that agencies would hopefully be more, I guess, appreciative of clients. And maybe, I mean, it sounds like this was your first agency type experience, and maybe that’s why it was so jarring.

Agyei Archer:
Well, I’ve had a few agency experience, and I think that one of the realities in Trinidad, is that we have what you would call like franchised ad agencies. So a local business interest would get into a partnership with, let’s say Saatchi & Saatchi, and they would bring a Saatchi & Saatchi to Trinidad, but the only parts of the Saatchi & Saatchi brand that they’re using on the name. So there’s nothing that’s going to be reflected in terms of the work ethos, or the creativity or anything like that. And that industry of design being production, and I think maybe just how they built the industry in Trinidad. I think it’s way more about getting the work done, so that we can get a new client in than it is about making work that gets us our next client.

So a lot of these agencies have 10 year, 15 year relationships with clients. And yes, they’re making underwhelming work every year, but they’re making underwhelming work at a understandable unexpected budget. So it’s not going to be a huge problem for the client. And I think that I was always really wary of ending up in that trap, because I felt like the reason that those companies were successful, is that same post-colonial shame of where from. So we’ll work with the Saatchi & Saatchi because they can guarantee that it won’t be shipped, because it says Saatchi & Saatchi in their name.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay. I see what you’re saying.

Agyei Archer:
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the work is going to be good, it just means that there’s a implied client confidence. And I think that I knew that, I mean, in Trinidad we may have white people are a minority here, but they’re still the powerful group. So I was never under this illusion that I could start my own company, and just run it on the name of it, it would have to be about work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it sounds like you’ve always done your own thing, whether it’s Unqueue, whether it’s your earlier entrepreneurial ventures that you touched on. For you, what have been some of the pros and cons of working like this?

Agyei Archer:
Yes, I have done my own thing for better always, but I think that as far as pros, I can really settle on the biggest pro of being. This idea of working on what you want to work on, is huge because if you can work on what you want to work on, and you can get paid doing it, and you can get paid enough to pay your bills. And buy some Prosecco on the weekend, in my world, that’s the literal best your life can be, right? So for me, my biggest pros is that I get to live a purpose driven life. And that doesn’t mean that my work is my life, but that does mean that if I am going to be spending eight to 10 hours a day doing something. That it doesn’t feel like I’m just doing something to help someone else achieve some random goal around the money.

So in terms of, I think that I can make a way bigger impact way things by myself, because are the obvious cons, but not just security, huge fucking terrible, like now I’m fine until recently it was tricky. I think also in these spaces that I live in, there is a particular challenge with going on your own when you look like I do, even though most of the people from Trinidad Black or extended descent. I think that the challenge comes with believability. So I walk into my room, I have free-form dreadlocks, I don’t wear socks, I walk into the room and I’m like, “Hey guys, this is the design.” And while I’m saying that, I know I need to fight against all of the perceptions that are coming with me in the room. And in a way, the career that I was able to establish for myself in the states, was the thing that helped me to get past that here. Because when I tell people, “Oh, Google is one of my clients.” There’s a lot of shit that gets smoothed over, you know what I mean?

A lot of skepticism that leaves you room, they’re like, “Oh, okay, cool. We thought you were a fraud because of the hair, but you said Google so it’s fine.” And I think that for me, one of the biggest cons is that idea of, for me, and I mean, I’m seeing specifically, if you are a sole trader Black entrepreneur. Doing the things that I do in Trinidad, one of the cons is definitely going to be, walking around and through that pervasive doubt that your potential clients and payers will have of you. Just because they are in a way programmed to doubt you and to doubt your capacity to do things, I think that’s one of the hugest challenges.
One of the huge challenges is just, having the best product in the room, but screaming, please somebody, listen to me. And in this invisibility, just because of where I’m from and what I look like, that again, I’m being really clear about, is way less now than it was back then. But I think that you’re a young Black boy in a Caribbean, and you want to start to design business. One of your biggest challenges is going to be credibility, and how do you get people convinced of your talent. Because it’s not going to be on how good your layouts are, it’s going to be about something else.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel that, I mean that respectability politics kind of thing is so pervasive. I mean, it’s something that I’ve had to deal with. Also I mean, I’m a big dark skinned Black dude with an Afro from the south, I walk in the most places, especially with some of the places that I’ve spoken at, some of the places I’ve done work for and everything. And I know how unassuming I come off and I play into that a little bit, like I went to Morehouse College.

And so Morehouse has its own reputation of suit and tie, and you’re this well red, well traveled person, blah, blah, blah, all this kind of stuff, that actively buck against. I’m not a suit and tie wearing person at all. And so I come up in most spaces and I tend to be pretty unassuming and I play into that a little bit, because I like people to be surprised like, “Oh, wow.” But I know what you mean about having to fight against that. Because oftentimes those perceptions will come from people who look just like you.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. It’s mostly to be honest, most of the middle management is people who look like me, and middle management is who I need to get through. But I think that a lot of the people who look like me are really wanting to hire, and make connections, and relationships with a white man with an accent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Agyei Archer:
And I am not like, I don’t provide them the opportunity for growth that they’re looking for, because you can’t grow unless you have connections with white businessmen.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoo man. That’s…

Agyei Archer:
That’s heavy.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s real. I want to shift a little bit, and talk more a little bit about your type design work. We touched on a little bit earlier, but in 2017 you were part of the Type@Cooper Design program. Tell me how that experience was.

Agyei Archer:
It was well. Because I didn’t know I was going to get in, and I sent my application and then I got in, and then I had to take a loan, because I didn’t know I was going to pay for it and I got. And I remember really clearly, I’m saying all of this because I remember on my first day, I got into class and I got in there, and there were like three white kids, and I got into the class and none of them said anything to me. And then another white kid came into the class, and then a couple Asian kids came into the class. And at some point in time we were getting close to 9:00, and I had to acknowledge, okay, it’s not going to be another Black people here and that’s fine. That’s okay, don’t trip out, it’s fine, you’re in a place where Black people are minority, that’s, okay, right?
And then my professor at the time whose name is Hannes Famira, one of my biggest influences as a designer. Came into the room and he looked at me, and I knew he looked at me with this look of, huh, all right. And I looked at him for the same look of, okay, this is what we’re going to do, huh. And for me, a lot of it was on one hand being in a classroom of people, who were from a space, and I’m saying a space, not necessarily America.

But they’re all from what I would say, larger more cosmopolitan spaces, that actually have some history around type design, or some understanding around type design, or some typographic history. And here I’m from the Caribbean where we don’t have any of that. And I’m staying, I think that for me, my type of group journey academically was a struggle, because I just wasn’t as quote unquote good as a lot of my peers, but I was a hard worker. So moving through the program for me was really fulfilling, because I mean, I would basically go to class, I would spend 12 hours a day at the Cooper Union, and then I would go to my shitty Brooklyn Airbnb and spend three hours of drawing again.

And I think that one of the things that I had to leave with was, I kept waiting for the experience that would help me validate my Blackness inside of all of that, and that never happened. And I had to acknowledge that the reason that it didn’t happen and wasn’t going to happen was, because I was getting ready to work in a space where there weren’t any other Black people. Because it was only when I was at the Cooper Union and I asked, “Wait, where the fucking, where the Black guys at, where’s somebody Black at.” And they had to be like, “Okay, sorry to break this to you, but we have one guy, Josh Darden, that’s it.” That’s the whole type industry Black people is Josh Darden. And I don’t know how much you know about Josh, but he’s a massive recruit. So while I was at Type@Cooper, I’m emailing Josh and Josh is like, obviously not fucking replied to my email. And I’m like…

Maurice Cherry:
I’m only laughing because I have tried to get Josh on the show for a while. And I think one of his white business partners stepped in, and just put the stop sign down, like “stop messaging us.” And I was like, “Okay.”

Agyei Archer:
Yeah, that sounds about right. I mean to all of their credit, that’s Josh’s instruction and Josh’s desire. But, but Darden Studio is currently now run by a white woman. Her name is Joyce. I mean, great, she’s one of Josh’s best friends, but on…

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the person who told me that.

Agyei Archer:
Probably, yeah. She told me the same thing, [inaudible 00:48:37] we’re friends though I love her. So I can say that, I emailed and I was like, “Hey,” with so much milk in my fucking eyes like, “Hey, [inaudible 00:48:44].” I’m really hoping to get to this [inaudible 00:48:48], she’s like, “Listen, she’s not seeing anyone, good luck.” She’s like good luck with Type@Cooper, that’s it. But, no, we’re good friends now and, unfortunately publishing with them. But a lot of the experience for me was jarring, because I had to acknowledge where Black people were any type design spectrum. But I also had to acknowledge that gentle Eurasia of your experiences so that can happen, when you’re in white dominated spaces. It is an active thing, it isn’t like there’s normal malice, but there’s just a casual, not understanding, not relating to your circumstances that can feel really targeted after enough time.

That was how I would probably summarize my experience. I would summarize my experience as one that was really fulfilling in terms of how much I got to learn. But one that was also in a way, a little traumatizing in terms of how much I learned about the rest of it. So not the drawing part, not the Python part, not the understanding white space part, but just the cultural implication. And who’s making type, and who’s making type for whom, and where the type come from, type the whole. Like type design is the thing that facilitated commerce in the 15th, 16th, 17th century, that means slavery you know what I mean? So I think about that and I was like, okay, I’m also learning type in the Dutch fashion, from people who learned Dutch style type design. Which would’ve also been exploding in terms of its theoretical output, as a offshoot of the Dutch benefit from slavery.

Because I think that one of the greatest markers of a society’s progress, is if they started drawing type of art. You can tell a society’s appetite for conquest when they start printing their own letters, because you need to print their own letters to take over a space. And I feel like those things are the things that really… I think I could have learned a lot about drawing type on the internet, but I could never have learned about types place in the world and cultural context if I didn’t go to a school for it, because part of the curriculum was also learning about types history. So there was a lecturer called [inaudible 00:50:51], and he was exceptional in terms of his understanding of type and the evolution of type, obviously in a European context. But I learned so much about how… Because you go to enough history classes and you realize, okay, we’re not talking about Black people ever, that make you ask other questions around why we’re not talking about Black people.

So for me, Type@Cooper was culture shocking, but it was also really necessary because I learned a lot theoretically about making type, but I also was able to make amazing connections. I mean, Hannes who was my lecturers, one of my favorite people in the world, I was also able to from that lecture, or from that education experience, get in touch with people like my mentor DJR or my mentor Darden. Those were the entry points to get into a lot of where my life is right now with type. So I’m not mad at it, but it was really traumatizing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yikes. I hate to hear that. I mean, but it sounds like you were able to at least extract some good things from it.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean, good traumatizing is weird, but what I do mean it was, is not traumatizing because anybody was out to get me or anything like that. I think it was traumatizing because everybody they’ve been building this curriculum and I don’t mean just type of group. I mean, white people have been building type design curriculum for a hundred years now. And this idea of, “Hey, Black people use language too.” Like that question didn’t come up. And I think that’s not the fault of your school, that’s the fault of the society that we’re in. And in a way, the education system can only ever be a strong reflection of the society that you’re in. And I think that you can learn a lot about the society and the culture, around type design might be part of its education system.

Maurice Cherry:
So knowing all of this, and I guess also the fact that you really pull a lot of inspiration from the Caribbean as a whole, how do you bring all of this to your work?

Agyei Archer:
Well, I mean, I think that a lot of the work now for me is, I think that I’ve given up on making beautiful typefaces, and I don’t mean aesthetically beautiful, I mean, the idea of aesthetically beautiful. I think that there are things that be dominant culture has taught us that type design needs to have, we need to have super tight joins. And a lot of the trendiness is left my palette in terms of what I want to make, I want to make work that is so deeply accessible and utilitarian and basic, because we’re not in a space where if we’re supporting Pan-African Latin languages, that we have expressionism.

The languages that support these… Sorry, the sponsor support these languages are what you would call the most white bread, boring, vanilla, Arial, Helvetica, type things. And that’s because most of the time you’ve needed supporters languages, is because you’re releasing it on a OS, or you’re releasing it on a… There’s these context where you almost have to support everybody, and that’s when it gets done. But it’s not getting done by the commercial types of the world or shop types of the world. And again, that’s not a hit out against either Christian, or Lucas who run commercial and shop type perspectively, but that is a reflection of the industry that we’re in.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. Let’s talk about Design Objectives. That’s something that you co-founded, I should say, with one of our past guests, Ayrïd Chandler, who we had on a couple of months back. Talk to me about that.

Agyei Archer:
Well, Design Objectives started off as, it was this plan that we had while I was working at Abovegroup. So I was working at Abovegroup at the time, and myself, Ayrïd Chandler, and another designer, to whom I’m not related, but I’m good friends with named Melanie Archer. We started Design Objectives because there’s that same idea of not being a very nutrient culture, or not having a very nutrient culture around design was there. So we didn’t feel facilitated, we didn’t feel like designers were encouraged to do anything other than make ads. And I think that for all of us, it was the same deep desire to affect a positive change. So for us design objective was helping designers be better, but not necessarily from new perspective of giving them lessons about the stout or about color competition. Because you can make your way through that, but we wanted to give designers empowerment tools. So we wanted to show you how to make a contract, here’s how negotiation should work, this is how you should probably price your work.
So a lot of the efforts that we were putting in were around, empowering designers to do their jobs better. Unfortunately, the pandemic pushed, because so much of Design Objectives was meeting oriented and socially rooted. We lost a lot of our traction during the pandemic, and I think since then we’ve released a slowed down the operation. For as much as we’re still doing things to connect design to people, I think that for each of us individually, we’ve moved past Design Objective as a nonprofit that we were founding, that we were running ourselves on.

I’m hoping that there’s a future evolution of that, that can probably be in the same space that we started it, in terms of supporting people and allowing them to really improve their practices. And again, not from the perspective of the aesthetics of the work that they’re making, because Caribbean people are very creative and very talented. But I think that there has been a culture of designers not being respected, and then thus not respecting themselves that we start to Design Objectives to try to fix for. I don’t think we’ve met up in a couple of years now, even though Melanie is also one of Unqueue’s showrunners by the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Agyei Archer:
Yeah. I mean you should probably interview her off the record. But she’s one of the more influential designers, not just in our space, but in terms of the contemporary art world in the Caribbean as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, it’s pretty clear to me that you like to stay busy. You’re doing a lot between the studio, the app, and other things like, what are you doing for you? What are you doing for self-care with all of this?

Agyei Archer:
Unfortunately, I used to party really hard when I was younger. So I would say maybe between 17 and 25, I was just piles of drugs, just a lots of booze, I’m saying that all of those things are now boring to me. And what I do now for fun is I have an orchid collection, so I take care of about a hundred plus orchids at my apartment. Wow, I can’t believe I said that out loud. I do a lot of baking and cooking, I’m such a Saturday stay at home guy, I am Mr. Yogurt on a Saturday morning. And that’s what [inaudible 00:57:13], I try my best to just enjoy the life that I built for myself, because I think that there is so much in the work that I’m doing now, that can be in a way I’m busier than I’ve ever been. And if I don’t make sure to separate myself, my whole life can be about the work that I’m doing.

And I think that there was a period in time when I was really comfortable with that, with making my life about what I’m doing. But I think that now I want to make my life about how much I’m enjoying my life, and I do enjoy my life in making the work that I’m doing. So there’s that, but that’s just part of my enjoyment. So I take care of my plants, I have a beautiful dog, his name is Baxter and I spend as much time with him as I can. And I’m trying new fried chicken recipes, I’m trying new bread recipes. I wish I would say that ice skating or going surfing and stuff, but I’m not, I am a bridge to the water, I live in the Caribbean, but I’ll go look at the beach.

But I just feel like, a lot of what I’m doing for myself right now, is stepping away from work being my everything. Because it was my everything for a serious period of time, and I think that a lot of my substance abuse was driven by mitigating against that. So work is taken over my life, I’m just do some drugs so I can make it through, and now work is taken over my life, I need this weekend.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or something that you would love to do one day?

Agyei Archer:
I think that if I think about dream projects, I think about… A lot of my current drive is around the Caribbean and facilitating entrepreneurship, and development in the Caribbean using the software that we made, but also the methodologies that we developed. So if I think of dream project, we are currently right now working with the government at Trinidad and Tobago, to help with the same farming project. We’re trying to scale it across the nation, but we’re also working with them on building software tools for financial inclusion. In my opinion, being able to help people on the ground in that way from the space that I’m in. It couldn’t get more dreamy than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the mentors that have really helped you out throughout your career?

Agyei Archer:
Definitely Gareth Jenkins and Alex Mills from Abovegroup, huge influences. I think that they were the first people to teach me that, you could stand up for design and people won’t hate you as much as you think. DJR, David Jonathan Ross, who is a American typeface designer has been one of my rocks, and one of the most encouraging designers that I’ve ever met. He was the first person that I sent my work, who didn’t just tell me something patronizing. So I would share work with people and they’d be like, “Oh, this is amazing.” But he was the first person to be like, “Hey, got your font, here’s a PDF for all of the mistakes.” It sent it back to me, which I think it was one of the best things from my career as a designer, because I think that there is a lot of white guilt that can get in the way of productivity, when it comes to giving people feedback on my work.

Especially, you see a young Black guy making type and its like, “Well, I don’t want to break a spur.” But actually I was far more concerned in positive feedback than I was in validation, and he was really good. I think he saw that and he was really good at that. And I think I feel the same way, what Eben Sorkin, who is a designer, who works for Darden Studio, and has also made the Merriweather font, which is pretty popular on the internet. But I think that those two typeface designers have been really influential to me. There’s also Hannes Famira and Just van Rossum, who are German and Dutch type designers, respectively, and used to work in programming really changed my outlook on whether or not programming had a place in my design practice.

And Hannes outlook on typeface design, really helped me and still helps me now when I’m making work, remind myself that it’s as good as you want it to be and you can make it better, but the reality is that some of the decisions that you make will have to be personal ones. And I think that in a world that has so much rigidity like typeface design, those two people who are… I would say typeface designers with a very strong [traditional 01:01:15] sense of output, the ethos that they’ve been making that work with has been in a way radical, and I am really inspired by that.

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

Agyei Archer:
Oof, legacy, yikes. I think that in five years I hope that Unqueue’s infrastructure is more pervasive in Caribbean, and we’re helping facilitate even more lives being built and transformed. I’m hoping that for my type design practice, that I’m able to find even more time to draw and even more time to produce. And I’m hoping that by in five years my first font with Darden Studio would’ve done relatively well, because it would’ve been out for a few years. But I think that what I want for myself, I mean this is not just in five years but also in five years, I would like the work that I’m making to see its potential through in terms of the impact that it can make in other people’s lives.

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

Agyei Archer:
My best place to find me online is on Twitter. But I also have a website at agyei.design. The Unqueue Studio has a website, it’s unqueue.studio check that out for sure, especially if you’re interested in tech in the Caribbean. And we have the Unqueue marketplace, which is unqueue.app, which is what we use to help small businesses right now. If you can get on any of those platforms and you can’t find me, then I just didn’t want to be found.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Agyei Archer, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. Like I said, this is been a long time coming, I really wanted to have you on the show for a while and you didn’t disappoint. I mean, I think first of all, just hearing about your work ethic and how you’ve built Unqueue I think is super inspiring, particularly in this weird flux state we’ve all been in since the beginning of 2020. But I think also just the fact that you are someone who looked and found a void in the market or a void in the world, and you’ve actively worked to use your skills and your talents to fix that. I think that’s something that all of us can walk away from learning just about you, but also just about the best ways that we can use the skills that we have to create a more equitable world. So thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Agyei Archer:
Thank you, Maurice. I’m really grateful as well for your patience, and waiting as long as you have to get me on. But also I feel like the work that you’re doing is really valuable, and I hope you get to keep it up.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Traci L. Turner

I don’t know about you, but that whole “they sleep we grind” mentality of working is not the move. There can be a lot of external pressure to constantly push yourself to the limit with your work, but there’s also payoffs from doing work at a pace that makes sense to you. That’s what drew me to talk with this week’s guest, Traci L. Turner.

We started our conversation on building creative momentum after big life changes, and she talked about her new focus on portraiture as well as her current artistic process (including doing a podcast). She also spoke on growing up in DC, attending college, and the challenge of balancing her art with a 9-to-5 job in her early career. Traci also shared some of her goals for this next chapter of her journey as an artist. It can be easy to get caught up with trying to compare yourself to what others are doing, but take Traci’s advice: just feel comfortable with doing what you want to do!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Traci L. Turner:
Hey, I am Traci L. Turner. I am a visual artist specializing with and mostly oil painting. And I live in Reno, Nevada.

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

Traci L. Turner:
It’s been a lot of stop and go on my end. Late last year, I had a career change, so I’ve been trying to find the right job fit in my life, and also reconnecting with art and painting. And that’s been such a long process, but this year feels like the time when I’m back at it. And I’m having fun with it again, I’m excited, I’m inspired. So that’s been the tone since early January, just stopping and going with career and then picking art back up again. So that’s been going. It’s been slow, but it’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. It’s good that you’ve picked things back up again. Now that you’ve done that, is there anything like in particular that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends?

Traci L. Turner:
I want to get more organized, I think I want to be even more intentional than I was about making art and what I’m trying to say and what this stage is because I definitely feel like I’ve pivoted in subject matter and just how I feel about art making in general. So I want to make sure that all of that comes together. What I’m trying to do is not get to the point where I’m not making art again for a long time, that was just so hard. And so I want to build that momentum. I want to just not put too much pressure on myself and I want to hopefully connect with people by commissions hopefully.
I think that that’s a process that I want to start incorporating, just that collaboration. And I don’t know, it’s also a nice way to make a little side money, if I’m being honest, but I’m not focused on that so much, it’s just making art and rediscovering what I like about it at this point in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me more about that pivot. I can tell from looking at your website that you have done a lot of portraiture work, is that what you’re pivoting into or pivoting away from?

Traci L. Turner:
I want to lean more into that now. Back in school, that was when I discovered my love for depicting the human figure and portraits after, I don’t know, just being young and trying things out and just figuring that part of the world out. I don’t think I really stayed with that too often, but lately, I think that’s what I want to get back in into. I think that’s more my wheelhouse, I think that’s where I’m most comfortable. Well, as I mentioned before about the collaborative part, I like that part of things, so collaborating with a person and depicting them as a work of art in my own way, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you working on any specific pieces now?

Traci L. Turner:
I do have one that’s in the works. It’ll be probably the biggest one I’ve ever done size wise and price wise. So it is a friend that reached out to me. She wants me to do a posthumous portrait of her mom and it’s taken a couple years for us to finalize it. Mostly because I think she was going through that grieving process, she wasn’t ready for a while. And then our schedules needed to line up and I was in a slump and just a whole bunch of things just got in the way of getting things started. But finally, we’ve gotten to that point and that’s a piece that I got the green light to work on now.
I’m happy with that because that’s the statement, I think, I want to start making with my work, just having people know me, reach out to me, want me to do something for them, and we just hash that out together. I want to see more of what that’s like.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. My brother, he’s an artist in general. He does, or he has done in the past woodwork stuff and pencils and sketches. He got all the artistic ability in the family. I am not that artistic by the stretch of the imagination, but he does a lot of portraiture as well. He did my photo, he did like a big 24 by 24 painting of me, which I hate to say it’s sitting in storage because I was like, “This would be so weird to have in my apartment, a big ass picture of me.” It made me think of Whitley Gilbert from A Different World and how she had that Warhol, like four piece in her room. That would be weird.
But he’s a great artist. So I’m not saying that to diminish his talent because he’s done several of our family members and stuff. So there’s a definite market in portraiture, absolutely. It feels like, not a dying art, I don’t want to say that, but it feels like an art that you just don’t see that much of it now, I guess, maybe with the advent of technology, you don’t see that many paintings like that.

Traci L. Turner:
You’re right. It is very old school, because I know back in the day, it was something that was always commissioned by rich people. So maybe there’s a class thing too that was involved. And I think also it’s one of those things that there’s not much else you can do with it. So I get what you’re saying when you say it’s a “dying art” and I almost feel the same way too, but I’m just going to do it anyway because that’s what I like to do. And I still enjoy looking at how people do portraiture in their own way. I think I prefer more of, I would say, maybe what realistic representations than the ones that are super abstract, but as far as painting, I love what I’m seeing other people’s interpretations of the medium.

Maurice Cherry:
Well tell me about, how do you approach a new piece of art or a new portrait? What’s your process like?

Traci L. Turner:
Well, right now it’s where it’s coming from. A lot of it is coming from just, well, I want to do a series of friends and family, I think. So it’s hearing you talk about your brother doing a portrait of you, it’s like, oh that hits close to him. I think that’s what I’ll be doing too. Just because it will make me feel good, I think, I think it’s a way of memorializing these people and these connections that I have, people that inspire me, people that really understand me and who I feel just are doing amazing things in life, even though they may not think so. So I think I want to pull from that as inspiration.
It’s been a while now, but I had started a series of memes and I was doing that as a way to practice getting into portraiture again in a way that was fun and it’s super easy to find those images and you can get creative and people can connect with that. Because they’ve seen these things over and over again, so it’s just like an inside joke and I like that aspect to it. So in that case with the memes, it’s more about, well, what do I think is funny? What do I think I can do? What do I think is going to resonate with people, especially when I post online, what are the jokes that we’re going to be flying to each other back and forth?
I definitely think about how it’s going to be received. Maybe I shouldn’t, but in that way, not in so much that I want them to critique my work, but just I think about how the work is going to have me connect with people once it’s out there, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve seen some of the meme paintings, you’ve got them on your website. There’s the crying Jordan meme, there’s New York from Flavor of Love sitting in the bed. There’s Nick Young with the question marks. These are good. These are really good.

Traci L. Turner:
Well, thank you. Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that you say that you will do some paintings to see how other people or what the, I don’t want to say, reaction, but what other people think of it. Because I feel like portraiture invites that, probably more so than other art forms. Portraiture really invites you to look at it because in a way it resembles a mirror because it’s going to be in a frame of some sort, but it’s something looking at you. We have always seen in movies and television shows that trope about a painting’s eyes following you throughout the room or something like that. It almost invites you to have that one-on-one connection.

Traci L. Turner:
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve done a few self-portraits and that’s been a casual ongoing series for me, but I want to be a little less inward now and just try to show how I’m viewing other things, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have any, I don’t know, pandemic paintings? I know you said you recently came back into it. It sounds like there might have been a time when you lost the love for it.

Traci L. Turner:
Yeah. I know exactly when that happened too. It was before the pandemic. This was back in 2017, I believe it was. I had an artist residency at the Torpedo Factory, in Alexandria, Virginia, because I was living in Reno at the time, I got accepted, so it meant going back home essentially. And I was out there for about a month. And I hit a wall right after that. I think what it was was maybe I just expected too much from that experience. I think I went into it expecting, “This is the moment, I’m really going blow up.” I’ve been grinding all these years, I’ve been doing this work, I’ve been developing this style that I feel like really speaks to me, it feels unique to me, and had been doing shows and all that.
And I did this artist residency and I thought that that was going to be the moment that I’m going to get noticed, I’m going to start getting gallery representation, all that stuff. And maybe I shouldn’t have done that, I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t really understand what an artist’s residency experience was supposed to do, but because I expected that and that’s not really where it went, I felt really depressed and lost my steam after that. For quite a while I thought, “All right, I need to maybe reevaluate some things. Why am I doing this? Is it to be super well known and make money and all this stuff? Or what if that never happens? Does that make me a failure?”
It was just all these questions that I had to sit back and look at and try to understand. And it took several years, I’m not going to lie, just sputtering, sputtering. And I didn’t really do art for a while. Maybe just a few one offs here and there, but I just didn’t feel like it. So what ended up happening through that, I had started a little podcast on my own, was called Art Life Confidential. When I put it out, in my mind it was for other people because I was feeling so lost. I wanted to try to pose these questions and answer them for other people. But I think it was also for me too.
It was just another way to try to connect and understand this thing that we’re doing out here, being an artist, being a creative, whatever that is, this abstract thing that has sometimes very little physical payoff in the other 3D world. And I wanted to try to encourage myself and encourage other people to keep going even though I wasn’t really doing anything. And it took a while and then I made some changes in my personal life, I fell in love, I have a partner now and we’re raising his daughter together. And that takes a lot of time out. I wasn’t really doing art, but I was still just living life.
Now that everything on that end is settled and I think my career path actually has a little more direction now, it feels maybe safer to bring art back in. At this point I feel like I’ve grown, I’ve answered a lot of questions that I needed for myself, I understand what I want to do a little bit better. I understand the things I don’t like about art and just trying to focus on the things that I do appreciate. And it took, well, like four or five years almost and now I’m feeling like, “All right, I’m good. And I want to get back at it.” That was the journey for the last couple of years in a nutshell.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think what you’re mentioning here, well, at least what I’m drawing from it also is that sometimes it’s important to just live life, especially I think if you’re doing something as tactical, creatively as painting, there might be this notion that you just have to keep doing it all the time. And if you lose steam and you take a break from it and you just live life, maybe it’ll come back, maybe it won’t. It doesn’t diminish you as an artist when that happens, it’s life, it just happens.

Traci L. Turner:
Yeah, you’re right. And that is exactly what I have realized. And just that I’m still an artist, even if it’s not my main job, you know what I mean? I’m still an artist, even if I’m on a hiatus. That was something I noticed too, even though I wasn’t actually painting, even creating a podcast and doing that is a creative thing, I was still drawn to be in creative or talking about, I was still making that connection even though I wasn’t exactly painting, I was writing a lot more. I think I may have even been doing more blogging. I started making YouTube video. It was just basically everything that I could think of that was still in a creative realm, even though it wasn’t painting.
And that helped me a lot. And it did reinforce that, “Well, you are still an artist, you can still do these things. And even if you’re not doing those things, that’s still who you are.” And so once that hit and I was able to actually embrace that, it just all finally clicked. And I feel really good now about where I am. And even though it is slower than I may be used to, I still have everything I need, I still know I can pick it back up and it’s going to be great. Even if I’m rusty it still brings me that joy. Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
As you mentioned, that just reminded me of I used to be a musician for a long time, a long time. And I gave it up, I guess, right around the time I turned 30, I was like, “I need to focus on just doing something else.” And I feel like you never lose that talent, you always will want to do it in some way. So for you, you never lost the will to keep creating, it just transformed into something else, which I think is for creative, something really important to recognize.

Traci L. Turner:
Yep. I completely agree. And hopefully that’s encouraging too for other people. One of the things, let’s see, I want to say maybe in my early 20s, I think that’s when I officially decided that I was going to be more focused on being a fine artist and developing my skills. After art school, I would take these one-off classes or you keep in touch with college friends and they start falling off real quickly once you hit the real world. You know what I mean? Maybe they still doodle here and there, but in the art classes I would take after college, I would be the youngest one there. And then I was in conversation with one of the other students and they said, “Well, I used to paint or draw or whatever. I used to be this artist and then life just happened.”
And then they would retire and they’re there taking these classes trying to connect with it again. And I remember thinking, “Dang, what happens in those 20, 30 years after you just don’t do it, it’s just gone?” I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. I don’t want that to be me.” I always had that in the back of my mind just like, how do I keep this alive for myself? I don’t want to be one of those people where it’s just, “Oh, life just happened.” And then life just happened to me and then I stopped for a while. And I get it, I totally understand that now.

Maurice Cherry:
And it doesn’t sound like you forced it either. When you had the feeling of making art dying down, you just lived life and then it eventually came back to you. I just think that’s something that’s important for creatives now to really know, especially in this hustle, hustle age that we’re in right now, where everything is about doing all the things in all the places in all the platforms. And it’s like, do you have to do that? I look at these kids on TikTok, I’m like, “That’s a lot.” I know people that have quit jobs and like, “I’m going to become a professional of content creator.” In the back of my mind, I’m like, “Good luck with that. In this attention economy, good luck with that.”
Some of them are successful at it, but they burn out in two or three years. It’s like, you run hot doing that stuff so much that you don’t really give yourself the time to recuperate, to fill up your own cup. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Isn’t that what they say? Something like that.

Traci L. Turner:
Yep. It’s very true. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your origin story. You alluded to earlier being from DC, like the DC Metro area. What was it like growing up there?

Traci L. Turner:
Well, I loved it. I lived in Maryland just right outside of DC, was always just right at the cusp. And I would say I had a pretty chill childhood for the most part. See, I was exposed to art by my oldest brother because he would always draw and I just liked what he was doing and I was definitely way more introverted. So just any little task like that where it’s like, “Oh, I can just do this on my own to myself,” I was drawn to. And it started because I asked him to teach me how to do bubble letters. And after that, it just took off. I didn’t know much about just the art history or fine art or anything like that. Not really at the time. It wasn’t until college that I learned about all that stuff.
But until then it was just me just drawing, just a sketchbook and vibes. That was drawing anime characters all the time, obsessed. It was just so fun and so pure. And that’s just how I knew that, “Okay, this is just what I’m supposed to do.” I didn’t know you could do it as a career until, I guess, I had to start thinking about it after high school. My mom, she was just always supportive of me doing that, just whatever I wanted to do. She knew I was into art, she’s like, “Then go to art school, check it out where you want to do.”
I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know that there were schools for art. I could just go there and focus on that.” That’s what led me to, it’s called something else now, but at the time it was Maryland College of Art and Design. It was school in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a two-year school. I went there and it was pretty awesome. I have to say I was around so many like-minded people and it was a mix of people. And that’s when I learned I loved paintings, up until then it was just drawing stuff, just pencil and paper. I got introduced to oil painting through this classes there and to art museum in Downtown for the first time, National Gallery of Art, later they added the National Portrait Gallery, which is my favorite one.
Every time I go home, I always try to check to see what’s new there. I would say it was a pretty chill, easy time. I graduated though. I didn’t have the confidence to present myself to the art scene there though. I just wasn’t ready. Maybe I just didn’t think I was good enough. I didn’t really have a direction at the time either. I just wanted to work at that point. I was like, “I just want to work and move out of the house and I’ll figure all the other stuff out later.” And that’s what I did. I had started a blog, it was called, I don’t even know if the domain is still up, but it was called Purple Paintbrush.
And I went to the different art events in the city to write about them. I just thought that would be fun just to show, “Hey, this is what’s going on. These are the events that are going on. Here’s my perspective, I took some pictures.” And after a while I thought, “Wait, I could do this. Wait, I’m an artist. Why don’t I just do art? I don’t have to show other people, I can do my stuff.” And that’s when I started going back to take classes and was like, “I don’t know where this is going to go yet, but let me learn the skills.” I didn’t learn much about art business in school. That’s the one caveat to art school honestly.
You’re mostly there for technique and I guess to network, but if you’re not really good at that, then it’s, I don’t know. I don’t want to say it’s unnecessary to go if you want to go, but personally, I never went back to school full time because I just didn’t think that I got enough out of it. And I learned way more once I was on my own and sought out resources. There’s just so much that’s out there for free. So that’s how I started getting more serious, just reading books, looking at stuff online, they had free workshops around town.
That’s one thing I’ll say about living in a metropolitan area compared to where I am now, which is a way smaller town. There’s just so much to see and do and so many programs and workshops, you just have so much access. And sometimes it’s free. So I just took advantage of a lot of that. And I taught myself a little bit about how to present myself as an artist, how to go to galleries and how to start a website, all that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
You just picked it up on your own?

Traci L. Turner:
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Because it was like, “Yo, you can do this yourself.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Then I’ll just try it out. Why not?” I had studied some design in school so it didn’t feel too out of the ordinary to try to come up with “branding” or graphics or to throw together a website or just like the admin stuff, I guess of being an artist. It’s a lot of work. It’s so much work marketing. And once social media was becoming a big thing and people started using that to promote themselves, I think I got on it late, but it’s still one of those things where you have to use it as a tool to put yourself out there.
A lot of the contexts I’ve made have been because I just put myself out there. Somehow they found me or just being out and about talking to people, telling people, “I’m an artist.” Even if I didn’t feel really believe it, you got to say it. Even just that was enough to open certain doors or to have opportunities just saying it, you know.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, while you were out there, this is post-college, you were you taking these courses, you were blogging… By the way, your blog is very much still online. I’m looking at it right now.

Traci L. Turner:
Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s great. It’s great. You should not be ashamed of it. I’m going to read some of it. And you might think this is really interesting. There’s a section in a post that you wrote called Recap, Regroup, Restart.

Traci L. Turner:
Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
And in the Regroup part, you say, “Now, that you’ve reviewed the year you’ve had, it’s time to regroup. This is a planning stage. This should also be considered a resting stage. Take a bit of a break from life. But Traci, how can I be productive if I’m taking a break? Hush, because planning and chilling out is productive as long as you’re intentional about your time and set a time limit.” You’ve got some good stuff here. You talk about a painting workshop that you did at Bay Area Classic Arts Atelier?

Traci L. Turner:
Oh yeah. Mm-hmm. Dang. Oh my gosh. This is bringing back some memories.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m not going to read it verbatim, but if you still want to search it out, it’s online.

Traci L. Turner:
Oh my gosh.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to talk about your post-college work because you said you were taking these courses, doing all these things, you were writing about your experience, I think is amazing to do all of that. You were also working at a company, you were working at this place called CustomInk. You were there for a long time. You were there for almost 15 years. How were you balancing that along with your fine artwork?

Traci L. Turner:
Well, it was the kind of job that, no shade to them, but it was the kind of job that where I could just turn it off. I didn’t have to commit really tough. I didn’t have to take it home with me. And after a while, I got into the rhythm of it, it was like doing it with my eyes closed. So being at a job like that where I didn’t have to really put that much energy into it allowed me to pursue art and be excited about that and put the energy and passion into that. And I did it, I stayed there for so long because of it. It was just a place I could park while I was trying to build this creative career basically. And it fit, it was just such a good fit for so long.
And then maybe it’s, I don’t know, growing up, maturing, getting to a certain age, I got serious with my partner. And so we’re figuring out plans for our future, I think, all of that coming together made me think that I needed to do something else for my career. I was getting frustrated at the job, I wasn’t really doing… I should say I wasn’t really grinding so much with art anymore. So it was like this, “Where do I put this energy now?” And it was a blessing and a curse being at that company. It was so good because I was able to do so much with my creative life, but then once I needed to change things, I had pigeonholed myself at this company, I couldn’t really move up.
I was only really good at that one thing. Luckily, in grinding so much and doing all the things myself, as far as my art career, I still learned a bunch of different skills. So in evaluating that I realized, “Okay, I can probably do marketing jobs. If I were to leave this company, I have this creative background, I know some technical things, I know the social media, digital marketing side. All that stuff I’m really familiar with and have to stay on top of.” So I was like, “Someone’s going to have to give me a shot.”
It was maybe last August, that marked the end of my career there at CustomInk because I was like, “I need to fuel myself a different way now.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So you were there from 2007 to 2021. That’s a long time to be… And when I say it’s a long time to be at one place, I don’t mean that in a bad way. I see what you’re saying about how it can pigeonhole you. When I think about how much the design industry has changed from 2007 to now, and the fact that you were still able to be at one company, doing design work is a feat. You should be super proud of that.

Traci L. Turner:
Well, thank you for saying that. Oh my gosh, I had a completely different and probably disparaging… Awesome perspective on it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think what’s interesting with design is certainly in the 2000s, I think web design, visual design online was starting to be taken more seriously. When I came into the web, which was right near the beginning of the 2000s or so, you could either be a web designer, a web developer or webmaster. Those were the three tasks you could do. And I would say probably even right around by the time of 2007, you were either a web designer or web developer, I think webmaster probably phased out and became system administrator or something, but there wasn’t that much-

Traci L. Turner:
I hope there isn’t webmaster anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. But back then, there wasn’t that much variation with what you could do with design online. And then the 2010s was just all about, I feel the rise of UX, the rise of product. You have so many tech focused companies that are building these design teams that are not just visual designers, but there’s also researchers, there’s writers, there’s all different matters of design coming out, experience design and things like that. And so what I think about is just how much it’s changed and the fact that you were able to still be at one place, that is a real feat because the industry has changed so much and you’ve still been able to maintain at one place. That’s really good.

Traci L. Turner:
Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. I came out of that experience thinking, “Dang, what can I do after this? I’ve been here for so long.” It was my first major job right after school. It did afford me a lot of different things as far as my independence goes and it was through that job that I was able to move across the country to Reno. And this is my home now. So I’m thankful for it. But at the same time, career wise, I thought, “Oh man, I should have had a backup or something.”

Maurice Cherry:
Because what you see right now in the market, and I mean right now is when we’re recording, it’s late June, there’s been a slate of massive layoffs from tech companies, mostly with their design teams. And I know from building teams myself, I know we’re talking to other people that recruit, they’re always like, “Oh, well, these designers are bouncing around there at one place for one year. They’re at one place for two years. They’re not staying and putting down roots.” And the reality is it’s hard to stay and put down roots now as a designer, it’s super hard to do that because the way that companies, at least tech companies and design companies have changed so much and they’re trying to really keep up with the market and with new advances and things like that, they’re cycling people out.
So it’s tough to stay somewhere for a long time. I got back into working a nine-to-five in late 2017 and my first place that I worked at was a startup called Glitch. And I worked there for roughly about two and a half years. And then during the pandemic, they cut our whole department. And so after that, I worked for a startup. This startup’s not an ideal place, go somewhere else. Go to this startup. You end up bouncing from place to place because you’re trying to find a place to park. And the reality is, CustomInk, for what it’s worth, I’ve ordered from CustomInk, they’re a pretty stable company because people always need t-shirts.
As long as there’s a family reunion, a conference of some sort, people will always need printed custom swag of some sort. So I get that. But a lot of these tech startups are so fly by night. You hope they’re going to stick around for five years, let alone whether or not you’ll be there or not, you just hope that the company is actually there because the market may change and focus on something else. And now what you were doing two or three years ago is now phased out or obsolete and you got to jump to something else.

Traci L. Turner:
So true.

Maurice Cherry:
Being at one place now for that long, as long as you were there, that really is something.

Traci L. Turner:
Thanks. It was cool. It was really cool. I think I was just so focused on what I was trying to do outside of there, it just, I don’t know, it made it so easy. You know what I mean? I guess I didn’t think so much about, “Let me advance here and learn all these other stuff I can do here.” It was just, “What can I do for my art? How do I learn what I need to do for art?” I think I am very thankful that I was able to do that there for so long.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that we’re starting to see, I think probably over the past, maybe 10, 15 years or so is a lot more black fine artists and their work starting to be exhibited in more mainstream type of venues, whether that’s at a big art show or even on a television show or an independent movie or something like that. You mentioned the National Portrait Gallery, of course that had me thinking about the Obama portraits, which were by two black portrait artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. What do you think about that kind of exposure? If you see, I don’t know, I’m thinking specifically, a while back I had Dawn Okoro on the show and some of her work was featured on BET’s, The First wives Club.
And I was like, “Does that help you as an artist, that kind of exposure? Or what do you think about it when black artists get that mainstream exposure?

Traci L. Turner:
I think it’s pretty awesome. At least that’s how I feel about it for now. I hope it’s something that can happen to me to be honest. I was like, “Let me just keep posting, maybe somebody who’s going to want me to have my artwork in the background of they show or something.” I think it’s super cool that black artists and creatives are getting that recognition. They’re getting their flowers now rather than after they’re dead. You know what I mean? Because there’s just so many people out there really spearheading what that “genre” is, which is black art and being a black artist. I think the more we can see what people are doing the better.
So that was something I struggled with for a while because I wouldn’t say that I do black art necessarily, but I can also say, well, it is black art because I’m a black artist. So whatever I do is black art. But it seems that term was only applied to, I don’t know, a certain aesthetic and it was something that I just didn’t feel connected to. It was like they only want to see our work if it’s talking about or depicting the black experience or pain or just to something along those lines. But I like seeing now that there are artists that are doing just abstract art, they’re doing whatever they want to do. They’re drawing manga and comics now and I’ve even seen meme art.
I like seeing that there’s a variety now of what’s out there as far as what black artists are doing and what we are inspired by. It’s not just about the struggle, it’s not just about Afrocentric imagery. You know what I mean? There’s just so much more to us. And so I think when any creative gets put on in a way like that where it’s just… I loved that the Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald got their shine for sure, for the Obama portraits. I thought that was such a milestone in art in general, just fine art and the business of art and then just black art history. That’s American history.
That’s, I don’t know, that was very inspiring, especially for me as a portrait artist to just see that, to see that and to have their work be seen by so many people. People flock from all over the world, probably the country for sure to go see these artists works. And I know they were pretty well known in their own right, but to see them get launched up even higher, that’s what we want. That’s what we want to see, especially because a lot of the artists, when you ask someone, “Oh, who’s your favorite artist or where do you draw inspiration from?” A lot of what we’re used to hearing are the old masters, which are these old white guys, which is fine. That’s what they were showing back then.
But I want to know, well, who are the masters of now? Who are going to be the people we’re going to be citing a century from now or whomever? And I’m hoping that more black artists, this is that moment where we’re seeing, “Oh, okay, here I’m going to be the masters of our future.” The future generation is going to be like, “Kehinde Wiley, that’s my old master.” You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Traci L. Turner:
I think it’s super cool. Really cool. And I hope it continues to happen as long as it isn’t exploitative, of course. So far, I think it’s been in celebration.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the mentors that have really helped you out in your career?

Traci L. Turner:
Man, I wish I had a mentor. Is anybody taking application? I feel like it’s just been me out here, but I will say there was a teacher that I had when I was back in art school, he was my painting teacher. I guess I can’t really say he was my mentor, but he was very inspiring and encouraging to me. And I do think of him often, especially now, because I feel, man, I have a little bit of a career. I didn’t know what this was going to look like for me 15, 20 years ago, but I can say, well, I’ve done some shows and I have series and I’ve written about my art and I just have this whole presence now in a way that I never thought I would have.
And I think back to those moments in classes with him when he encouraged me to experiment with color. There was just so much I didn’t realize I could do, and when I had the idea, even if I was hesitant, he was like, “Yeah, try it, you should do it.” He gave me critiques, and they were always very constructive and meaningful. That was such a launchpad for me, just being able to have that influence so early in my art career. It’s so funny, I did look him up recently. He’s still doing art and he is, he’s still out there doing art. He’s moved. So he doesn’t teach at the school anymore. But he looks happy living life.
I was like, “Maybe I’ll reach out.” But I haven’t yet. I don’t know, I’m too scared. But maybe after this, talking about it now would make me get the confidence to reach out and say what I just said just now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, reach out to him, give him the timestamp on this episode and he can just listen to it.

Traci L. Turner:
I will.

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

Traci L. Turner:
I haven’t figured out who the famous person I would want to do yet is, but I would like a commission from somebody that’s famous or someone that finds me or maybe it’s word mouth or maybe they hear me on this podcast and they want me to do a portrait or commission for them. That would make me feel like, “All right, I’m doing okay out here.” Just some celebrity or famous person reaches out, but I don’t know who I want it to be yet. I think right now, beggars can’t be choosers.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re on YouTube, you’re on TikTok, you’re on social media, shoot your shot. If there’s a celebrity that you admire, just, “I think I’m going to make a portrait of them and see what they think about it.”

Traci L. Turner:
Go for it. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Doesn’t hurt. Doesn’t hurt. So I want to go back to this podcast that you mentioned before, Art Life Confidential, you mentioned you’re not doing the podcasts anymore. Have you thought about picking the mic back up again?

Traci L. Turner:
I really do want to, I have to figure out when, how is that going to fit into my schedule? My life is a little bit packed for right now, but I anticipate that it’s going to calm down soon. So once that happens, then I think that’ll be the point where I return to podcasting. Because I really do want to revisit that vision because it was really fun. And I went through all that trouble to make the website and the branding, everything. And I had a whole bank of topics that I might have to retweet now because there’s just so many newer things to talk about. I think some of the stuff that I wrote down is pretty outdated now.
So I want to have a space or resource in the podcast basically for other artists out there who are taking the leaps or want to advance their skills or their careers or their learning kind of how I did. You know what I mean? Not everybody can afford to go to school, I barely was able to do it. So I would love to be able to build that out, a resource for people or even just a space for people to commiserate or feel like, “Oh, okay. I feel seen, I’m doing this thing. I’m not alone out here. There are so many other people who understand this crazy pursuit that we’re doing as artists.” Nobody else gets it other than another creative person.
I had such big dreams for that and I would do want to get back to it. I don’t know, there’s a part of me that wants to be a mentor in that way. Not that I’m saying I know everything, but I don’t know, I think about how hard it was for me just fishing around by myself, not having that guidance. Just anything that I can offer from what I’ve learned or from what I’ve picked up from other people I would love to put back out there for people so they can have some help, some guidance. I don’t know, it gets dark. It gets dark in some of those moments as an artist. And I would love to be a little bit of that light to help people just stay with it. So hopefully soon, before the end of the year, I hope to have a couple more episodes added.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Pace yourself. The thing with podcasting is eventually you want to build up to a schedule that your audience knows that they can depend on hearing episodes or stuff from you. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong, especially if you’ve already been doing podcasts. If you come back and just say, “I’m just going to do it maybe once a month or once every two weeks.” And roll into it slowly as you start to build back up to it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that, you don’t have to hop right back into every week or something like that, just at your own pace, it’s your show. So you can do whatever you want to.

Traci L. Turner:
I was thinking maybe I could do it in seasons.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good idea.

Traci L. Turner:
Yeah. It could maybe be a once a month kind of thing or every two weeks and then that’s a season, and then I’ll take some time, do what I need to do, then come back, “Here’s the new season.” So you’re absolutely right, I think pacing myself is going to be key there. Because my life is just so different from where it was, shoot, even three, four years ago. I had so much time. So now it’s like, “How do I maintain all of that with a family basically?” And shoot, I have two jobs now because I’m crazy. And just all this stuff. So I think pacing is going to be exactly what I need to figure out.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want people to see when they look at your work?

Traci L. Turner:
This is a new answer because it probably would’ve been a little different had you caught me a few years ago. So what I’m going to say now is I want people to notice the technique, I want people to, I don’t know, because the style that I have, which is these bright colors, loose brush strokes, I’m not super concerned with perfection, with my work or having it look drawn super well. But aside from that, I want people to connect with the fact that this is my style now. I think when I started developing, I want to say, this style, it’s not anything that’s revolutionary, anything, but it feels unique to me at this point.
I want people to see that this isn’t an experiment anymore, this is my statement, this is what I want to do with this medium. And so I don’t want to get boxed into a certain subject matter necessarily, though I think my work is always going to be humanistic in some way. I want to be able to just paint whatever I want to. When people see my work, I want them to really connect with just how I’m using color. I think that’s what I want at this point in my art career. Before, it probably would’ve been more about the emotional side of things because I was very much pulling from very deep personal emotions and experiences before, but that’s just, I don’t know, I guess I’m not interested in that anymore.
Now it’s just totally different. Now it’s more about I want people to recognize that I am an accomplished painter, I know what I’m doing and have just, I don’t know, an admiration for the technique. I think that’s the answer here.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you envision this next chapter of your career to look like?

Traci L. Turner:
Great question. I honestly haven’t thought about that too much. I think I’m so focused on just getting back on the horse. I’m just to go with what’s first in my mind. Well, I want to have my own studio. I would love to have an official space where I do business and work and be able to have my own ample space to create. Right now I have a room in the house, and that’s fine, but I think eventually, I want it to be its own space where I can decorate and it’s inviting. And if people want to come see my work and buy it there, or if we want to sit down and talk about a commission together, it’s like, “Here is a welcoming space and this is a business space too.”
I’m in a place where I can separate myself and focus on being creative and recording and all that stuff. Because I feel I’ve been serious, but I think the way I want it to look now is a little more mature. And so that’s where I hope to be in five years, where I’m still doing this, but is in an actual official space.

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

Traci L. Turner:
I am first going to direct people to my website because that’s just the hub for everything, plus I have a blog on there, where I go more in-depth about the stuff I’m doing and where I share things. So my website is tracilturner.com. It’s Traci with an I. And outside of that, I’m pretty much on every other social media platform you can think of. I’m on TikTok and Instagram as tracilturner. And I have a YouTube channel, I think it’s just Traci L. Turner Art and Twitter, though I’m not on there as much, but if you want to see my work and just the stuff I chat about on there, it’s just @tracekilla. Anywhere else where I am, I can’t think of right now, but it is on my website. So that’s the space where you could find everything.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Traci L. Turner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think one thing that I get from listening to your story, and one thing that I hope listeners can gain from this is that making the art that you enjoy at the pace that makes sense to you is totally okay. I know that this world is about rush, rush, rush, get things done. You have to do more, productivity, blah, blah, blah. You can do your work on your own time, on your own terms. Nobody is rushing, well, hopefully nobody is rushing you, but don’t feel like you have to have that pressure to be this artistic factory.
And I think certainly from what you’ve mentioned and talked about from your own life story, you’re showing that you’re living life and making art on your own terms, which is what we should all strive to do as creatives. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Traci L. Turner:
Oh, thank you so much, Maurice. I love what you’re doing. I feel honored.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

Our paths have crossed several times over the past couple of years, but I finally managed to sit down and chat with the one and only Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel. Along with being an author, design educator, and community builder, she is one of the editors behind The Black Experience in Design: Identity, Expression & Reflection, a compilation of essays from over 70 Black designers, artists, curators, educators, students, and researchers.

Our conversation began with some good news about a recent grand that she won, and from there we talked about her areas research and what she teaches. Dr. Noel spoke about growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and studying design in Brazil, including becoming a Fulbright Scholar and arriving at North Carolina State University. She also talked about motivation, ambition, and about the importance of finding your own community.

Take Dr. Noel’s advice — the world of design is a lot bigger than you think!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So my name is Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel, and I’m an assistant professor of design at North Carolina State University. What I do is a hard question because I do a lot of things. I guess the main thing is that I teach design and I work as a design coach in a kind of consulting capacity. And then I do research because I’m at a research university. So I do research in education, public health, and community engagement. And then, I’m an author and an editor. And maybe I’m a convener. I like to bring people together to talk about design. Yes. So I’ll stop there.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I was going to say I’m glad you mentioned author and convener, because you did bring so many people together, myself included for The Black Experience in Design book that published earlier this year.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I’m one of six editors of that book. But I think you see my character and my outlook in the way that I brought people together, I suppose in the chapters that I worked on. Or when we were preparing the book, I brought people together to write together. Because I really believe in I guess the power of community. And I understand everybody’s journey with their own kind of imposter syndrome.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in that book, one of my key roles was just that. To bring people together and kind of tell people, “Oh my goodness, your writing is amazing. All you need to do is change this little thing.” If you have that kind of approach, people can become so much more productive. So I think that that’s an outlook that I take into a lot of the things that I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember those Saturday morning Zoom writing sessions. Those were really helpful.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I’ve been doing those maybe for about two and a half years. Actually when I went to Tulane, so I’ve worked at about four different universities. So when I was at Tulane University, I was introduced a little bit more to this culture of writing together with other people. I joined some of their writing workshops that my colleagues had organized. But then I started either joining other people’s writing workshops, or running my own. I have to say that is really what has made me really productive writing wise in the last two years or so, because I write so often. So now it’s like I write every day, I suppose.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you also recently won a grant too, right? The Outreach and Engagement Incentive Grants.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. So I won a grant at NC State. It’s a small grant, but it was an exciting proposal to be funded. It’s called STEM Games Against Oppression. Right? And it was a kind of, I don’t want to say it was a crazy idea. Because the stakes are “low” because it’s a small grant and it’s an internal grant, I felt I could actually be very creative in the way that I put together the grant. So this grant combines a lot of things that I’m interested in. So Afrofuturism or speculative futures. Games. STEM, and teaching STEM in different ways. And of course design. So for this grant, we are going to work with a group. And then the other interest is teenage boys. That sounds weird to say it like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
My son is 14, and I kind of jokingly say to some of my friends a lot of my research has always been focused at whatever age he’s at. Right? So with this one, I’ve been thinking about how can science be more engaging or more interesting for 14 year old boys? So that’s what this grant is about, this project is about. Where these boys are going to discuss society, and oppression, and all of these things. But they’re going to make these games. And while they’re making the games, we’re going to introduce them to a lot of design-based STEM kind of concepts making. And I don’t know what the content is actually yet. But I’m excited about doing this work, which I’m going to start late fall.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
It was just exciting that I could win that kind of creative grant, to really bring together a lot of the things I was interested in and just create this experimental workshop where we’re just going to make these fun games. But while we’re making these fun games, we’re talking about society. We are going to do some 3D printing and AR/VR kind of stuff. So it’s creative, and it was exciting for that kind of creative activity to be seen as research. So hopefully, it’s another line of work that I’m going to be able to continue in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you’ve had a banner year so far. Not just this year, but last year also. I mean, before we started recording, I was just congratulating you on your honorary doctorate that you got from the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Have you kind of had a chance to celebrate all these wins? I mean the doctorate, the book, the grant. Have you had a chance to celebrate?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
No. No, I haven’t. And it’s strange to say it, but I know that the pandemic caused a lot of disruption for a lot of people. For me too. But the pandemic also created access in a way that I might not have had access before. I’m parenting. So before the pandemic, I was always weighing things and trying to figure out, “Okay, what can I say yes to? What can I say no to?” And most things I would have to say no to, because I couldn’t go and participate in things because of my son’s school year or something like that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So what happened with me with the pandemic is that because of these virtual meetings that we do, I could actually say yes to everything, right? Which is not a strategy that I recommend for a lot of people. But that is I suppose what has led to this bumpy year that because we weren’t physically going to places, I could now suddenly be involved in a lot of projects that I couldn’t have been involved in 2019. But also because of the pandemic, I haven’t had time to celebrate. Now I want to go somewhere and celebrate, but I haven’t actually been able to.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah, it’s been an exciting year. It’s an exciting year or a couple of years that have been the result of a lot of collaboration. So people might see me, but it’s hardly ever only about me. I love working with other people. So it’s a lot of these kinds of collaborations with other people that have created a lot of the results and the visibility that exists now.

Maurice Cherry:
I know what you mean about taking everything as it happens. I swear that summer, really I’d say from the summer of 2020 on to the end of that year, I just had this influx of opportunities that came in. And I didn’t say no to any of them because I could just do them all from home. So I know exactly what you mean by that, not having to kind of weigh the pros and cons. You can do it all because you happen to be in a place where you can do it all.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And actually, you reminded me of this other thing of course, which we have to talk about. As Black people, summer 2020 was I suppose a year of hyper visibility for Black designers. So there were a lot more opportunities that would’ve come … or certainly for me. Let me not speak for everybody. A lot more opportunities, many more opportunities came my way after summer 2020. And I didn’t have to worry about could I accept them or not. So that’s why I guess I’m visible now and I’m able to celebrate these things. The book, the honorary doctorate, all of these things. Because really the visibility for us professionally changed that summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It really did. And it’s interesting because now just two years later now, really kind of looking back on it, I mean we’re recording this right around the time a lot of this stuff happened back in 2020. It’s almost two years to the day when a lot of this really happened. And it’s amazing to see how things have changed just in terms of not only visibility, but also that attention. I don’t know about you. But for me, I feel like the attention has pretty much just completely died down. Like companies that said they were going to do stuff haven’t done it yet. Or they made a pledge and they never actually went through with it. That sort of thing.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m an academic. Right? And I guess I’ve maybe been able to use visibility in a slightly different way to other designers. Right? So it’s like if then that hyper visibility of that year and a half or those two years has given me … I don’t want to say it like this, but I will say it like this. It’s like that has given me permission or validation to do other things. Because then, my name became known as a designer who talks about equity or a designer who talks about social justice. I’m kind of channeling that into the research that I want to do or the community engagement that I want to do.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it’s not quite that I’m depending on the companies that said that they would be doing stuff to do this stuff because I’m in academia. But I am using the little bit of validation that I got during those 18 months then to underpin some of the work that I want to do. Right? Whether it’s this work about futures, and Afrofuturism, and how we combining that with design and world building, right? At least I could use the little bit of name recognition that I created in that time to now continue to do this other work.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of being an academic, you mentioned teaching at North Carolina State University. How has it been teaching and going through all this over the past few years?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So an interesting thing that I found out during the pandemic is that I love teaching online, which is strange. I enjoy teaching face-to-face or online. But what I really enjoyed about working online … and there were ups and downs, right? But I first taught online in I think 2018 or 2019. So just before the pandemic. When we went into that crisis in March 13th, I already had two different experiences to build on. One, I worked at the d.school at Stanford in 2018 to 2019, and I did teach some Zoom-based classes then. And then 2019 to 2020, I was at Tulane. And at Tulane, we had to have a crisis management plan where we had to practice teaching online before the pandemic. We didn’t know the pandemic was coming. It was just part of hurricane crisis management.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So from those experiences, I already had some experience in things like bringing music into the classroom while on the Zoom call or changing up my Zoom backgrounds. I’d already started using these kind of warmup activities to get people comfortable online. So certainly the early days of the pandemic, I actually really enjoyed teaching online. There’s some frustration. As a design teacher, one thing that is complicated or difficult to manage is that we don’t have the same relationship with materials when we’re working remotely. But then we can experiment with other things, like maybe drawing together on a virtual whiteboard. I did some activities where people had to take photographs and add them to the virtual whiteboard. So I really enjoyed that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I think that the last semester that was kind of hybrid was the worst point of the pandemic, because you can’t do both at the same time well. So I really wanted to be either online or in-person, but not both. Because there are these other issues that people hadn’t thought about. Like maybe we can’t hear properly when we’re in that kind of format with booths. Or our classroom suddenly became very accessible during the pandemic. And then when we went back to this kind of strange hybrid space, it became inaccessible again. I had one or two students who just couldn’t come to the classroom anymore because of accessibility issues like stairs and stuff like that. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But what else can I say about the experience? The accessibility issue, the pandemic broad accessibility. Or let me not say the pandemic, but teaching remotely made some classes and design classes accessible in ways that they might not have been before. Like throughout the pandemic, I taught hearing impaired people in many different settings, and I never had a lot of engagement with the deaf community before the pandemic. Right? So I that has always been something that has concerned me as we kind of go back to business as usual. What about all the accessibility that we created? Where is it going to go?

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned North Carolina State University being a research university. Can you talk a bit about what research you’re working on?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. Well maybe, first I’m going to talk about one thing that I teach that might be tied to research. So I teach a class called contemporary issues in art and design. And it is a class about … well contemporary issues yes. But it’s equity and social justice. And that’s kind of one of the areas that underpins some of the engagement, because we do research and engagement. And the public engagement that I’m interested in is very equity and social justice focused.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So out of that class, I’ve been doing writing that’s related to the content of that class. So about race, gender, disability, all of these oppression issues. And I’m starting to bring that into the research that I have to say I want to do, because I’m a new assistant professor at NC State. So not all of it has started.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But there are three areas of research that I plan to continue working in. Right? So the first one is tied to education. And it is about using design, and design principles, and design pedagogy, the way that we teach and learn design. And using that to make STEM education more accessible.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I see this also as a justice issue. So that’s why I said it’s tied to that class that I teach. So when I was at Tulane, we started to do this tiny experiment where we turned a math class into a design class. And that’s a little bit of an example of where I see that research going. Where I worked with a professor, a math professor at Tulane called Marie Dahleh. And she taught me about something called ordinary differential equations, which I knew nothing about before. But when I did a little bit of research, I found it is about actually predicting the future. She might not describe it as that. And mathematicians might not describe it as that. But as someone who’s interested in futures, that’s the thing that I grabbed onto. This equation is to predict the future. And then we turned the math class into a design class about predicting the future and then using the equation to somehow support the prediction. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And I’m playing with making STEM curricular really exciting, engaging, future-focused, and critical at the same time. So maybe overlaying a lot of things, but it is a track that I’ve been following for a little while. In my PhD research, I worked with children who were in fourth grade. And at that time, they had to discuss society and the world around them and then take action through design. And I’m really just continuing that research and saying well okay, you’re going to discuss society. Yes. Take action through design, but we are going to make the STEM principles that are attached to the action that you’re taking a little bit more explicit. So that’s one area of research that I’m involved in.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Another area of research. And again, this is tied to another collaborator again at Tulane. This is Alessandra Bazzano. And in this area of research, we are looking at how can we use the way that designers think, talk, express themselves, the way designers use materials. How can we use all of these things to support patients or members of the public to talk about their public health experience more, or more clearly? So we did some workshops where for example, we gave people prototyping materials. And then we asked them to make something related to their pandemic experience, and then use that thing that they had made as a prompt to open up and talk about issues related to public health, right? Or could we get people to use photographs that they had taken as a prompt to get people to talk more about their public health experience in the pandemic? So that’s another area of research, which is related to patient-centered outcomes research, which is a whole area of research in public health. But it is using design methods and these design ways of thinking to support that patient centered outcomes research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the third area of research that I’m into is civic and social innovation, where we are building capacity within cities to get more people within the city or from the public to go through the design process together to address social issues. Right? So it’s civic or social engagement through design. So I mean, maybe I explain all three badly. But these are the three areas that I’m interested in. STEM education, public health, or patient-centered outcomes, and civic and social engagement. And all through design.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really interesting that you are doing this as you mentioned, all through design. Even the first part that you mentioned about math really kind of struck me, because my degree is in math. So you start talking about differential equations. That took me right back to my 2002 differential equations class at Morehouse with my professor, Dr. Bozeman and him talking about how a lot of engineers and stuff, they use differential equations for futures predictions. For example, if you want to predict the spread of an oil spill, you would use differential equations to try to figure that out. You’re predicting it. You don’t know for sure. But with calculus being the rate of change across a certain period of time or across a certain distance, differential equations helps you to try to chart those paths and stuff. So you’re right on with that. Certainly. It’s really just interesting that you’re able to do all this and tie design into all of it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. And it’s about access an agency, and creating access and agency through design. But I’ll just share like a little bit of feedback that the professor I was working with that she gave. After we did that math class, that was a design class. She said, “There were different students engaged in the class today. And that’s interesting.” Because there’s some students who just expect, they’re going to love everything about math. But she said, “When we turned the math class into the design class, there were different people who were involved,” because there were people who were involved because maybe they were acting as they presented the future scenario that they had predicted. So I think can we use design to get people engaged in different ways around STEM education, public health, and social innovation? These are the three little pockets I’m interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I have to say, I think that’s important for designers now to really think about. So much I feel like design within the past maybe decade or so has really largely been product focused and UX focused. I think as certainly technology, and tech companies, and social media and stuff have started to really become these pervasive entities in our lives. There’s so many designers now that are just getting into product, or UX, or something, but not thinking about other areas of practice where they could use their design. Like the stuff that you’re talking about with social innovation, other non-product oriented design work, community engagement. Speculative futures, which is related to an article that you just published recently. I think it’s important to show that these options are options.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
These options are options. And then also, we create these options. There’s something that I say all the time. So someone’s going to listen to this interview and say, “Oh my God, she’s saying this again.” But when I was finishing up undergrad just before the end, our professor said something like, “You make yourselves relevant?” I did industrial design. And he says, “Nobody needs any industrial designers anywhere.” But you are the one who kind of make yourself relevant to the conversations that everyone is having. So it’s like we make these opportunities for ourselves. So we don’t only have to talk about product and tech. There is work for us as designers in education, in even project management. Because to be a good designer, you know how to manage things, and manage time, and manage people. So these skills kind of don’t have to stay within the design world. We can take these skills and move them to other sectors where the opportunity might be so obvious.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well said. Also at North Carolina State University, you’re co-chair of the Pluriversal Design Special Interest Group, which is part of the Design Research Society. Talk to me about that.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
All right. So that’s an exciting little research group. So the Design Research Society is supposed to be the largest professional organization for design research in the world actually. And they do an annual conference. There’s one that’s going to happen in June or would’ve happened by the time this is. So they do a conference every two years. And I’ve been a member of this association for about five years. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So when I used to go to the annual conference, I used to be very struck that nobody was discussing stuff that I wanted to talk about. Right? And when I say I wanted to talk about, I mean as a Black woman from Trinidad and Tobago. It doesn’t have to be about race, I suppose. But as somebody from the global south, I found there was no one talking about design in ways that I really wanted to talk to. But if in the conference I met someone from Brazil, from Nigeria, from any other place other than Europe or North America, I found that we started to have more overlap of issues.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we created this research group, myself and colleague Renata Marques Leitao, we had created this little research group to focus on issues in design from a non-European and non-North American perspective. Right? Also issues related to challenging the dominant narrative in design. Challenging that kind of white Euro American perspective in design. So this group became a group to talk about these types of issues within this Design Research Society. So it was like where could you find stories about practice from designers in South Africa and in India, for example. This became the group where we could have these kind of multicultural or cross cultural conversations in a way where … in design or very often, these kinds of conversations come with a little bit of a hierarchy where it’s kind of assumed that the person who is from America or from Europe has more authority or more knowledge than the person from wherever else. And this group challenges a lot of that kind of conversation.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we’ve been around since 2018. It’s a vibrant group where the most vibrant thing that we do is actually a book club where we focus on design. We focus on who designers should be reading, authors that designers should be reading that are not from Europe or North America. People from within the group suggest people, so one week we had worked by a Puerto Rican feminist, Aurora Levins Morales. Another week we had someone talking about, N. K. Jemisin who is American, but is not part of that dominant white male perspective.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So we bring all of these authors that we think people need to hear from and talk about that, and talk about how their work affects design. And then we share stories about practice. We share research. And it is a group then that is focused on decolonizing design, but not only talking about decolonizing design. Because a lot of people talk about decolonizing design, but it remains as just talk. And in group, we’re asking people to share practice, and share stories. And kind of like, what are you doing that is not focusing on maybe more traditional ways of doing design? How are you shaking things up in your own design practice? And can you share this with us?

Maurice Cherry:
I know you mentioned that about decolonizing design, and it reminded me about well one, I know Dr. Dori Tunstall is doing a lot of work in driving conversations around that. I remember, I think this might have been maybe a couple of years ago, there was some pushback from another Black designer about even using that term decolonizing design. I believe it was … oh my goodness. I think it was Saki Mafundikwa from Zimbabwe. He had written this piece for AIGA’s Eye on Design kind of pushing back on that term. I think thinking of colonialism in the more imperialistic sense, particularly with him being African. Pushing back on that term like can you really say you’re decolonizing design as an American?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Right. So that’s a good point of view. Actually, we had a conversation … when I say our conversation, I mean our group, we led a discussion a few months ago where we actually said that you probably should be an existential crisis if you’re a designer to be. Because you might want to talk about something like decolonizing design, but actually design is modernist and colonial. So how do we decolonize this? And when we decolonize it, is it still going to be design? Even that’s going to be part of the future existential crisis. It might not be design when we reach whatever place we think decolonization is.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And it’s not actually a place, it’s a journey. And the work that I’ve been doing, I guess my step towards this whole decolonizing work is every issue that I look at, I keep asking myself, “Well, what is my perspective as person X?” Which to be really reductionist, this Black woman is from the Caribbean or Black mother from the Caribbean. So that informs a lot of the issues that I am focusing on. And I think that that’s my small step towards decolonizing given the space where I’m practicing as a designer and as a design researcher in my very authentic way. I don’t want to say an authentic way. It’s my way. And I encourage other people to do that. Bring your way into the process. And I see that us moving towards decolonizing the work, right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Because a few years ago, maybe five, six years ago, I really thought about how I would see students kind of struggling to fit in or kind of struggling to replicate what they thought good design was.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I travel a lot or I used to travel a lot, but I went to a design school in India. And at that point, at first I was like, “This is kind of interesting.” To see the similarity in the design world between Brazil, and Trinidad, and India. But actually on the other hand, I found it really disturbing that all of these students would’ve come into design school with their vibrant, vibrant identities, and maybe leave with this more homogenized outlook. And I think that my step towards decolonizing design is making sure that that doesn’t happen. Right? Getting people to really bring themselves back into the design process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now we’ve talked a lot about your work. But I really want to kind of dive more into your origin story, because you’ve sort of dropped some little breadcrumbs here and there about going to India, and Brazil, and stuff like that. I know you’re originally from Trinidad and Tobago. So let’s start there. Tell me about growing up there. What was your childhood like?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Yeah. I grew up, from Trinidad who might be listening to this, I’m from Diamond Vale Diego Martin. I had probably a really kind of ordinary, middle class kind of existence. And I was a middle child. So growing up in my sister’s shadow and then kind of the baby after me. But you probably want to know about okay, design in Trinidad. And people in Trinidad don’t see this, but Trinidad is a very designerly place. Right? Because we have carnival culture. So it means that you are talking and thinking about design every year. And it’s a very fashion-conscious place.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So there’s a design language in Trinidad that I think people use from [inaudible 00:37:48], and at different festivals. Maybe they’re talking about design with regard to the way bamboo structures are made for some of the festivals and things like that. You know? So there’s that designerly sensibility I think all the time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
The first design that I remember is in the equivalent of sixth grade, which is like form one. I remember designing maybe my first carnival costume and doing some work with lettering, which I still had. I still have somewhere. I saw the image the other day. But I can’t say that I know when I made the real conscious choice that design would’ve been it, right? But I guess maybe somewhere between 10th grade and 11th grade, this was the path that I joined. I became a ‘designer’ from that age, became really interested in things like typography. I did a lot of book covers in school. I remember one design exam where I did a popup book with Christopher Columbus. So maybe this was me already challenging the world. Right? So Christopher Columbus was sailing across the ocean. And then when you pulled the little tab, he fell off the flat earth or something like that. But I always thought that design was exciting.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I went to high school where art and design were really considered respectable professions or respectable areas. My parents probably wondered if I would’ve been able to pay for myself, survive as a designer. But my parents were really very open-minded and maybe focused on making sure that their children felt empowered. So when I wanted to study in Brazil, nobody ever told me no.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So actually, maybe I have to go backtrack a little bit and say how I ended up in Brazil. But I couldn’t study design in the way that I wanted to in Trinidad. And again, my parents, because they spoke a language that was very open. They kind of said, “Well, you could study anywhere in the world, as long as we don’t have to pay for it.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And that’s a good challenge to give 17 year old or 18 year old child. Right? Because I then started to just look for places around the world that I could study and my parents wouldn’t have to pay for it. Because what they were saying is that, “If we have to pay for it, we are going to tell you where you have to study. If you want to study anywhere, then you find the opportunity.”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So eventually, I ended up starting school in Bahia in Brazil. So I started graphic design in Bahia in Federal University of Bahia, but then eventually I moved to a town called Curitiba in the south of Brazil. And I did industrial design. And I spent a really long time in Brazil. But it was an amazing … I actually spent six years in Brazil. An amazing six years where I was just able to grow without family influence. I just really became very independent and very worldly. I lived in a community, a university community that was very politically conscious and politically active.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So my interest in equity and social justice really started then with my roommates who were in social sciences and psychology. Because we didn’t have those conversations in design. Those conversations were happening on other floors in the building that I studied in. But those fueled me and world view.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
From Brazil, I went back to Trinidad in the late ’90s. And then kind of almost immediately started working as a kind of design consultant with agencies that was somehow tied to export. So within Trinidad, I worked as a consultant with our trade and export agency for a few years. Then I worked with, there was a regional agency, Caribbean Export. I worked with them also as a consultant. Then I worked in East Africa in different places. Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya also as a consultant in trade and export. And, I was also adjunct faculty at the same time at the University of the West Indies in design.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I suppose it’s a little bit of that work with the export agencies, because this is kind of like development, international development kind of work. That work encouraged me to ask questions that eventually led me to do a PhD. And there was pressure from the university as well, because I eventually moved from being an adjunct to full-time. And you probably know how this academic thing is, but you probably need a PhD if you’re going to stay in academia.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So it was both the internal pressure from the university as well as these questions I was asking about the work we were doing as designers working in the area of development that eventually led me to do a PhD. Because I just thought that we needed to be asking harder questions, different questions. Really about how do we engage communities? What’s our role as designers when we are doing this work with people and trying to tell them, “This is the kind of product you need to make to get more sales and export you.” I just thought that we needed to reflect more on the work that we were doing. And I took a step back, and I started to apply to PhD programs in the mid, I don’t even even know how to call that decade in 2015. With no name.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So how did I end up here in the states? I actually got a Fulbright award. NC State, and the Fulbright Association have a good relationship. So it was a school that was recommended to me. I knew about the work that NC State was doing in education and design education. And that’s kind of how I ended up with the Fulbright Award. And because of NC State’s reputation, I ended up applying here, and coming here, and really enjoying the program. I spent three years here. I did not actually pursue the questions that I was thinking about pursuing, where I was thinking about design and development, because I was interested in education as well. My PhD is more tied to design education and developing critical design curriculum. So design curricula where people are asking hard questions about society. That was what my PhD research was about.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But yeah, I spent three years here. Then I spent a year at Stanford and two years at Tulane. And now I’m back here at NC State. So I don’t know if that’s an origin story, but that’s a little bit of a story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s quite a journey. I think what I kind of want to pull from that is what drove you to really make these big jumps not just geographically, but culturally? I mean, you’re going from Trinidad to Brazil, then from Brazil back to Trinidad, and then from Trinidad to the states. So there’s that. But then also it seems like you’re also leveling up educationally and vocationally I should say, in each situation. You’re going to undergraduate in Brazil. You’re pursuing your masters and working in Trinidad. Now you’re pursuing your PhD in the states. What was driving you during that time? What was really fueling that ambition?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Oh my goodness. I don’t even know. So what got me to Brazil … or maybe I’ll give a kind of umbrella statement. I’ve had people around me who have made me feel that I could do anything. So it was like the openness of that conversation with my parents. So that challenge that they gave me, that got me to go to Brazil. That got me to find Brazil as a place to go to. Right? Or little things that I would’ve heard from that professor in undergrad that made me just feel fearless.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
For most of my adult or professional life, I have felt that I could do anything. I have to say I’m grateful to the people around me who have made me feel like I can do anything. I guess the leveling up is just kind of what had to be done. That was part of the opportunity. I wouldn’t really have come to the states maybe without doing the PhD. But again, the people around me just made me think, “Well okay, of course you can go and get a PhD. Why wouldn’t you be able to get a PhD?” You know? Or, “Of course go to Brazil. Why wouldn’t you be able to go to Brazil?”

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’ve had that kind of empowering language around me all the time. And that has opened up my world. I really would say though, that I credit my parents for giving me the openness to think of going to Brazil. And I will say to any parent who might be listening to this, that changed my whole outlook on life. Because learning a new language, learning a new culture, that kind of removed all of the barriers on the world. Because I was able to do that, encourage other parents, “Push your children to kind of open up their worlds a little bit more.” That open world will just continue to take you to other places.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So of course Brazil, that experience of going back and forth between Trinidad and Brazil for six years made it seem like going between Trinidad and Tanzania for a few months, or Trinidad and Kenya, it was just another thing like that. All of this travel, and getting to know new cultures, and new people, and understanding that the world happens differently for other people. And that curiosity of wanting to know more about how other people experience the world. All that started because of that very open experience I had, I think in undergrad.

Maurice Cherry:
And what is it that sort of keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
There are a few things. I’m still very excited about conversations with other people in other parts of the world, and how they live, and think, and do. So the Pluriversal Design group is a little bit of that. How do we create a space where we can really listen to how other people, whoever other is, how people do things differently. So that’s one thing that continues to inspire me, just my curiosity about other people in the world. So that also affects the way that I do research, because that’s why I’m interested I suppose in anthropology, or anthropological methods, or ethnographic methods. Because I have that curiosity about the world and people.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
What continues to inspire me as well is that … well, this is where we get wishy washy, I suppose. Because I think my son, and my niece, and my nephew. What is the world that they’re going into? I suppose that’s why I’ve always had this one area of research that has focused on child centered methods or questions that I think are from a child’s point of view, or questions about making things better for other children so that other children don’t have to deal with some of the legacy systems that we have that don’t work. I’ve been very interested in redesigning or challenging things that we think just have to be the way they are. Right? So one example I’ll give is we have an exam in Trinidad called the Common Entrance Exam. And that is actually one of the things that started my PhD research when I changed direction. I was like, “But why do we even have to have that exam?” And that’s why I started to do that research.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So that’s something that continues to inspire me. How can we change the things that don’t work? And that’s also tied to my interest in futurism or Afrofuturism, because it’s how do we build new things, and new worlds, and new systems? How do we use design to do all of that? So I’m very interested in first having these critical conversations so that we could see clearly the things that don’t work, because sometimes we’ve been so brainwashed, that we don’t actually see the systems that don’t serve us. So everything that I do has to start off with that kind of conversation where we actually talk about what are the things that are wrong? But then we don’t just stay in that space of talking about the things that are wrong. We try to kind of move beyond that and take action through design. So I mean, that kind of social change also is something that motivates me as well. So I guess internally, it’s a curiosity. And then externally, it’s about changing systems, and fighting oppression, and social justice, and equity, and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you want to tell any designers out there listening who might be feeling a bit lost right now as to what to do with their future? And I’m asking this because I’ve had several people right into the show, particularly over the past two years, that maybe they just got out of design school through the pandemic. They got a job, but it’s not what they wanted, because they’re working from home, which is not really an ideal place for them to work, because this is their first job. And in some cases, it’s their first department.

Maurice Cherry:
And then there’s also people that have been working at places … I mean, we’re recording this right now in mid-June. But there’s been a huge slate of design and layoffs in the tech community over the past couple of weeks now. And some people have just ridden into the show just wanting some advice like, “I don’t know what to do now with my future.” What advice would you tell them?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I’m not actually going to give people the job advice. I’m going to ask them about the non-job stuff. Right? Or my advice might be about the non-job. So one thing is about finding community or creating community. So because your job might be fantastic, but maybe you’re lonely in your job. But it’s like we need other people to go along this journey with us. Right? And they make the process more interesting, more exciting. They might validate us as we do the work. So like for me personally, when we created that Pluriversal Design group, that kind of changed again my outlook on the world. Because my group was also then feeding me and my work, you know? So for people who might be a little bit lost, I would definitely advise them to make sure that they’re not just doing this alone. Right? And find these groups, whether there’s a meetup group about the area of design that you’re interested in. Or groups probably exist or you can create the group, but you don’t find that community.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then the other bit of advice I would give people is figure out what your passion project is so that you aren’t only pouring your energy or your creative energy into the work that your employer is giving you. There must be a side creative project that is also feeding you. And maybe that’s the project that you’ll get known for later on. Right? Or maybe that’s going to be the thing that’s really going to eventually take over, and pay your bills, and whatnot. Right?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
But I think that for me professionally, those two things of making sure that they’ve always been communities of support, and then making sure that I’m doing work that is very, very fulfilling and satisfying. Even if that’s not the work that the employer’s giving me. I think that those two components of me, and my life, and my work have been really important. So that’s what I’d recommend to young designers. Find that stuff. And then the professional work hopefully will get better because of those two buckets.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
And then maybe a third bit of advice I would give to young designers is just about, well this is tied to the community thing. Networking sounds crass or crude, but make sure that you are yes, meeting people and telling them about their work so that you’re not invisible. I think that that’s also really important to be talking to new people often about the work that you do. And that’s going lead into other opportunities in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
I like gardening. But actually, because I talk about design in a very abstract way now, because I teach about the design process and maybe helping people to see the design process. This means that I now see the design process as I’m gardening, or as I’m cooking, or as I’m dressing in the morning. And all of this, I do appreciate. I really do love choosing where I’m going to put that gladioli bulb in my garden, or choosing which salt I’m going to use as I cook dinner. I think there’s a real ordinariness in my life now that I’m happy for. I’m very appreciative for. Because I move a lot. I’ve had like a lot of chaos I suppose, or kind of been in constant flux. So what I really appreciate now is not being in flux like that, and just being able to relax and watch the plants grow.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I really want to continue doing the civic and social innovation work that I’m doing. I do some of this work with a foundation. And I’d love to do more of it with other cities. So what I do is I work with a city for about nine months, and we address some issue that the city has been interested in. Right? And I really enjoy that work. I love working with design students at the College of Design. But I also love working with people who are using design for the first time.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So in five years’ time, I hope to be doing more either public engagement or research around Design for Social Innovation. And working with cities and close to, whether here in North Carolina or back in Trinidad or in the Caribbean. But I really like that kind of public design work that is done with community members and maybe local government representatives, and having people co-create solutions to the issues that they’re concerned about. So I hope to be doing that more of that in five years’ time.

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

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
So I’m on a lot of different platforms. But actually, LinkedIn is probably the best place for people to find me. They just have to look for my name, Lesley-Ann Noel. L-E-S-L-E-Y. That’s the thing. So if they want to know more about the general work that I’m doing, LinkedIn is the place. As an academic, I’ll repost some of the academic articles that I’ve written on ResearchGate. And then I’m also pretty active on Twitter actually. But if people Google me, they’ll find me on some platform that they can reach out to me. And I actually do respond to people generally. But LinkedIn is generally the easiest place to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Lesley-Ann Noel, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a long time coming I think. I feel like you and I have intersected quite a few times over the past few years, so I’m really glad to finally have you on the show. Not just to of course share your story and your research, but I think to inspire. I mean, so much of what you’re doing is about pursuing your own curiosities and interests. And I think that’s something sometimes as designers, we tend to lose sight of. Especially if you’re like working in product, I hate to say that. But if you’re working in UX or product, it’s hard to kind of see the forest for the trees sometimes because what you’re doing is so laden into a specific thing, whereas it sounds like at least you’ve been able to indulge a lot of your creativity across many different passions throughout your career, which is just super inspiring to hear about. I’m sure of course, we’ll hear about you now for years and years to come. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel:
Thank you so much for the invitation. And I hope that at least this conversation is able to help people see that they could kind of craft a bit of a path that works for them. Even when the path looks like it’s been clearly marked, they could kind of shake up the path a little bit and do a little bit of what they want hopefully. So thank you for the invitation.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.