Emmanuel Nwogbo

We’re headed to the Great White North this week to meet someone that I learned about while doing a deep dive on Nigerian artists. Emmanuel Nwogbo is a visual artist based out of Montréal, and to me, his work reminds me so much of the creativity and fun that design can create.

We chatted right around his first anniversary of moving to Canada, and we discussed his day job as a graphic designer, and how his passion for the arts inspired him to leave Lagos. We also talked about his 365 James Bond Characters project — a series of designs and compositions paying homage to characters in the 007 Universe. Emmanuel’s quiet confidence is one of his biggest strengths, so don’t be surprised if you see his work in a gallery near you one day!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
My name is Emmanuel Nwogbo. I am from Nigeria. I am a graphic designer, so I work full-time as a graphic designer. I also do freelance graphic design, and I also do some visual arts. At the moment, I do the visual arts on the side.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So how has 2021 been for you? Did you learn anything new about yourself? How has the year been?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Honestly, its probably one of my best years so far. So I moved to Montréal at the end of 2019, and then 2020 happened, so 2020 was a very strange year. So 2021 was like my first full year in Montréal. Honestly, it went really well. It went really well, I pretty much hit all my goals, so that was a very exciting. It was also my first summer in Montréal, which everyone was … People really hype up the summers here. I can see why. So this was my first real experience of the summer in Montréal. It was a little restricted still because of COVID, but honestly, I think I had a pretty good year.

Maurice Cherry:
What makes the summer so nice in Montréal?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
There’s so much to do. There’s so much going on here, event wise. There’s always something happening. You never run out of stuff to do. Typically, without any COVID or anything like that, there’s a ton of festivals that come in town and all that. It wasn’t as much as it typically would be, but there was still a lot of things to do here. There’s a lot of sports, a lot of physical activity, parties. There’s a lot. Honestly, I was a little bit overwhelmed at some point. It was a lot of things happening. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds like Atlanta in the summertime.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Or really in the late spring, going into summer, because that’s sort of our festival season, and where there’s usually a festival, a neighborhood festival or something every weekend or something. I say that’s usually the best time to come because it’s not too hot, the pollen is usually not too bad around that time. It’s maybe a two or three week period where it’s like, “Oh, this is perfect.” We have that in the spring, going into the summer, and we have it in the early fall. Because it never really gets super cold here, so early fall, I don’t know, like back to school, September, October, is usually a really nice time.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s good to know about Montréal though. Maybe when the world starts to open back up, people can experience some of those summers.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, but you only want to come here in the summer, honestly, because winter is just miserable.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
There’s no fall. It’s summer, then all of a sudden it is just winter.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man. So for 2022, do you have any goals or resolutions that you want to share?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So usually I try to set goals and plans. The only thing on my list for next year right now is to get my citizenship, become a Canadian. That’s the only thing on my list right now. I started the process this year, I submitted an application, so now I’m just playing the waiting game, but that’s the number one thing on my list.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Second … I would say this is kind of the second thing on the list, but I’m not really sure how it’s going to go. I decided I was going to try to do some exhibitions in Montréal, because I haven’t done any since I moved here. So, try to break into the art scene a little bit. Honestly, I’m a little bit overwhelmed by it, because it’s a big city, and there’s a lot of art here, there’s a lot of competition. So there’s that little fear there. So I am going to attempt to see if I can do some exhibitions next year. If not next year, then maybe 2023. It’s a little difficult given that I have my full-time job and I have my own personal practice. Yeah, but those are the two main things that I have planned for next year.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of the full-time job, you work for MTL Développement. You work there as a graphic designer. Tell me about that entails. What’s a regular day look like for you?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So the company is a real estate development company, so they build condos, they sell condos. So essentially my job there is to make promotional materials for the marketing department, essentially materials that help sell these condos. And so for each condo project, we create an entire brand around that project, and then we then try to create ads, and our design is based on that brand that we created. So the company itself has its own brand and then each of the projects has a brand that comes with it. So my job essentially is to create those brands and to design for those brands, and to make sure that everyone that is doing anything for the brands is adhering to the brand identity.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re doing this for, let’s say, like condominium complexes or subdivisions?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
It’s mostly condominiums.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I got you. Sounds like Montréal is probably a pretty booming real estate market then?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, it’s pretty booming, despite the fact that there was a pandemic. It’s still booming.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been working during the pandemic?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I wasn’t really affected too much. I think there was maybe a one or two month period where my hours were reduced. So we had to go on this program that the government would … I think you work out pay … You say about maybe 20%, and the government would pay the rest, so I had to cut down to like 20 hours for about a month or two, but I pretty much worked all through the pandemic. So, worked from home, worked in the office, worked from home again, and then now we are back in the office since the beginning of the year.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So the job was pretty much not affected, but obviously there was a reduced … The real estate market suffered a little bit, so there was reduced sales. So the marketing was totally … It was a little bit different than what it is right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Also, with the work that you are doing as a designer, you work with another design agency called Queer-IT. Is that right?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about that.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So that job, that’s actually the first job that I got in Montréal. So I came in October and then I got a job in November of 2019. And essentially, I saw this ad where they were hiring, looking for a graphic designer, because I was just applying for every graphic designer job I could see. So I saw the ad and had an interview with the person that runs the place, and then they just hired me.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But essentially, what the job we is, is you give them your hours and then they send proposals to you based on your hours, or sometimes they just reach out to you and ask you to send the quote for a certain job. And then if the client accepts your quote, then they give you the job. Or sometimes they just tell you, “Well, this client wants to rebrand. Their budget is $2,000. Can you work with that?” That kind of thing. That’s basically how the system works.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But essentially, it’s basically still like every graphic design job, except that I would say the company is maybe targeted more towards queer people. So that’s one thing that I was a little confused about when I got hired, or when I applied for the job. When I applied for the job, I said, “Well, I’m not queer, so are you only hiring queer people?” And they said, “Oh no, you can apply.” So yeah, I applied and I got the job.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. It sounds like a collective model, where you’re not necessarily working full time, but as work comes in, if you have the time to work on it, they pull you into the project, they include you on the proposal. You’re sort of part of the working team for whatever that project might be, if they happen to land it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Exactly, that’s how it goes. And then there’s some projects that I did with them where the client was doing a full business plan, so there was like a strategist there, there was a copywriter, and we work as a team to deliver the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I want to switch gears here a little bit as you’ve been talking about your work, because I’m curious to know more about you growing up. Because you’re really a prolific artist, and I think that’s something that I really want to explore more as we go on in the interview.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
That’s a big one.

Maurice Cherry:
So tell me about where you grew up.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. So Nigeria is the most populous black nation in the world, over 200 million people. And Lagos probably has a [inaudible 00:11:51] 30 million people. Nobody knows the real number, because the census is very funny, very corrupt. But Lagos is huge. I grew up in Lagos.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Lagos, I would say, it’s pretty much … It’s a crazy city. There’s so much going on there, there’s so much crime, so much corruption. But again, even besides all that stuff, there’s a lot of art, there’s a lot of, I would say, heritage that comes with it. Lagos is an old city. It’s probably one of the oldest modern cities in Nigeria. So there’s always something going on.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So growing up, I wasn’t exposed to too much arts in a sense, but I’ve always had the talent to draw. I always knew how to draw, so I was always in the fine art class. And even when I went to high school, which is secondary school in Nigeria, you had to pick certain subjects. A lot of people were not doing fine arts, we were very few doing fine arts. Maybe 20 in the class. When I say 20 … This school was a big … I went to public secondary school, so it was a government public secondary school. It was huge. My graduating class had 506 people in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah. So it was a big school. Out of that 506, there was probably maybe 15 or 20 people that were doing fine arts. So that was my main exposure to arts. And honestly, the arts are not really supported in Nigeria. I think it’s a miracle that even my parents allowed me to go do arts at university. A lot of people were not happy about that. Because the general belief is that if you’re not a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, you’re not making money. So there was always that to battle with, but I would say that … Honestly, the truth is a lot of artists are not making money in Nigeria. I also think it’s the way they present themselves. Art is not really respected, but then there’s also people making a lot of money it from it too. So I think it’s all about positioning and how you market yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting, because I was going to ask about whether or not your parents supported you in this, but it sounds like you really got that encouragement from school to focus on arts and everything. When you decided that you wanted to go to college for the arts and for design, were your parents okay with that?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So they were totally okay with it. I didn’t know anything about design growing up. I was an artist in traditional media, so drawing, painting. So when I wanted to go to school, I wanted to do fine arts. And then I got the admission, and then I got to the school and then I did one year in fine arts. And then I had this friend that was doing graphic design and he would just make cool stuff on Photoshop. So I decided, “You know what? I want to make cool stuff.” So I just switched. That’s how I ended up in graphic design.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But the program that I did was kind of an interdisciplinary program, in the sense that there was no real focus. We did a lot of things like art history or cover the art movements. We also did 3D … I did a full year in of 3D in design. I also did web design, I did regular graphic design, logos branding. We did everything, but there was no real focus. So even when I came out of college, I didn’t exactly know what I was because then it’s like you know how to do a little bit of everything, but you’re not really good at one thing.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But the one thing that lacked in that whole school was research, because there was more focus on the finished product. But then as I’ve come to learn, a lot of design relies heavily on the actual process, not as much as the finished product. So when I came to Canada, to NSCAD, to do the Masters, it was a totally different experience. Because then at NSCAD, they were focused on research. That’s when I learned how to do research.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And so they wanted me to do something … Because the Masters program has a thesis, like a final project. So they wanted me to do something Nigerian based. So I ended up doing this … I decided to tackle a social problem, so I decided to focus on the oil industry in Nigeria. So oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1956, and Nigeria is divided into four parts. There is a North, which is pretty much half of the country, and then there’s the South South, Southeast, and then the Southwest. I’m from the Southeast. So Nigeria has three tribes: Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa. So the Hausas are predominantly in the north, the Yorubas are predominantly in the Southwest, the Igbos are predominantly in the Southeast. And then the South, Southeast covers a lot of minorities.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But at the time, when oil was discovered, oil was only discovered in the South South. So what that meant was that oil exploration, all the illegal practices that companies like Shell and all this other big oil companies, all the illegal practices and everything, all the nonsense that comes with oil exploration, only happen in the South South. But the Nigerian economy is pretty much only reliant on oil. So what that means is that that part of the country produces pretty much most of Nigeria’s revenue and sustains Nigeria’s economy. But then the people are suffering because Shell has so much influence in the Nigerian government. And so what that means is that they’re pretty much allowed to get away with whatever they want.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So the oil industry is regulated, but it’s regulated to a point. Like I remember when I was doing the projects, around 2015, then there was an average of 1,000 oil spills in Nigeria every year. And that’s the reported ones. But in Europe they only had like seven in the last 10 years. So that’s how much oil spillage happened in Nigeria, and that’s because of illegal practices of mostly Shell. So my whole project was focused around how can we create awareness, because usually the only time you can get the Nigerian government to do something about it is when there’s pressure from the international community.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But the Nigerian government does a really good job at hiding this whole problem. There’s a good 30 million people in this part of Nigeria, in this South South region of Nigeria, but even when I was growing up in Lagos, you only heard about this problem when the people in the area got upset. And then they created rebel gangs, and then they started kidnapping white oil workers, and asking for ransom. That’s when you started hearing about it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But on a regular basis, you wouldn’t … Like people would die all the time there, there was huge respiration problems, there was huge pollution issues, nothing was ever covered in the news. Or if it was covered, it wouldn’t be highlighted upon.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So the whole focus was how can I create awareness to this problem? And then that awareness would force the Nigerian government to treat the people of that region well. And one major issue that Nigeria has, and even till now, is that even though Nigeria runs a federal government, the government is more unitary. Because I know, for example in the US, and even in Canada here, each province or state has control of its resources and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, pretty much.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, in Nigeria it’s the opposite. Even though we also have a federal government, all the states … We have 36 states, and each state, everything each state generates or makes goes to the center, and then it gets divided at the center to all 36 states based on some metric they come up with. So what that means is that the region or the country that was responsible for, say, 90% of the economy, by the time everything gets split based on population and other metrics they have, they get 15% back. But they are the ones taking all the damage, and so their whole protest has always been we want hundred percent control of our resources. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So initially when the rebels started, it started up as a small operation, and then it became a big time operation. They were kidnapping oil workers, they were killing government officials. 2006 was the peak of the rebels in that area. And they were getting their money from oil bunkering, which is also contributing to the problem. Oil bunkering is when you break a section of the crude oil pipeline, and then you take crude oil from it and then go refine it and then sell it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So they were doing that and they were making money to fund their operations, but that was also contributing to the problems, because that was causing oil spills and all the same environmental damage that the region was facing. And that region is right by the Atlantic ocean and then River Niger, which is the second largest river in Africa, and also runs through that region. So most people there are predominantly fishermen, and the water and the ecosystem is totally messed up. I think it’s going to take like a hundred years of no oil exploration for the environment to return back to its natural state. That’s how bad they’ve wrecked it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So that’s what I spent almost two years doing in the Masters. And it honestly was a very successful project. It taught me lots about Nigeria that I didn’t even know about. And it was an interesting research in the sense that me being Nigerian, and knowing all the nonsense that goes on in Nigeria, and then me now being outside Nigeria and trying to do all this research, and then reading research papers and materials from people that have been to Nigeria and seeing their take on Nigeria was pretty hilarious. There’s some American articles that I read about the same problem in Nigeria, and there are some claims they made and they said, “Well, this doesn’t happen.” Or, “This never happens.” Or the way they tried to exaggerate certain things was … Yeah. It was actually interesting to see that from a different perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s a lot that you just described around Nigeria and corruption in the country, and I definitely want to go back and touch on that, but I want to bring it back a little bit, because you took us all the way from college, to going to grad school, to going to Canada. It sounds like, back when you were mentioning this program, that it didn’t really prepare you for the working world. Was that the impetus to move to Canada? Did you just want to get out from another country? Because it sounds like you moved from Nigeria to Cypress, which is where this university was located. And then what spurred the move, of all places, to go to Canada?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
What spurred the move was I’ve always wanted to come to the west, so it was either Canada or US or maybe the UK. I left school in 2014 February. That’s college. But I was already applying to several schools. So I got to teach university in Arkansas, and good thing I didn’t go there because I don’t know who lives in Arkansas but … Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You would not have liked it. You would not have liked it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But the reason I ended up Nova Scotia was because the school has a little bit of reputation. I heard about the school and the founder of the school is Anna Leonowens. So I just wanted to go to the school, because the school had a reputation in the art community. I didn’t know anything about Nova Scotia, I didn’t know anything about the school. I just did some quick research. It’s the smallest place I’ve ever lived in. I think it’s like 300,000 people in Halifax. So that was a complete shocker to me. It was a totally different experience. I just wanted to come to Canada, right? I wanted to come to Canada or US, but Canada just seemed to work out better. And my dad has always preferred Canada, because he doesn’t like America because of the guns, and the fact that most people are just a little bit crazy in America.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s fair. That’s a fair assessment. But Halifax also has a pretty big black population too. We’ve had, back on the show … Oh God, this might have been a hundred or so episodes ago, we had Duane Jones back on the show. I think that was episode 203, if I recall, so it was a while ago.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
There’s a huge black population, but you have to go look for them.

Maurice Cherry:
He said the same thing. He said that too. Yeah.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I used to work at a hotel in Halifax, at the front desk, and there are some times where a gal was having her birthday party, and all these black people would come. And every time I’m always confused. I’m like, “I have never seen this many black people before.” You actually have to go look for them. You have to go to specific places to find them.

Maurice Cherry:
How was it adjusting to Canada? I mean, outside from the fact that it’s a totally different country and different weather and everything, how was it adjusting?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
It wasn’t too bad because when I came I was so busy with school that I didn’t really have time to do anything else. The weather was a huge shocker to me. So I came in August and there was a slow transition. And then, all of a sudden, on January first, that was the first time I ever saw snow in my life, there was a snow storm. January first of 2015, I woke up and there was a huge snowstorm, the snow was like four feet high. So yeah, that was an [crosstalk 00:25:38].

Maurice Cherry:
Whoo!

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So yeah, I had to shovel snow. So that was my first experience with snow.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Adjusting wise, in terms of … The thing with NSCAD is at the time I was there, there was about 1,000 students roughly, maybe five black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
There was no real advocacy. Again, it’s an art school, there’s not enough black people going to art schools. But I’m used to always being the only black person in most places that I go. Most classes or most things that I’ve done, I’m always the only black person there. That was not a problem for me. That’s something that I was already used to. But I never really had any issues, honestly, because Halifax is a very small and very laid back city. And also because it’s Canada too, there’s not a lot of overtly racist problems. People are very low key about their racism, because Canada … People here are supposed to be nice, so they always hide everything,

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s still there though.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Oh, it’s a hundred percent still there. Like I had a lot of experiences when I worked at the hotel for about three years. There was a lot of incidents that I thought were pretty much very racist. But in general, there was nothing to the face. Plus I’ve also noticed this, I noticed this even from working at the hotel. Because I’m a very tall black guy, a lot of people just don’t mess with me, just in general. People just don’t mess with me even though … That’s just something I noticed. So I never had any issues, overtly.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
The first house that I stayed in … I don’t know if they have this in the US, but here in Canada, when you come to university for the first time they have this arrangement where you stay with a family. Yeah, so when I first came, I was about 20 years old. I came in August and I already arranged to stay with this family, and I only ended up staying there for three months because I don’t think that family has ever hosted a black person before, an African in general. So it was a very strange situation. It was this old woman and her husband, they were maybe in their 60s, 70s. And it was just weird living with them. They just didn’t know how to interact with an African. It was really odd. So I ended up moving out because I was just not comfortable.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And so even that area they lived in, they lived on Gottingen Street in Halifax, which is a predominantly black neighborhood. So typically, because of the way Halifax has been, I say, constructed, that’s a hugely black populated area so there’s all these cops and all this sort of stuff. But at the end of Gottingen, it turns into a super white neighborhood, so that’s where I lived at that point. And so the woman, when I first moved there, she said, “Well, you have to be very careful because you’re going to be a person of interest.” I still don’t what that means till today. I just remember her saying that to me. And I still know what it means.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, it just means … Honestly, it’s just you’re a black guy in a white neighborhood or something like that. So if something were to go down then you’re the first one that they’re going to suspect.

Maurice Cherry:
So where I live now in Atlanta is a pretty black neighborhood. It’s called the West End. But before that I stayed in Buckhead, which is kind of the richer, whiter part of town. I stayed there for a couple of years in college and then afterwards. And I remember I would go to the grocery store and get groceries, and then even on the walk home, which was not that far, because the grocery store was on the same street, maybe about a half a mile, I’d say three out of four times I would make that walk the police would just roll up slowly. You hear the siren and I’m like, “What’s going on?” “Well, we heard about some things going on in this area.” I’m like, “Well I’m walking with groceries, so I don’t know what you think I’m doing.” So it’s like, yeah, you’re a person of interest. They just want to, I don’t know, intimidate you I guess.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
In Halifax, there’s something they call DWB. It’s Driving While Black.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a lot that everywhere, it seems like.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
There’s a lot of racial profiling, people just getting stopped randomly.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Driving while black, walking while black, shopping while black. Unfortunately, that is all still a thing that we have to contend with even this far into the future. But I want to talk about this project that you did in 2018. So you did this … I guess you could call it a creative project where you designed or you did these photo manipulations, adding yourself in with James Bond characters. You did 365 of these. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, so the project was not about me adding myself. I think maybe I added myself in two out of 365.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But basically what the project was … The planning started in 2017. I decided I was going to do a 365 project. This is something that I’ve always wanted to do. Because every year I try to set a goal at the beginning of the year and say, “Okay, this is my new year resolution and this is how I want to accomplish it.”

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I started working at the hotel in 2016, and the only reason I started working at the hotel was because I needed to get my permanent residence, which is kind of like the Green Card. It’s similar to the Green Card in US. And part of the requirement was that I was required to work there for a year, and the hotel was helping with it, so I pretty much got stuck there. But I was fresh out of school, this was a year after I got out of school. But then I’m also thinking, “Well, I’m going to be stuck here for a good year at least, maybe two years. I’m not really practicing design. I need practice.” Because you need to practice or you’re going to forget. So I was thinking, how do I go about this? But I also have the issue where I was always working at the hotel and I had very little time.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So in the summer I did this 26 day creative project where I did something with the alphabet every single day. I did ABCD. Something based on A, something based on B. Just like that. And then I did all 26 days. I didn’t miss a day. So I’m like, “Okay, so this is actually doable.” So I decided, okay, starting first of January of 2018, I’m going to do a 365 project, but I had no idea what I was going to do.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I did a lot of research, came across this lady, she said she didn’t know how to cook, so she went and bought the recipe book and she would make something from the recipe book every single of the year. And then there’s this guy in New York, he would go around New York and paint historic windows. So every day of the year he painted one historic window. A lot of projects like that, that I started following. So I was thinking, what am I going to do? And then I found this guy on Tumblr, when Tumblr was still a thing back then. He was doing a 365 project where he just remade one movie poster. And I was like, that’s actually interesting. I would like to do something that is movie related. And I’m a huge James Bond fan.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I saw this, then I remembered that there was this article that I saw about top 103 James Bond villains. I’m like, okay, so if there are 103 villains, it means that there’s more people. So I started looking up on the James Bond Wiki, I found [inaudible 00:33:17] characters. So I made a list of all the characters, did some research on each one to make sure that I had enough content that I could use. And so I did that, took me almost three months to compile. And then January first, the goal of the project was to make one poster that pays tribute to a different James Bond character every day. Just from the movies, not the books. So that was the goal of the project. And the only objective that I had was that every day just had to look different. That was just it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And at the beginning of the project, I wasn’t focused on the actual design itself. I was more focused on … The main challenge for me was … Because I knew I could do the design already, but can I do this for 365 days straight and not miss a single day? That was the most important thing to me. But I also didn’t want to cheat. I didn’t want to pre-make stuff. I have to make something every day. So for me that’s the challenge that was going on. Till today, some people don’t believe that I actually made one every single day. Some people are like, “So did you make three in advance and just wait and post it every day?” I’m like, “No.”

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Considering how much time it took, because I was averaging about 3.5 hours every day by the end of the year. And some days I had four hours, some days I had one hour, some days I had three hours. Well, basically I had about 3.5 hours every day to … I knew the character already, come up with a concept, and execute that concept. So that totally changed my whole design process, because there’s one problem that I had that that project fixed. The problem was when I get an idea and I think that this idea is a good idea, then I’m going to stick with it. It’s hard for me to leave that idea alone. But this project made me unintentionally grow out of the habit. Because there’s some days where I’m looking at the time, I’m like, “Well, I’ve been stuck on this one idea for three hours now. I have only two hours left. I have to do something else.”

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So then at first I would discard ideas. But then somebody told me, “Well, instead of discarding it, then you can just have a folder where you just put in all the stuff that you haven’t used, and then in the future you can use them again.” Which is what I started doing, I would just put the ideas there. But at first, the first month started off as more of an abstract deal, because I was afraid of copyrights and stuff. But then when I read up on copyrights and all this sort of stuff, I was able to move towards more using the photos. And honestly, when I started, I wasn’t delusional, thinking I was going to go all the way. I was like, “You know what, I’m just going to do this and see how it goes.” And then when I actually did the first 30 days and I didn’t miss a single day, I was so much confidence. So that’s how went that project went.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask, what did you learn about yourself throughout that process?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I am kind of a perfectionist, but then I also learned that I have to be okay. Because usually when you post your work online, you’re usually posting what you think is the best. Like, “Okay, this is really, really good and I’m going to post it.” But then I realized, well, I either have to make really good stuff and post it every day or I have to be fine with posting stuff that are not very good.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So, at first I really struggled with that because I’m like, “If I have to post this, this has to be good on some level. It has to be good on some scale.” And so it started off like that, but then I met a lot of people that were doing projects too, and I talked to a lot of people. And a lot of people told me that you have to be fine with the days that are not good. You have 365 days, so if this day is not so great, you had a bad day. The next day you can knock it out of the park.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And then I also figured out how to take breaks without missing a day. So some days, because I was working morning shifts or evening shifts or night shifts. So some days I would make something at nine o’clock in the morning, and the next day I’d make something at 8:00 PM. So that’s a good, what, 30 hours of rest? So it’s like I missed a day, but I didn’t really miss a day. And I made a lot of sacrifices. There were parties or places I couldn’t go to because I’m like, “Well I haven’t done today’s work.” So everything is in the back burner until I do today’s work. Once I do the work and post it, it’s like a sense of accomplishment, a sense of relief, that came with that.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I have to give it to you for really finding a way to do it every day. I did a similar type of a 365 project. Not a visual project, I did a podcast where I recorded an episode every day for 365 days called The Year of Tea. And I did these short, five minute episodes just reviewing a different tea every day. And I didn’t get to it every day. There were definitely some days that I batched about a week together, especially if I was traveling or something like that. So I have to give it to you for carving out … I mean, one, carving out time to do it each day, but then the fact that you carved out so much time, like you said you were averaging around like three and a half hours a day for these designs. That’s a lot of time.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Honestly, there’s a few days where I spent a good eight hours on this. I’m like, “Well today is Saturday, I’m home, sure.” I would sit in front of my computer for eight hours. Because then, the days that I have so much time, I feel like those days that’s where I put in way too much time and I try too hard. Because I’m like, “Well I have a lot of time today, so I’m just going to spend as much time as possible in this.” But there’s a day that I only have 30 minutes and I managed to do something also.

Maurice Cherry:
And you told me before we had started recording that there’s hundreds of characters to choose from. Because initially I was like, “There’s over 365 James Bond characters?” I was like, there’s James Bond, there’s probably every bond girl, every bond villain, and I feel it sort of tops off right there.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I mean there were some people that have one scene you know? There was a few people that showed up for one scene, so you have to do something for this one person. Maybe they said something funny. But so what I did was, when I was setting up the list, I spread out the characters. Because there’s a lot of characters that I wanted to get to, so I spread them out. So it was those characters that I wanted to get to that kept me going the whole time. I kind of put them strategically. So at the beginning of every month I have one major character, so one big villain or something like that. Day 200, I have one big character I have to work on. I strategically positioned each one.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So the way I started the project … So all James Bond movies, and even the recent ones, there’s this organization called [Spectre 00:40:13]?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So each person at that time, especially from the movies in the ’60s, they had a number. So there’s a number one, number two, number three. So that’s how I started. And then on day seven, I did James Bond, which is Double O Seven. So that’s how I started the first few days. But there were little things like that. And so, I unintentionally populated the James Bond internet space. Like when you just look up random things about James Bond, you see my stuff popping up. So that that’s something that I’m really happy about.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean the thing with James Bond movies is that they come out every few years or so, so there’s a lot of time between movies to really fill that space with stuff, because there’s not a lot of active talk. I don’t even know if there’s a James Bond comic book or something. You would think with all the superhero movies and stuff, there’s always some kind of media that fills the gap between movies. It’s a television show, there’s a comic book, there’s something. James Bond, it feels like exists only in fiction and in movies. Of course it’s from the books, but there’s not really that other media around it to fill the gap.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I think a few people not named Ian Fleming have written books recently. But I think it’s because Barbara Broccoli that owns the IP, and MGM, they have a really, really strict hold on the IP, so it’s very difficult for you to be able … Now that Amazon bought MGM, maybe Amazon might want to produce a TV show or something. Who knows? But I also think it’s because the IP is so old and it’s right from the ’60s, so it’s one of those things where there’s so much content already, so maybe they don’t think they’re going to make money. Who knows? I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Could be. Oh God, you mention that … I feel like there was a cartoon series for James Bond. I don’t know if you remember. Well, I don’t know if they even showed it outside the US. It was called James Bond Junior. I’m showing my age by saying this, but it was like in the early ’90s. They had a TV show called James Bond Junior. I think it probably only lasted a season, but it was James Bond’s nephew who was also named James Bond, which I guess kind of makes sense for the show. But yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s on YouTube or something.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I’ll tell you one anecdote about Africans in general. So, if you say … Say I’m 27 right now and say you’re 37, all the things that you experienced as a 37 year old, when you say you were 10, I probably experienced the same thing. Now, because of the internet, everything gets everywhere quickly, but as I’d say, the late ’90s, early 2000s, we were a good 10 years behind everything. The first computer I used was Windows 98. I also used dial up internet, I had a Walkman, I had the CD player, all the stuff, VHS. All the stuff that people my age here didn’t experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Out of all of the characters that you did, was there a favorite one?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
My favorite one was … What was it? Day 124, which is May Day.

Maurice Cherry:
Grace Jones.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, Grace Jones. So I did that on May first, which is May Day. So, that’s my absolute favorite. That’s the one that I’ve sold the most, that’s the one that people love the most.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m going to have to check that one out. I don’t know if I saw that one on your site, but I definitely have to go check that one out.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
You know the famous We Can Do It poster, with the woman flexing her biceps?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, so I did one with Grace Jones, where the background is yellow.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. Nice, nice. So you alluded to this when you mentioned this piece, but you’ve even managed to exhibit designs from this project, you’ve done a number of different exhibitions with it. How have those went?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
They went really well. So at the beginning of 2019, I did the exhibition … Actually, no, in May of 2019, I did an exhibition in a small gallery called Corridor Gallery in Halifax. It’s at Visual Arts, Nova Scotia. So that was the first exhibition that I’ve ever done. So I would consider myself a digital artist, so having to print out my stuff, put it in a frame, hanging it on a wall, totally new to me. But that was a great experience, so that’s the first time that I felt like an artist. That was amazing.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And then I got to exhibit at the Halifax Public Library last year, despite the pandemic. I was there for about two months. The gallery there is a very lovely space. Huge. And they only accept, I think six artists a year, because each person stays for two months. So I applied and they accepted almost immediately. So I was beyond overjoyed. So that was the big exhibition that I had done. It was very good. I made a few sales from that.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But like I said, the exhibitions, those were the things that made me feel like a real artist. So I really like exhibitions, that’s why I want to do some in Montréal, like a bigger city. Because I’ve always considered myself like a Nigerian artist. So the James Bond thing, I got a little popular from that because the James Bond IP was world renowned. Some people have never seen a James Bond movie, but when you say James Bond, everyone pretty much has an idea what you’re talking about. But I kind of want to stray away from that in a sense. I want to do more African themed exhibitions, so that’s what I’m working on right now. I’m trying to see if I can do something for next year.

Maurice Cherry:
So what prompted the move from Halifax to Montréal?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Like I was saying earlier on, Halifax is a very small city. Honestly, I was looking at it and … Because I did that job at the hotel where I was pretty much stuck for three years … I stayed in Halifax for five years. Two years in school, three years at the hotel. And I was at that hotel, stuck. I couldn’t leave because of the whole immigration thing, so I was not happy in general. And my last year at the hotel, there was a lot of racially motivated shit that went on. So every time that I think of Halifax, I associate it with the hotel.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
My plan was always get my permanent residence and move to some other city in Canada. That was always my plan. But I got my permanent residence in 2018 October, and then I decided, okay, in the new year, I’m moving to a new city. That was my resolution for 2019. I’m leaving Halifax in 2019. But the thing is because I made so many friends there, I knew so many people, I knew the city well, I was so comfortable, I just relaxed a little bit. So 2019 came around, and I applied for this artist residency in Banff. Banff is in Alberta. So I applied for the artist residency and made it to like the final three, but I didn’t get it. But that was my plan. I was like, okay. I had assumed that I was getting it for sure. That was how much faith I had in this. I was like, “Okay, once I get this, I’m just going to move to Banff.” The program was a two year program, do it for two years and make connections, and see what happens from there.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I didn’t get the program, so I decided, okay … So that was in May of 2019. I was like, “Okay, what am I going to do now?” I wasn’t sure. So my sister had a wedding coming up in August, so I went to Nigeria for the first time in six years for the wedding. And I decided, you know what? Once I come back from this wedding, I’m moving. But where to? I wasn’t sure. So I wanted to move to Vancouver because my sister was coming to BC for school, but then I started looking up Montréal because I knew somebody that lived here. I started looking up Montréal. So I went on Indeed, checked to see graphic design jobs. I was like, “Oh, there’s a lot of graphic design jobs here.” And I can learn French. So I decided, you know what? I’m moving to Montréal.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I decided, okay, I’m moving. So I went to Nigeria, I came back, I gave them my two weeks notice at the hotel, and then I moved in October first. Luckily for me, I was able to get an apartment right from Halifax. So I got the apartment, but then I started getting cold feet, because then I didn’t have a job, no real concrete plan. So to make sure that I moved, I shipped all my bags.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s one way to make it happen.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So I left just one bag. So after I shipped my bag, I bought my plane ticket. I was like, “Okay, I have to move now.” But then I discovered something. There’s so many people that discouraged me from moving. There was a few people that were like, “You know what, this is a good move. You’re probably going to make big advancements from moving.” But there are so many people that were projecting their fears and telling me, “Well, if you move then it doesn’t work out, what are you going to do?” People were saying all this stuff to me. But then I talked to my parents and they were in support of it, and I just moved.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, so I got to Montréal and I decided, well, I already did the job, worked at restaurants, walk at hotels, I think it’s time for me to get a design job now. So I decided, you know what? I’m only going to get a design job. So that’s how I ended up in Montréal.

Maurice Cherry:
So now you’ve been in Montréal for what? A little over, you said two years now, something like that pretty much?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
About two years, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you gotten a chance to kind of see what the design community has been like outside of work?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Not really, because last year it happened, so that was kind of a write off. And then this year has been super busy trying to balance both jobs and also trying to have a semblance of a practice outside of work. So I haven’t actually had the chance, but recently I’ve been going to art galleries, checking out a few stuff and seeing what people are up to. But as for the design community here, the truth is in Montréal, if you don’t speak French, then you’re very limited in a way. Even though Montréal is super bilingual, most people you meet speak both languages, but if you speak French it’s like a new world opens up to you there. So that’s what I’m trying to do by learning French.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s your French going so far?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Pretty good. All of 2020, I didn’t learn French, even though one of my goals was to learn French. So I moved here, but then I got cold feet, because I got a job even without speaking French. But then I was thinking if I try to learn French what happens if I forget words? What if I can’t learn? What if I can’t do it? Because usually I do things that I know that a hundred percent I’m going to succeed at this, that’s the kind of things I like to do. So I was a little afraid, but then at the beginning of this year, I was like, you know what? This is my New Year resolution. I’m a hundred percent committed to learning French, despite work and everything. So then I got Duolingo and then I got a private tutor. And honestly, the progress that I made this year, it leaves me thinking, why didn’t I even start last year?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, I actually made good progress. Speaking is very difficult because the pronunciations … The pronunciations are especially difficult for me because the sounds don’t sound like Igbo, and a lot of them don’t sound like English either. So there’s some sounds in French that my brain cannot just wrap around. It’s a fun challenge, so I’m not complaining.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I feel like the Nigerian accent is, and this is kind of this way with some African languages, it’s very throat based. The accent is very much deep in the throat, whereas with French, everything is nasally. There’s a lot of nasal stuff to it. So I know when you’re learning French, a good phrase when you get stuck with something and you don’t know, and your tutor probably told you this too, but just say, “[French 00:52:44].” Which is, “How do you say?” Yeah, so you can be speaking and you say-

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Yeah, that’s a good one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you can [inaudible 00:52:50], you’re like, “Eh, [French 00:52:51]”]. And you kind of roll your way through it. And most people … I mean, I’ve not been in a lot of immersive situations. When I have been, it’s mostly been France French, not Montréal French or Quebec French or Quebecois or whatever, it hasn’t been that sort of regional-

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
It’s a totally different bag, but the thing is my teacher is from France, and Duolingo I’m also doing is French, so that’s what I’m focused on.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Yeah, once you really start immersing yourself in it … And I would say now it’s probably a lot easier to do, especially you got a smartphone or stuff like that, because you can set the language to French. And then you learn just from picking up context clues and stuff like that. You can watch movies with the subtitles and get the sense of what they’re saying, things like that. It’s a lot easier now than it used to be.

Maurice Cherry:
When I learned French, I was a kid. I mean, I started in second grade and then studied it all through high school and all through college. So I know enough to speak it and read it, but it’s a different thing to be immersed in it, when it’s the only thing you hear. My French is very situational. If I’m in a situation where I need to know French, like it’s a French restaurant, I’m like, okay, I know all the things to get around. Like where’s the bathroom, I will order this, I need this. I know that stuff. But then if it were something where I’m plopped into Paris, I’m like, oh, okay. That’s the real test is how do you use it from day to day.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But that’s the really amazing part about living in Montréal, because all the signs, everything is in French. It’s kind of a rule they have in Quebec. If you have any sign or anything you see outside is usually in French. That’s the rule they have. So everywhere you go, you’re exposed to French. People will say bonjour to you first, and then if you respond in English, then they speak in English to you. So my favorite game to play now is whenever I go out, I bullshit my way with French until the person realizes that I don’t speak very good French. I want to see how long I can play the game.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good way to do it, that’s a good way to do it. What are you most excited about at the moment?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s one thing that really, really excites me. Oh one thing that I did this year that I can’t believe I did was I learned how to ride a bike. Yeah, I never knew how to ride a bike because when I was growing up, I didn’t have a bike. So I just never learned how to ride a bike. So when I moved to Canada, it’s one of those things where I’m like, I don’t know if this is something that I can do, so I just never did it. But then I tell people I can’t ride a bike and people can’t believe it, because most people can ride a bike. So I decided, you know what? This summer, this is what I’m doing this summer. This is my summer project.

Maurice Cherry:
So did you buy a bike? Did you use one of those rent a bikes or something like that?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
It was more like a rental one or a friend’s bike or something like that. I’m going to buy a bike, but that’s going to be next summer, because you can’t bike here in the winter. There’s people doing it, but those people, I think they have issues.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
But yeah, so that was the one thing that I did this year. It seems very small, but it’s one thing that just gives me great joy. Because I did a 30 minute lesson, and I could balance myself already by the end of the 30 minutes. And then I did another 30 minute lesson, and the next time after that, I was able to do eight kilometers. And then I was able to do 16, 20. And at the end of the summer I did 35 kilometers, so that was pretty amazing for me. All the while I never fell, until the last time I biked this summer, before it became cold. I was coming down on the bridge, one of these bridges in Montréal here, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. I was coming down really fast, and they have these barricades that you have to wiggle yourself around. For some reason I got carried away. Next thing I know, I saw myself flying over one of these barricades. Yeah, that’s the first time that I’ve fallen in a really long time. Yeah, it was bad.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve went to if you didn’t become an artist and a designer?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Probably an engineer, because my dad is an engineer. So even though he was very supportive, and even my mom was very supportive too, I feel like if I didn’t go into design, they probably would have steered me in the direction of doing engineering.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have an interest in it or do you think they would’ve just pushed you towards that because of societal expectations?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I never had an interest in it. Honestly, I’ve never had interest in science in general. I can’t think of one profession in science that I have any interest in, honestly. I’ve never had an interest at all. I think I’ve always been an artist at heart. And so even my uncles were really against this. Like, “How can you make money from art?” I was never really worried about money, because I always tell people it doesn’t matter what you read in university. There’s people on YouTube now making funny faces and making millions. I’m like, they didn’t go to school for that. So I honestly think that what you go to study in university is not relevant to how much money you would make or how successful you’re going to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean now the whole thing that I see with some artists that are making money, they’re making it off of NFTs. I was reading this … It was some article I read maybe a couple of weeks ago about this artist. She’s a Canadian artist. I forget where, but she just started learning about NFTs in about a month or so. And then using that, she made, I think 50 something NFTs, and has made like $300,000 or something like that. If you’re able to get that much just off of a month’s worth of learning, you can do anything.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Honestly, I’ve looked into NFTs a little bit, but I haven’t … I have a two week vacation at the end of the year, so I want to use the two weeks to really educate myself and see what I can do. Because so many people have been telling me, “You have to look into NFTs.” So I’m like, okay, maybe this is something I’m going to look into. Who knows? Maybe that’s where I’m going to make it big. Because my goal in art is to make that one piece of art that’s going to pay me for the rest of my life. That’s my goal.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, if you find a way to make it happen, let us know, share the knowledge so we can get in on it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I want to be that guy that just sticks a banana on the wall and people just pay $200,000 for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
And then everyone can cry about it [inaudible 00:59:57].

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s somebody that’s out here that’s listened to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
I would say, honestly speaking, I’m probably one of the most fortunate persons that I know. I would say that because pretty much most things that I do, I succeed. I don’t know if there’s something special that I’m really doing that is leading me to succeed in most things that I do, but I don’t know, somehow I usually just pull it off. But I’m also someone that if I decide I’m doing something I’m going all in. And if I start something and if I realize that, you know what? Maybe this is not going to work out. I usually back out early. Once I get deep into it, then I’m seeing it all the way.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Like for example, the 365 project. By July, I was getting really, really tired, exhausted. Coming up with a new idea every day is not easy. Plus I have to make these all through artist blocks, like creative blocks. I had to find a way to make stuff. But I was also thinking, if I’ve made it this far, there’s no way I’m stopping now, because then if I stop, I’m going to regret this for a long time. So that’s usually how I approach most things. Once I start, I’m going all the way.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
This is a problem that I realized that a lot of Nigerians have, and I used to have this problem. People are afraid to fail. Nigerians are afraid to fail in general, because the culture does not really encourage failure in a way where I feel sometimes failure is very important for you to get to the next level. Like you hear about these scientists where, oh, this inventor made 800 different versions before the final one worked. That’s not encouraged in Nigerian culture. If you do something, you have to succeed at it. This idea that nine out of 10 new businesses fail, if you start a business in Nigeria and you fail, a lot of people are going to make fun of you, even though it’s perfectly normal for businesses to start and fail.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So it took me a while to get comfortable with the fact that not everything I do is going to go the way I want it. And so since I’ve learned to accept that fact, I think my life has gotten a lot better.

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

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Honestly, I’m not really a five year planning kind of person. I like to take things as they come, so okay, I plan for the next year. At end of the year, I’m going to sit down and think and see, and write down my goals and see if I have things that I want to accomplish next year. But usually, I take it year by year. So every year I have a big new year resolution that I want to hit, and I have very little ones that I … Because I like checklists, so I like to check, check, check. So I have very little things that I want to do, and I have a big one that I want to do for the year. And so I don’t really have five year plans.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Ideally, at the end of the day, I want to own my own design agency. I think, even before that, I want to become full-time freelance, but I still need to gain the confidence, because right now it’s really nice when you expect two paychecks every month. But then when you become full-time freelance, then you know that you have to do as much as possible, maybe at the beginning, to get money. Because I was looking into Upwork, and I realized that a lot of people in Upwork, they’re very, very talented and they’re probably very experienced. But if you’re starting an Upwork, you have to start like you’re starting all over. Because you have to beef up your reputation and your cred for you to be able to make money from it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
So, I still need to gain a little bit of confidence, but eventually I think that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to go full-time freelance, because I think that, like my dad always says to me, “You can’t get rich from counting on other people’s money.”

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

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
You talked about my website. I have to update the website because I made that website as a portfolio website when I was looking for a job, so I never really went back to go update it, but I think I’m going to go update it. But my website is mister365.ca, so Mister, M-I-S-T-E-R dot C-A. I’m very active on Instagram. My Instagram is nigerianexpert, E-X-P-E-R-T. You can find me on Instagram, that’s usually the best place to reach me. Or Facebook by my name, Emmanuel Nwogbo, N-W-O-G-B-O. I’m very active online.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Emmanuel Nwogbo, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think from hearing you tell your story and even you talking about moving here from Nigeria, I get this sense that you have this very quiet, maybe not so quiet, confidence about you. I mean, I feel like you’re downplaying it maybe a little bit, but I definitely get this quiet confidence from you when it comes to pursuing the work that you want to do. Because it takes a lot of guts to move from Nigeria to Cypress, to Nova Scotia, now to Canada. You’re still in your 20s, you’re still trying to figure it out, you’re taking on these creative projects. That takes a lot of confidence to be able to do all of that and still push forward and succeed, so I’m going to be excited to see what else you accomplish moving forward with your entire creative career. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Emmanuel Nwogbo:
Oh, thank you very much for having me. I had a good time talking to you.

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Xalavier Nelson, Jr.

In the early 90s, there was this show on ABC called Phenom about a tennis prodigy. If Hollywood were to reboot that for the digital age, Xalavier Nelson Jr. would no doubt be the star of the show. His body of work rivals those of people in the gaming industry for decades!

We kicked off our conversation talking about his studio, Strange Scaffold, and he spoke about several of the games he’s either worked on or created, including An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and the popular 90s Internet nostalgia title Hypnospace Outlaw. Xalavier also talked about his newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and he shared how his work as a pre-teen game journalist helped him become a narrative designer. Xalavier’s prudent vision for finding better, faster, cheaper and healthier ways to make video games is so important, and I think that if he’s making waves like this now, just imagine what he’ll do in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Hello. I’m Xalavier Nelson Jr., I’m a studio director at Strange Scaffold, a frequent writer, narrative designer, collaborator, working on dozens of things. I’ve worked on over 60 games in the past five years. And now my current mission is not just finding new and exciting ways to collaborate with people at my own studio and at the studios and projects of others, but also finding ways to advocate for making games better, faster, cheaper, and healthier than they are currently assumed to be made.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? Have you learned anything about yourself over the past year?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think one of the primary things I learned over the past year is just how much I cared about production. I do love telling stories. I do love of putting things into a video game. I love creative content production. Writing a killer page or scene is a thrilling experience, but when I look at the things that consistently get me out of bed in the morning, that make me passionate about waking up and getting to work and collaborating with other people, it’s getting into the nitty gritty of how something comes together.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The scope of a project, defining, reducing, and defining that vision of a project and how it’s accomplished in very calculated ways. The exercise of finding new and interesting formats and arrangements for artists coming together to build things together, that makes me feel alive. And so exploring those paths myself, sharing what I find along the way, and as much as I can, opening those doors for others is something that I’ve discovered I love. Now my mission is finding ways to do that again and again and again, as consistently and healthily as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about what you want to accomplish for this year coming up for 2022?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the big thing I want to accomplish is, we’ve talked about this in a few forums thus far, but Strange Scaffold is moving into publishing and to have at least one of our published signed projects come out. And the exact thing that the developer wanted to bring into being hopefully substantially de-risked and shipped at a scope and form that made the project better while also making it something that they could accomplish without destroying themselves in the process. That’s something I’m really excited to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If we establish ourselves by the end of 2022, as having a perspective that allows us to not just develop intriguing things in unexpectedly small or efficient packages, but provide those resources and that perspective to others on a consistent scale and timeline, I’ll be very happy. And it’s by all indications that were well on our way to already accomplishing those goals.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. Congratulations on that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk more about your studio, Strange Scaffold. First, I want to know how you came up with the name, but like, I just want to hear more about how you started it, how it’s going, things like that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I started Strange Scaffold primarily as an engine for exploring what happens when your explicit goal for a studio is not to build a dream project, but instead to bring as many things into the world as possible in a healthy, consistent and efficient manner. So exploring how, defining the structure of your game ahead of time and considering that to be set in stone and improvising within those lines and constraints that you’ve set, essentially putting a strange scaffold in place. And then making an interesting thing in between that foundation, that was the starting point.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And it pretty quickly evolved from bringing that perspective to the projects of my clients, to bringing that into projects that I originated and directed, and now sharing those resources that we built to make games in that very specific way with other developers who also want to make incredible things, but not ruin their lives in the process. Because we have so many examples of the desire or dream of what a thing could be running someone into the ground as they pursue a path towards it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I feel like game creators and really creative professionals of all forms deserve the right to pursue and contain the same joy in their working processes that they seek to deliver to their player, users and audiences on the other side of that creative process.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m looking here at the Strange Scaffold website. I see you’ve got three games that are showing here.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
[crosstalk 00:08:31] finished by the by.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. I see you’ve got El Paso Elsewhere, you have An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. I think I heard about that also on Kotaku. And then Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. Those are some pretty interesting names for titles. And I like that each one of them is very different. You’re definitely trying to, I guess, tell different stories with each of these games, it looks like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, the idea is, again, nothing that we bring in into the world will be perfect. We are flawed human beings doing the best we can to bring encapsulations of our souls into being, that process is going to get a little messy. So coming from the starting point of none of these things is going to be perfect, but how can they be interesting? How can they be built in a way that is itself joyful? And how can they deliver and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else, is something that we want to explore in as many ways as possible.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So sometimes that takes the form of an inherently joyful universe, a first person open world comedy adventure game like An Airport For Aliens Currently Run by Dogs. Sometimes it’s a sci-fi body horror market tycoon like a Space Warlord, which at the time of this publication will have come out pretty recently on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. There’s a lot of ideas pinging around our heads and finding the shortest point from A to B to express those things and move on to the next project that allows us to deliver the next piece of our souls is my priority.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the first time that I heard about your work was through a game that currently out. I played it on the Switch called Hypnospace Outlaw. And that is such a unique… I’ll put it like this, the Switch often has very unique games. That’s one reason why I really like the Switch over say PlayStation or Xbox. But Hypnospace Outlaw really for me, just hit that sweet spots for early internet nostalgia, like the late ’90s, early 2000s Web 1.0 aesthetic, just like, “Oh, I loved it. Love it so much.” How did you get involved with that game

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
As a teenager actually. I met Jay, as in Jay Thole, the creative director of the game when I was a teenager playing an early version of one of his previous games. Dropsy. Dropsy is a game about a misunderstood, horrific-looking clown who wants nothing more than to bring joy and love into the lives of the people he meets, no matter how much they despise and/or fear his initial appearance. And playing that game, delivering feedback that he took into consideration, and I saw coming to being in the next versions.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And coming to understand how myself and Jay Thole are both Christians. I’ve been raised around a lot of Christian media, which tends to have mixed results, and finding something that was such a perfect encapsulation of what is intended to be the spirit of the faith, sacrifice and deep unconditional transformative love. And how that could be conveyed in a game about something else entirely different, when all I’ve been raised around was for the most part art, where the only thing that justified its existence was that it had a Christian label or would uphold dogma.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That changed my life, changed my perspective, had a huge impact on me. And we stayed in touch, continued to bounce off each other creatively. And when he revealed Hypnospace Outlaw and continued to go down the path of developing it, eventually he was kind enough to bring me aboard and I got to directly collaborate with him and the rest of the team as a narrative director to serve a double purpose. The first being, writing a whole lot of stuff and doing a lot of narrative design to convey the themes and stories that they wanted to tell in that world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But also how to structure those stories in the game flow and progression such that it delivered those themes and made a game of infinite scope. Because when you’re simulating the internet, you can just keep going forever, finding a way of taking existing material and material yet to be created in creating a flow that made it to where we could make all of these things within a human lifetime, in a way that was faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient than we originally considered in my it even be possible to do so. We ended up pulling it off.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It got rave reviews, it got nominated for a lot of awards. I’m still friends with the team and we still talk about potential collaborations in the future. So as much as you can judge a collaboration be successful, I certainly am happy with what happened coming out the other side of that.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you unpacked a bit about what narrative design is, because that’s what I was about to ask. But as you put it, it’s not just, “Oh, we’re writing the dialogue,” but you’re also looking at how that fits into the overall structure. So it’s like writing and almost producing and directing all wrapped up in the one, it sounds like.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It depends on the role, when you’re a narrative lead, it certainly gets more into the structure and vision of the overall project as well as potentially managing elements to accomplish that. But narrative design, being the practice of looking at all aspects of a games experience to tell a story. And then collaborating with people to bring that into being as opposed to a writer, which in many teams can also hold narrative design duties, but their primary job is to write dialogue, write things that will be depicted as text on the screen.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It’s a big part of the ambiguity here, because there is a lot of overlap, but there’s very distinct ways in which if you have a killer writer or a out of this world narrative designer, and you put them in a position to focus on their particular intersection, it can genuinely transform the way in which a game comes to life.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, the game that you’ve been working on that just came out recently, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator. I love have to hear the inspiration behind that. Just from the title alone, it sounds a lot to digest at once perhaps. No pun intended.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The pun is very much appreciated though. The inspiration point, it’s twofold and there’s a lot of different rabbit holes that can be taken. But at its basis for warm, I was sitting in a doctor’s office, a man not wearing doctor’s clothes walked in, closed the door behind him and said, “Well, I’d like to see my insides.” And in that moment I had one of two decisions. The first was, do I run and get out of here and start screaming? Or two, do I keep going along these lines because whatever happens, I’m going to get an interesting story out of it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I ended up going the story direction and I didn’t end up getting murdered. Turns out this was a nurse practitioner, someone who was in process of doing their rounds and I guess accomplishing their residency and they needed practice with ultrasound machine. So I got to watch my heartbeat, my lungs breathe in and out, my liver function, and being connected to the tangible reality of the invisible processes that made up my life. Every moment of every day was such a point of perspective, of being exposed to something bigger than yourself.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It sounds odd, but looking inward can be as perspective-broadening as looking outwards. So looking at this marvelous, complicated fleshy machine that we are and seeing it working had a big impact on my perspective. So, years later, that ends up culminating in a game about buying, selling, and trading the one thing everyone has and needs in a strange and evolving universe, organs. Because if there’s anything that is as large as space or the universal language of commerce, it is how much our equations of value or inherent value change as soon as you slap a dollar sign on something.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
It can be a plush beanie baby, it can be a green piece of paper that says one on it, or it can be a human heart. But as soon as you assign and agree upon a shared belief and value, the world changes in some small and inexplicable way that is very hard to reverse once it happens. And exploring those implications has been a very fun and hopefully compelling… Has been a very fun process that I hope has resulted in the compelling result.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know why for some reason, when I first heard the name and then I saw it on Steam, and we’ll have a link to it down in the show notes so people can check it out. I saw that and the first thing I thought of was Spaceballs. Have you seen Spaceballs before?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I am familiar with Spaceballs, but I’ve never properly seen it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. That’s your homework, you have to see Spaceballs. I want to see what you think about it-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Got it.

Maurice Cherry:
… after you watched it, but-

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Putting it on the list.

Maurice Cherry:
… I don’t know. I saw it and for some reason it got me to thinking about that movie for some reason, even though I’m sure the game is not… Spaceballs is clearly a parody of Star Wars, but your game is not a parody of anything, but for some reason my minds made that connection. I guess, because it’s space and it’s trading and all this sort of stuff. But what does your process look like when you’re creating a game? Because as you’re explaining both this game, as well as the games that are currently on the Strange Scaffold website.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems like you put a whole lot of thought into like the ethos and the soul of what the game is about and less about maybe the final product with graphics and all that sort of stuff.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Going into the process of how a game or any creative production comes into being is potentially very complicated, but I do try to think of any creative work, which I embark upon. I’ve worked in comics, I’ve worked in other mediums, sometimes in forms that I can’t talk about because of NDA. But I’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, communication styles, genres, and the thing that binds my approach to all of them together is a sense of what brings this to the finish line? And how does every piece of this experience reflect the perspective which birthed it?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
So the term I like to use for this idea is a prism. Ideally, at least when you’re working on tightly scoped projects, filtering every element of the game through a central prism or perspective. Following those logical conclusions, those leaps of perspective that are grounded because they remain in the same foundation. That drives everything in terms of how I at least approach the directing process. So in An Airport for Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, the question emerged inside of the team at the beginning of the project, how do we handle currency?”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
How does the player get more money? How do they spend money? How is money and currency represented? And at that moment, I took a step back and I thought about it for a moment and I said, “There is no money in this game,” because the prism, the perspective of the game world is what does it look like for a truly utopian society run by stock photo dog? A universe that is inherently joyful and cares about you specifically. A game that’s playing with you as much as you’re playing with it. How does it communicate with its players?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What are the elements of its world? What is the logic it runs upon? There’s a lot of interesting things you can do with currency or money in that world, but for me in that moment, the truest reflection of the world we wanted to create was one where dogs don’t care about money. A dog isn’t going to not give you a ticket to a FOBO just because you’re $1 short. If anything, they’re just going to give you the ticket or they’ll give you 50 tickets, just because you asked for it. Because they want to be helpful, because they want to see you happy.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Because your joyful existence is more important than exchange of goods and services. Following decision processes like that, of what is this world attempting to express and how is it communicated through every layer and element of the game has become an essential piece of any of my work whether I join as a director or as a contractor. So I really value at this point, the idea of cohesion and how much agency I’ve been allowed in my different assignments to bring that perspective to bear, because sometimes you don’t have that ability.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can run into a project or string of projects or a career of projects where not only are the products disjointed, but your ability to bring any unity to them is nearly absent. So there’s a mixture of skill and execution here, but I’m also just deeply thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity and specific scenarios in which my skill in this area has been allowed to shine.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting when you say that about the dogs not needing money, because I guess, yeah, that makes sense. But to have no currency, what about treats? I don’t know. I guess it’s your game, but I’m curious when you said that about the money, that does make sense now that you’ve pulled back and really explained it in that way. Because what are they going to spend it on? Is there also a supermarket run by dogs? How does that all work? So I get that.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And the dogs would just give each other stuff at the supermarket if they have it [crosstalk 00:23:27]-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
There’s different tree treatments you could do of this definitely. There is a world where there’s much harsher dogs. There are dogs who do demand things in the game. A lot of it is a straight up barter in the project as opposed to using an abstract concept like money. But all in all, yeah, at every single step we ask, “How would this work in a joyful universe? How would this work if dogs were deciding how this should function?” And in many cases, the solution was one that was more kind and more interesting than anything that existed in the real world.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And that caused a moment of reflection, at least for myself, whenever that occurred in the project for even how rarely we get the opportunity to imagine a better world. It can be very cathartic to create work that allows you the opportunities to explore that because Lord knows with the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to bring yourself to that point when you’re scrolling through Instagram and it feels like the world is on fire.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. So I want to switch it up here, but of course we’re hearing about you as a game developer, studio owner, narrative designer, but I want to know where this all originated from. So tell me more about like where you grew up.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I grew up all over the place. I was a military brat and that perspective in itself traveling so many different places seems so many different perspectives and cultures, has been in a massive contributor to me becoming who I am.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk about some of the places where you grew up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah, I was in South Korea, I was in Italy, I was in Germany, I was all over the United States. And I’m now based in the Southwest, El Paso, Texas, so been a lot of places.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now I guess while you’re of course traveling all about with your family because of being a military brat, did you get to experience just a lot of different design and tech and all that sort of stuff growing up?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. And to top it all off the fact that my dad was so interested in tech when I was growing up, had no doubt a massive impact. One of the earliest photos that exists of me is I am an extremely chubby baby sitting on my dad’s lap with a unplugged controller in my hand, wrapped attention towards a screen that isn’t in the frame while my dad is looking towards the exact same thing, because I thought in that moment that I was playing the game right with him. And in a sense I was, and now, I send him free video games. So, it all works out.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you know what game it was that your dad was playing?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
No, but I do remember certain games for my childhood in a lot of different contexts.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like what are some of those games?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
One of the big ones was Morrowind.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My dad played it on the original Xbox, the first console with a built-in memory. And he played hundreds of hours of that thing. And I would watch him be enthralled by this world and I, of course wanted to be like my dad. I was like, “Can I play? Can I play? Can I play?” He finally let me do it. And I was like, “Yes, I’m in the world of Morrow ind. I have read this manual from cover to cover dozens of times.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And I make a little bit of head way through the game, not really understanding it because it’s a more classic RPG and still having a good time with it, but not really understanding what I’m seeing. I save my game and I log off, a few hours later, I hear this on earthly moan. I walk into the front room and there’s my dad just staring at the screen, because I have overwritten his hundreds of RSAs with all the armor and all the weapons and [crosstalk 00:27:36]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, no.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
… with almost half of his own everything with my misspelled main character in his underwear in the middle of the town square that you first get to. And he was like, “Did you do this?” And I was like, “I do what?” And he explained to me, “You deleted my save.” I was like, “Oh, oh no.” So he went back to it, and if anything, he went back to it harder than last time, it was like the Rocky training sequence, I was so proud of him. He put a blanket over his head, he put a blanket over the TV, he went for it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
He’d work, he’d come home, he’d get it in because he is a good dad. At some point he says, “Yes. Okay. You can play again.” And I start a new game and I get a little bit of weigh in, and I meet an elf who I really hate. He’s just a real son of a bitch. I close the game and I come back out, and it’s very rarely that I’ve seen my dad look defeated, just deflated as a human being nothing inside of the husk, that is his body. But he was sitting, he didn’t even, there was not even the sound or really a conversation, he says, “Was this gone?” And he just like Sisyphus was rolling the boulder up the hill again. And he-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what, you saved over it again.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yes. I believe [crosstalk 00:29:03].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The third time he didn’t go for it as hard, I think he knew what was coming. Eventually, I asked him, “Hey, can I play the game?” And he is like, “Are you going to delete my save?” I was like, “No, I know how to do it this time. I’ve seen you save, I’ve been watching. I know how to do it.” I didn’t know how to do it. I deleted his save again. And when he stopped playing it in defeat, he’s never turned to that game ever since. I lost interest because it was cool because my dad was doing it. So lesson of the story here is, one, this is on him because he shouldn’t have kept letting me play it. And two, it’s even more on him because he never showed me how the save menu worked. You can tell a five-year-old how games saves work.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can explain the concept. I’ve thought through this for years now, there is a way five-year-old me could have been told about how save games worked. But that process was not undergone, and so consequences were followed and I do feel very bad about it. Every time I can’t log onto my Xbox because he is using the console profile in a different location to have access to my game pass. I’m doing my little bit to pay back the horrible price I incurred by destroying his dreams early on.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good son, that’s what a good son should do. That’s good to hear.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Although now I feel completely old now that you mentioned Morrowind. I was like, “Jesus.” I was in college when Morrow ind came out. I remember the game though, I probably didn’t get as far as you did though. When did I start playing? Not in 2002 certainly. Probably like in maybe ’05, I think I had an Xbox then. And I don’t know, I could never get out the first town. I kept getting killed by rats and I was like, “Eh, forget it.”

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Because it had a D and D chance to hit. So you would hit it and you wouldn’t know, you’d have to look in the bottom left corner of the screen to be like, “You missed. You missed, it’s before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. That’s not all my fault. So no, I.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
What we’re learning in this episode is that abdication and responsibility is good actually. It was my dad’s fault, it wasn’t your fault. It was Morrowind’s fault. We can always find someone to blame and that’s the real takeaway of today’s show.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And speaking of that, when it comes to games, you first got into, well, it sounds like you first got into the gaming industry as a games’ journalist as a 12-year-old. Is that right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. Pretended to be an adult.

Maurice Cherry:
You got to tell me how that happened.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
That’s the story in a nutshell, I was 12 years old. I found out that games journalists get games for free. I thought, “Oh wow, there it is. It’s the perfect job, free video games.” And I, as a very driven and precocious young man, pretended to be an adult and somehow I got away with it, and that started what has now been a… Oh, it’s been over a decade in the industry. And people I met back then I have since worked with, and I’m now colleagues with, and everyday I am thankful for not just that journey, but how clearly I can see the journey at every step in my life. I can see the impact that God has had in directing that path, whether it was good or bad, everything came together to produce the person I am now, and the perspective I have.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And so much of what I’m trying to do is without having to go through similar pain in part, any of the things that I’ve learned or discovered along the way to the people that I meet, if I manage to… I think it’s really important to put on your own air mask before you assist other passengers to use an airline reference or metaphor. But I also think none of this stuff really matters if it only goes to benefit me. If I just, even if I make hits, if these games come into the world and all they do is make money.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Money is important, it pays bills, it allows for agency and freedom and a quality of living that’s important and aspirational. But if I work with someone and they don’t come away having learned something, if I come away from working with someone and haven’t learned something, if I am not through my working processes, enabling the people around me to do their best work in the healthiest environment possible, it doesn’t matter what we’ve produced, because the purpose of making that thing has already been lost. What point is a perfect game, If you lose your soul along the way? Or if you never make another thing again.

Maurice Cherry:
I was curious to know, as you started out so early in this industry writing about it, reviewing games and such, did any of your colleagues know that you were that young?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
From what I understand, most didn’t and I don’t know what that says about either my skills for disguise or about my industry in terms of maturity level, but yeah, I somehow skated by.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think that your work as a journalist really helped you out as a narrative designer?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the work I did as a journalist helped me as a narrative designer in a few ways. The first is, I did all of my professional bad writing very early. I got all the bad words out, hopefully, so now I can write good stuff. But the second major thing that I think about in terms of journalism is, when I got older and really leaned into attempting to understand artistic intents and artistic processes and how and why things came to be, or when the creator intended something, why that didn’t emerge onto the screen. And the things that led to that course of events, that gave me an inherent empathy for the people I would come to work with as well as an ability to examine, what was something trying to communicate?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Like reverse engineering, what was something trying to communicate and how, and what pieces of an experience didn’t contribute to that process, led to me now attempting to bring those things to life myself in as cohesive a manner as possible. And I certainly won’t claim to get it right 100% at the time, but I can see how my history as a journalist coming to treasure these things and learning how to form these opinions and thoughts in such a way that I could share them with others and have them be disagreed with or agreed with or spark interesting discussion. It was an incredible training ground, and I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to come up through that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you ultimately want to accomplish as a game developer? It certainly sounds like, one, your faith factors a lot into your work, just in terms of how you approach the games and it sounds like even the mechanics and the whole ethos behind it, but then also you’ve mentioned earlier about wanting to provide just a more holistic game development experience. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, I’m using a bunch of different metaphors here, but what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Is there like a bigger goal or message at play here?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The average game developer career lasts about three years. If there’s anything I accomplish in my lifetime as a commercial artist, as a creative professional, I want to see the average career length for someone working in games to be 20 years, 30 years just like Martin Scorsese, says he can be 70, 80 years old, still making interesting films. I want to see games professionals have the same ability to discover what their next story is going to be, what the stories they could deliver if their careers just lasted a little bit longer.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
If they had that ability to hit that next rung in the ladder, if they had that ability to fashion their craft that much more. The fact that we get the games of creative potency that we have now, given the relative lack of seniority, we have the ability to crew in, in the industry because our mentors, our elders are few and far between. I treasure and look forward to a future where we find out what breathtaking things can come into being when people have been making these for 30 years instead of three.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, what are you excited about at the moment? Of course, you got a new game that just came out. Of course, congratulations to you on that, but what are you really the most excited about right now?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
I think the thing is I’m most excited about are honestly the projects. This sounds corny, but it’s the projects made by my friends and colleagues and peers in the industry right now. Games is legitimately a more vibrant, diverse, creatively executed and broad communicator of artistic intent than it’s ever been. The golden age of games is happening right now. And it’s because of the people I often find myself having the ability to work with, no major end point to that other than, “Dang I’m thankful.” And wow, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like 10, 20 years from now, especially if we can create working conditions to where the folks who are doing this amazing stuff now can continue to evolve their craft and be making things that far into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Now for people that are listening to this that want to also get into developing games, what would you recommend to them? Any resources or any kind of course of action that they should take?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The most important thing I would recommend is make games or make anything really with the resources you have right now. If you don’t have money, find out what kind of game you can make with no money. It’s possible. That’s to where I started. If you are a fantastic artist, look at how a game can uniquely leverage your art. If you’re a musician, look at how within the resources you have, you can express things that no one else would think to do.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Or frankly could if only because they have more resources, we tend to forget how sometimes having more resources can be a limitation in itself because it forces the solutions you are finding to take pretty similar forms to things that are successful right now, or that have been done in the past, depending on the environment and which you’re working. So yeah, wherever you are, whatever you have, look for how you can be making something right now, because not only will that advance your portfolio, but whenever you bring something into the world, finish and release it, you learn something about yourself, you learn and what to do, you learn what to not to do, you learn something about who you are. I say you deserve to learn as fully as possible who you are, wouldn’t you?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, sure. Why not? What do you think you would’ve done if you hadn’t gone into game development? It sounds like you had such an early start. Was there anything else that you had in mind even?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
My very, very first job was doing landscaping for a cult. Do not recommend it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, landscaping for a cult?

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
We’re going to move on from that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
But after that, what I got into and what I loved was librarianship. Library science, the practice of serving customers in a community through libraries. I found opportunities with the resources I had and the place that I had in the communities that I was in to end up being a children’s librarian, not just one time, but multiple times. And I loved it. I love what libraries represents. I practically grew up in libraries. The role libraries have in society, the continuing relevance they have, as well as the impact you have on patrons in that environment.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Sorry, I’m getting a little bit emotional in this end, but I loved every single one of those kids who walked in through the door. I loved every single person who came in and didn’t know what they were looking for and came out with a book that ended up changing their lives. I loved every single one of those ridiculous ass romance novels that ended up being, this is a fun fact. Romance novels are the most checked out thing in a library, at least in my experience. Romance readers read voraciously, they’re constantly cycling through those books, same books going in and out, in and out. They’re the secret lifeblood of any library circulation.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And yeah, every single one of those books and the joy that they brought the people who read them. I loved those books and I loved every single one of those people, and I loved everything about that profession. If it didn’t require that master’s in library science to become a quote unquote proper librarian, I might have still even having started my career in games so early, I might have still done librarianship anyway, because if it’s not creative production, if it’s not making games or comics or something in linear media, like film or television. I’ll tell you what feels like home to me, it’s the walls of a library.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Aside from in a library?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Why not? I’m sure there’re more games out down the horizon. I’m sure.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
Yeah. In five years I see Strange Scaffold as a vibrant constellation of projects and people that are sustainable, healthy, and unexpectedly ambitious and well positioned to remain so for the foreseeable future. If I could do exactly what I’m doing now for the next five years and the rest of my life, I would be very happy indeed.

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

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
You can find my ridiculous Twitter at twitter.com/WritNelson. When I’m not posting puns, I am talking about our projects and how and why we bring them into the world. We have a Patreon at patreon.com/strangescaffold where you can get early access to our work, as well as do things like get pictures of your dog, into the games that we’re bringing out now and get custom content into some of the projects we’re still developing, such as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
And lastly, I work on a lot of games. So if you look on a PlayStation or an Xbox or a Nintendo platform or on Steam, running into something that I’m working on is, or have worked on, there’s a better chance than not that you’ll find it pretty quickly. So Strange Scaffold is the name for a lot of my collaborations, but for a step outside of that, like Skate Bird or Hypnospace Outlaw, if you like one thing we’re doing, there’s a vibrant thread of work to be followed.

Maurice Cherry:
Xalavier Nelson Jr, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, one, thank you for sharing your really unique look into game development and your very, I think honestly inspiring story about how you even just got involved into games. I love that you really are thinking about not just the stories that you want to tell throughout games, but also how you can make the industry better as a whole. I think that’s something that probably, I don’t know if many other game developers are doing that, but it seems like that’s something that you really tapped into and are trying to put forth. And the games that you’re creating are fun and unique, and I just want to see more of what you’re going to accomplish in the future. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Xalavier Nelson Jr.:
The kind of words mean an immense amount. Thank you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Harrison Wheeler

If you’ve been a longtime listener of Revision Path, then you probably already recognize this week’s guest, Harrison Wheeler. Along with being a senior design manager at LinkedIn, he’s also a podcaster with his own show called Technically Speaking. (And I’ve been a guest twice!)

Our conversation started off with a peek into life at LinkedIn, and he talked about working and managing remotely, as well as about how he’s changed as a manager over the years. We also talked shop about podcasting, the metaverse, the future of design in business, and Harrison shared some of the best career advice he’s received. I love checking back in with guests and seeing just how they’ve grown over their career, and Harrison is proof that hard work and dedication pays off in the long run!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Harrison Wheeler:
Hey, Maurice. My name is Harrison Wheeler. I am a senior prog design manager at LinkedIn, and I’m going on four and a half, five years. Time flies.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Welcome back to the show, man. It’s good to have you back.

Harrison Wheeler:
I know. Yeah, we were just chatting beforehand. It’s been what, almost four or five years since I … No, it’s been longer than that. What I’m talking about, I’ve been at LinkedIn for, like I said, almost five years. So it’s almost been like seven years.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were at Base when we last talked, which is now part of Zendesk, I believe.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But yeah, it’s been a while. So we definitely got a lot to catch up on in terms of your career and everything.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s funny. I’m trying to think. I think I might have been in Chicago or had just moved to California back when that was recorded.

Maurice Cherry:
You had just moved to California.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you? What did you learn about yourself over this past year?

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, if 2020 was rough, so I think I’m a glass half full kind of person. So I will say that 2021 definitely felt like a bit of emergence out of that. Just looking back, I mean, a few things. And so I think really being unapologetic in terms of just turning things off and making time for myself. I think making time in the space for yourself is super important for that. I think, additionally, we all know this, but your voice matters. And I think probably it’s a bit of a reflection in terms of where I’ve grown and the position and the role that I have within my organization, within the design community. It’s important to have that voice and then also give back. Perspective is very important. And I will say many things have also accelerated within the last couple of years.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so when you think about how a lot of the workforce is now, like tele commuting, what sort of constraints does that create? Are we creating opportunities for people to get in? Are we also conscious of some of the effects of the work that we do? And so how can we bring more consciousness to the work that we’re doing, to the decisions that we’re making on a day to day basis?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think really also with this past year, because … and I want to say this partially because of the vaccine in a way. It’s really thrown workplaces in general into a bit of a learning moment in a way. Because of course in 2020, when we didn’t have the vaccine, everything was like, we’re going to move to remote work, we’re going to do this. And then the vaccine comes and then offices are like, well, I guess maybe we can start going back. And then the variants come through and they’re like, well, maybe you should stay at home. There’s been this weird push, pull. Of course there’s been the creation of these hybrid schedules, but I still think companies are trying to figure out what they’re going to do next and they’re not doing well at that. But I think that’s to be expected because this is so unprecedented.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few thoughts on that. I’ve had an opportunity to at least exercise what the hybrid concept is like. And just reflecting, again, over the past couple of years, I think we’ve seen a lot of evolution, at least from a design perspective, the tools that we use. You have the online multiplayer, you’ve got tools like Loom where you can do asynchronous video recordings. Obviously Slack is a big part of it. Having soundboards or sound rooms as a way of communicating without necessarily needing to be on camera. I think the list really goes on in terms of how remote work has been optimized. But the moment that you step into an office, it is a relic of where we left off. And so there is a gap there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, one of the things that actually I’ve been thinking about is, how does this play a role in the design rituals that we have. Not necessarily from a remote perspective, but when we have folks in an office and then we have folks on camera. Because there are some really interesting nuances. Like, we’ve all had pretty good high fidelity cameras at home, but the moment you’re in an office, you now see someone in three dimensions. So maybe their voice sounds different, maybe the audio is a little bit distorted. Folks might not see what’s going on in the chat. Folks might be having side conversations. Some of these things aren’t new per se, but now we’ve got a more equitable type of situation that we need to be considerate of. And so, how can we build in process, practice? How can we ingrain it? I think for me, how do you think about that at scale? And so, there’s a software component, there’s a hardware component and then there’s also just the general human to human communication component. So yeah, it’s really interesting, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny now that I think about that, because when the pandemic really started, I was working for a company that was very much remote first. And they had an office and I had been to the office. I don’t even remember the last time I was in their office, maybe 2019 I think. But that was three or four jobs ago. Since then, now I’ve worked at a number of different companies in remote positions with people who I’ve never met, who I’ve had to work with oftentimes across very wide time zone births to try to get creative work done. And yeah, it’s a change, it’s a big change. And just trying to adjust to it, making sure you’re getting the best work out of people. Of course, I think, one, with being sensitive to just the general overall global issue that we’re going through with the pandemic. But also, it’s going to be a different kind of thing when you meet them in person. At the other places, I’ve not met a single one of my coworkers in person in over a year.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I think it’s truly fascinating, that social component. I think on the show, I don’t know if I had gone to this point yet, but a lot of the engineering team that I was working with was based in Poland. And so I think we hadn’t developed ways to communicate. Technology wasn’t there, so the ways to communicate were extremely difficult. So then you really had to see and visit somebody to understand their body language. But I think now, we’re so good at communicating with each other. I think seeing each other in the flesh it sort of like, oh, how do we compute this now?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m running into that a bit now because the place where I currently work, we’re split between San Francisco and Paris. And so I’m working with Europeans in the morning, working with the US folks in the afternoon trying to … And it is all very much a sync. I mean, I’m right in the middle. So when I start my day at 9:00 AM, it’s the afternoon already in Paris and it’s still early morning in San Francisco. So I have to try to juggle how I work now based on that, because we’re not all on that same eight-hour block.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think about 2022, are there any certain resolutions or goals that you have that you want to try to accomplish?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, resolutions or goals. I would probably say I need to do a better job at taking a vacation. I’ve been saying that for a long time, but I think this past couple of years, I think from a mental health perspective, haven’t been easy. And I don’t think it’s been easy for most folks. And so again, I think be able to create that time and space where you can reflect. You don’t need to, you can also be in the moment. You don’t have to necessarily reflect. But I think we need to just create the space. That’s how I recharge. I’m doing a lot of really awesome stuff with my podcast, Technically Speaking. So I’m looking forward to really expanding that. I know we’re going to get into that a little bit later. But I would also say like, move a little bit more. Really be conscious about getting movement in. I mean, I’m in meetings all day. And so going for that. Walk around the block, heading on the bike, lifting some weights. In some way, shape or form, committing to that every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want a vacation. Well, I think I need one certainly, because the last time I was really out on a plane somewhere was February 2020. I just haven’t went anywhere because of the pandemic. But now it’s, I’m feeling it now. I need to disconnect on a beach in another country somewhere like nobody’s business.

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re in the hub, man. I think you can fly anywhere in the world from Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. I’ve just been wary of it because … I mean, you’ve been seeing all this stuff with people fighting on planes and stuff. I’m like, I’m not trying [crosstalk 00:12:33]. I’m not trying to get caught up somewhere having to try to go somewhere. But we can’t because back in 25B, they’re [dooking 00:12:41] it out. Like, come on, you’re holding up everybody. We are all trying to get somewhere.

Harrison Wheeler:
I mean, this is a sad state of affairs. But it’s sad when airlines have to take away the alcohol because folks can’t handle themselves in the air.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, have they taken away the alcohol on planes for real?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. I think now, probably around mid-December, early January, I think some airlines are looking at bringing it back. But yeah. Folks were getting lit.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. Wow. I didn’t know it was that bad. Geez.

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Hopefully we can get it together, but I don’t know. Humanity has been … it’s been a very interesting experiment of humanity over this past year or so. Just seeing how folks have acted, especially with these vaccines. We’re not going to make this political, getting into it, but it’s been a lot. So yeah. When you were last on the show, which as we talked about was way back on episode 140, you were at Base, which is now part of Zendesk. And since then, you’ve went on to LinkedIn where now you are a senior design manager. What has your time at LinkedIn been like.

Harrison Wheeler:
Wow. Yeah, this is great. I love reflecting on this. So I mean, look, I want to maybe touch on … maybe we can give a brief overview of what Base was. Because I think a lot of times I get a lot of questions in terms of, what attracted you to LinkedIn? And I also get questioned around, yo, it’s been five years. And tech speak, five years, man, you’re an OG at that point because the average length of folks is usually around two years at a job. And that number is probably going down over time. I mean, we see that there are so many opportunities out in the market these days. But when I started at Base, I was a manager for basically a 300-person startup. And so my design team at the time was around five directs on the product side, one on marketing. And then I reported up directly into the CEO and then eventually the chief of product.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think for me, that was an amazing experience. I got to really build something from zero to one. I got to experience what growth looked like. Had some really amazing experiences being able to go to Europe and create lasting connections with folks back on that project. I think for me when I was looking … And I wasn’t even looking, to be honest, Maurice. I think I’d probably taken a moment to sit down and understand, what is the general experience that I want to have? And I think for me, I was pretty simple. I want to be able to have impact in the organization on the product and eventually grow a team. But most importantly, I wanted to have the support to grow as a manager. I didn’t really have the tools, in my opinion, to lead with confidence. And I will say that what attracted me was the fact that there was a good amount of folks that were experienced and seasoned from a managerial perspective. The company had a lot of amazing programs to help foster that connection.

Harrison Wheeler:
And on top of that, there were folks that I’ve been able to meet that have also played a big role in my development. And of course, I’ve had some awesome coworkers. I think in terms of the opportunity, so right now the team I’m on is called LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so if you aren’t familiar with our enterprise products, there’s obviously the flagship product that most folks on LinkedIn are on. It’s where you post, that’s where you see jobs, you’ve got the feed. And then we have really four different product areas. Sales navigator, so that’s usually for sales folks. We have LinkedIn talent solutions for our recruiters. And sometimes you might get those inboxes from recruiters trying to hit you up for a new gig. We’ve got LinkedIn learning and then we got LinkedIn marketing solutions. And so LinkedIn marketing solutions is really our ad platform and one of the fastest growing lines of … actually, I think it is the fastest growing line of business at LinkedIn.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so for me, I have had an experience very similar to a startup because we’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of folks using our product. A lot of growth in terms of the team growing. And also, the acceleration of our experiences from a maturity perspective. I think going in, LinkedIn was around 15 years old. So I think most people would be like, oh, man, that company is old, 15 years. But over the past four years that I’ve been there, we’ve invested a lot. And honestly, it’s evolved like night and day. It’s been really fun to be a part of that ride, because I know that I’ve had some part in doing that. Being able to have that impact for me and seeing that growth was really core to my decision-making there.

Harrison Wheeler:
And look, I mean, when you’re in the tech game, I think it’s important to understand really … on top of the work, understand what are the things that are going to help bring value to your life. We all know that over the past two years, if you’re working in tech, going into the office, not having benefits, not being able to focus on your physical and mental health as a part of that package, you know there’s somebody out there offering better. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
That’s the beauty of the situation right now. And for me, I can confidently say there’s not really too many companies that would offer support in that way any better than LinkedIn. And so honestly, that’s really kept me around.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, you came on at the time … I think it might have been right around the time that LinkedIn was bought by Microsoft.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I came in actually a little bit after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I believe the acquisition had happened earlier that year.

Maurice Cherry:
So even with that, I mean, you’ve got that big tech juggernaut behind LinkedIn. So I’m sure that in terms of just like, I think one job security, but two also just the … Like you said, if you’re in the Bay, probably just if you’re in tech in general, you’re always looking to try to level up. I mean, that’s a great place to do so.

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Can you talk a bit about what you do as a senior design manager?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I get a lot of questions around, what does IC growth look like? What does a manager growth look like? And so, as I mentioned before on my team, I have eight designers … excuse me, seven designers, one manager. And then soon I’ve got two roles opening up. So for folks listening and you’re interested, definitely check out the job listings. But it’s really interesting because I think a lot of times when you think about managers, the people side of things. But honestly, for me, I think about, how can we create an organization that is really based on outcomes around how we approach design? And so a lot of that is making sure that my team has a time and space to thoroughly think through their problem space. I’ll give you an example of a few initiatives that I generally work on.

Harrison Wheeler:
So number one, we’re working really hard in terms of trying to really double down and protect our design rituals. And that’s from our weekly standups to our feedback. How can we give better feedback? How can we provide even safer spaces for feedback? How can we make sure the process is inclusive for everyone on the team to have a voice and be able to scale that in different areas? How are we thinking about what growth paths on the team look like? How can we be consistent in terms of creating expectations? How can we create different opportunities and modules for designers to have a better understanding about the situations that they’re in? So as they have the autonomy to really start to lead projects, they’re equipped with the proper tools to have the right conversations to be able to say no, and also understand when to prioritize.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so those are just a few of them. Obviously, there’s the planning side of things, there’s the performance review side of things. But ultimately, how can we also think about having more of a thoughtfulness in terms of thinking horizontally? So as I mentioned before, we’ve got the flagship experience, we’ve got these four other enterprise experiences. How can we bring some of that goodness or how can we bring in some of the initiatives that they’re working on into some of the things that we’re trying to achieve. And so a lot of that is honestly, I think, fairly similar regardless of the size, the organization that you’re at. I will say, LinkedIn, being that it is about an 18-year-old company now, there’s around 13,000 employees globally. There’s a little bit more conversations that you’ll have to have, but I don’t think that’s any different from most organizations this size.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, with the team make up like it is, I mean, do you get a chance to really work one-on-one with designers or are you mostly working more with upper management and leadership?

Harrison Wheeler:
Honestly, it really is a mix. At least for my designers that are my reports, we do have our one-on-ones. So we do have an opportunity to go through individual designs. We do have opportunities to really think about what growth looks like. As I mentioned before, we have rituals that I always attend. So if I can, at least. And so that is our design reviews, our standups. Those are the things that I really try to do. I try my best to make sure that our team is equipped, like I said, to be autonomous, to be able to work with their teams. Because I am not able to be in every single situation. Also, my manager isn’t available to be in every single situation all the time as well.

Harrison Wheeler:
So there’s a bit of that. There’s a lot of back and forth at least from a leadership perspective as well. And so, we have a growing design organization. We need to also understand at least as a manager too, that whether it’s coming from product or inch, that we’re not only managing down to the team, but also managing up and giving our executive team visibility. We might be working on vision work and so I might be a little bit more involved there working with other VPs or directors involved in that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, speaking of design management, when we had you on the show back in 2016, you were a design manager at Base.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve grown as a design manager since then? I mean, is it different in this larger organization or what’s changed?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I mean, 1000%, I’m a totally different manager than I was back then. There are times where I’m like, if I could take situations back in the day and pair it with what I know now, I guarantee you the outcomes would be totally different. And so I think a lot of times when I started out is like, you’d read all the books or you have this idea of what a manager is supposed to do and you try to be like. Or at least for me, I can’t speak for other folks. I had this misnomer that I had to be right. That I had to know what I was doing. That it was important that people knew that I knew what I was doing, when that was not the case.

Harrison Wheeler:
And I think really coming to terms with like, hey, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, I think for me became pretty transformational. And then I had a moment too where I had an opportunity to have a professional coach, shout out to Brooks. He was actually on one of my episodes on Technically Speaking. But the sessions that I had with him really changed, honestly, my mindset on being a manager. And a lot of it really came down to understanding when to have conversations and how to have those conversations. A lot of what we do as designers really comes down to communication. And sometimes it might not be comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. But usually when you do feel that, you’re usually at a crossroad. There is a decision that needs to be made. And on the other side of it, it’s going to be beneficial no matter what.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And I would say, it sounds like you at least had that … and I’m not saying you didn’t have this at Base, but it certainly sounds like you’ve had support to grow at as a manager while you’ve been at LinkedIn. You haven’t just been winging it. I say that to say, I’ve been in design management situations where it was very clear I was winging it. The company was not really trying to offer any support in that area. But these were startups, it’s not an established company like LinkedIn. But it sounds like they are invested in your growth as a design manager.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Yeah, 100%. And I think one thing, you asked what I do on the day to day. But there are definitely things that I look at in terms of, how can we evolve as an organization? And so those are things that we’re constantly chipping away. And I think having that north star and being able to have your team align on that, I think does help quite a bit in terms of making sound and constructive conversations and decisions as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, have you encountered any other black design managers while you’ve been … not necessarily at LinkedIn, but just in your career in general?

Harrison Wheeler:
You mean as far as being my manager, or?

Maurice Cherry:
Just in general.

Harrison Wheeler:
In general. Honestly, I will probably say, not since I’ve been at LinkedIn. How should I phrase this? I will say that there are a few that I’ve known and heard of from afar, but I will say I haven’t been able to personally meet any until I was at LinkedIn. And we’ve seen really a lot of growth in terms of representation as far as black folks go at the manager level. And so I think that’s been really, really special. Because I think for me, it just felt really inaccessible in terms of meeting other black design managers. And so now to have that presence where I work, I think is extremely special to me. Because I always think about, the first manager that I’ve had technically was my mom because my mom had hired me to do web design at the elementary school that she worked with. And so I always tell people, my mom was the first black manager that I directly had. And I think what was really interesting, the lesson in that for me was, I was able to reflect on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
I was like, my mom literally advocated for me in terms of making a budget. And then on top of that, she gave me the space to grow. It’s funny when you think about the lessons in some of these areas in your life that you don’t really think of until you are a lot older. And so I don’t know. That for me was really groundbreaking. Because I think in the discussion that we had in terms of that growth piece, you mentioned something around black designers need to have the opportunity to fail. And I think it’s so important to have representation as a black designer, as a black design manager, because now you can actually discuss these things. You can fail, you can have mentorship within your organization. And we all know this, that the representation numbers are extremely low. I think it’s really special when you can have a community like that to support along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting. Even as I’ve done this show over the years and I’ve talked to people from other organizations and such, it’s still pretty fragmented when you think about other black design managers or even just … Someone had asked me, oh, is there a professional group of black designers that I can join? And I was like, well, not really. I mean, you could join the organization. And I have to preface this because I don’t want anyone from OBD coming after me. But look, I’m not saying the Organization of Black Designers is not doing great things. What I am saying is that for current black designers that are in the industry, they do not know that you exists. So I can mention, like for example, I can say AIGA. Or if you are regional, I can say, well, there’s Bay Area Black Designers or there’s I think Black Design Seattle, I think is what it’s called or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
There are some regional groups, but a national organization kind of thing. It’s still pretty fragmented. I mean, there are shows like mine and shows like yours, which of course we’ll get into, that I think do a good job of highlighting who we are and what we’re doing out here. But it’s still, for I think the average designer, it still is pretty hard to find that community.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah, it is. It is. Yeah. And I will say it’s probably even more complex given how fragmented it is. It’s actually even harder to find, as you mentioned, because consistency is key. And so even over the past couple of years, I’ve seen things pop up, but then really quiet down. And so it’s not only finding the group, but it’s making sure that it’s active. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely. I’ve certainly run into a few that have been in that same fashion. They start up one way and then it just dies out. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. It takes a lot to keep those things going. So then just in terms of initiatives and things, are there any particular initiatives that you’re involved in at LinkedIn?

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s real funny because I go back to … I was thinking or reflecting on the first episode that we had. I think for me being a black designer in tech, it felt like a sense of accomplishment. I mean, it definitely was. Coming from the Midwest, really trudging along and just taking risks, not knowing what’s on the other side and not necessarily having those perspectives. I think it was definitely something to celebrate and to be able to do this. But I think that quickly went away because at the end of the day you’re still one of, who knows? Hundreds, thousands in an organization.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so in the moments around Trayvon Martin. And it was tough, it was very isolating. And I think not having a community to be able to go to or at least just talk it out, I thought was, I don’t know, it was very isolating. And so I think moving into LinkedIn, I didn’t want to go through that again. I’ll put it like that. You know who Renee Reid is? Shout out to Renee Reid.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, of course.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Tech Wrap Queen, check it out. So we actually joined LinkedIn actually the same year. So myself, her and George Hay, shout out to George, we actually got together and we were like, we should put something on. We should try and create some representation within the organization. We should also have some external representation to let folks know that we’re here. And so we started with a lot of small things. I remember Renee was really passionate about having a week during Black History where the cafeteria served food from all over the African diaspora. And by the way, LinkedIn, I mean, we don’t have cafeterias right now because it’s kind of … Well, we do, but it’s not operating in the same capacity. LinkedIn has some bomb food. I think if you’re ever in the Bay Area, if you ask somebody which tech company has the best food, LinkedIn is definitely up there nine times out of 10.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so what they cook tastes pretty good. We got together and designed the LinkedIn [nberg 00:33:15], that’s the LinkedIn logo. I designed that with the kente pattern and we got those printed. And so whenever LinkedIn showed up, we showed up for sure. AfroTech, we came in deep with the kente cloth pattern and people were like, this is what LinkedIn is about. And one of the most amazing things about it is that it resonated with black folks all over the country. But LinkedIn has global offices around the world. So we had folks down in Brazil repping the LinkedIn kente nberg. So I think it was really great to see that movement. And then we had a little bit of a coming out party about three years ago during the week of AfroTech, the second week of AfroTech, where we had designers come to LinkedIn. And we just chuffed it out.

Harrison Wheeler:
We had a panel with research and design and we basically called that black by design. That was really a big moment for us. And it was great because we got to show people what design was like. Inside LinkedIn, people had an opportunity to see what we look like and what we were talking about. And there was a relational piece to it. And then we also eventually made hires from some of the folks that attended. And so here we are, we’re strong. I think 15 plus folks, it might be even more, but we started out being only three of us. And so it’s been really great to see that evolve over time. And over the past year, we’ve been doing a lot to really organize and really keep it growing. Because obviously we want this to keep growing, whether we’re at LinkedIn or when we move on. They call that the next play.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so we have really three pillars that we focus on. So we got a set of folks working on growth and retention. And so that’s really around, how can we keep folks in? How can we provide opportunities for people to grow outside of their traditional day to day job? We have another pillar called brand building and community. So that’s when we go out and we have these happy hours. So when we show up to events like AfroTech, this is when we have an opportunity to really be able to not only push some of the amazing initiatives that LinkedIn is doing, but also elevate the folks within the group to the community. And then we have a third pillar called product experience.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so actually a couple of weeks ago, we had a presentation around company pages that we invited black creative businesses to join. And so how can we elevate our products to benefit the black community and also learn about how people are using them, and bring that feedback directly into the product. So it’s been really fun to see that evolve. Really be able to create a space for our members to be able to kick back, talk about anything and everything, and go live in the Slack channel. So it’s been really great to see that evolution over time.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would say this is a testament probably to the longevity and the structure of LinkedIn, that you are able to have such a robust employee resource group like that, that will allow you to do things that directly touch the brand. A different version of the logo. I mean, that’s a lot just in and of itself because that’s something that goes out globally, like you said, across LinkedIn in a number of different countries.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Look, I will say, I mean, it’s been a journey, but definitely shout out to the exec team that supports us. We have two executive sponsors. I’ve had an opportunity to talk with other folks within the company that have been super supportive and be willing to work with us and iterate as we go. And I think with that kind of mentality, that’s extremely empowering in allowing really that expression to be able to happen. And so it’s really been, honestly for me, I’m humbled. I’m honored to really be able to be a part of creating that platform where … I was thinking of this. To some folks, this is their first experience in tech. I mean, that’s mind blowing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, switching gears here. Of course, we’ve mentioned before about your podcast, Technically Speaking. Which is one big thing that’s changed since you were last on the show, is you do podcasting now too. So why don’t you tell the folks here about your show and what it’s about?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. Well, look, man, I mean, I kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, I think. We both touched on this. I think the representation in the industry for black folks is fairly small. Still small. Very small. I shouldn’t even say fairly small. And I think what’s important is like, I think a lot of times when we tend to see each other, we always ask, what’s your story? How did you get to where you are? I think at least in the product design space, I thought that was extremely important to really be able to provide a platform for. I’ve been considering this for a while, but I honestly think a lot of the events from last year really was a bit of a catalyst to move that forward.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so to be honest with you, I didn’t think I could do a podcast. I think I’d asked people so many questions on how to do it and I for sure was procrastinating much of the time. But yeah, I went ahead and did it. And honestly, it’s been a game changer for me to be able to meet so many people and have many different perspectives. As much of a tool as it is for folks that are listening for them to learn, it’s been a tool for me to also learn about their stories. I think the production element of the podcast is also another area that I’m always striving to improve and learn on and iterate. But yeah, I think … let’s see, I mean, we’re about a year and a half in, almost 10,000 downloads throughout the lifetime, within a year and a half, which I think is a huge milestone. And I think we’ve recorded around 38 episodes.

Harrison Wheeler:
So yeah, man, it’s been fun. And look, you’ve been an inspiration along that journey as well. I think we’ve mentioned this on the episodes, but it really meant a lot to have you on the show, especially during San Francisco Design Week. Because I can remember when we were chopping up before the show, I was like, man, we got to get you out here and do something. So we still need to do something live at some point, but that’ll be post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has podcasting really taught you? I mean, you mentioned the thing about people being able to tell their own stories, but have you gained any personal insight from doing this?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. I think some of the personal insight, again, it’s like this weird perfectionism thing. Some of it I’ll also go into where I was coming in the Base. When I was going in my last job, it was definitely a career pivot for me. Moving from a more graphic design oriented web design career into product design. And so I didn’t really have the vernacular to be able to express design concepts, research concepts, et cetera. And I think for me, I have this idea of what an archetype of a designer was. And honestly, that could really go to hell at this point in time because there isn’t an ideal archetype for a designer. And I think a lot of the folks that are on the show are at a point where they’re having the same kind of realizations.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think you’re seeing this evolution where people are really starting to prioritize their own ideals and beliefs, which I think has really been … I think to be able to have folks that have been in the industry for a while, but then on top of that to see that as the starting point for the younger generation, I think is an amazing learning. And I’m super hopeful that that can transform a lot of how we think about the folks in the industry who we’re solving for. And understanding that some of the things that we’ve perpetuated for years and years are extremely toxic and we need to move past that. But we also need to evolve in a way. We need to have these discussions, whether it be to tear it all down, whether it be to reform some of these things. But we need to be having these discussions followed up by action. And I think a lot of these storylines can really help people understand what that angle is in terms of moving in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. I mean, podcasting for me, I think, has been something really which has given me a deep level of, not just introspection into people’s processes, but also how they come to the decisions that they do in terms of their career and the work that they do and everything like that. Have you found that there’s been a bit of a common thread among your guests?

Harrison Wheeler:
No. I think there are some folks that have definitely done the linear approach. I think there are some folks that have figured it out along the way and had a very meandering path. And so I think that’s what’s important. There’s not one way to do things. Did that answer your question?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, absolutely. It did. Now, you talked about LinkedIn and even venturing onto these different spaces, like you’ve mentioned with black and design. And one thing that LinkedIn did recently was that they participated in AfroTech world, which was like a metaverse essentially. It’s like a conference in the metaverse. Now, I know you told me that you didn’t get a chance to attend that, but what did you hear back from how that experience was?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. This was the second year that AfroTech had done the metaverse thing. So for folks that aren’t familiar, AfroTech world is a conference. I think they had 10,000 folks buy tickets, I think 7,000 showed up. But it’s a global conference where folks talk about a lot of different topics around technology, design, engineering, product management, venture capital, all that. And so the experience is in a virtual world and so you could basically dress up your avatar, you could network with folks, you could have one-on-one meetings on a beach, in a jet ski, on a boat. It’s whatever you want to make it. And so I think a lot of folks were excited at the concept because you could have folks have an experience together without physically being in the same place. I think definitely it is just novel. It’s great to see it at a very large scale. I don’t know, I’m super curious to see how it’s going to evolve over time. Were there some other conferences doing something in the metaverse as well?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I went to one last week. And for people that are recording, we’re recording this early December. But I went to one at the beginning of December from this company called Tech Circus that was called Enter the Metaverse. And they had an online component, but you could also, I think, attend inside the metaverse that they set up for the conference. And so there were all these panels about just all the different things dealing with the metaverse. The economy, virtual wellbeing, real estate. The founder for Second Life was there and he gave a really great presentation. There was this guy, I think he works for Microsoft in Berlin, and he gave this really just overarching talk about, these are the things we need to think about when we talk about the metaverse. And it’s given me so much to think about with like, there’s all this talk about how the metaverse is going to be the future of the internet and the future of the workplace. But then hearing people talk about it in this conference, seeing the reality that the current metaverse is. First of all, there’s no one metaverse, there’s multiple metaverses. And-

Harrison Wheeler:
Metaverses. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Metaverses. The multi-metaverse, I guess. But there’s dozens to hundreds of them and that we’ve actually already experienced some versions of metaverses, even though they haven’t been called that. And the one that they pointed to most that got me was Foursquare. So Foursquare circa 2010. Because what it was is that you had this information layer of data layered on top of real world maps and things like that. You could get these badges that were not really NFTs but were because they could really only belong to one person or certain people. And it’s interesting when you think about the concept of Foursquare badges.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re kind of like these prototypes of what NFTs are in a way. Because for this metaverse conference I went to, they were like, oh, everyone gets a free NFT. And I was like, what do I do with that? They sent me an email like, here is how you claim your NFT. Okay, and do what with it? But the NFT was issued. They issued it through something called a POAP, P-O-A-P, proof of attendance protocol. And so it essentially was a badge that said you attended this conference at this time. And I’m like, oh, I can’t do anything with this.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s, I guess, good to have. They were like, oh, well, you can connect it to your blockchain wall. And then they just lost me after that. I was like, I don’t know what to do with it after that. But-

Harrison Wheeler:
Look, I will say this, I’ve been dabbling into it. So I think what’s really interesting about this is, for one, the Foursquare thing really blows my mind, but it totally makes sense in a way. And I think if you’re going to learn about the metaverse, you should understand how the blockchain plays a role in it, where the NFT plays a role in terms of maybe something that you get to keep that identifies that you were there or not. I think it’s all extremely fascinating and it seems like even I haven’t heard of it, like the proof of attendance. But even that is super fascinating. Because now you can think of, I always think about it like this. It’s like when we were growing up, if we went to a basketball game or we went to a concert, we had a paper ticket, we might frame it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
And now everything is like a digital thing on your iPhone or your Android device, and you can’t really do anything with that. And so I think nowadays it’s like, huh, if I go to a concert, I have a token or I have an NFT from it. And maybe if that’s tied to Ethereum or whatever digital coin, then that can be valued over time. I think it’s really interesting that you’ve got this economy. It really adds another layer to like, hey, who are you? Oh, I’m famous on the internet. Because yeah, we were talking about this before, you got people that can make $300,000 in a week, millions in a month just selling NFTs online. Never do a gallery show. Not in a museum. I think it’s super fascinating.

Maurice Cherry:
The other part that’s super fascinating too is, for many people, the entry point into the metaverse are NFTs, like we’ve mentioned. But what I saw from this conference with there being these multiple metaverses is that there’s a huge problem with interoperability. So there’s all these metaverses. But if you buy NFT, for example, and it’s locked to a particular metaverse, you can’t necessarily … Or it’s minted with a certain metaverse, I guess that’s the terminology. But you can’t use it with another metaverse. And they were like, oh yeah, it’s like if you go to Foot Locker and buy shoes, but you can only wear them in the store. And so they’re thinking of like, well, what are ways that we can tie some intrinsic, real world value to an NFT to make it more of a lucrative thing?

Maurice Cherry:
But I mean, this conference touched on land ownership in the metaverse, it touched on things about digital wellbeing, cultural appropriation. Because one thing with being in the metaverse is that you’re represented by an avatar. But these avatars, well, of course we’ll, I think just like regular avatars that we see in terms of profile pictures and things, are not wholly representative of the diversity of body size and gender expression and race and ethnicity. You know what I’m saying?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I saw from looking at all this was like, oh, this is a huge opportunity for POC designers or particularly black designers to really try to get in on the ground floor of this and find a way to carve a niche in. Because I could easily see how we could get left behind in some digital divide sort of way. I mean, the fact that Facebook has renamed itself to meta, to subconsciously … And that was the other thing that I thought was great. Is that everyone on the entire conference was just shitting on Facebook. They were just like, what meta is doing is insidious. Because people are going to think metaverse and think that Facebook is the-

Harrison Wheeler:
Brand association.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Brand association. They’re going to think that they are the company that is the underpinning of the entire metaverse, when that is not the case. And the other thing about how even experiencing the metaverse is not something that you necessarily have to do through a $300 VR headset or something like that. So it was such an interesting conference. I’m going to have to go back and listen to some of the different talks from it. Because it really got me to thinking about, well, what is our place going to be in this new internet or whatever that they’re trying to call it. Because another portion of this was, how do we make sure we don’t carry over the issues from the current internet into the metaverse in terms of trolling and all of that sort of stuff. People don’t have any of this stuff figured out.

Harrison Wheeler:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
By a long shot. And the actual infrastructure for it can’t even support everyone like the internet can largely support people. Maybe hundreds of users per server. Some workplace metaverse situations can maybe only support about two dozen people. It’s not a revolutionary thing, by far.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But people are throwing enough money at it that it almost feels like it’s a possibility. It reminded me a bit of the Million Dollar Homepage during this one particular talk. And for people that are listing that don’t know, back in the day, there was … Actually, I think the Million Dollar Homepage is still up. You went to this site and people basically bought pixels to be represented on the page. I think it was like a dollar per pixel. And so the goal, I guess, of it was to have a webpage that was worth a million dollars. But there were people in one of the talks that were buying up plots of land in a metaverse for thousands of dollars. This one person bought a 300 square meter plot of land for $10,000 in one of the talks. And I was just like, what are you going to do with that?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You just had $10,000 sitting around one afternoon in the metaverse like, you know what? I’m just going to buy this plot of land. What are you going to put on it?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Who can visit it? It’s abstract in that way where you’re like, this doesn’t make any sense. But there are so many smaller companies that are trying to get in on this before the “brands” get in on it. I.E, a Facebook/meta.

Harrison Wheeler:
Well, I think Nike or Adidas actually, they’re launching their own concept of a metaverse. So it’s already starting to happen.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s already starting to happen. And it’s definitely at a point where, like I said, I can feel like we could be left behind in that. So I don’t know. One thing that I’m going to try to do this year on the show is bring on some designers that are doing NFTs, just to try to get the audience that listens to the show up on like, what is it and how can we get involved? Because I see it. I was in this conference and I was just like, I can see the future and we could very easily be left behind. Because the fervor around the metaverse reminded me so much of late ’90s, early 2000s internet. Before internet advertising really became a big thing and companies trying to figure out, well, how can I conduct business on the internet?

Maurice Cherry:
Now it’s like, how can I conduct business on the metaverse? The same conversations, you just swap out internet for metaverse. How are we going to work on the internet? Email, what is that? Now it’s like, how are we going to work on the metaverse? It’s the same conversation, different times. And I’m just like …

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know if anyone’s seen it, but there’s this old clip of Bryant Gumbel talk from the Today Show.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know the exactly one you’re talking. It’s Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric pontificating about email or something.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. That’s going to be this episode. What is web 3.0 in NFTs, in blockchain, and all of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I hope there are entry points where the barriers aren’t as expensive as it is right now. Because I think for me, I’ve been dabbling.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve been trying to explore, how do you get an NFT project off the ground? I’ve bought a few NFTs myself. And for anybody that has bought an NFT, having to do the wallet thing and then the gas fees, it’s not cheap. And so-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
… to even get in the game to play, I think it still requires a decent amount of capital to really participate. So I hope there’s a bit more development, like you said, and ways for folks to get involved before the massive wave that folks are talking about actually happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think it will happen. Because honestly, again, thinking back to early 2000s, one of the things about, well, how are people really going to get onto the internet? Oh, well, you can use a personal computer. So people were thinking about things like that. But then there were also any different number of web enabled. Like smartphone devices, you had BlackBerries, you had Treos, you had Palm. I’m really dating myself now. But you had all these personal things that were like, oh, we can get on the internet. And on this little device that’s in the palm of my hand. Things like that. So, oh, man.

Harrison Wheeler:
The World Wide Web. I think we were still calling it the World Wide Web back then.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We very much were still calling it the World Wide Web. So it’s happening. It’s happening, but-

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s the meta wide verse.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of web 3, I think that’s another thing. Because back then, this conversation was happening around the time prior to web 2.0, because web 1.0 hadn’t really been named as such. But web 2.0 really came about with the advent of social media and user generated content. And now with web 3, it’s decentralized, it’s the blockchain. And I’m actually going to a web 3 conference in January. I think it may have passed by the time this episode airs, but people can definitely look it up. I’m pretty sure there’ll be more web 3 conferences in the future. Because I’m like, I want to know where we are going to get in on this.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So much of what we’ve done now has been steeped in web 2.0. Like, where do we get in on this next thing?

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. It’s real interesting that you talk about that. You mentioned Second Life and Second Life was around before web 2.0. And this is the same story. We are now at a point where the ideas and technology are now at a crossroads. They are finally intersecting. And so I always think of, we were talking about the Palms and the Treos, but then once we got processors and graphic interface that were fast enough, then that’s when we got the iPhone. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, this is another one of those moments where the price of headsets are significantly cheaper than they were before. Now we’ve got this blockchain technology, we now have these different currencies that you can use in these different worlds. And so it feels like everything is there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. With metaverse and cryptocurrency and all of this starting to mesh together, I can see where it confuses a lot of people. But also, this is happening. It’s not a, oh well, maybe. No, it’s happening and it’s happening right under our noses. I mean, this sounds almost apocalyptic in a way, but it’s happening. It’s happening and it’s either you need to figure out where you fit in in this or you get left behind.

Harrison Wheeler:
Or you’re going to be the 50-year-old on TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or you’re going to be like my mom who is completely tech averse. And it’s like, I give her a cell phone and she turns it off until I have to tell her when I’m calling. Like that sort of thing. Because, I don’t want to get tracked, I don’t want them tracking me. I’m like, okay. But it’s getting to that. I see it getting there. And yeah, I could even see smart phones starting to do more with VR and AR and mixed reality, which we’re even starting to see with Google. Google has their maps that layer their own way. Finding on top of what you view out in the camera. It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
It’s happening.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s happening.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. No, it’s definitely happening. I think in the tech sense, it feels like that moment when the iPhone came out, if folks can remember. People see what the possibilities are, people are doing a lot of experimentation. People are okay if it works and if it doesn’t, and I think that’s the way to do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to work. I think it’s good to see folks really doubling down to really push the boundaries. And so I will say, for anybody listening that is well versed in all of this, definitely tweet myself and Maurice and let us know if we are getting the solid good grasp on it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Please do. I don’t want to be sounding crazy out here, but I also want to make sure we’re informed because we both have our respective audiences too. We want to make sure that people are being informed about what this next thing is because it’s coming. And we either need to find a way to become a part of it, or once again, just get left behind with it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, we’ve discussed all of this. What do you see as the future of design and business?

Harrison Wheeler:
Oh, that is a million dollar webpage right there. I have many thoughts on this. We’ve been working from home for the past couple of years, so I’ve had an opportunity to really do a bit of introspection and really thinking about the conversations that we’re having. If we reflect, again, when I first started working in tech, when I first started doing web design, when I first started doing graphic design, I think the foundations and the way that we approach the craft, I think those foundations really still exists. But I think in terms of what we need to be conscious of to create inclusive environments, whether it be around make ups of team, we had talked about the different working spaces that people are in, thinking about what the consequences of design decisions are. Shout out to Ron, he actually just did a talk on consequence design. I think he was also a guest on your show, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. Ron Bronson. He is cool. Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So I can keep going. We talk about equity, we talk about bias and whatnot. The list of things that we have to be conscious of, even on the business sense of things, research. I mean, I could keep going. I personally do not think a single designer is going to be able to comprehend all of that. But it is also very important to the work and central to the work that we do. And so moving forward, the industry itself, and that’s not just design, but we’ve got to say, hey, look, some of these things are not just in the discipline of design. We should be having design. We should be thinking and all encompassing about the elements that play a role in design across different business areas. This means your CEO should understand it. This means your product managers, engineers, they should understand it.

Harrison Wheeler:
How can we bring these types of things into the schools that they’re working at, into the conferences that they’re going into, because it’s a lot to put on the shoulders of design. And I think that if folks can really understand what the value is, we’re seeing a lot of growth now, I think the growth of the industry could honestly double. Most people you talk to, they’re always like, man, we need more designers. I’ve never heard of a situation where it’s like, we got too many designers.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so I think it’s really important for our industry to start really transforming the discussion there and thinking about design as an afterthought. If we’re still talking about design getting a seat at the table, I mean, that’s some web 2.0 stuff. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Harrison Wheeler:
We got to have organizations that are design centric. And so that’s where I see it going. I mean, I think whether it’s on the metaverse, whether it’s on web 3, virtual reality, augmented reality, the way that we operationalize still to this certain point needs to be the responsibility of everybody. And so I think that is where I see design going. I know that’s not a super trendy answer, but I think organizations really do have to do a better job of just thinking design is a service. I think there are some companies that are doing really great things, but I don’t want that to necessarily think that the industry as a whole is evolving. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the best career advice that you’ve gotten?

Harrison Wheeler:
I don’t know. This is tough. Because I think some of the best career advice I’ve had is super simple, it’s the matter of me executing. But yeah. I mean, I think honestly, it really comes down to asking questions. Being curious, asking questions. And I think the question piece is not necessarily in a place where you are not in a normal onboarding sense, but questioning why things are the way that they are. Why are they the way that they are? Because I think we’ve operated so long in a world where we don’t question those things and we have to deal with the consequences. And the consequences may directly, indirectly affect us. Or we are around a bunch of folks that don’t care. And that in itself is already destructive in its nature.

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

Harrison Wheeler:
You’re bringing out all the hard questions. To be honest, I have not thought about that. So we have the former CEO or co-founder of LinkedIn coin this term called tour duty. I’m not one for military terms in a workplace environment. I think that’s extremely unhealthy and anxiety inducing, especially just given, again, just how crazy the past few years have been. People are definitely feeling it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Harrison Wheeler:
But I think the idea around is really being on a path of, I don’t know, learning, a journey. And I think for me, I mean, I talked about this before. I think being able to transform an organization to be able to think about design, kind of like how I had mentioned in the question earlier. For me, that’s the mission that I’m on right now. And it’s great to really see the progress of it. In that sense, I don’t know what’s on the docket five years from now. I would love to lead the team. But I will say that I also get super excited about Technically Speaking. Moving into technically the third calendar year of the project, I will say that I’m looking forward to just iterating on it. So definitely more guests, more episodes. I’ll be introducing some writing, a lot of really cool mini project on that. So definitely stay tuned. That’s on technicallyspeakinghw.com.

Harrison Wheeler:
I’ve really started to look back at some of my older work. I think for so long I had this thought that my writing wasn’t good enough. And so I’ve been bringing back a lot of things that I’ve written down in notebooks or in notes or in slide decks that I never presented because I didn’t think it was there or somebody told me it wasn’t all the way there. I was like, man, this stuff is really good. And so I might have a book that comes out. I love talking about management. I love talking about how it can be more conscious around the things that we’re doing. I love having discussions around different tactics you can have. Because in my journey, I didn’t really have much of that.

Harrison Wheeler:
And so, I would really love to have something that the next generation of managers can have in their toolkit. And they don’t have to use it, but at least it helps them start to think about ways they can do things that are authentically them, that represents their nature and really helps build a healthy community around what they’re doing.

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

Harrison Wheeler:
Yeah. So you can look at my random tweets on Twitter, twitter.com/H-M-W-H-E-E-L-E. And then for the show, it’s called Technically Speaking, so that’s available wherever. Technically Speaking with Harrison Wheeler. So that’s available wherever you listen to podcast. And then on social media, if you follow Technically Speaking HW on Instagram and LinkedIn you should be able to find us there and at technicallyspeakinghw.com. So just remember Technically Speaking HW and you should be able to figure it out. And of course, you can find me on LinkedIn @harrisonwheeler. So feel free to connect. As I mentioned before, I’ll be looking at hiring a couple of roles. They should be up by the time this episode is live. So feel free to reach out if you’re interested. And of course, we’re always hiring designers, design managers, researchers, project managers, product operations, all that. So definitely check out the job listings on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, like you said, companies are always looking for designers. Right?

Harrison Wheeler:
100%.

Maurice Cherry:
Harrison Wheeler, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been, I just have to say from a personal standpoint, it’s been so great seeing your growth and your progression since we first met back in 2016 up to now, and just how much you’ve managed to do. I mean, in your personal career and especially what you’re doing at LinkedIn, but also now branching out into podcasting and really putting that message forward and opening up more opportunities for other people to tell their stories. I think it’s such a natural extension of just the amount of patience and I think thoughtfulness that you bring to your work. So I’m excited to see what you do certainly for the next five years. And again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Harrison Wheeler:
Appreciate you, Maurice. Have a good one.

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

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

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

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Charlene Atlas

The introduction of the metaverse to the general public was one of the biggest topics in tech last year. As we all learn more about the metaverse and what it means for the future of the Internet, I thought it would be a fantastic idea this year to talk with some of the folks out there who are involved with the metaverse in some capacity.

Meet Charlene Atlas, an interaction designer for undoubtedly one of the biggest companies to stake their claim in the metaverse — Meta. We started off our conversation talking about her resolutions for this year, and she spoke about her work on the Reality Labs team. From there, we discussed the metaverse and some of Meta’s plans, and Charlene shared how she became interested in technology, gaming, and eventually got into the AR/VR space.

Charlene is just one of many people who are helping to create the future of the Internet, so I hope you get inspired by her work and discover a way to chart your own course!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Charlene Atlas:
Hi, my name is Charlene Atlas and I am on a mission to break our content free from flat screens. As an interaction designer in Reality Labs research at Meta, formally Facebook, I work with scientists, researchers, and engineers to envision and create the far future of virtual and augmented reality.

Maurice Cherry:
Break our content free from flat screens, I like that. It’s funny, I’ve had some folks on the show before that have done AR and VR, mixed reality. And I always keep bringing this up about, I don’t know if you remember this television show in the ’90s called VR Troopers.

Charlene Atlas:
No, I’m not familiar.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, people that listen to the show are probably tired of me mentioning it. But there was this show called VR Troopers, very much in the same vein of a Power Rangers, it was very much like a Japanese like Sentai, Karate Kid show. And they were basically these kids that fought in virtual reality. It’s so interesting because I think about that time and then I think about the topics that are discussed now around virtual reality and the metaverse and how that was fiction when we were kids. And now it’s reality as adults, which is just wild to think of.

Charlene Atlas:
There’s a lot of things that we thought in the past we couldn’t do you that we can do now. And so I’m hoping that in the future too we can achieve the impossible, what we think is impossible now, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
So we’re recording this right before the new year, just so folks know. But I’m curious to know, how has 2021 been for you, any grand discoveries or anything like that?

Charlene Atlas:
Well, it’s been pretty interesting for me because in late 2020, I had my first child in September.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, thank you. So he’s about 14 months old now. So it’s been a pretty interesting year for my husband and I, having our first kid. And he’s just changing so much every day and it’s great to watch him grow. And doing that all during the pandemic has definitely been another layer of challenge and adventure. But we’re doing good. Yeah, thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. I guess going forward, thinking about 2022, do you have any particular plans or resolutions or anything?

Charlene Atlas:
I think the main thing for 2022 is that we really want to see our families. So none of our family has actually met our son yet. So really want to figure out all of this pandemic stuff and be able to see our families back home.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine that’s, oh, wow, with a new baby. I’m sure your parents and other family and stuff. And then his his dad’s parents also probably want to see him too because wow. Hopefully you all can make that happen.

Charlene Atlas:
Thank you. With his age, he can’t get vaccinated, that kind of thing. And then you have older parents and so it’s like, it’s not the best combination for the current situation. But I feel hopeful that we’ll get to see each other next year.

Maurice Cherry:
Fingers crossed, I hope that happens for you, I really do. So you work as an interaction designer at Meta, which, of course, most people know about as its former name, Facebook. What does interaction design mean at Meta in terms of the work that you do?

Charlene Atlas:
So I’m particularly in Reality Labs, the organization that focuses on augmented and virtual reality. And within that, I’m in the research organization. So even though I’m called an interaction designer, it’s different from what you might assume of web design or 2D interface design. It’s more about how are we going to interact with this new medium of virtual and augment interfaces. And so that’s what I mean when I say interaction designer. My team that I work on with research design is a different field from product design, in that you’re not focusing on making a product that you’ll then release in a few years, it’s more that you are working directly with scientists and engineers who are making completely new technologies to look at what is the user value, potential user value in the future of these technologies, what are things we could change to have more impact in the future, and maybe even what are new technologies we should invent to really meet the needs of people in the five to 10 year timeframe.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine it’s probably really interesting to think that far out as it relates to technology and what you want to accomplish and things of that nature. What does a typical day look like for you?

Charlene Atlas:
I’m involved in a lot of different projects. And so of course there’s meetings with the research teams, there’s doing the usual designer things of making specifications for how an experience should be built. So we build experiences that use some of these new technologies. We often also have to build what we call time machines, so this idea of creating an experience that’s simulating things that we expect will exist in the future so that we can better evaluate things that we want to create. So there’s a lot of prototyping and also a lot of writing. So at Meta in general, we value writing a lot. So there’s a lot of writing of what are people’s future visions, what are ways to approach work. Also if you have any new ideas, you usually have to write a one pager of some kind to start getting traction around it. So it’s mostly a lot of writing, making mock-ups, talking with researchers to understand what question we need to answer to really get the technology in the right direction to really make the impact we want to have in the world in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about Reality Labs. You mentioned a bit about what the makeup of the team is and I guess the technology that it works on. But can you just go a little bit more in depth about that?

Charlene Atlas:
So rally labs, so we have more of the product side that focuses on our current work. So things like the Meta Quest, Meta Quest 2, VR devices that we have out in the wild. But then the research side, we have a lot of different research teams inside that focus on a variety of topics like graphics. So cutting edge graphics research, optical research, display systems, perception science, like how do people perceive what they’re seeing. So we really have a team for each piece of what we think will be necessary to build the future for VR and AR that can really become the next wave of technology for the world.

Charlene Atlas:
So if you think about that shift that happened from command line interfaces to the GUI, that’s the level of shift that we’re trying to make with AR/VR in the future. So basically we’re trying to cover all of the different senses that humans have, all the different things that people might need to be able to do. We have world class researchers in each of those areas that we can work directly with and see how we can put all that together into something that can hopefully be a transformational change in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the metaverse which Facebook debuted at Facebook Connects a few months back. On a high level, so our audience can understand it and also so I can understand it, what is the metaverse?

Charlene Atlas:
The metaverse, as we’ve talked about in the public, is an embodied internet. So this idea of connecting with people that you care about and really feeling present with them is one of the key pieces of it. And this isn’t something that is limited just to my work in AR/VR, but it’s really something that exists and can be accessed by lots of different devices. Just like now, we are in a call or if we’re in a video call or if you’re on the internet, there’s lots of different ways to access the internet and lots of different ways to join a call or what have you. So it is really about putting the pieces in place so that we can move beyond where we are right now with just having these mediated surfaces right between us and instead feeling like we are together and can really engage as we would in real life.

Maurice Cherry:
So it’s really just like, and then correct me if I’m wrong here, it sounds just like a natural extension or progression of say the internet that we know now.

Charlene Atlas:
If you think about the internet now even this isn’t real, what we’re doing now. It’s being replicated, there’s so many steps of audio being replicated and represented. So really we have our senses, we interpret what we receive and we feel or have a sense for what’s going on. And that’s the same thing with a metaverse, is just that it’s something that’s going to take years to build just because of the scale of what we’re trying to do. But you can think of it as that next step of how do we really feel like we’re together. This is a huge leap, what we’re doing right now of what it was like decades ago. So that’s the leap that we want to make into the future.

Maurice Cherry:
As you said, that reminded me of the scene in the matrix where Neo goes to meet the Oracle for the first time. So Neo goes to meet the Oracle and before he meets her, he has to sit in this little waiting area. There’s this kid that’s bending these spoons. You know what I’m talking about, this part of the movie?

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, I remember [inaudible 00:12:16].

Maurice Cherry:
And the kid picks up the spoon, he picks up the spoon and then he hands it. Well, he bends it then he hands it to Neo. The kid is like, “Don’t try to bend the spoon, instead try to bend yourself and then you’ll realize that there is no spoon.” So for me, I’m going a little esoteric here, so bear with me, to me, the way that I think about that with the metaverse is that just like how you’re saying this isn’t real because of the recreation of voice across electrons and distance. We’re not talking really in real time, it’s like a simulation of that. So when you think about the metaverse and that extension of that, it’s taking what we already know now with the internet and it’s ways and culture and stuff like that, I would imagine. And thinking about what that means on just a grander scale.

Charlene Atlas:
It’s helpful to think about, what are the barriers that exist now? And going back to your question before for of, how do you project that into the future? That’s part of what we think about. Is like, what are the things that people have issues with now? What are the technologies that exist that are on track to land at certain points in the future? And so then now knowing those technologies are going to be in place, what can we enable for people? What are the experiences we can enable? And these are experiences that, as I said, it’s not going to be that you can only access it on a particular device. It’s going to be, anyone can access it on their own device, in their own way. And all of those different access points have to be available experience for people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad you mentioned that about the access. Because what I remember from Connect is that most people were using the Meta Quests 2, which people know also as the Oculus Quest 2, that was its old name. But people have seen that device in terms of, oh, this is how folks are accessing it. And like you said, there’s going to be different ways to do it in the future because the Meta Quests 2 is, of course, not the only device that you can use to access virtual reality and stuff. You can use a cell phone or you could use another device from another company or something like that. So it sounds like as this builds out into the future, there’ll hopefully be more of a, I don’t know, like democratization of technology to access it. But I don’t know if that necessarily all has to stem from Meta, it sounds like.

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, right. And as we’ve said, in the different releases, we’re not trying to… It’s not that it’s like we are making the metaverse and nobody else is. We’re building for the metaverse, we’re getting ready, we’re getting ready for us all to be at that point. Just like the internet isn’t owned by any particular company.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s helpful to think about it that way, in that Meta is building for the metaverse and that Meta is not creating the metaverse. I’m trying to make sure I get that distinction down.

Charlene Atlas:
This is like nobody is making the internet. Yeah, exactly. You’ve got it.

Maurice Cherry:
I get it, I get it. I’ve been around on the web for a long time. And I remember even in the early days of the web going from web 1.0 to web 2.0, just the big shift, especially as it related to social media and how do we communicate with each other now in these new ways that we didn’t before. Because web 1.0, and I’m dating myself here, it was basically just research. All you did was just look up things and read them. Email existed back then, but it was in a very rudimentary state. And there certainly weren’t a lot of social spaces unless you thought about maybe a forum or Usenet or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And then social media really started to take hold, let’s say what, maybe in the mid 2000s or so with Facebook being one of them, but Twitter and other things. And then as those platforms and experiences grew, this whole other culture arose with it as these things grew. So I see now, it sounds like we’re starting to transition from web 2.0 to web 3.0 or web 3 with the metaverse. There’s going to also be that same type of culture change in a way.

Charlene Atlas:
And definitely similar to what you just described happening on the internet, is what I hope at least will happen, and what we talk about a lot at work will happen in the metaverse of creators having the chance to create new things. That’s one of the reasons even that I’m a designer, is that I just love that you can put something out there and people can find new ways to use it and find new ways to express themselves. So I think it’s going to be really great for giving creators that chance to find new ways to express themselves.

Maurice Cherry:
And even with that expansion and culture, there’s a lot to think about in terms of just like… It’s weird for me to think about it this way because I distinctly remember how the web really clicked over from one to two. And now how it’s about to click over from two to three. I even from one to two, there were so many new things that were created with the advent of social media and user generated content. The whole economy around online advertising, that’s a whole industry that did not really exist in 2000. And now you do Google ads or whatever. There are people that have made millions just off of advertising on the internet. Now you can think of, with the metaverse, there could be different economic opportunities like that, or how do brands get in on this? And what about intellectual property and all this stuff? Like how do you factor in all those considerations in your work?

Charlene Atlas:
Some of the things we’re doing now that are a peek into the future is that Spark AR. So we do have AR that you can do face filters, that kind of thing on your phone. And we recently hit 700,000 creators on that platform. So people are already finding new ways to use these new mediums to create. As far as all these other things that we have to consider that you mentioned, something I’m really proud of that our group has done is release our responsible innovation principles that you can look up online. So we’re really laying out these are the principles we’re going to have as we build this new thing. Because we know that there’s going to be all of these questions and we want to build out in the open and we want to address things out in the open with everyone. So there’s definitely a lot to figure out and we’re doing our best to make sure we do it responsibly.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s so exciting to really think about the path that you all are really forging with this and to take all these considerations and things in mind. It’s interesting you mentioned that about Spark AR because I just saw a tutorial on TikTok, of all places, on how someone can easily make like an AR drawing, a Spark AR drawing using Procreate. So this person had a Procreate drawing. And for people listen, Procreate is a drawing application on the iPad. Basically they took those layers and dragged them into a Spark AR thing and was able to… It looked really easy. It was a TikTok, so they illustrated it in like 60 seconds. I was like, “Oh wow, you can easily make AR things just like this?” Yeah, I can see how that economy or even that just opportunity for creators to make new things in this space will really unfold. Especially once more people start to understand the technology, are able to get their hands on it and really just understand the possibilities behind what can be done.

Charlene Atlas:
You can download Spark right now and make stuff. I was making stuff the other week, just it’s pretty easy. So that’s really great, what you just mentioned because you never can fully imagine all the things that people might use it for. And it’s really great to watch people discover new ways, new mediums of art and expression.

Maurice Cherry:
So we’ve been talking about the metaverse, let’s bring it back to the real world. Let’s talk more about you because, of course, you’re the guest for this episode. So tell me more about where are you’re from, where did you grow up?

Charlene Atlas:
So I am from Maryland over on the East Coast and my family is from Haiti. So my parents are from Haiti and they met in New York and moved to Maryland and had my brother and I.

Maurice Cherry:
Growing up, were you exposed to a lot of technology?

Charlene Atlas:
I think my earliest memories are in school using a huge floppy disc to play games in the computer in the library, so there was that. My brother was really into video games and so I played a lot of games. It was through that playing games with my brother that really got me interested into technology. I really wanted to make games since I was pretty young because I just loved how much fun it was to play with him. I remember looking in the manuals back when there used to be manuals in the games, there’s a list of names there and it’s like, “Oh, I could do this? I could do this, make games?” So I just started a journey of trying to figure out how I could do that. And I wrote a letter to Sega asking what classes I could take all of these things. So it started me off there.

Maurice Cherry:
Did they write back to you?

Charlene Atlas:
They did. It was a really nice letter they sent. And they said take math and this and that. So when I went to high school, I actually did a science and technology magnet program that I got into for high school. So I did a lot of science and technology courses there.

Maurice Cherry:
Very cool. And of course that interest and passion eventually ended up leading you to USC, where you double majored in computer science games and East Asian languages and cultures. That sounds like quite a course load. Tell me about your time there, what was that like?

Charlene Atlas:
It was pretty interesting because… well first of all, I applied and accepted without ever visiting it. Because I was living in with Maryland and I was applying to schools. And this school, they had this computer science program that focused in games. And it wasn’t even that they had it yet, it was going to be ready in a year, and so I’d have to do the regular computer science and transfer into it. But I was just so excited to be able to go to a four year university where I could learn about other things, and East Asian languages as my other passion as well, and get to focus on making games. And it’s this great program, it’s a joint program between the cinema school and the computer science school. So I just was like, “I have to go there.”

Charlene Atlas:
Then I also was in marching band in high school and the USC Trojan Marching Band is one of the most famous bands around. I was like, “I got to be in this marching band.” So I convinced my parents like, “I got to go to this school.” And I went there. Something interesting is that I actually did get to go there before the school year started because I got into a program at USC for high school students for making games separately. So I went there over the summer, did the high school program, and then continued on to attend the school.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like doing the marching band at USC? Because they’re a pretty well known band, the Trojans, right?

Charlene Atlas:
Yes, Trojans. So yeah, it was definitely intense. It’s a full-time job almost, especially since I was in the drum line. I was in the drum line so there’s extra practices for drum line and then there’s practices for band. Then you’re getting up at 5:45 every Saturday before the games because you got to do practice in the morning, then you got to do the marching all the way to the stadium and doing performances on the way, then you got to do the pre-game, you got to do the halftime show, the post-game. So it was a lot of time and so it was tough doing the computer science major, the band, the East Asian languages with the focus in Japanese major. I did some part-time work to help pay for school. So it was pretty busy, but it was so fun being in the band. And I got to do all kinds of…

Charlene Atlas:
In addition to doing the Rose Bowl, going to the Rose Bowl four times in the Rose Parade four times, I was able to also do various LA gigs, since we’re known as Hollywood’s band. So I’ve been on the Grammy’s, I’ve been on BET Awards, game shows, and stuff. So it was just a really interesting thing to be doing in college and just getting to have these experiences.

Maurice Cherry:
And then on top of that, you also even got a chance to study abroad too.

Charlene Atlas:
So I did take five years to finish because with the two majors plus I went to study abroad in Tokyo. So went to Jochi Daigaku, which in English they referred to it as Sophia University. And it was really fun. I stayed with the host family, I took my classes. The classes were pretty hard, maybe I shouldn’t have studied so much, I should have traveled around. But I was like, there was a lot of classes that I was taking in addition to Japanese language. So it was fun, a great learning experience. And I assumed that I would be back, I always thought I would live in Japan long term. But it was a lot of fun and it was great to reconnect to Japan because I had also gone there in high school as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, what brought you there in high school?

Charlene Atlas:
So my school in Greenbelt, Maryland, I basically had a sister school relationship with a school in Japan. And it’s called Yokohama Suiryo High School. Basically there’s an exchange program. So we would have exchange students come in and stay with us and we would sometimes stay over there. So basically every summer, there would be a trip to Japan. So one of the years I went. And the years that I went, one of my friends actually convinced our Japanese teacher to take us on an extra part of the trip where we would bike across the country. So there’s this road called the Tokaido Road, and it’s an old route and has a lot of historical significance. There’s an art print series that’s based on it. In any case, my teacher had done that trip with someone before because it’s a trip that people just take either walking or biking. And my friend convinced him to take us on it. I don’t know how he got the approvals for it, but he basically took us, a bunch of 15 year olds, across the country for two weeks on bikes, 400 miles.

Charlene Atlas:
That was really, I think, a turning point in my life because I had never biked more than a block before, then I had to bike 400 miles. So it was important for me and then also honestly to help my relationship with my father. Because my father was like, “You can’t do this.” After the first practice ride, I was collapsing into his car. He drove a cab at the time, so I get in the back of his cab and I’m like, “My legs.” And we’ve only gone like four miles and he’s like, “You can’t go to Japan, you’re going to hold people back.” All of this, he’s saying all this stuff.

Charlene Atlas:
But then we came back and my teacher told them how well I did. We did tons of practice rides basically before we went. So I got so much better and my teacher was like, “Hey, she really can do this.” My teacher, Mr. Suison, I can’t thank him enough. He really convinced my dad and showed him she can do these things. And ever since then, he’s behind me 100% for anything that I do, including when I said I needed to go across the country to USC. So that was helpful.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s quite an experience. I’d imagine that really builds fortitude, especially in high school.

Charlene Atlas:
And it’s pretty hilly at certain parts. Have you ever seen those Japanese prints with the huge mountain? It’s extreme in the picture, but we were on that thing. So it was pretty hard, but I really of tried to push through. Around that time, Eminem’s Lose Yourself song was popular. And so I was just repeating that in my head like, “This is your shot. Come on, this is your opportunity.” I’m just trying to get through.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like a Gatorade commercial or something.

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s really helped me, I always feel like I can do anything.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, as I did my research for the interview and saw you had a lot of great experiences in college. I can imagine even just doing the band is a lot, with all of the different appearances that you had to do. But studying abroad. One thing that I mentioned before we started recording is that you interned at NASA in college. I interned at two NASA facilities in college as well. What was your internship experience like there?

Charlene Atlas:
Actually my internship was during high school. So my high school, that I mentioned Ellen Roosevelt, it had, as part of the science and tech magnet program that I was in, you had to do a senior project. And you could do it either as your own project or as an internship. And fortunately, right next to my school is NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. So I was able to do a computer science internship there, that was really cool. I’ve always loved space, and so it was great to work there. I worked in the cryogenics lab. And basically what they do is they reduce the temperature on sensors. It’s a technology for reducing temperature on sensors so that they can be sensitive enough to receive what the sensors need to receive from space. So the intention is that these things would be sent out into space and they need to be kept cold enough to do their job basically.

Charlene Atlas:
So the project was to… They had this program running their machine, their cryo machine, and it was called a, what was it called? It’s a very long name, it was like adiabatic demagnetization refrigerators or something like that. They were running this program on it, but it was super slow. So my project was to rewrite it all in LabVIEW, which is this sciencey way of doing programming, a visual programming language. I think they were using, I forgot what they were using before, but… So I rewrote it and it worked a lot faster and they were so happy. It was supposed to actually get sent to space, but then all of the funding got pulled. I think something about George Bush happened and then all the funding was pulled for all of their stuff. But that almost got to go to space. But later on, a holo lens was sent into space with some of my work on it. So I feel like I’ve been vindicated there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s so interesting. When I interned at NASA in college, I did two internships. I did one at AMS, which is out in Moffett Field near Mountain View. What was interesting is I interned there and it was around the… I think when I got there, first of all, it was my first time in California, but I got there and I remember people on the NASA campus where buzzing about this new search engine called Google, have you heard of it? I remember all of that because it was right around, it was summer in 2000. And people were really buzzing about this new, yes, this new thing it’s down in Mountain View called Google or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Then I did Marshall Space Flight Center in Normal, Alabama, my junior year. But then they also pulled the funding for our program because 911 happened. So they pulled it and then the funding went towards Homeland Security. So the goal initially was oh, you intern at these two places. And then when you graduate you’re set up to work for NASA, that was what I was going to do. But then they pulled the funding and it’s like, well, sorry, good luck. I’m trying to find something now. So that’s interesting that that ended up happening or a similar thing. I don’t know, maybe this might have coincided around the same time, I don’t know. That’s really interesting.

Charlene Atlas:
Because I graduated around, let’s see, 2005 or something. So maybe, I don’t know. But I think probably it’s likely that projects funding gets pulled all the time maybe.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true.

Charlene Atlas:
[crosstalk 00:31:35].

Maurice Cherry:
There’s one thing that NASA is really known for, is not getting a lot of funding. So that makes sense actually. While you were in college, you got a chance to intern at a gaming company, Electronic Arts. Was that your first foray into really working on games in that way?

Charlene Atlas:
Yeah, it was great. I went down to San Francisco area, worked at Electronic Arts. And yeah, it was my first gaming company job. So I was a software quality assurance test intern. So basically testing the game, creating automation, and doing programming for testing the game and improving the quality. It was really fun, I worked on, let’s see, I think I worked on SimAnimals on the Wii, and a little bit on Dante’s Inferno. It was a great experience to get that chance. I guess a similar situation what you just described, they were going to hire me full time. They were saying like, “Oh, we’ll come back to you and hire full time.” But then they froze hiring. So it was another thing where I felt like, oh, maybe I’ll work here, this will be where I work, but then it didn’t work out.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how that stuff ends up happening in college. And then for me, I had to scramble and find oh, well what’s going to be the thing that I end up doing? Because I was in school on a certain path like, yeah, I’m going to go this way, and then you get this big curve ball thrown at you. In your case though, you ended up getting hired by a pretty big tech company right around the time you graduated is that right?

Charlene Atlas:
Microsoft came to our campus, came to what we call the game pipe laboratory in the games major and talked with us and asked me if I would come interview. So I ended up working at Microsoft as a software development engineer in test or an STET, which is a role that they don’t have anymore. But basically the role, how they describe it, is that you are the last line of defense for the user in terms of the game. So working on Xbox, working on the Connect game. So connect is the first motion controller, if you remember it, of basically you could use your whole body to control the game. And so worked on the launch titles for that as my first work there.

Charlene Atlas:
And then while I was there, we started working on HoloLens. So HoloLens started and it was a pretty nascent project when I got involved, to the point that the test team was basically the only people who could run the demos. So I was involved in a lot of high level demos, just making sure things would go right and all of that. The HoloLens is basically a headset mixed reality computer. So while I was working on HoloLens, I actually switched to design, and I can get into that story if you want. But yeah, Microsoft was my first corporate gig.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about that because you were there for a little over eight years. So you had a long time to really settle into the work that you were doing. But you started out, as you mentioned, in engineering, you started out in engineering and then you transitioned to design, what brought that shift about?

Charlene Atlas:
So as I mentioned, the test role was advertised as you’re there to protect the consumer, you’re their advocate. Then while I was on HoloLens supporting HoloLens, my test team was assigned to the studio that had a really great design design team, and I started learning more about design. Also around this time, one of the creative directors in the org started posting pages from universal principles of design in the bathrooms for some reason, in the bathroom stalls. I was like, “What is this?” This is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read. Because if you know that book basically each page, you can learn this whole, a principle of design and how it’s shown in the real world. I was like, “This is amazing, what is it?” So a few things came together there.

Charlene Atlas:
I had also been looking into, how long do I want to stay in test? I started literally going around interviewing people who had been in the test field for 20 years to see, what are you all working on? I want to be you someday. And then after talking to them, I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” That’s what I’m doing now, but just on a bigger scope project. So all of these things came together and I just talked to my manager and I was like, “I think I want to switch design.” I talked to the creative director for the studio we were supporting about and he started giving me some tasks to do and I did well with those. I had been helping one of the designers with user tests. So having people come in and try out the application. And we started this list of metrics for how much people were enjoying it. And I really loved seeing those metrics like go up.

Charlene Atlas:
I was supposed to be in charge of putting in code into the build to collect data on how things were going, filing bugs, all of this. But I was like, “Who cares about the bugs if it’s not fun?” So I realized that I cared more about, and I always have cared about experience. But apparently at this moment I was like, “Oh, design is the one, this field design is the thing that I thought I was doing or that is accomplishing the goal that I actually have of making an experience for people that matters, that they feel, and that they have fun.” So they gave me a chance. And funnily enough, the creative director, he said part of the reason he gave me a chance was because I’m a musician. So he knew that I had at least some creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Charlene Atlas:
So I was like, “Oh, I’m glad I did that.” I guess, do music my whole life. So I interviewed and then I haven’t looked back. So that was back in… Basically I’d been in test for about four years and then 2015 or so is when I switched to design. So I got to work on the launch experiences for HoloLens and then go on to work on incubation projects and windows before I came to Meta.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting how something that you were doing as a, I don’t know if I would necessarily say it’s a hobby, but like another interest of yours, music, ended up being in a way this entry point for you into design. Which I think hopefully for people that are listening, illustrates how important it can be to be well rounded when it comes to the work that you do. It’s one thing, of course, to focus on what it is that you know, but then if you have these other interests, they can often guide you in many different ways. Like growing up, when you mentioned the science and tech stuff, I was captain of the maths leagues in high school, I majored in math in college, and I was also a musician. You mentioned musician, I was a session musician in my 20s and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting how eventually design ended up becoming my career, because I didn’t want to be a math teacher. I liked math, I didn’t like it that much to go and teach it. But I certainly liked it enough to get a degree in it, which that’s probably a whole other story. But it’s interesting how those other parts of yourself or those other interests and things that you have contributes or can contribute to other opportunities and things that you can pursue.

Charlene Atlas:
And that’s actually what I’ve always loved about game development because games are something where it’s a mixture of art and science. So I’ve always wanted to make sure I had a lot of interest and things I could pull from to create in my game development. Then I also feel like both music and design are about making people feel something. My approach to design is that I think of this magic moment of, what is this feeling I want to have someone experience by using this prototype or using this thing someday when it’s a product? What is that feeling I want them to have either in what they’re trying to do or connecting with someone else in this? Music is like that too, where you can make someone feel something. So I think it’s a really interesting connection that they have.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what are you excited about at the moment? This is probably a vague question considering what you’re doing with Meta and all of that. But what’s the thing that’s really exciting you right now?

Charlene Atlas:
Like the group that I’m in at work, an interaction design group that I talked about earlier, I think we really have an opportunity. And I think we’re go going down some really interesting pathways as to, how do we actually move forward? Like I said at the beginning, how do we move away from how we do computing right now? So I’m really excited about some things that we’ve released publicly recently on our tech blog about our tenure vision for AR and about some of the things we were building such as a haptic glove for being able to actually feel virtual objects, to wrist based interfaces that can be controlled by EMG or electromyography in your wrists so that you can do very simple interactions. So I think it’s just a really big opportunity we have to finally, after decades of doing things one way with computing, of keyboard and mouse and standard way of doing things, we actually have an opportunity to really improve just how we do things in general. So I’m just really excited to be a part of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, your career to date, just one, going through what we’ve discuss so far, has been super prolific working for Microsoft, working for Electronic Arts, and even all of your other activities with music and going to Japan and everything like that. As you look back at your career, who are some of the people that have like really stood out and have helped you as mentors?

Charlene Atlas:
What’s interesting, I’ve touched on some of them in this talk, which I guess is saying something. My teacher back in high school, Mr. Suison, who took us on that trip. He didn’t have to…. I assume he took on a lot of risk taking a group of teenagers across a foreign land. But that really helped develop me as a person and define me for a long time, so I really appreciate that. I mentioned that person who took a chance on me, Cameron brown. So the first creative director I had who hired me as a designer, and he really took a chance. I think there’s a lot of times in our lives when people just…

Charlene Atlas:
If you make the right connections, people will give you an opportunity that if you take that opportunity, it really can change the course of your life. I really appreciate being able to do this design work from that opportunity because it really is aligned with just how I think about how I want to make an impact in this world. So I really appreciate everyone who’s contributed to that. And really takes a lot of people over a long period of time to get us all to where we are right now.

Maurice Cherry:
If there’s someone that’s out there that’s listened to your story and they want to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Charlene Atlas:
Well, as far as following my footsteps, I think it’s really important to figure out what makes you excited and what makes you feel passion for what you’re doing. One of the things that got me the Microsoft job, I learned at some point, was that they really wanted me make sure I show the passion for what I’m doing. They gave me advice through the different rounds of like, “Make sure you show that your passionate for what you’re doing.” Because that really will drive everything you do after that, and so that’s what I focus on. I just focus on wanting to make… What is the impact I want to make? And how can I do that? And how can each day go towards that?

Charlene Atlas:
As far as getting into this field, the AR/VR field it’s surprisingly easy these days to really jump in and learn things. There’s Unity game engine for building experiences. For example, we actually have a program called Oculus Launchpad. So promising VR creators from underrepresented backgrounds, we actually give support to them to build experiences, put their products out there. So there’s a lot of resources at Meta for people to get involved. But there’s also just a lot out online. Spark AR that I mentioned, build something. So like in general, I would say figure out what your passion is and then actually start just doing something, bias towards action. So if you have an idea, build that idea. If you don’t know how to do it, figure out how to do it. There’s just so much you learn from just trying to build something. Because if you just try to learn a topic without actually building something, you’re going to be missing out on a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would have went into if you didn’t go into tech?

Charlene Atlas:
It’s interesting. I feel like depending on which point of my life we’re talking about, I think it would’ve been different. So I’ve always loved space, so sometimes I think about maybe even someday in the future, working more in the space field. I just really love the idea of humans going to another planet and all that. I don’t know how I would contribute necessarily at this point. But I just love that idea. Also with the interest in Japan, which stemmed from my interest in video games initially, I sometimes think about, I could have gone into, of course, with the other major, I could have gone into translation or being maybe a Japanese teacher. But probably if I was going to go down that path, I’d probably go into translation because I really loved the idea of helping people connect.

Charlene Atlas:
And that was one of the biggest things I learned from my exchange experience. Was when we would have students come visit us or we would visit them, we were all just high school students, we were all silly laughing high school students, even though we were from different countries and spoke different languages. That’s something I learned really early on about people, that we’re not as different as we think. So I love that idea of helping other people communicate between each other, even if they’re speaking a different language. So just in general, anything that involves connecting people is something that I would go into.

Charlene Atlas:
And I’ll just also say AR, VR, augmented reality, one of the things that excites me so much about it is this idea of being able to be present with people, like I talked about earlier. Basically I feel like AR, VR is the next best thing to teleportation. So I wish I could teleport to go see my family or go to places I haven’t been in a long time. But I feel like I’m working on the next best thing. So I guess also if teleportation ever becomes a thing, I would definitely work on that.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that about space because one, space is super, super interesting. But like right now, I feel like there’s this whole thing around governance of space. Because no one owns space, it’s space, nobody owns space. But you have the international space station, you have other countries that have launched satellites and things like that. And there’s tons of space junk just orbiting the planet or in the planet’s fairly low orbit or something like that. And it’s like there’s no real governance around space or cleaning up space, I mean space in terms of just what’s around the earth and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Because there have been some times I think this year where a couple of people were talking about, “Well, how come we can’t just take all the planet’s garbage and launch it into space?” I’m like, “That’s ridiculous.” If you think about it on a logistical level, humans create a lot of waste. Do you know how much time that’s going to take, how much fuel that’s going to take? And like just dumping it in space doesn’t solve the problem. Anyway, space is infinitely interesting. And I do feel there are a lot of opportunities there even with the whole new Space Force thing. But from research capability, certainly with other planets and things. But if earth is our home, which it is, then our yard is filthy, there’s toys and stuff, it’s a mess. So maybe, I don’t know, focus on that, I don’t know. But that’s a whole other thing.

Charlene Atlas:
I think space exploration and the work that we do on augmented reality, virtual reality relate in that there’s a lot of uncharted territory. That’s one of the things that make it really exciting right about space, is like, who knows what’s out there? We got to get there, we got to see stuff. And that’s what my group does. Is we got to go out there and figure this out. Because basically every day there’s a long list of unknowns that we’re dealing with and it’s just a very high ambiguity space. So honestly, it can be frustrating sometimes. But it’s also exciting because the potential for what we can learn is just so huge. And that’s what I like about both of those areas.

Maurice Cherry:
High ambiguity spaces are a lot of fun because you then really get to carve out what you want to do and figure things out. The fact that nothing is really concrete means that you can do what you want, but also establish rules and things. So I like working in those spaces, it’s really fun. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I think just based on the work that you’re doing, of course, it’s going to be future focus. But if you really could look into 2026, I think two, five, six, what kind of work do you see yourself doing or what work do you want to do?

Charlene Atlas:
Like I said, we work in the five to 10 year timeframe. And so I’m hoping that five years from now, we’ll be in a place where some of the things we’re working on have landed or we’ve figured out what we shouldn’t be doing. I just really want to be helping us get to that place where things are getting more defined and we’ve landed in a good place. So right now, I… So I’m an individual contributor, I don’t manage any people, but I do drive a lot of, what we call, cross group collaborations. Like you have an idea and you can drive it with a lot of different people.

Charlene Atlas:
So I would love to keep doing that work but at a greater scope. And just really helps carve out the strategy for how are we actually going to land this thing? Because even once we’ve figure out a lot of things like, “oh, we figured it out,” we have something in the lab that works, is great. But then it’s like, okay, now we really have the work do of how do we actually transfer it to something that people could actually use? So I think five years down the line, I’d love to be a leader in the organization that’s helping to find some major piece of this future we’re trying to create.

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

Charlene Atlas:
You can go to charleneatlas.com and on there you can also find the link to my LinkedIn. Definitely hit me up if you’re interested in working in Reality Labs. Also the tech.fb.com, the Tech Facebook blog has a lot of our latest research information posts.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Charlene Atlas, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. As I was doing my research for all this, and I mentioned to you before that I’m going to this metaverse conference thing tomorrow, that I’m super excited about. But as I was putting all this together and really just digging into your background, you have accomplished so much. It’s mind boggling to see the work that you’re doing now, and because it’s such an uncharted space. I hope that people will get a sense of your passion for this, as you’ve mentioned before, about people being passionate about this. I hope people get a sense of what your passion is for this. And hopefully that can fuel them to see what new possibilities might be out there for them, especially as we embark upon a new year. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Charlene Atlas:
Thank you so much, Maurice. It was great talking to you.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Alanna Flowers

2021 has been quite a year for us all, including this week’s guest Alanna Flowers. This year, she became a full-time creative and launched her own business, AGF Design Studio, and I had the chance to talk to her in the midst of her very busy holiday schedule.

Alanna gave me the rundown behind why she started her studio, how she plans to expand her services next year, and also gave some insight into her creative process. She also talked about growing up in NYC, the pros of art licensing, and how she builds her brand through social media.

Thank you all for listening to Revision Path this year — onward to 2022!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alanna Flowers:
Hi, my name’s Alanna Flowers. I’m a lettering artist and illustrator, based in Brooklyn, New York.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been for you so far?

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. This year has been unlike any other that I’ve had. Professionally and creatively it’s been really refreshing and really a big learning experience, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
In what ways?

Alanna Flowers:
Well, I’m a new freelancer. I started freelancing January 1st of this year, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Alanna Flowers:
I just jumped in feet first and, yeah. I’ve had so many rewarding experiences and I think, because I’m still so new, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, congratulations on striking out on your own like that.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
If you don’t mind me asking, what was the catalyst behind you deciding to do that?

Alanna Flowers:
I mean, everyone knows how things have been for the state of the world. So, the pandemic hits last year, and at that time I was a full-time in-house graphic designer/graphic design manager. I was reporting to work every day, working in downtown Manhattan. New York City’s a hotbed, but I reported to work. So, that was a challenge for me definitely. Then I guess as the whole year went on, I was really evaluating. I’m like, how can I start doing what I’m actually really passionate about? Because at that point I had already thought about maybe I want to strike out, even do something different, even if it wasn’t necessarily freelancing on my own. I knew that I just wanted something different. So, the pandemic was a humongous catalyst for reevaluating on all levels. So, yeah. I decided, I think midway through 2020, I’m just like, all right. I’m going to start saving this money that I’m making, and try to figure out something on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did, and you struck out on your own.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Since this is coming up at the end of the year, do you have any early plans or resolutions for 2022?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Geez. I’ve been thinking really hard about next year actually, because now I have something to base things on, because everything was very, well, we’ll see how this goes. So, now I actually have quantifiable metrics to base things off of. So, I have big goals for next year. I want to expand my services definitely, and just continue working with great brands and clients.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s talk more about your studio, which is called AGF Design Studio. You started at the beginning of this year, how has business been, just establishing yourself?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s been really great. I’ve been very fortunate honestly, to have worked with all of the brands and people that I’ve gotten to work with this year. I’ve gotten to work with Adobe. My first client was American Greetings.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
It’s like, how does that happen? I’ve had a very fortunate year and experience going out on my own. I think if we can keep that momentum, and it seems that we are so far, going into next year, I think that would be great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Those are two big names just right off the bat for your first year.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, what is the process like when you’re… Say you have a new project come in, or there’s a new design that you’re working on or something like, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting something new?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a really great question. It really definitely depends on what the client’s needs are, and they give you a creative brief and you review it, and I start thinking about what exactly is it that they’re asking me to letter? Because as a lettering artist, I’m usually illustrating some sort of quote or phrase, so I start thinking about stylistic treatments. Sometimes the origin of the quote is historical, so maybe it’s from an actual figure, so I do a little bit of research on that person. From there, I just follow the steps of my process, which are basically establishing some kind of hierarchy for the piece, so that it communicates in the best way possible to the intended audience.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems pretty straightforward then.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s not too complicated. I think where things start getting complicated is maybe how long the phrase is, and the composition, creating for social media. I’m usually given some sort of dimensions and constraints, so my compositional approach for something that’s supposed to be a square will be completely different than something that’s supposed to be a poster, for example. So, it just depends from project to project, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you currently working on any projects that you can talk about right now?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a good question. I can vaguely describe it, I guess. Yeah. I actually just started a project that I’m really excited about, and it’s actually going to allow me to incorporate lettering and a little bit of animation actually. It’s a marriage of my interest in filming and video and editing, with lettering and animation. I’m pretty excited about this one.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds pretty cool. Wow. So, you mentioned Adobe, you mentioned American Greetings. These are both very visually strong companies. American greetings with greeting cards, Adobe of course, with everything they do with the Adobe Suite and stuff. Are there specific types of clients that you’ve found that you work best with?

Alanna Flowers:
I’ve been fortunate to work with Adobe for a few projects this year, each one was so different. I think what I’ve seen from the clients that I’ve gotten to work with is, it’s always best when the vision is as clear as possible, I guess. And when we can just establish that we’re on the same page as much as possible. Things pretty much sail smoothly from there, as long as you can have a nice, clear line of communication with the client, I find that those project go over the smoothest and the best, from beginning to end.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with those types of clients, I’ve got to imagine you’ve probably had a bunch of different people just try to hit you up. And with it being your first year, I’m probably guessing there’s been some clients that you’re like, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the best one,” because sometimes in your first year of business, you want to take on everything, or you try to take on as much as you can because it’s your first year and you want to try to do all the things. But have you found the flip side to that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I’ve definitely had some interesting things come my way, and it would just meet me right in the middle of me working on something. And I’m just like, I could say yes and rush through this and it not be that great. Or I could just politely decline at the moment. It’s great they found me, they have my contact information and I have that contact from them, so those doors could more easily be reopened. Just like, “Hey. I was busy then, but my schedule’s open now.” But, yes. There’s definitely been a lot of temptation to say yes to everything, but thankfully, so far so good, and timing seems to have been on my side for most of the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, it sounds like it’s more of a timing thing than the actual work itself. I guess that’s pretty good. It’s good to know.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here because I really want to learn more about you and how you really came into all of this. Tell me about where you grew up.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I grew up in White Plains, New York, suburban kid all the way. Even though I’ve been Brooklyn now and I’ve been here for a few years, I definitely was not a city dweller all my life. So, yeah. I grew up in White Plains and that’s the only place I’ve known.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and art and stuff like that growing up?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would definitely say, that as a kid, I was always very enthusiastic about the opportunities during class to color and do arts and crafts, and art class and stuff like that. And then, just from, I guess, a personal side, I always enjoyed musical theater, and my family would be able to go to Broadway shows every now and again for the holidays or something. So, just being exposed to even different forms of art, even if it’s not visual or digital art, just being exposed to all different kinds of artistic expressions was definitely a thread throughout my upbringing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to the New York Institute of Technology, in Old Westbury. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. My time there was so great. It was so interesting because I went there and I applied there even, on the recommendation of my old high school art teacher, Dr. A. So, he was an alumni of there, so he’s like, “Oh, apply there,” because that’s where he went. The art program there was very small because NYIT is actually more of an engineering school. So, the art program felt very intimate. Everyone who had some sort of art major, whether you were graphic design or motion design, or what have you, everyone knew each other. So, it felt like a very close knit little family and community, and I really enjoyed my time there.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like they really helped prepare you to go out there in the world and work as a designer?

Alanna Flowers:
In some respects, yes. Where you’re thinking about working for a company, or an agency, or working in-house. Yes, thinking about, okay. I could have a job after this in a creative field, but not necessarily in the thread of a, this is how it looks if you want to work for yourself idea. So, definitely preparation was there, but definitely in the traditional sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I haven’t found that there have been a lot of schools, maybe some of the art institutes, only because I know that they do take a lot of input in from people in the community, basically just about what they should be teaching. But, yeah. There’s not a lot of design focused schools I’ve seen that give you the tools for entrepreneurship. It is about pushing you into that… I don’t want to say pipeline, but pushing you into that realm of, are you going work for an agency? Or you could work for a design focused tech company, or something like that. It’s not really about, how can I take these tools and strike out on my own because a lot of that is… I mean, yes. It’s your technical skill, but there’s also just so much business stuff that you need to know to run your own business and deal with contracts, and all that sort of stuff.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Absolutely. Any kind of inkling of what it was like to be a freelancer came from the one off, maybe you have a semester with an adjunct professor who happens to also be a freelancer on the side, or something like that. I mean, they might show us some of their client work as examples and stuff like that. But definitely not completely focused, like you said, where it’s dedicated to teaching you the ins and outs of the business aspect that goes into freelancing.

Maurice Cherry:
Why do you think that is?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a great question. I feel like there’s more attention on the creator economy, and maybe it’s because now I’m in it directly, but I don’t recall it being talked about as much, even amongst me and my peers. The power that social media could have in transforming someone’s creative career in that trajectory, and being able to go off on your own. So, there might have just been an unknowing of the potential of these platforms. When I was going to school, Instagram was king, but now there’s so many competitors and so many different avenues that you can take. I don’t know. I think, as more people do it, the more shine it’ll get, and more people will talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early years like after you graduated?

Alanna Flowers:
It’s pretty interesting actually. When I first graduated, I was very bright-eyed and was super excited to just jump into my field, but I actually had an opportunity fall through, that I wanted to take to be a designer. I was down on my luck a little bit, and I told my friend, I was like, “I just need income please,” anything. I ended up actually taking a job as a receptionist for a year right out of college, before I was able to secure my first graphic design job.

Maurice Cherry:
A receptionist, huh?

Alanna Flowers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) I gave myself one year because I was just like… And I was a great receptionist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
I was very efficient and they’re just like, “Yeah. You’re great.” And I’m just like, and with all this stuff comes complacency and comfort, and you know this was just a very temporary thing so you need to move on. So, I had my exit strategy, and after that experience, I was able to get an associate design job in-house.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s something good to know, that you had a plan to get out of it, because sometimes you fall into those gigs where you’re doing the work as you have to do it, it keeps a roof over your head, it keeps food on the table, but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not what you really want to do. So, at least you had a plan to get out of that, and eventually start somewhere and really work on your design career.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s very interesting thinking about it now, but it’s just like, well, it’s part of my story. It is what it is. It’s not always red roses, but I’m grateful for the way things happened anyhow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that you’ve been doing a lot with social media. You can go to your website and really tell that you’re very active on these other platforms like YouTube and Instagram and Pinterest. How has, I guess, exhibiting your work through those channels helped you out as an artist and an entrepreneur?

Alanna Flowers:
I think it has really challenged me to think about one, I guess how much one person is capable of. So, you’ll see a lot of people who do content creation full time, and you’re just scratching your head and just like, how are they doing all of this content? And just like, well, there’s a strategy behind everything, and a lot of content is actually strategically recycled and scheduled and all this stuff. So, once I was able to break that formula down in my head, I was able to be like, okay. I’m just going to put my work in multiple places, because you never know how someone will find you or come across you, and shooting as many shots as you can is always, I think, good. Especially if you’re entrepreneurial like me, or just trying to increase your chances of someone coming across your work. I think it’s always best to be in as many places as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, by doing that work and showing off what it is that you’re doing, you’re attracting other people, which for your first year in business, I mean, that’s the best marketing that you can do, is to really show the work that you’re doing so other people can find out about it.

Alanna Flowers:
No, definitely. It’s definitely a whole process of show and tell. Your social media quickly becomes your portfolio, or your YouTube becomes a reel of the things that you can do. I’ve had so many people tell me, it’s like, “Oh, I watched some of your YouTube videos,” and that exhibited that you can speak about this topic, and you know about video editing. It’s interesting also the way that people will break down, “Oh, I’ve seen your content in this place, this place and this place,” and from that I can deduce relatively the kind of skills that you have, and the interests that you have. I think it’s just a great way to showcase everything that you can do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that different social networks are better, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would say so. I think it depends, because a lot of people have been saying, especially this year, that video content has really taken over platforms that were previously photo based, like Instagram. Where TikTok and Snapchat have… Well, mostly TikTok, but I guess Snapchat really did it first, where people are creating video content, and using that as a way of exhibiting a tutorial. It could be for anything. I use a lot of my platforms to use as tutorial based posting, so I think that’s a great way to engage with my community. It’s not always about, oh, this is the finished piece that I did. I like to share educational content, so I’ve found that anything that really has videos on it, which is everything, can really be used in that way, which I’ve tried to leverage a lot this year and has been pretty successful.

Alanna Flowers:
And then, other platforms like Twitter, I found are just great for building community and just getting out there, and just talking with people who are really like-minded, and in your same creative sphere. Maybe they don’t do lettering, but maybe they do type design and other kinds of illustrations. So, it’s really interesting to hit that follow button on someone and see them follow back, and be surprised maybe the people who are just willing to talk to you about the stuff that you guys already know that you’re interested in from your bio or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with all that, you’re on these different social networks, you’re doing these things. I see that you have a section on your site about art licensing. Talk to me about that, because that’s something that I haven’t really seen on a lot of really designers or illustrator sites, is about licensing.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. That’s definitely one of the areas that I knew that even if, quote unquote, I was maybe slow out the gate to get some clients, I could definitely build a licensing portfolio. I’m personally, I think I’ve collected probably almost every greeting card or holiday card, birthday card I’ve gotten since I was, I don’t know, 10 or something. I’ve just always loved the illustrations, and just the look of greeting cards. I’m just like, that’s art licensing. I could totally do that. I was able to actually get an art licensing course that I purchased at the top of the year, and it was really helpful for me getting some licensing clients. That’s just a little bit of recurring income that I get, which is nice, and it’s completely passive. Once I’ve done the designs, they just generate that little bit of income for me every month. So, it’s really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
So, have companies already reached out to you to license some of your work?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I actually did a little bit of… I think I’ve actually done probably all of the outreach maybe, I think, for all of the companies that I’m licensing with right now. The first one I did was a mobile app called Felt, and they actually do digital greeting cards. So, you have the app on your phone, you can design the greeting card, you can write it on your phone and they’ll mail the card out to whoever is in your address book. So, they have a hybrid approach, where it’s like you do the process digitally, but they’ll still mail the card. So, that was interesting. I don’t… Honestly, I think I just Google searched like crazy, just art licensing, seeing other companies that fellow lettering artists have licensing deals through, and just collecting contacts and doing the research, and just sending out cold email. Got a few good responses this year.

Maurice Cherry:
And is that… I mean, I would imagine that’s probably pretty steady income too, with licensing, because you’re doing along certain time terms, maybe monthly or annual or something like that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Exactly. It just depends on whatever your contract agreement is, the terms of your royalty payments. But it’s cool because I can expand my portfolio, if I want to add 10 new cards to a collection, I can, and just have those go in circulation and see how they perform. And then you just get your little monthly commission reports, so you can see how your designs are performing, and maybe where you want to make some improvements, maybe add to different categories or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your inspirations, either as an artist or as a business person? Who inspires you?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. Well, I definitely was inspired from the very beginning by Jessica Hische, because she was probably the first name that I heard attached to lettering. I think that happened when I was in a typography class that I took in college. My professor had shown her daily drop cap project as an example of lettering, and I was just like, “Lettering?” And then, from there I just fell down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I was pretty much hooked from there. Other than her, Martina Flor definitely, has all also been a huge inspiration. I actually took her freelancing course when I was first getting started this year, learning the ropes of freelance from one, a seasoned lettering artist, but also someone who’s been running their own lettering business for 10 plus years. It was a huge inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there that’s listening to this, and they want to follow in your footsteps? They want to maybe learn lettering design, or they’re looking to strike out on their own as an entrepreneur. I know those are two separate things, but what advice would you give to someone that’s listening, and they want to go in either or both of those routes?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Well, when I was first thinking about it, I think I was first listing all of the talents that I had, I guess, like these are all the ways that I could monetize the skills that I already have. I’m a trained graphic designer, I can do that. I taught workshops before, I can do that. Just listing out those skills and talents was, I think, the first thing, because I’m just like, okay. These could be my services hypothetically for freelancing. And then, I think it just from there went to following this passion that I’ve had for a long time. I think that first exposure to Jessica Hische’s work was probably 2013, 2014 or something like that. So, from there I just had lettering as a hobby and a creative outlet while I was sitting at my receptionist desk. I think being a graphic designer full-time made it harder for me to nurture that creative hunger, I think, for lettering.

Alanna Flowers:
I knew that what I wanted to buy myself was more time. So, from there I saved money. I’m just like, I’m completely new to freelancing. I never truly envisioned myself freelancing in my career. So, I was just like, I know one thing that I need is a little bit of a cushion financially. I definitely took a risk quitting my job, but I didn’t just do it without any logistical understanding of my expenses and stuff. And then, I think from there, it’s just really go with your gut. I did have the financial cushion, but I did not have a client history. I didn’t have referrals from other people that I could take with me in my little email address book or something.

Alanna Flowers:
I took a risk definitely in that aspect. But because I’ve been nurturing this skill and this hobby for so long, with the hopes of somehow making this my profession, I think a lot of the things that I’ve encountered were that whole luck, where it’s opportunity meets the preparation. So, yeah. If you want to do something, make sure that you’re already doing it in some capacity, even if it’s just on the side to begin with. As long as you’re feeding into that, whatever that thing is that you really want to be doing, that’s definitely positive as well.

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

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. Right now, success looks like being able to sustain and continue from places of passion and genuine excitement and interest, and not from the place of, I’ve got to take this client on because I need to pay my rent this month. I think just continuing with that feeling of excitement and passion, I think, because even when you’re doing things that you’re really interested in, after a while you might get a little burned out. I’m hoping to not, to not reach that burnout point, and be able to be responsible with my time and with my emotional wellbeing. I just want to keep doing this and maintaining,

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

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. I have many, and it’s great because some of them even happened this year. But I am definitely setting my sites out for large scale projects, like murals. I am definitely looking to get my lettering painted outside somewhere in New York City. I think that would be the coolest thing, and have people take pictures with my work outdoors. I think that’d be really awesome.

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

Alanna Flowers:
I appreciate the privilege that comes with being able to take a risk, like the one that I took, and in some ways I’m still taking. I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the luxury of time. I’ve bought myself a little bit of time with a little bit of the planning that I did before, I ended going freelance, but I’m abundantly grateful for those things.

Maurice Cherry:
So, given where you are now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is there certain work that you’d want to be doing at that point or anything like that?

Alanna Flowers:
This year has been a lot of seed planting. It’s like I have to start working from somewhere. So, I started my YouTube channel this year, started with zero subscribers just like everyone who starts anything. In five years it would just be nice to see these communities that I’ve started, investing and grow. I really love lettering and I love working with clients. It’s such a rewarding feeling, being able to help them. But it’s also really rewarding to help other people who are interested in lettering. So, that’s why I definitely knew that as a part of my freelancing that I wanted there to be some sort of educational aspect, with workshops or tutorials and stuff like that, like I do on YouTube. So, yeah. Just expanding my reach and having that allow me to reach back as well to others.

Maurice Cherry:
Reaching forward and reaching back, I like that. So, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see your work and everything online?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. You can find my work at agfdesignstudio.com, but you can find me on YouTube at AGF Design Studio. That’s my channel name, that’s also my name on Instagram. And then, also on Instagram and Twitter. I’m Alanna_ Flowers.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alanna Flowers, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show and really one, I think telling your story, but then two also, giving us a little bit of a peak behind the curtain of what it’s like to a new freelancer. There’s been all this talk this year specifically about the great resignation, and people leaving jobs and striking out on their own. It seems like you’ve really… I mean, well, one, you have struck out a lot on your own. But two, it seems like you’ve really hit a stride and you’re making great work. You’re promoting yourself out there on social media. I wish, when I started my studio, that I was half as prepared and put together as you are with how you’re doing everything. I think you’re doing a great job, and I’d love to see where your work goes in the future. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much, Maurice, for having me.

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