Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

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Dr. Jacinda Walker

This week’s interview is truly special, because I got the chance to sit down with the one and only Dr. Jacinda Walker. I have been privileged to watch Jacinda’s glow up over the years, and now she’s reaping the benefits of her hard work, perseverance, and dedication to making the design community better for the next generation.

I got to speak with her fresh off her receiving an honorary doctorate from Ringling College of Art and Design, and she talked with me about the experience. She also shared news about the new space for her business, DesignExplorr, and the curriculum and workshop programs that she created based on her graduate research. We even chatted a bit about her work with AIGA’s D&I Task Force, what keeps her inspired, and how she measures success now at this stage of her life and career. Jacinda’s research and advocacy work deserve our recognition and support, and I’m glad to be able to share her story here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Hi, my name is Jacinda Walker. I am founder and creative director of DesignExplorr, located in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maurice Cherry:
I should say congratulations, Dr. Jacinda Walker. That is such an amazing honor. I’m not going to get over that. That is so amazing. Please talk to me about how that all came about.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree with you, Maurice. I’m still absorbing it. To be quite honest, I don’t know how long it will take me to fully absorb the magnitude of achieving such an honor. I have no idea. When Ringling College of Art and Design reached out to me originally, they said, “Hey, listen, we’d love for you to do a commencement talk. We’ve been following your work. We want to build a relationship with you to come down and meet more of our students,” and I’m like, “Oh, bet I can do it.”

And then they talked to me about what the honorarium was and how long I was going to be in Florida. I’m like, “So y’all guys are going to put me up for four days in Florida to go to this commencement, give a 20-minute talk, and hang out with you and your students afterward? Oh yeah, I’m in. Call me. Keep me posted.” About two days before the event, they notified me that they wanted to present me with this honorary doctorate, and they wanted to know if I was going to accept it, which was kind of crazy because you’re like, “Is there anybody who turns this down?”

Is there anybody who says, “Oh no, dog. I’m good with them letters. Don’t worry about that advancement on my career, advancement on my salary, that advancement on my hourly rate now. No, I’m going to pass.” I don’t even know who does that. But I went down there. Florida was amazing. Sarasota was beautiful. I hadn’t been to Sarasota before. So to see it on top of everything else that was happening, it was just a huge, huge experience.

Maurice, I really thought I was going to be good because I was like, “I got this.” At this commencement, I saw all the paper degrees that they were going to be passing out, and I just assumed that mine was over in that pile. I felt like I could handle this. They read the bio, which I didn’t know they was going to read all 750 words of it. And then they have you stand because there’s a hooding ceremony that happens.

They put this cap over you. And then there’s this neck … It’s a velvet, a sash, so to speak, but it goes around your neck, and it attaches to your graduation gown. I turned around, Maurice, and they took the cover off of the degree and I totally fell out because I thought I was going to get one of the small degrees that was on the table. It was framed. It had my name on it huge. It’s got this silver plate statement on it. It’s got the school.

If you watch the video, I think I spent maybe the first three minutes of my speech sniffing because I was still trying to just pull it together and get into the words that I had prepared. Even my father was like, “You’ve got to start taking Kleenex with you. You’ve just got to.” I was like, “I had no idea.” I had no idea. I’m still absorbing it.

One of the young people that I work with here at DesignExplorr, she said, “You should put them all on the wall like they do at the doctor’s office because you got a full set now.” So I have an associate’s. I have a bachelor’s. I have a master’s. I have the doctorate, and I have two undergraduate minors and a graduate minor.

Maurice Cherry:
Whew. Degreed up.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Degreed up. I share this often when I go into classrooms with young people. This is coming from a person who almost failed the fourth, sixth, and the eighth grade. By the eighth grade, my momma had had enough. I don’t know if you’re ever been in a place with your mom where you knew she had had enough. Well, Renee had had enough, and she told me flat out, “I don’t care what is going on at that school. I don’t care what you think is going on at that school, but it stops today.”

She enrolled me in tutoring. She made my brother walk me to school because I had to go to tutoring before school started. So school usually started about 8:30. I had to be there at 7:30, 3 days a week, for the rest of the eighth grade so I could pass. I didn’t even know if college would even be in my future. I was just trying to get out of middle school. I was just struggling to do that. So to be at this place now, Maurice, is a lot to absorb.

Maurice Cherry:
It is well-deserved for-

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
… the advocacy work and the volunteer work and everything that you’re doing not just in your local community, which we’ll talk about, but just nationwide, worldwide. It’s amazing. I’m just saying this from with Revision Path. You can put stuff out there in the world and you never know where it’s going to land, who it’s going to reach, how it’s going to affect them.
So just kudos to you for always fighting the good fight. I’m immensely proud of you. I heard that, I was just like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it. That is so amazing.”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Thank you so much. I just appreciate everybody, like yourself, reaching back and just keeping me encouraged even in those moments when I was fighting just to stay focused and what I was fighting for and that it would come to fruition, and it really, really has. So I’m eternally grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, let’s talk about another one of your recent accomplishments from this year, which is a dedicated space for DesignExplorr. First of all, where did the idea to create DesignExplorr come from? Because when I had you back on the show back in 2014, I don’t think DesignExplorr was even a thing yet, was it?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
No, Maurice. In fact, I was painfully writing it. I was in grad school when we first spoke. I was in Columbus at the Ohio State University. I had received a full ride scholarship to research the lack of diversity in design disciplines. I presented the idea to the university about a year and a half before I was actually in school because when you apply, you have to say, “Hey, what are you going to research? What’s your topic going to be?”

I submitted this out of the challenges that I had been experiencing in Cleveland. I submitted that topic out of everything that I had learned with the mentees that I had. I submitted that topic as a way to solve it because I was just tired of it. I was just tired of it always being the only, even in this day and age. In 2000, I just couldn’t believe there were still people who were the onlies.

By time my niece announced that she wanted to be a designer, Maurice, I was in overdrive. I was like, “Oh God, I’ve got to fix this, not eventually, not …” I knew I had to fix it, and I felt like I had four to six years to figure it out because she was going to go to college and study design. It pained me to even think about her experiencing some of the challenges and the microaggressions and the discriminatory acts that I experienced. It highly motivated me to figure it out and to put something in place so she wouldn’t have to go through those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Now with this dedicated space, what does that do now for the mission and the vision of DesignExplorr? What does that do now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Absolutely. First, I have to share that I have moved DesignExplorr physically every year for four and a half years, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, every year. Remember I told you I started writing about DesignExplorr in Columbus. So when I graduated, I moved back to Cleveland. So the first year, I want to say year and a half, I was in my home literally upstairs because I had moved the desk that I wrote my thesis in because that desk has become sacred now. I ain’t never giving up that desk. That desk is never going in the trash.

So I had moved that to my upstairs loft area, which my father just ridiculously laughed at me all the time because he was like, “You going to put your desk right next to the bed? Are you sleeping?” That’s what I did, Maurice. I would literally go to sleep. I would wake up and work. I would fall asleep watching TV, go to bed, wake up, roll out my bed, go to the desk. That’s probably what I did every day for about a year, year and a half, until I got DesignExplorr launched off the ground.

So having this space, when you talk about what is it going to do for the mission, it’s going to allow myself and now team members, Maurice, there are probably about eight young people in this space right now who come in and out, who do tasks, who do design projects, who do photography things, who write. I have a young lady who’s also writing right now. Here in Cleveland, I’m surrounded by three major colleges. There’s Cleveland State University, Cleveland Institute of the Art, and then we also have Cuyahoga Community College, which is a two-year college.

All of these schools are probably within five minutes of where the space is going to be at. So that’s why I wanted the space because we were just growing out. When I left my house, I moved into a space that was probably about 375 square feet, which at the time, Maurice, I loved it. I was like, “We legit, y’all.” I got a door. I had a parking spot, and I had a key. You know how you can come into the co-working building?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I just thought we was doing it. I was like, “We’re doing it.” One day I looked up and there was myself and three other young designers in 375 square feet, literally. I was sitting at my little desk. It was one across from me, and I had a little round table, Maurice. They were coming. None of them was like, “You know what? It’s small. I’m quitting. I’m leaving.” Nope. They was like, “I’m staying. I’ll just work in the hallway until So-and-so leaves.”

After the 375, I moved into 680 square feet. Now, the 680 square feet was nicer. It was on the fifth floor. We called it the penthouse. From there, I started getting other organizations who helped to create pilot programs to have interns trained in design to work for their organizations. So that’s how I got a couple more interns. At the end of that summer, I was like, “We’re not going to fit here.”

I already had two desks. Maurice, I think at the time I only owned four chairs. People, they were still coming. I was like, “I’m not going to be able to do this work in this confinement.” It just wasn’t going to happen. I had an opportunity to talk with a commercial real estate agent here in Cleveland, and she explained the game to me.

I was like, “Okay. I know what I have to do, and I’m going to find a space on my own. I’m going to find it without a real estate agent because that process isn’t working for me and I need this to really, really be what I want. I already have a vision, so I’m going to do this on my own.” I found a space. I found a space here in Cleveland. We’re on 3800 Euclid Avenue downtown, right across from the Children’s Museum and adjacent to the American Red Cross.

It’s awesome, Maurice. It’s 1,821 square feet. There’s a huge front-facing window. We have this huge area that we’re going to have for open space. So I’ll be able to fit eight to 10 young people there. And then we’re going to have a huge great room in the back where I’ll be able to have a multipurpose room where it might be a classroom and a little conference area. We’re going to have a kitchen, a private bath, reception area, and I’ll even have my own office.

I can’t begin to describe it. What’s super awesome is that right now at the time of this interview, we’re in the interim space upstairs. So for the last month, I’ve been peeking downstairs, talking to all the construction people. They have plumbing in, Maurice. We have plumbing. So to see this space being built exactly how I envisioned it and exactly doing the work that it needs to do is insane just to be able to be at this place.

So that center will allow me, once it’s complete … They’re telling me eight to 10 weeks. Once it’s complete, we will open up the experiential learning portions of DesignExplorr. See, in the past, I’ve mostly been doing youth workshops that expose young people to design. I’ve been doing a lot of local summer camps, afterschool programs, in-classroom assignments where I was teaching design to a K-12 audience.

But the center will allow me to provide opportunities for designers, 18 to 26-year-olds, who are interested in working in the profession. So I already have a host of clients here who are allowing us to work on their design projects, their web projects, their photography work, some writing assignments. We have a couple social media clients that we’ve been working for.

It will allow me to expand that part of it so that when young people who are from Cleveland who are interested in this expanded learning to fulfill that gap space between high school and college and between college and workforce, they can come here and ask questions. They can come here and fellowship with other Black and brown designers. The best part is they’ll have opportunity to do real world work so that when they go into these workforce positions, it won’t be a mystery to them.

They’ll have a really good expectation as to what it could be and what it should be. So I’m hopeful that’ll help to increase the profession, increase diversity in design, and just to continue my work, being able to not have any more only designers anymore, any more only women or any more only Black designers or just no more onlies, no more. So that’s what I’m really hopeful that the center will be doing for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean all of that is amazing. I can’t wait to get a chance to actually see it all in person once you get it all together. Hopefully, if there are some design companies or some furniture companies listening, they can help you really swag out the space, really make it something nice.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes. I would love that, Maurice. In fact, that is what is needed because I have exhausted everything in getting the space. They say that entrepreneurship is about risk, and I understand that this is a risk doing it this way. But what I know is that I won’t be able to flourish if I’m not in a space where I can grow, and having the 1800 square feet is that space. It’s like me moving out of a small pot into a bigger pot so I can bloom.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about some of the young designers that you’re mentoring. I know when we were initially trying to book this, we thought about having the possibility of actually having them on the show, which I think maybe we can do that in the future. But tell me about some of these young designers that are coming through the program.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
There are about eight right now. Five are here. Well, four are here in-person. They’re here regularly, two or three days a week. I have another two or three that, hey, they call in. They’re already in the workforce, so they’re doing some things. I have two designers from Kent State University that I’m working with. I have about three students that I’m working with from Cleveland State University.

I have a young lady who’s in urban planning. I have another young woman that I’m working with. She is in industrial design. The majority of them are in graphic design and web design. I have another young lady who’s highly passionate about getting into UX and UI design. So they’re all doing some truly, truly awesome things. Maurice, you’ll love this. I even have a young writer who’s on team. She is interested in writing in a creative space.

So we’re like, “Well, you found your people. Welcome. Enjoy. Come on in.” So it’s been great having various amounts. I have male and female, mostly all Black right now. I have two young people who are in our neighborhood association who are Puerto Rican, and they’re also interested in coming onboard when the new space is open. So even just having the space here, the young people are already coming and staying, trying to stay. So I’m excited. I’m very excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Now also along with this mentorship, you’ve created resources for educators, right?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve created something called the TakeOver curriculum.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, absolutely. That’s one of our favorite ones. I had an opportunity to work with an educational consultant. She is a consultant who helps educators become better educators. So you imagine when you’re in a K-8 school or a K-12 school, there are lots of challenges and curriculum changes and all those types of things. Well, Dr. Kelly is who we work with to help us transcribe all of my slides, all of the things that are in my brain into an educational curriculum that is in alignment with Ohio-based state standards.

We also have developed along with that nine-week program, we call it the TakeOver. We also have a six-hour training component for educators to be able to work in this design-thinking methodology and helping to be able to utilize these tools to creatively expose and use them to help young people absorb challenges and topics that might be a little difficult, how they can maybe bring some different insight into getting young people to think about recycling or finances, even science and history.

I believe that design has the power to achieve and to help connect all of those things. So having that educator’s curriculum will be able to allow them to also learn how to apply that creativity in some of those difficult topics that young people have.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, are there other programs that you have through DesignExplorr? We talked about the curriculum, but I noticed, I’m looking at this PDF you have on your site. There’s things like design learning, Think Like A Designer Workshops, et cetera. Tell me more about these different programs.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
So our Think Like A Designer Workshop is a workshop that we actually originated out of COVID. When I first learned about COVID, I was actually in a classroom and I had not known that the governor had just closed all the schools. So the teacher was trying to hurry them up. I’m like, “No, no. They got to do this part. They got to do this part. I didn’t give them their worksheets yet.” She’s like, “They got to get on the bus.”

I’m like, “What do you mean?” She’s like, “The governor just closed schools.” I’m like, “So what happens if you are from an underserved area and you don’t have a computer at home during COVID? How are you going to continue your learning? What if the art class was the thing that you loved to go to and now it’s over?” Because, remember, when it first happened, we didn’t know how long this was going to be.

So I started thinking about how could I develop materials. During COVID, I had two of my young designers that I worked with, Elena and Kennedy, who were in the office at that time. I had this whiteboard, Maurice, of all these things I wanted to accomplish and all these things I was trying to do. Kennedy was like, “You could do that one now.” And I’m like, “The schools are closed. Nobody’s going to buy anything. What are you talking about?”

She was like, “Yeah, you should just find a bag for it. We could sell markers, and they could have kind of school supplies. We could put design activities in it.” I was like, “Kennedy, this is not the time to do this.” I shut her down like, “This is not the time.” Maybe about a couple days later, Elena came up like, “I know where we can find those supplies at.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with any young people, but they have the tenacity that is sometimes even a little annoying. You’re like, “What? I don’t want to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to talk about that.” They just kept being on me, Maurice. They were like, “You got to figure something out. You got to figure it out. What if I could find the supplies?” I was like, “You know what? Here’s $20 for gas and another 20 for the supplies. Be gone. Go ahead and do what you need. Let me know how it turns out.”

When she came back, Maurice, she had $5.56 change. I said, “What?” That was the day we started the Think Like A Designer kits. During COVID, Maurice, what was crazy, we gave out 56 kits that year. 56 kits. We went outdoors. We went to Staples outdoor back-to-school sales. We went to churches. We were in basements. We were at YMCAs. Young people just really, really gravitated.

We put educational curriculum. We put an empathy map, a user discovery sheet. We made these cards where you could think about, and they’ve just been selling. We’re just now finishing the detailed instructions for that, so we’ve been selling those. The design learning challenges, we’ve always done those in some shape or form in whatever activity we’ve put on.

When the libraries kind of peeked open a little bit, they were looking for content. We used our digital design workshop series. We taught Adobe Express. We taught Adobe InDesign. We taught Adobe Illustrator. We were in the maker space at our public library. Kids could Zoom in, and they could also come in person. The library had a certain amount. You couldn’t go past six people in a room or something like that. Those programs all did so super, super, super well.

So now that we’re a little bit past COVID, not done with it, but now that we’re a little bit past it, I’ve been able to create online materials as well as in-person materials and then curriculum. Because, ultimately, what I really want is a line of stationery items for kids to be able to draw and to sketch and to be able to access that are very economically reasonable. Those are the kind of things that we’ve been putting in the kits and into the swag bags and stuff like that. But it’s been exciting to see their response to them.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s just so amazing to hear how much you’re doing in the community. When we first met, it was because I heard about the work you were doing back there in Cleveland with this design company called GoMedia. GoMedia used to have an event conference roughly every year called … I’m blanking on the name. Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, That’s what it’s called.

So you have really been going hard for design in Cleveland for a long time. You even have on your IG profile, the phrase, “A believer in Cleveland.” Why is making an impact in Cleveland so important for you?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to work in many places. Maurice. I’ve been one of the consultants for the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I traveled with the museum for three and a half years doing programs in other cities. After the second or third time we were in San Francisco, I actually had one of the educators like, “Oh yeah, we did one of your workshops in my classroom, and it went so great.”

I was like, “So my stuff is working here in San Francisco. My stuff is working in Detroit. My stuff is working in Oakland. My stuff is working in DC. My stuff’s working in Baltimore. My stuff’s working in Philly.” I was just like, “You know what? I need to rectify that. I need to be able to go home and do the work where I know the need is and be able to do it for young people who look just like me, who come from places where I came from, and who probably went to some of the same schools I went to.”

So it became very important to me quickly to be able to make that kind of impact here in Cleveland. I’m regularly asked, why am I doing DesignExplorr in Cleveland? I’m regularly asked that. But I don’t see it not happening in Cleveland. I feel like if I can make it work in Cleveland, I can make it work anywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Well said. Well said. What’s next for DesignExplorr? How can people out there listening support your work?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Oh gosh, there’s so many ways. Well, first of all, you can support the work by supporting the young people. A lot of times, they’re looking for opportunities, whether they be full-time work experiences, whether they be entry-level positions, internships, externships, remote intensives. All of these things are necessary for designers of color, particularly those who are transitioning into the workforce.

So when you have a position and you call me and you’re like, “Hey, Jacinda, can you just pass this out to your network?” Well, that’s great, but for those positions who are already for experienced designers, but what about passing me positions that young designers, designers who are looking between one to three years or one to five years for, what about giving me those kind of opportunities?

The second thing that people can support me with is being able to furnish and bring the center to fruition. Right now, I just bought chairs, which were incredibly expensive, but we didn’t have any chairs before. So I had to buy chairs. I was only able to buy six desks. So that’s kind of what I have to house 10 to 20 students working on right now. We definitely need assistance for that.

Right now, I’m paying the internet bill. It’s challenging because I don’t have the regular package. I got the package for when young people come in, they can use that because they’re in this space now. So that is super helpful. Maurice, it’s so serious right now. I have promoted my father to chief logistics officer. His responsibility is keeping snacks in here so we don’t fall out from hunger and from thirst. So that is what he has been doing. That’s what his contribution has been to DesignExplorr.

I also think another thing that the profession, designers who are currently working, organizations, they can help me to fund the work that the young people are doing. That’s a very, very important one because it’s easy to say, “Oh, I want to help you, Jacinda.” But when you say you want to help me, what I really need to know is, are you willing to help them? Because that’s what I want. Some people think, “Oh, I only want to help you. I don’t want to help them.” I don’t see us not being together in this movement.

Maurice Cherry:
I get that about Revision Path, too. People will say they want to support the show, but not me, or maybe the other way around. That’s so weird.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Maurice, I’ve literally had people like, “Well, I know you have a lot of young people that you’re mentoring, Jacinda, but what do you need?” What I need is for them to be successful. That is what I need. Right now, they say I’m doing a lot of strange stuff for a hunk of change to make it happen. So what I need is for people who are interested in not just helping me do something, to help me help them do something. That’s what I want, because they are coming out of the woodwork.

Every time I think one is gone or they’ve got a position somewhere, then another one up here is like, “Hey, can you help me write my resumé? Can you help me with my LinkedIn page?” Just being able to provide the resources to get them that kind of help, even in getting their taxes done, all of these things that you did when you were a young professional, those are all the same types of things that I need right now.

Maurice Cherry:
So I want to touch on your time with AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. You were the chair from 2016 to 2018. Now that I think back on it, I recommended you to join the task force, I think, maybe sometime around 2015 or so. So the fact that you moved up to a leadership spot that quickly really says a lot. But when you look back at that time, what comes to mind? Do you have any feelings in particular?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yes, Maurice. I have a lot of feelings. It was hard. For an organization who kept saying they wanted diversity, every time I pitched something, every time I proposed something, every time I suggested something, every time I identified an opportunity, it was just always a fight to get them to want to do it. I understand that there were people there who were in direct opposition of that goal, of that mission. I know that now. But in the moment, Maurice, it was hard.

It was two years. Because, remember, I sat on the task force for two years and then I chaired for another two years. I also served as emeritus for another year, year and a half. When you asked me about that, it was just hard and, dare I say it, unnecessarily hard. So I regularly think about those times and those activities and those relationships. But it was just super, super hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That task force stuff was … I mean I remember my time. I was there from, I think, 2014 to 2017. We had a change in guard. And then it just kind of felt like some things were being hamstrung in terms of how we tried to get certain things done. We couldn’t really operate as a group. It was more of a reactionary sort of thing.

I don’t know. I look back at that time because I got to meet y’all. I got to meet you. I got to meet Dian, some of the other great folks. But I look back and I’m like, “Did we really do anything?”

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I mean, Maurice, that was one of the reasons why I fought so hard for the archiving because we talk about the task force that I chaired through the research and through the deep dives. I found out that there had been three before us. There had been three task force before us. To learn that that happened made it even more surreal because you’re like, “Wait a minute. What?”

So the first thing I did was I went and I found many of the old task force members. Many of them were done like, “You’re with who? Oh no.” Click. I got hung up on a lot. I was able to get a couple of people to still talk with me, to still participate. I was even able to get one young man to join, Andrew Bass. I was able to get him to come back and share his knowledge and to ask AIGA to archive his things because he had material from his task force that he also was saving.

So that part, I don’t even know if they even really, really archived it because it’s not public. So I can’t go anywhere. I don’t see anywhere on the website where I can access the archives. And then they’ve recently done a website update. So that meant all the stuff that I archived during the task force that I was over, I don’t even know where that materials went.

So it’s hard because they’re saying that they want people who are interested in moving forward. They don’t want to talk about the past. They don’t want people to keep bringing it up. We wouldn’t feel this strain if it was just public because it’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the profession. It’s supposed to be about the organization. So why not put the things that need to be and that can be out, out?

So that archiving piece was super … That was a big thing for me while I was there. So when you talk about what resulted out of it, I probably am sitting on a plethora of digital assets, all of the impact reports because we did two impact reports the years that I was there, archiving the photography, even photographing the things that were happening whenever we were in different places.

We also had two meetups during the time period where I was chair. It was super awesome because we even got an opportunity to have a task force retreat as well. Those are the things that I fought for, and I use the word, fought, I fought for during those times. It was challenging internally and externally. So when you asked, I’m like, “It was hard.” It was really, really hard and really unnecessarily hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean I would say, given the way that the website is now, I don’t think they archived anything because … Well, let me walk that back. Do I think there are archives? Yes. Are there archives that will ever be available publicly on the website? Probably not, because Heather still works there. This is a different Heather, not GoMedia Heather. This is Heather Strelecki, I think is her name. She’s the keeper of the guard with the archive.

So I think some of that stuff is still archived there. I don’t think it’ll ever see the light of day on the website. I mean I don’t even know if the website is even that up-to-date because the folks that they have listed for the task force aren’t affiliated with the task force anymore.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. I noticed that as well. I think that my time at AIGA made me a lot more interested in if the challenges that I was having were just in one organization. So what I did was I joined many other organizations. Anybody knows I’m an organizational junkie. I probably am in far too many organizations. I’m intrigued because I know the power of what can happen when you get a group of people together who all want the same thing and who are all willing to do the work required. I know what that’s like.

But finding it within some of these organizations and finding that they’re interested in this racial diversity and these seven levels of diversity, that’s what I’m always looking for. So I participate on IDSA’s council. They have a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. There’s a great, great Facebook NOMA group out, and I love being in that group. I’m also heavily involved in many of the student chapters. I love being able to support them online.

We do a huge proponent of student spotlights. Actually, I was working on a project with Prairie Review in Texas, and I also had a great opportunity to visit Jennifer’s class at Bowie State. That’s actually where the idea for the student spotlights came from because each of them had these … I would go down there and look at their work. Jennifer would let me in her classes and talk with the students, and they had tons of questions. Everybody got questions.

I’m like, “I need to do something about that.” I knew I was already, quote, unquote, “My bandwidth had been exhausted.” But I’m like, “These students are just truly, truly talented.” Who knows? What happens when Black and brown designers graduate? What happens? Nothing that I knew of. It didn’t happen for me. So I’m like, “What if I could create a platform where they could have a little recognition?” Where they could be acknowledged for their accomplishments and where we as professionals could acknowledge, “Hey, young designer, congratulations. I’d love to look at your portfolio.”

So we’ve been carrying that for a few years now. But being able to see what’s going on in these organizations, it always gives me great ideas of what else we need to do. When I worked with IDSA, I actually wrote and developed a map that charts all of the youth design organizations that I had been charting for the last five years. So if you go to the IDSA innovation page, you’ll see the map that I developed there. Our hope is to be able to update that with them one year.

But I love joining these organizations to see is the promise achievable? Is the promise feasible? How realistic is it? Is it realistic in this organization? Why keep joining? I’m looking forward to seeing it one day. There are lots of challenges, but I believe that it’s possible. It just might take some time, and you just got to have the right group of people involved. So that’s why I keep joining. That’s why I keep looking.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One last thing with AIGA and we’ll move on from it. Any thoughts on its current state, with Bennie being the new executive director? They’re bringing the conference back in-person. They’re doing a gala this year in October, actually, this month, the month we’re recording. They’re doing it in Seattle.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I have heard about that. I’m kind of challenged in a couple of ways. My first thought is, Maurice, I’m tired of the pontification that happens amongst elite designers. So when I learned of all the stuff that AIGA was doing, I quickly went to see what are you doing for young designers? What are you doing for Black young designers? What are you doing? Maurice, I don’t see much.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think you saw anything, probably. Let’s keep it a buck. You probably didn’t see anything.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I don’t see much because, again, remember I told you I’m all about trying to refer and I’m all about trying to share resources with the young designers that I have right now. I’m looking for things for them to get involved in. I’m looking for things for them to say, “Hey, Jacinda, I love that. Can you share more of that with me?” Even though I had a difficult situation with AIGA, I remain hopeful, and I just haven’t seen it yet. I haven’t seen it yet.

That’s another reason why now I’m in a place where I’ve done the national groups. I’m looking at local chapters now. So I stay active in my local chapter because at least I can see the impact here. Because when I go to the national site, I don’t see it. IDSA recently had an awesome conference. They had women industrial designers all convene. Maurice, I was like, “Wow.” There was a component of young industrial designers who came.

I met many of the students who were there in the young designers. For me, the importance and the significance of professional design organizations, to me, it’s only about the impact that they are giving to young designers. It’s that servitude leadership. It’s that serving. How are you serving? It can’t only be to a bunch of rich elite designers. It’s got to be to all of designers. I don’t see much. I’m looking. I’m looking. I’m always looking.

I’m on the email list twice because they double emailing me. So I haven’t seen quite the thing yet. When I do share their resources with the young designers that I have, they’re disconnected because the young designers that I have are trying to get into the workforce, and so those materials seem out of touch.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair assessment. That’s a fair assessment.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. When you ask about the new leadership, I have called. I have sat in meetings with … The meetings are challenging and frustrating because they have a lot to achieve, and they have a lot that they are working for. And again, I don’t see the how and the where and the when with Black and brown designers. So when you ask, it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll leave it there. We’ll leave it there with AIGA. Whose work are you inspired by now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s really weird, Maurice. It’s not that I don’t love designers still. It’s not that I don’t love designers, but I really feel like I’m in this evolution of a design career. So I’m in a place now where I can look at other aspects. I really look to educators now. I look to how educators are creating curriculum and impact. I look to how there are many design educators who are writing textbooks now. I would love to get into that.

There are a group of educators right now who are working to create a documentary. So it’s those kind of things. Honorable mention, I’m always inspired by young designers. So right now, the one young man I was working with, Aaron Mann, he just produced his book, Equal by Design. It’s actually online. I already bought my copy. I suggest y’all buy yours. So I’m inspired by books and materials written for and by young designers.

There’s a young man in New York. I cannot think of his name off the top of my head, but he has a game about being a designer, also.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Deon Mixon.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Deon. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
We had a great conversation. That’s inspiring because they see it. Whereas as young designers, they see the challenges and they’re just going after them. As opposing to where I find senior designers, we’re trying to figure it out. We’re trying to do fundraising. We’re trying to talk. Young designers, they’re like, “We should do this. Let’s make it. Let’s put it out there.” So I’m like, “You need me to support that? Let me help you help yours.”

There’s another design organization here in Cleveland. It’s called Battle of the Teal, and they have a performing arts and a visual arts competition, and being able to work with them. Actually, one of the young ladies that I’m mentoring right now, she was a winner in this competition about two years ago. So she’s just needed resources. So every year, I refer like, “Hey, here’s a great summer program to get into.”

She reached out to me when she was trying to understand, Maurice, how to coordinate her Google calendar with her art classes. So we’re looking through this. I’m like, “Honey, you supposed to let some of these calendars go.” She’s like, “Oh.” So it’s these aha moments that I look for resources and that I remain inspired by. She wants to draw, and she’s just trying to figure out how to get her homework done so she can finish her animation project.

So these are the kind of things I’m inspired by. It’s not that I’m not inspired by any of the big designers. It’s not that at all. I’m still in love with the work that Gail Anderson is doing. I love what Eddie Opara’s doing. I love what the Hue Design Summit team of young designers is doing. I need things to meet mission and meet impact now. It’s even more important than ever for us to be able to accomplish these things together.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you still want to do?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It’s still a really long list. I still have a lot of things I want to do. Where I’m at right now is when I see something that’s already on my list that I want to do and somebody else is doing it, “Hey, how can I help you do that?” Because truth be told, Maurice, I don’t have the bandwidth. That’s another reason why I need the center because I don’t have the space or the calendar time. Y’all going to have to come here.

What are some things that I still want to do? I really, really want to have a precollege residency program. I saw the one that they had at Ringling and, Maurice, it was awesome. It was awesome. To be able to have something like that in the Black community would be stellar. It could be a chart-making, data-increasing, design profession-changing aspect. This program was a mixture of the Young Scholars program. It was a mixture of the Urban League’s Young Professionals curriculum and creativity all round up in one.

I was like, “How can I make a DesignExplorr one?” I don’t have the resources to do it how they’re doing it. But the way that they are engaging with the students every summer, the way that they provide practical experience, the nurturing, because that’s a huge thing. That’s definitely high up on my list. That’s very, very high up on my list of next things for DesignExplorr.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of your career, how do you measure success? What does it look like for you now?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
It looks like legacy. It looks like legacy, and it looks like impact. If those two things aren’t involved, I don’t know why I’m here. So I want to be able to know that the young people that I have mentored, that I have had conversations with, who I’ve been working with on their careers, that they’re successful. So every time I see one of them and they’re doing something crazy big, I’m like, “Maybe. Maybe I’ve made an impact. Maybe.”

Last weekend I was at an expo here in Cleveland and, Maurice, you would have loved this. Three of the young people that I had mentored, they were having their own booths selling their own businesses and products. They came down and visited me, and we just talked. They talked to some of the young designers that were at the table volunteering for me. It was like full cycle. You know what I’m saying? Full cycle going on.

So that was thrilling. That was thrilling to be able to see and witness that part of it. I don’t know, Maurice. It’s got to be a legacy because I want to be able to know that all of this went and worked for something and someones, a whole bunch of someones.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Have you thought out what you want this next chapter of the legacy to be, especially now that you’ve got the center?

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
Yeah. Everything is going to be about the center, and it’s going to be about that residency program. When I analyze and I look at the profession, and you know I’m a huge data nerd, so I’m always looking at the numbers. I’m always reading the BLS numbers. I’m always looking at the NASAD numbers. I’m always looking at these things. If we don’t create a better pathway and not just better, I’m talking more access, more inclusion, more resources, more everything, I don’t know if our numbers will ever really, really go up.

So when you say five years, Five years for me is this lifting off this residency program. Five years for me is getting more of the TakeOver programs in schools. Five years for me is getting the young designers that I work with more actual real experience with actual clients, not just pet project kind of things, but real things. To me that’s five years. But I signed a five-year lease, Maurice. So five years is not long for me. It’s not long.

Maurice Cherry:
It’ll be here before you know it. I’m telling you.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
I agree. I agree. So the planning and the implementation of it is always strategic. It’s always strategic. But the most important thing about it is staying focused on it. So now that I have the space, I will be able to focus on that residency program. I feel like that could catch a lot. That can really, really, really help close the gap and, ultimately, that’s really all I want.

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

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You can find me at DesignExplorr, and it’s D-E-S-I-G-N-E-X-P-L-O-R-R. And yes, that’s two R’s. We spell it real gangsta here. You can find me there on all the channels, so Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, all of the above.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Dr. Jacinda Walker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean I had you on the show years and years ago. You and I, of course, have worked side by side together, have gone through this whole crazy design industry in different ways. You were the last designer that I saw at an in-person event back in 2020 when you were out in LA when we did our live show.

I mean it never ceases to amaze me how tireless your efforts are and your work is towards making sure that you are setting the stage for the next generation of designers. I don’t know anybody that’s operating at the level that you are when it comes to doing this. I’m just so glad not just to have you on the show, but to call you a friend as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dr. Jacinda Walker:
You are super welcome, and I appreciate you always reaching back to keep me involved and keep me engaged. So kudos to you and the success of the show as well.

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Shawn Alexander Allen

Games are an integral part of our society, and not I’m not just talking about Nintendo, Xbox, or PlayStation. Games are culture, and this week’s guest — Shawn Alexander Allen — has dedicated himself to getting people to think about games as more than just a leisure activity.

Shawn and his family recently moved to Atlanta, so he spoke about getting adjusted to the new location and getting into a groove with work through his studio, NuChallenger. We also talked about his critically acclaimed video game, Treachery in Beatdown City, and Shawn shared his origin story of growing up in NYC, working at Rockstar Games, and a lot more. Shawn is ready for a revolution, and I’m interested to see what he has in store for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Hey, my name is Shawn Alexander Allen and I currently make video games for a living, I guess. I make a lot of things, but video games are basically what my company does.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, it’s been a wild year. A lot of stuff from the last two years just all hit in 2022. One thing being COVID, the thing that we’ve been trying to run away from. My wife and I got it from my kid at daycare and we have a lot of my wife’s… A lot of our family lives down here. We’ve been basically in a bunker in this house looking at people through windows and gates and once we got COVID, it was post vaccine for us. I don’t know, it pulled the bandaid off a little bit. So we go to family gatherings more and we go out more. And I’ve been traveling again, going to games conferences and stuff. Definitely with masks. I think I’m still being treated like I’m crazy by a lot of people. Even doctor’s offices where no one’s wearing masks, but still wearing masks.

And then on a better level… I mean, that was really good for mental health actually was being able to get out, see, just go back to games events, go to new games events, hang out with people who I’ve gotten to know better over the last two years on the internet. And finally getting to see each other in person. I got to see my business partner in person, actually both of my business partners meet one of them in person for the first time and see my other business partner who I’ve known for 26 years, got to come stay with me in Atlanta. That also leads to the fact that after two years of negotiation, we were able to get investment in my company, NuChallenger, which allowed me to leave my day job. And so I’ve just been able to focus a lot more on things that I love and less on corporate game development.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into NuChallenger. Talk to me about your studio and talk to me about the game Treachery in Beatdown City. I know they’re pretty closely linked.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
For NuChallenger, we like to say that… We say we making publish dope games and comp culture and I think younger me, I don’t actually know what younger me would’ve wanted out of a games company, but as I get older, I started working on this game Treachery in Beatdown City 10-ish years ago, maybe earlier, and just in my thoughts trying to do an indie dev thing even probably 12 years is where my brain started really thinking about it. And so the purpose was games, but then I started looking at the industry and I started looking at just the world and… I don’t know, having more space in my brain, being able to getting to meet Saul Williams’ poet who I love person and talking to him about video games because he’s interested in that and he’s doing a comic book and all this other stuff and talking to comedians who like video games and they’re interested in it.

And all these people that I really respect in other art forms, all being interested in what I do. A very formative conversation was when Saul introduced me to Vernon Reid, one of the best guitarists in the world, Living Colour. And he’s like, “This is Shawn, he’s a game designer with the most enthusiasm.” And I’m like, “You’re Saul, one of the greatest poets of the planet and you’re Vernon Reid, one of the greatest guitarists, but also secretly a heavy sci-fi nerd.” And the fact that we could then talk about video games after that really gave me this… A lot of these folks that I meet don’t know what it takes to make video games and I don’t know what it takes to make what they do. And I’ve wanted to make music and I write poetry from time to time and have been discouraged from doing it and doing more as an adult.

And comedy is something I love. And these are all Black art forms that there’s been a whole lot of innovation in. And so what I want to do is be able to work with people from all these groups. So I think about even with Treachery in Beatdown City, one of the thing that came out before the game was a rap single for that we dropped with our launch trailer with Open Mike Eagle, like a rapper who started loving in 2015. We met at the Highline in Manhattan where Vernon Reid was actually funny enough, that was the second time I saw him in person. He was at a rap show again, that was… I kept looking at these intersections of interests and then getting to talk to Mike over years and being like, “Oh, Mike really likes video games.” And it was like, “Okay. Cool. Let’s see about making just a cool track that’s like, it’s a track, it’s about a game.”

Game is about more than just games because the last decade has shown me that who I am as a person isn’t just as someone who plays video games. It’s a lot of things. It’s a game that deals with fascist police and stealing elections and all sorts of things. And so let’s make a song about that and then let’s release that song and let’s do cool things that are transmedia I think is very important. And something that was really big in the [inaudible 00:09:08] and kind of died off, but you saw a Black Panther, they put out a Kendrick Lamar album with it and everybody loved both. So that’s what we want to do with our studio. It’s being led definitely by games because I don’t think I want to make movies and there’s no shame on just a people that are just game studios, but that’s just not all that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, tell me more about Treachery in Beatdown City.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, Treachery in Beatdown City, so I’m from New York and originally biracial kid who grew up with a white mom looking different in a lot of different neighborhoods, always being harassed by people for that difference, being random person on the street, cops, whatever. And always having a lot of personal anxiety around the city in general, but also loving the city tremendously. I love New York. I love New York more than a lot of people do. There was a line from the last Black man in San Francisco where the main character says… Because people are saying, “I hate San Francisco” or something, and he says, “You can’t hate a city unless you love it.” And I feel that way about New York. Growing up in the city and growing up through one billionaire mayor that ran for three terms. One of them dubiously legally, fairly illegally. Or another mayor who threatened to kill the other mayor basically.

New York’s just a wild place. A lot of cultures from there, a lot of cool stuff’s from there. A lot of really bad stuff on corruptions there. So all in all, to say beat them up have always felt very interesting to me because they were always based in a Japanese retelling of post apocalyptic New York and other media around there. And we wanted to make our own game that was the New Yorker telling of post apocalyptic New York, which is now post Cold War New York essentially. And then, yeah, doing a funny… What if the president gets kidnapped? Except now it’s based on a Black president and it’s no longer complete fiction that there’s a Black person as president. You get to fight these weird stand-ins for… Well, a lot of people that are just on the streets. The people that would shout at you, ask to touch your hair, all sorts of things.

You get to fight those people. It’s like this catharsis that we always wanted to have. And also at the same time, again, loving comedy. I’ve loved Key & Peele for a very long time since both of them were on Mad TV even. And so their humor bled into the scheme. We call it a dark comedy tactical brawler in that it innovates a lot on the fighting stuff, but it also, it’s dark humor, it’s funny, but it’s also… It’s not really uplifting in a lot of ways. And that’s also my way of being a comedy writer when I don’t have time to do standup because I’m working on a game for 15 hours a day or more.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I know that’s been the main game that you’ve worked on through the studio. Are there any sort of other projects that you’ve been working on through the studio?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. So Treachery in Beatdown City, yeah, it started full-time, full-time when I was finally able to work on it. Because I used to work at Rockstar Games. That was my first job in the industry. Then I moved into Treachery in Beatdown City in July of 2012. And then over the last two years I’ve been pitching projects and pitching projects, pitching the idea of the studio just as a Black led studio that does cool culture working with the things I was saying, working with people from creators from other art forms. And so we have a two or three projects that are in various stages, but nothing that can really be talked about.

One thing is that everything that we talk while we do is NuChallenger’s mission is to definitely focus on the oppressed and also focus on being able to subvert that oppression and also just to fight back. And one of the projects we’re working on, I can just cryptically say it’ll deal with boxing and I’m very excited about it because I love boxing games. I know lots of people do and I would love to make a really unique, but cool boxing game that makes a lot of Fight Night fans happy. Makes people who like stories happy as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Boxing game would be pretty cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
There’s not enough. I stumbled on in the Punch-Out!! manual they talk about the dude who’s with him said-

Maurice Cherry:
Doc Louis?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Doc Louis, yeah. And they have a one sentence thing about how he was a champion or around the champion circuit in the ’50s and I stopped and I was like, “Wait, wait, we need to know more about that.” That really actually started making me think about just wanting to… Because, yeah, I love Punch-Out!!, I love Fight Night. Up until a certain point where the controls… Like Fight Night around three was I think the height of the games for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know we could definitely go more into video games and I want to definitely touch on your time at Rockstar because that sounds super interesting. But I’m curious, when you’re coming up with a new game, what does that process look like?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s strange. It’s interesting because it’s a… Process is I think always different. 10 years ago I did not know what I was doing at all. And I think I had been working on this project. Actually 10 years ago, earlier in 2012, I had actually put out two smaller games with teams that were two to four people and those games were made in a weekend each, because they have these Gamejam things that are 48 hours, they could be six months long. Also, I worked on a few month long, Gamejam also once upon a time. But it really all depends who you have, what resources you have in those instances because in a Gamejam setting, you’re just writing down stuff on a board and seeing what sticks and doing… I mean, I think in any game thing you want to have brainstorming, but when we are working on Treachery in Beatdown City, it was like I want to make a beat them up and playing a lot of beat them ups, writing down the things that I like, the things I didn’t like.

Taking those things, putting them together, then trying to make something, make a prototype, fail, continue going. I think that’s always something that no matter what you’re doing with your games, you always want to try to get something that you can play to see if it’s the idea that you have is working. You obviously don’t want to polish something too much because if you work for months on something that you could get in within a week and in months later you’ve polished the thing before implementing it and then you implement it and it sucks, then you get it rid of it or you keep it because you sunken cost fallacy, you then are like, “Well, we got to keep it because we spent three months on it.” Yeah, it’s just all over the place. Right now, I’m sitting in Miro for one project just dragging art onto it because we’re creating just a massive vision board of games, movies, people, our art styles, all sorts of things just to… And then I also cut together a hype reel that basically folks what we want the game to feel like.

And that would be something to stay internal and it would just get people hyped internally and say, “Oh, this is what you want to do. So we’re working towards this.” I don’t know, every studio I think has their own ways of doing it. I’m always trying to learn. The next projects we’re working on are the first time I’ll be working on a bigger project for myself. And when I worked at Rockstar, I never got to start those games ever because they were already in process when they were handed to me. And when I worked at MLB, which I worked at for six months, a lot of stuff was usually in progress or they were such short deadlines that it’s hard to even tell somebody like, “Hey, here’s how you make a video game in three months”, that where you already have existing tech and have to staple stuff over it. It changes constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like though, at least part of that beginning process is just setting the mood, setting the motif for the game. Because it sounds like, as you were saying, you’re like dragging stuff in the mirror. It sounds like you’re making a mood board almost.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. It’s something that a friend of mine who’s designing a game, he’s designing a lot of it in Muro actually. And so that’s a new thing that I learned this year. I’m learning to model my stuff after studios that are successful. I have a whiteboard in the corner. Yeah, I mean, my whole thing right now is I’m working to try to get small bits of the game put together and then we’re going to put them all together when we know that they’re working. Especially when you’re trying to pitch a project, it’s all about de-risking.

It’s like getting a good piece of concept art ahead of time could be better than even getting a broken build because if you could sell the game then you can make the game and that’s the… I don’t know, there’s a chicken and egg issue sometimes. And that’s actually been something that the games issue’s been trying to fix is that people need money to make prototypes, but they don’t want to give money to make prototypes. So that’s something that’s new. But yeah. And so for me, yeah, I’m just learning because I have these several projects and they’re all have different paths ahead of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about what the process is like because I know that we’ve got listeners that probably have thought about making their own video games. We’ve had other video game designers that have been on the show. I’ve even had ideas for video games, but I feel like it does involve probably a lot of programming. I mean, are you doing the programming as well or do you have a team to do that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I’m right now working with a team of folks doing programming. I’ve wanted to program, but it always puts me to sleep every time I try to learn anything. The most I really know is I can code html in notepad. That’s the most code I really know.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No, I was just curious on what that whole process looks like. I’ve had an idea in my mind for a long time, probably much longer than it needs to be for… I’ve had a fighting game idea, but I’ve also recently started with a role playing game idea and I saw this artist, this guy he used to work for Buzzfeed, his name is… Oh, it’s escaping me. No, his name is Adam Ellis. He started this on Instagram where he was making these character sketches for essentially a role playing game that never existed. He made these characters and these debuff items and bosses and all this sort of stuff, right? And then turned around and turned it into a book.

So the book is sort of a strategy guide, it’s called Fever Knights, but the game doesn’t exist. And I got the book, I was like, this is really cool. I really like how he sets the setting and the characters and the story progression or as much of a story as you can probably piece together from all those elements. But it’s not a game, it’s a game that doesn’t exist. But I feel like it has the elements that could become a game. I don’t know if it ever will be a game, but I just thought that was really cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, the ways that I’ve been able to actually do anything is the first “lines of code” for Treachery in Beatdown City was, I was getting frustrated because the person who ended up becoming the lead programmer in the game, we were just not working for any money at the time and I kept being like, “So when are you going to start putting stuff in the game?” And one day I just said, “Screw it.” And I booted up Game Maker because this was 10-ish years ago and I just put a Sprite in and you can get a Sprite walking around and animating pretty quickly in Game Maker. So if you have ideas, that’s a thing you can definitely do. I had to do a ton of UI design, all those things and that was the last bit I ever did also because as soon as I did that, it got a fire under his butt to start.

I said, “Oh, if I don’t start on this, then Shawn is going to just keep going without me.” And I’m like, “That is absolutely not true because I would fall asleep, I think I would die under pressure of trying to code and do all the art in a fighting game.” I’ve seen fighting games from all sorts of levels. There’s a really good that requires. I mean, there’s a… How I think double helix pitched killer instinct to Microsoft when they wanted to make the New Killer Instinct. They had just made one character that could play against themselves with barely any animation and they had to, but they did have to do probably a lot of code to make sure that everything felt good. They focused purely on feel. It was all gray models for on gray backgrounds. And then the hard part comes from then building out all the characters, but getting that little prototype that they had was fun.

So that was why Microsoft was like, “Oh, cool, you were able to get the feeling of killer instinct, but with 3D models.” So we want to do that. That there’s a famous story for Street Fighter 4 actually, where it used to not have 2D hip boxes and the team was confused why it didn’t feel good and they put it in 2D hip boxes and the whole game felt better. But it took hiring people who knew better to, so even big companies can forget how to do things. Yeah, like I said, everything comes from different paths. I feel like how did you start your game from 10 different teams? You’ll get 10 different answers.

Maurice Cherry:
So the process is still… I don’t know, it feels a little mysterious in that way then because everyone’s working from their own base of experience it sounds like.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, even a lot of video game stuff is, it’s what I always talking about how information dissemination is one of the keys to unlocking the problems of there being not enough Black and other underinvested in peoples in the games industry is that there’s no information on how to do a lot of things out there. I worked at MLB, I grew into a producer role there that I was hired to do because they just needed somebody to manage some stuff and also help out with a various other things. But I’m a game designer first and foremost. I ended up becoming a designer producer, but my job was always producer and I asked, we had four or five producers and I asked all of them what being a producer was and none of them could answer be the same way. And I’m like, “We all have the same job apparently.”

But some people would be like, “Oh, a producer, good producer plays the game all the time and gives no to the team.” And some producer’s like, “No, you really got to be good about the time.” And even in Japan, the term producer is different than it is in America. So there’s game planner, there’s game director, there’s like all these words that might mean something slightly different depending. I’ve had people explain job postings to me as being not as complicated as they list them. And someone tells me, “Yeah, you should apply even if you don’t have this skill.” And then I’d interview for their… Like, “Yeah, but you don’t have that thing that we asked you for.” I was like, “What is going on here?” So there is a lot of mystery there and that’s I think a key thing that we need to figure out. Because you know what a best boy is, what a key grip is, what a director on a movie is, what executive producers are like.

Executive producers don’t really have any weigh in on the final edit the editor does. Usually those are discrete things, but in the industry the executive producer could walk over to you and be like, I want this to be different. Yeah, I think we need more definition, more transparency. Everything’s just in opaque soup over here.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned when talking about Treachery in Beatdown City, that you are from New York. You grew up in New York and I see that you went to SVA and you majored in graphic design, dynamic media and 3D rendering in animation. How was your time there? Do you feel like it sort of prepped you for getting working into video games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yes and no. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be in games. I was working on comics, I’d been working on comics my whole life. I always was interested in music, but music always seemed to be a dead end where… I don’t know, I just couldn’t figure out how to get in or I couldn’t figure out how to get over my own stage fright to try to, I played piano as a kid and then didn’t get a right scholarship, so then I just stopped doing it. And comics sustained me through high school. But I remember a career person asking me, “What are you going to do in five years?” And I was like 15. I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.” And they were like, “Well, what happens if you don’t do that?” And I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.”

And so it just locked it in my brain. And so then I guess spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make games. And again, the information thing there… I mean, it was a lot harder to do back then. There weren’t Unity and Game Maker and Construct and Scratch. There’s so many engines that you could just pick up and go make something with. Now all you had back then was RPG maker on PlayStation and I ain’t known a PlayStation until a PS2 in 2000. So going into SVA… Something about SVA, I think I’ve been doing art my whole life because I wanted to. And then I hit SVA and with all those, I clashed heavily with the pretentious art weirdos that I had a couple of friends there. But also I lived very close to school. I was very depressed from all my friends from high school going away to school elsewhere, everybody basic, like I went to Brooklyn Tech with 5,000 kids.

So my graduating class was like 1,500 people, 12,00 people, 1500 people. I think I legitimately knew 100 to 200 of those people and most of them all went away. It’s a school. And so even one of my best friends from eighth grade also went to school at in Albany, New York. So I was like, “Ah, I’m all alone.” The girlfriend that I followed to SVA, that’s why I actually went to SVA was because she got accepted. She got actually told that Brett just didn’t want her and that her work wasn’t good. It was wild. So she went to SVA, I was like, “I’ll do web design.” So then I was like, “I’ll go to graphic design, I guess I don’t know what I want to do.” And when I got into SVA, my creativity tanked. I stopped wanting to do anything creative whatsoever. And 2002 I finally got a job at the EB Games I’d been hanging out at and I’ve actually found hanging out at that store once all my friends left, I needed friends so I would be on message boards play like…

It’s how I started playing Fire Pro Wrestling on the Dreamcast because it was an import. And I really got obsessed with that game, which actually then that game in turn helped me want to make video games because they actually would mod that game to make it in English, to give people new moves, all sorts of stuff. It was really cool. It was something that I was like, “Oh, you can do this even on a console.” And just being at this game store meant I was always talking about game stuff and it made me think about the games that I played.

And so then I thought, “Oh, maybe I could get into games as a writer. So I started, I just kept writing and writing and writing until I started finally writing about what I liked about the games didn’t like from… Which was from divorced from aesthetics, which was a bad idea at the time. But I was just like, “Do I like this part of the game? Do I not like this part of the game?” I was trying to ignore art and stuff like that, which again is hilarious since I’m an artist. But that’s actually what got me more into wanting to make games, was talking to people about it daily, talking to customers about games, going home and then writing about them. That’s what kept me living the idea of wanting to make games because art school made me want to not be an artist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that sentiment from folks before, not just specifically about SVA but about other art schools in general. They had all this promise and then there was something about the structure or the regiment or the attitude or the discrimination or whatever about the particular school that just sucked it out of them. That’s what it sounds like. Sounds like that’s what happened to you.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I think also just working, I had to work… I mean 2004, the first two years of school graphic design was a bust and I wanted to do animation, but computer animation was like, they talked about how sophomore year, which would be my 2004 because it would be my fourth year in school. But they basically made me go back a year. It actually made me go back two years in terms of what I had to learn to relearn a bunch of stuff for foundation year. And then the sophomore year they were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to take two majors on and figure out which one you want.” Dynamic and 3D. So they said most people would just quit the school during that year. And this was a thing they told you in the interview and it was just like, “Yeah, you really did give me way too much work.”

Classes are supposed to be three credits each so that you’d have five classes for 15 credits. In computer art they made you take three, two credit classes so that you had six credits and then a no credit class. So four classes to fit into two space of two classes to just jam. But that means you still have an extra six hours a week of class you have an extra six hours a week or 12 hours or more of homework. Yeah, just so when I’d be done working, I just want to play video games. I didn’t want to do schoolwork, I just wanted to watch wrestling and stuff like that. I’d hang out with friends because also not being able to see people at school, not being able to have friends there, it was not being on a campus I think really was detrimental. But I also couldn’t afford living at SVA and I lived 10 blocks away so couldn’t justify it.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get your start at Rockstar? Did that happen while you were at SVA or afterwards?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That was interesting because I was eyeing jobs in my last year at school and there was a lot of stuff at a lot of different companies and I was like, “Oh cool”, but I have this mental blocker where I can’t apply for something until I know I will have the space for it. And so I waited until I graduated to start applying and everything had disappeared and then I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck as an assistant manager at GameStop.” And because the games industry in New York is very small. I had a partner who had a kid, had my mom. I didn’t want to move outside because outside, I had never really lived outside the city so I didn’t know how to drive. I was like, I don’t know how to find a games job and I’m not going to go move to somewhere with no skills or whatever to just go try to work somewhere.

So that summer I just kept refreshing all the websites. I saw PR job at Rockstar and I applied to it. I had two interviews and then nothing. And I kept asking, “Hey, what’s going on?” And the guy, the first interview guy actually was like, “Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Turned out the whole department fell apart. I found this out after I was hired because of something that the global PR guy had said who actually he quit then that’s why I couldn’t get hired because the person who was supposed to hire me quit. So then Game Capture or Gameplay Capture showed up as I kept refreshing through the summer in September of 2007. And I think GTA four had just been delayed. It was supposed to come out in the fall and it had been delayed to the spring and they needed some folks to work on their trailers and they needed to fill that role quickly.

And I guess that’s where I’ll say the SVA thing did come in contact because I did actually have a decent thesis. I had to jury rig together this 2D slash 3D thesis, which just showed good camera use. And that was something that I think I just had inherently. Anyway, my teachers were all like, “How do you know how to do this? Other people don’t really do it this well.” So I don’t know if Rockstar got me there, but I don’t know if SVA got me to Rockstar. But it got me to make the thesis and I sent Rockstar storyboards that I had made for my… Actually because I had gotten failed in a class and I had to redo a thesis class. So I had two thesises that I had completely storyboarded out. So being able to hand over all the storyboards, the scripts that I had written, all sorts of stuff that apparently got me my job.

I interviewed for… I found out my salary at GameStop. The guy came because I was a few blocks away from Rockstar and he was able to just come down and be like, “Hey, we want to hire you, we just need to talk money.” So then within a week and a half even, I think I was working at Rockstar.

Maurice Cherry:
And so if you could sum up that time, I know you were there for a good while, but I mean you helped with launching a lot of games. There are GTA 4, GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, LA… I’m reading from your bio, if you could sum up that experience in a couple of words, how would you say it was for you?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, definitely complicated. I always say I wouldn’t have stayed there if there wasn’t anything good, but the amount of work you have to do wasn’t tense. It was within two weeks of me working there that I was working seven days a week for a while. But I learned a lot. I didn’t necessarily learn again things towards making my own video games, but I learned how to manage people better. I got to watch movies to learn better cinematography because there was a lot of good stuff there.

Also good friends, it’s really cool to see those games from the inside out and know how that stuff. So if I ever get to make a AAA game at that level again, I’ll be like, “Ah, I’m ready for this, because I’ve already worked on cut scenes of stuff that are 3D, big stuff.” But it did help me, my trajectory also working at Rockstar, having Rockstar games cards, people are in awe of you for working there. Got me to have a conversation with Method Man at an E3 where he really actually, he bought a copy from Madden of Madden from me at EB Games one time and then many years later he had a show at E3. It was right after Red Dead came out and we got to talk about Red Dead Redemption, which is cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now I had first learned about you from your Kickstarter campaign that you did for Treachery in Beatdown City back in 2014. I’d love to just know, I know you’ve had the genesis for the idea around that time, but I guess what drove you to start a Kickstarter campaign to try to get it off the ground?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
So the initial development of the game was built fairly off of either free time or severance/unemployment to be able to pay my bills. Because I’ve never existed in a space where I could just not pay myself. I needed to contribute something. Having gone to school and having student loans and everything and also having grown up in poverty, I didn’t have… Savings wasn’t a thing. My mom could not support me. I had been supporting my mom through my job at EB Games. Any job basically. Even after I moved out, I was still paying into internet. I got my mom internet, I got my mom, new computers, et cetera, et cetera because she could not afford any of that stuff. So I never had that luxury. That’s one of those things you hear about indie games where they’re like, “Ah man. And that person just worked for five years and then they put out the game and it was like, yeah, that need money to do that from somewhere.”

And again, I was living with my former partner and her kid, so we all had mouths to feed still. And so leaving Rockstar, it was good because I was able to leave with some package that with some money and some unemployment because I could never just quit and leave with nothing. And then I had this PlayStation Mobile contract that there was an interest there that they had this where they were putting some money into alternative indies, I guess people who had alternative backgrounds in games. Because having a AAA background and then from Rockstar and then having this idea for this interesting beat him up was something they were interested in. It wasn’t a lot of money they would give you, but it was something. And so that kicked in as my unemployment kicked out and after the six months and I was able to pay the programmer who was able to buy his own computer so that we could work together, which was a game changer in and of itself.

You know, don’t think about the resources that you need. One of the game jams that we were at, we had to share a computer and that made it really hard to make a game when you had to keep handing each other the computer. So yeah, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources. And PlayStation Mobile in 2014 we could tell was going belly up. I don’t know, there’s a lot of strife internally from what I could tell. And we knew New York just isn’t a place where games are made a lot of times. It depends, it comes and goes. But I don’t think I could have gotten a job in the games industry as again, a designer, non programmer. I’d have to find somebody who wanted to just hire me specifically for that.

So we had been working on this game for a while and yeah, end of December 2013, I was like, “What am I going to do?” I was really scared actually. And so I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a Kickstarter.” So I started getting to work and it was a few months of work to get the Kickstarter ready. The launch went really badly in that I didn’t know they needed to vet your page.

I sent it in and then they were like, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Oh no.” So it threw off what your 30-day trajectory looks like. It was not even going to end during the week anymore. It’s not going to end on a Saturday, which is not a good idea. I was very naive and I thought I’d built up enough of a fan base following of the game that and just of myself as a person in the games industry that we’d be able to be successful. But nothing went right. We weren’t able to get videos recorded in time, we weren’t able to. And I honestly should have just waited another month or so. But I was desperate. I was, again, coming from poverty, you come from a money is just constantly dripping away mindset. So I was just like, I need this money as soon as possible. And so I launched and you can tell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say, I know that the campaign wasn’t successful, but I mean the way that you… And I understand where you’re talking about it, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 that flopped hard. So I completely understand. I think also though just the climate around crowdfunding was not as, what’s the word? I guess prevalent as it is now. When I started mine in 2011, a lot of people had no idea what Kickstarter was, what crowdfunding was, why should I give you money, that sort of thing. And I thought that I had a audience behind me that would be able to support what I was trying to do with my campaign and it just flopped. So I know what that’s like. I know exactly what it is to go through that whole thing. You did end up starting another Kickstarter campaign, but I’m curious when it fell through, what was going through your mind? What drove you to keep continuing working on the game?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m actually trying to remember. In video games, there were actually a bunch of successful Kickstarters. That was why we were like, “Ah, this is a place that we could go to.” That was one of the burgeoning sides of it. People in my direct family still did not know how Kickstarter worked obviously, but you could see making millions of dollars on Kickstarter and I wasn’t looking for that. But I think why I saw it as a possible path out and when it failed. So the last day, two days, Kickstarter were hilarious. Like I said, it got bumped to Saturday. That weekend was Game Developers Conference that year, so starting on the Monday. So it was failing on the Saturday before the Monday and the Friday before that. I never missed a plane. I missed my flight to San Francisco at 8:00 AM. I had to sit in JFK for 12 hours.

I was basically… Because I wasn’t sleeping well that time either. So I basically just went to sleep in my lap and waited for my flight to finally show up. I think I went and found some food at some point and because I was fairly broke back then, I really would. I try to leverage my friend base to try to find somewhere to stay the first night or two before an event kicked off. So I didn’t actually have anywhere to stay that night when I got to San Francisco. But when I landed in San Francisco and it was at night and a friend of mine was like, “Hey, you can come stay at my brother-in-law’s apartment.” It ended up being in a basement that had no cell reception. So it was actually perfect because I’d have to go outside to check what the internet was doing, what the Kickstarter was doing.

So I just had resided that it was going to end and I just turned on Archer on Netflix, on an Xbox and I went to sleep and I woke up and it was over. But it was really good to be there at Game Developers Conference because literally the next day there’s this website, unwinnable.com where they write about games and they have all sorts of amazing great games writers there. I had written for them a couple of times. They write about personal stuff. Sometimes they just write cool music of the year lists and stuff.

But they used to rent a house for Game Developers Conference so that they could bring a bunch of writers and charge them based on how much they could pay. This is before Airbnb really. And I got to stay there the day, I think the Saturday after Saturday night after. Yeah, that was awesome because I got to just talk to these people who were like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know about this game was on Kickstarter, et cetera, et cetera, cetera.” I just was around all these people were like, “Oh, this sounds amazing. What are you going to do?” People all very, very uplifting, very positive. It was the exact right place to be when something didn’t succeed because I had so much support.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it sounds like it. That’s good. No, I feel like we’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years that game development can be a hostile environment. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, yeah, my thoughts mostly are that my wife used to work in non-profit stuff and I’ve seen her abused as much as I was. In terms of time and what people expect of you, it’s more benign. I don’t know, I think all industries suck. I always say like, “Well, let’s look at the CG industry and how they farm it out to non-US countries a lot of time and then don’t credit them and stiff them on money and stuff.” The games industry’s definitely got a lot of bad parts. It’s got a lot of good parts. A lot of people want to keep focusing on the bad things and I mean there there’s tons of hostility. It’s absolutely true and that’s why I don’t give up. And I’m always trying to mentor folks on the side, introduce people, tell people who did a thing so that they can avoid that person.

I’ve been the victim of a lot of more, I guess insidious toxicity or just people smiling to your face and stabbing you in the back. People just not wanting to work with you after they screwed you over rather than them act or if you just complain about things, people not liking that. There’s definitely an air of toxic positivity, which I think needs to be talked about a lot more because I don’t know, there’s an uroboros of people being like, “Why is the games industry, why are fans so toxic?” And then the industry, you look at 30 years of the industry being like, if you don’t have the best form of hardware, then you’re nothing. It’s just like why you think, I think it’s up to climate change. It’s up to the big companies to really put money in to fix a lot of the stuff. I just try to do as best as I can by the people that I work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Do you have a bigger goal or a bigger message?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m an artist, so game development is the thing I use to do stuff. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know, Treachery in Beatdown City is about how far will rich people go to take control over things. And it’s a very timely thing. Every piece will be different. I mean, I also put out a little Twitter art piece a while ago that was being Black in America and it was using Mega Man Sprites, which evoked an interesting response from a lot of people on the internet. A lot of people being like, “Wow.” And a lot of other people being like, “Well then they should just act right” and you see people showing up on themselves. Basically what I make is does exist to provoke a response a lot of the time, one way or the other. But again, I’ve released music with people.

I release board games, big video games, small video games. I think it’s just who I am. It’s how I think the term NuChallenger is funny that I stumble on it because I feel like my existence in the games industry is a challenge to the games industry. It’s funny that EAAS was challenge everything and I’m like, we’re one of the biggest companies in the industry. You don’t challenge a whole lot of things clearly because you keep making the same matting game every year. Everything we do is going to be different, but definitely feel like something we’re doing.

There was an article a long time ago that was looking for the Spike Lee of games and I don’t think the article understood what the Spike Lee of games was. They were just seemingly looking for a Black person making video games. And I’m like, Spike Lee went and had to hustle a ton of people for money to make Malcolm X the movie. And it’s a huge epic that has its flaws. It’s an amazing, amazing movie that I’m so happy it exists. He’s also made stuff that I don’t ever want to see again, like BlacKkKlansman and because of its weird propaganda thing. So he’s an artist. He’s entitled to make Project to Project. That’s how I think of myself and what we want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t think of yourself as a Spike Lee of games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I say I’m the Malcolm X of games.

Maurice Cherry:
Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Well, I mean, I don’t know. I think of a lot of things, but I mean I provoke response from the games industry a lot. I mean, again, I’ve been fighting this fight. I think about having written that thing about having written a talk, how Urban Black and Latino cultures the next frontier of indie games nine years ago, taking months of researching and educating a ton of people in the industry about how it’s very strange that if hip-hop was in parallel with video games and it’s a very technical art, especially from the production standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. Actually other than that video games were so insular that it told people that they were not welcome basically to be in it. My whole thing is, and I provoke responses to people. I say things that are uncomfortable to people’s faces. I’m trying to make the games industry better.

I’m trying to bring Black people together to make a bigger space for them so that people aren’t always expecting Black people to make sad games about blackness. I don’t know, I just want Black folks to be free in the games industry. That’s a very important thing to me. I don’t know about Spike Lee’s intentions for movies. I know that NYU likes to parade him around. They’re like, “See, we have a successful Black person who came from our program”, I’m like, “Where are all the other Black directors?” I think of myself more along the… I want to work with Jordan Peele one day. I like Boots Riley. When I saw Sorry To Bother You, I was like, “Ah, this is along what I like to do. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t say I’m the Spike Lee again, but the Malcolm X or the Stokely Carmichael are more what I try to go for.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was just curious. That’s a powerful comparison. So I was just curious to know where that came from. For people who are listening to this who want to get into developing games, what would you recommend to them?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s always hard because I feel like every time I give people advice, they just want to hear advice to hear. They are hoping that the thing that they’re doing is the thing that’s right. And then they just move on. I’ve told so many parents how to do things for their kids and then they never do anything games. Well, I mean, I’d say don’t be afraid because I mean, it’s just like, don’t take every game tutorial thing with, take a lot of them with a grain of salt. Don’t sit in your head for too long. A lot of times I think trying to take a small game and just modify it. Can you turn a deck of cards into fighting game or something for the game? Corporate Vandals I worked on, it was like, can you take Tic tac toe and make that a graffiti tag warfare game?

Basically turf warfare game. And it doesn’t take, It’s really hard because people always tell me that I seem to have a knack for these things. And again, I guess the thing that really got me to the point that I’m at is I played a lot of games and I wrote down analysis about what I liked and did not. I feel like an opinion on things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And don’t be afraid to be really harsh on big games because I feel like people tend to let big games off the hook more. And I’m like, we don’t say Transformers is the pinnacle of movies. And that’s what we say for video games a lot of time.

The biggest flashiest thing that makes absolutely no sense at the end of the day. And it’s maybe a little ugly from an arts perspective, art design perspective, we’re like, “Oh man, that gets a 10.” And you’re like, “What?” So look at that stuff. Look at that stuff. Look at small games, big games. See what overlaps, see what doesn’t. I would say also read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. I really like that book a lot. And she’s just very, very smart game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into game development?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That’s always a hard one because like I said earlier, when I was a teenager, I decided this is what I was doing. Everyone tried to talk me out of it. It was weird. I don’t know. As an artist, every time I try to think about my life without making video games, I’d come up with a blank. Because when I was working on my comics, the reason why I wanted to make games was because I wanted to have this old comic when I was 15 that I really wanted to turn into a thing where you could make real meaningful choices and then have these sprawling side things. And I had another game like that too, where I wanted to basically turn Crono, make Chrono Trigger, but make it 10 times as big. I always had these ideas about telling stories that go off in these different branching narratives, and as I make games now, I really love the mechanics of them.I mean, I think I wanted to make movies, but I had to work at a game company to learn that I liked movies. Strangely enough, I stopped liking comics. I don’t know, my brain just doesn’t have the attention for them anymore. I don’t know why. The only comic I could read was, what was it? The Understanding Comics is the best comic that I can read. And it’s funny because it’s about comics and it’s about sequential storytelling, but I can’t read, I get bored of them. Even short comics very quickly nowadays. Even ones that I loved since I was a kid. So it’s really hard. That’s one of the, as someone on a funding landscape and seeing people saying, “Oh, X, Y, and Z is going to replace, X is going to make it really hard to do this, or people only want these types of games, or these people only want that and it’s going to make it hard”, puts me in a weird place.

And that’s why I’m also very protective about the games industry as well, because I look at it as a place where art converges, I mean, I want to do hobbies when I am no longer doing a lot of this stuff in my free time. I was actually trying to gear up to do standup few years ago and then COVID happened. I’ve been trying to had a guitar for a while that I’m trying to learn. I want do those things, but I actually think I want to do those things and just practice them without the need to make money off of them. Because making video games for money be being a thing that I love tremendously for money and having to sell that art is very distressing in and of self. But yeah, I don’t know. The path is, I hated graphic design. I mean, I love graphic design as an idea, but I hated it from a, I don’t know if I could sell it because it changes so often. I guess I do apps, I have a bunch of app, I have a bunch of things, designs that I’d like to do. I’d really like to make a good dating app. But it also comes from game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Well that’s where the dating apps are getting their behaviors from. I

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Think we need to onboard people in general for everything Twitter needs to onboard people. We need to have a little quest that you go on that’s slightly hidden from the user so that they can somehow be tripped into learning that people are people on the internet and that they can’t just be shouting at women that decide not to answer their texts and hiding messages. I don’t know. All sorts of things that, as someone who met my partner on OkCupid, after a lot of digging through in A/B testing, profile pictures and length and this and that, and just figuring out what actually made people interested in me on a very quick interface. I want to make that better for other people. That’s what I would do, I guess.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Really hoping that we’re done with the project that I’m pitching now. I would like to be done with that before the next five years. So in the next four years I’d like to be done with that and have that in the world while making the other project that I’ve also been pitching. Those are the key things. I’d like to just be at home more or rather, I work from home so I’d rather be not. Because right now I’m just in this time space where I’m doing this update to treasury and beat Town city. So it’s taking a lot of my time and I’d like to just be able to spend more time with my kid and my wife and hopefully have more of a feeling of Atlanta as a city since I’ve only been here for about less than two years now and just vibing out with musicians, maybe doing some music, doing some standup. I don’t know. I just want to be able to be more creative and free I guess, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Atlanta’s a good city for that. I mean in, I think you told me you were in Marietta, right? Yeah, yeah. Got to get out the suburbs, come into the city. Yeah. Yeah.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Tickets to see Qualey Chris at 529, October. Him in push a fee like three days apart. So it’s going to be, so two different experiences. I’m trying to go in as much as possible. It’s exciting. But yeah, that’s also the other thing is working all the time keeps me out here. I need to learn how to drive. We might need to buy another car because the car right now basically takes the baby to and from daycare, takes us to doctor’s appointments and does grocery shopping and I can’t drive to the city while my kid needs to be picked up. Right. We’ll see. Yeah.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I have a site, it’s a nuchallenger.com, N-U-C-H-A-L-L-E-N-G-E-R.com, where I’m trying to post stuff about the games. We’d love to update that more. beatdowncity.com is Treachery in Beatdown City. Twitter, ShawnDoubleA, S-H-A-W-N-D-O-U-B-L-E-A. That’s where I just am on at beatdown_City on Twitter is where I do a lot of corporate ship posting. It’s funny. I like it because I can actually be free there and post dumb fighting gay memes and stuff that I find funny that I don’t feel uncomfortable posting to my eclectic group of artists and game important people.

I don’t know. I have a strange Twitter following that. I’m like, Why do you follow me on Twitter? And I don’t want to lose everybody. And also I’ve just been bullied so much over saying anything about being Black in games that I just stop arguing on that side. But I’m trying to get more things like this going like a podcast. I’m trying to, I want to work on a book at some point because I think it’ll be important. I’m going to try to put out some video content too, because people keep telling me that I should be talking about more of these things and I’m just like, yeah, Time is the key limit there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, Shawn Alexander Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I mean, one, just sharing your story of how you got into games and about the story with building treachery and Beat Down City. It sounds like this is something that of course you’re really super committed to, of course doing this through your studio. So I’ll be excited to see what comes next from you, what comes in the future. I know you mentioned before we were recording that there’s a big update for Treachery in Beatdown City coming, so I’ll make sure that we put links down in the show notes for the games and everything so people can check that out. But thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Thank you very much.

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Reggie Tidwell

It takes a lot of drive and determination to chart your own course, and no one embodies those qualities better than this week’s guest. As the creative director (and founder) of Curve Theory, Reggie Tidwell has provided beautiful and effective design, branding, photography, and videography work to clients for over 20 years.

We talked about the secret to Reggie’s longevity as a creative entrepreneur, and he shared his story about growing up in St. Louis, studying graphic design, and his early post-grad career as a Flash designer in the beginning days of the World Wide Web. Reggie also spoke about what brought him to North Carolina, and about his work in bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville. Reggie is a prime example of what being a steward of design and giving back to your community looks like!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Hey, I’m Reggie Tidwell and I am a graphic designer and a professional photographer as well as a videographer, which I do on occasion as well. I tell stories.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Wow, it has been a great year. Bought a house.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you. I also have had my best financial career last year. Everything has culminated to that, and this year seems to be on track to even beat that, so that’s super exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s real good. That’s real good. I mean, even with all of that, is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean, once you own a house, there’s always house stuff that you want to accomplish, but professionally, man, things have just been falling into place and sort of a beautiful way that I feel just very excited. I’m going to be doing all of the photography for… So I’m a huge fan of the outdoors and nature landscape photography. I do a lot of that for Explore Asheville, which is our big tourism division here in Asheville, and the Gray Smoking Mountain Association has reached out and they’re going to have me do all the photography for their new book on Cade’s Cove, which is a really beautiful spot in the Smokies. So if you’ve ever been to Great Smokey Mountain National Park, it’s our biggest and most visited national park in the country and it’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’m super excited. I’m going to be doing all the photos for the book, so I’ll get a book cred.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Congratulations on that.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thank you, sir.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about your company Curve Theory. Now, Curve Theory has been around for over 20 years, which I definitely have to tip my hat to you. I ran a studio for nine years and I know how much goes into that. So 20, over 20 years, I think. What, 21 now, right?

Reggie Tidwell:
21 years. 21. I’m in my 21st year. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s been the key to your longevity?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, it’s building relationships. I’ve never advertised. It really is a combination of building relationships and being passionate about the work that I do. I love designing photography, I love being a creative, I love people. And so it just makes sense that I would be able to maintain this business because it’s all the things that I love and things that I would be doing anyway. I’m always building relationships. I always tell people, and I always think it’s a funny little bit of a factoid about me. I don’t typically just add people on Facebook that I don’t know, and I’ve got 3000 plus connections on Facebook and every single one of them is someone that I know. I had either a meaningful conversation with and align somewhere, or they’re friends in real life or I served on the board with them, or whatever the case may be. They’re all real connections and when you think about that, that’s a lot of… Exponentially the more people, the sort of more you can grow your network. This business for me is really about being present and available.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good for Facebook. I think Facebook and probably a lot of social media networks now have really enabled this way to just collect friends, almost like you’re, I don’t know, collecting trading cards or something like that without really having any intentionality behind it. The way that you’re about connections on Facebook. That’s how I am on LinkedIn. I’m really, unless I’ve worked with you or I know you personally or something like that, we met at a conference or something, we’ve had a conversation. That’s usually the only way that I’ll add people. Although now, lately I have gotten a little lax and well, partly because I let them stack up. So I’ll go months without adding anyone on LinkedIn and all of a sudden I’ve got a hundred connections. I’m like, “Oh, I should probably go through these and see who I know.” And I tell people, write a note to let me know how we know each other. And I mean some of them are just sales calls and what have you, but…

Reggie Tidwell:
So many of those.

Maurice Cherry:
But in terms of the power of the network, I got laid off recently and I posted I think two posts on LinkedIn about it and I was flabbergasted by how my network showed up and spread the word and put me in connection with other people. And I’ve had some great conversations and such, so…

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there’s this author Porter Gale who says your network is your net worth. I totally believe that. Absolutely.

Reggie Tidwell:
Totally. Yeah. I get so much business from those connections on Facebook. I mean, quite honestly, it’s just doing stuff, especially from the photography side of my business. I’ll post a photo and I’m constantly posting photos and I do also on LinkedIn. Ultimately what ends up happening is because you’re constantly putting content out when someone thinks a photography and someone says, “Hey, do you know a great photographer?” You should be in someone’s very short list of their mental Rolodex. And that’s what happened. I get calls all the time. Hey, so and so… I mentioned on Facebook that I was looking for a drone photographer or a lifestyle photographer, a commercial photographer, whatever, and they mention you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s a typical day look like for you?

Reggie Tidwell:
So for me, it’s nice being a designer and a photographer because on any given day, I never know it could bring me being out in a field on a photo shoot, it could bring me in a brand strategy session with a client, or a discovery session with a new branding client, whatever it is. It’s nice because my days aren’t always the same. I get to travel, I get to, for instance tomorrow I’m going to be in another area of North Carolina for a commercial shoot for pretty much much of the day, starting at Golden Color. And it’s nice. And then Friday I’m in the studio all day, probably editing photos from that shoot and rounding out a logo for another client.

Maurice Cherry:
So you include your photography as part of your design service, so I guess company services, I should say?

Reggie Tidwell:
Kind of. Occasionally the two will intertwine, usually the two intertwine when I’m doing web designing. So if I’m designing a website for a client, a lot of times because I know exactly what kind of images the client needs, I can add it as part of my service to do a lifestyle shoot of their company or their clientele, and then that can get baked into their website. And I’m working with my own images. I can control a lot more effort that way. But yeah, it happens. It doesn’t happen as much because I don’t do as much web design as I used to. I’m probably doing about two or three sites a year where I used to do quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Back when I had my studio, I wound things down from the design end, I’d say roughly around in the mid 2010s because there was certainly a market for bespoke web design. They want, people wanted a particular website theme or something like that. But now with all these website builders out here, people are taking the design element, or at least the modular parts or the design process into their own hands. And it’s like, yeah, I don’t really need bespoke anymore. And so I ended up doing more consulting because you were able to shift like that. So it’s interesting now because I’m looking for work at the moment and people are like, “Oh, okay, you redesign a website?” I’m like, Ah. I mean I haven’t done it in a long time maybe.

Reggie Tidwell:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m probably not your first choice for that, but I get what you mean. People, they hear design and of course if you have an online presence and a website, that’s the first thing they think about is, “Oh, can you design a website or can you redesign a website?”

Reggie Tidwell:
I think depending on the client, I do still see value in bespoke. I feel like ultimately I’ll end up doing a completely custom website where I’ll get to work with a developer and I’ll design the front end and we can work beautifully and make something really amazing. But that doesn’t happen as often as I would like. But I do find the builders have actually worked for me because especially if you know them, there’s Divi and Elementor, there’s a handful of other ones I’ve been using Divi for a while, and though it can be a little bit verbose in it’s code, I find that the flexibility of me being able to do something completely custom using mostly you doing custom CSS to some of their built in modules.
So I can build the content and lay out the content really quickly, then go in with CSS and really start to fine tune and make it exactly what I want it to be. That’s a nice, because I do work with very large clients and also small clients, that’s a really nice option for clients that don’t have six to 10 grand in their pocket to do a website. It’s just nice to have that as an option and for them to still get something that’s custom.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of which, what are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Reggie Tidwell:
Quite honestly, I’ve got a soft spot for the mom and pop shops, either they’re startups or they’ve been around for a while and it’s time to change things up. I love that transition of being able to help them renew their own passion in their business through that process. I’m working on the branding right now for an auction house that’s been around for decades. They’ve been on Antique Roadshow, so they’ve got a presence, but their brand look is a bit dated and they’ve started resting on their laurels a little bit because everything is just so tried and true. It is what it is. It’s been what it’s been. And they realize this time to shake things up a little bit. They want to expand their market a little bit, they want to… And so going through that process with them, it’s so rewarding because they’ve been living with the same logo for 20 years, or longer.
And to be able to see them embrace something that’s different, and it’s a fun process too with this particular client because they were like, “Yeah, we want some completely modern and avant garde.” And I went there, they were like, “Oh no. We love it, but we’re not ready yet.” And so, okay, that’s good. At least I know what your comfort level is. And so now I can dial it back and land exactly where we need to be. And then feeling them working through the resistance but then initially, not only acceptance, but oh my God, this is amazing. This is going to be really great for our company. We’re excited. That’s a great feeling.

Maurice Cherry:
So when a project, let’s say, comes in your inbox or something like that, what does your process look like when it comes to starting on new work?

Reggie Tidwell:
So I usually have a quick little meeting with the client just qualify whether or not we’re going to work well together and whether I’m the guy for the job. But then once that decision is made, I set up a discovery session where we really actually start to dig deep into the typical discovery questionnaire where you learn a little bit more about their business, their aspirations, what’s working, what’s not working, so I can better provide exactly what they’re looking for. I feel like, for me anyway, I feel like the key to being a good designer that makes happy clients and solves the right problems or solves problems in the right way is asking the right questions at the very beginning. So I’m all about being inquisitive. I want to know everything. And if you feel like it’s too much, it’s not.
Because at the end of the day when I’m digging into sketching out logo concepts or I’m coming up with a tagline or whatever that information that I’m going to be so thankful that I have it because I can go through and dig in for inspiration to recheck the direction that I’m going to make sure I’m headed in the right way. But yeah, it’s all about the Q and A, at the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
So I see here on your website that you do a lot of volunteer work. You worked also with Leaf Community Arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So, Leaf Community Arts for me was a big part of, I did service work before that, but it probably to date was probably one of the biggest chapters in my life in terms of giving back. Leaf Community Arts is a nonprofit here in the Asheville area that they have teaching artists that go into the public school system and the neighborhood centers and basically recreation centers and they work with youth, teaching them poetry, dance, how to play the Djembe, how to do different types of art, visual art. It’s pretty amazing. And it gives kids this sense of ownership of something which I think is quite necessary, especially for the age range of students that they work with. But then they also have this other part that I was actually more aligned with was they do cultural preservation in First Nations, third world countries like [inaudible 00:16:38], and Uganda, and Rwanda, and Cuba, all these different places where there are cultures that have been around for ages and First Nations tribes that as the youth are becoming more westernized and the elders are dying off, these cultures are just vanishing.
There’s no evidence of their songs, or instrument making, or costumes, or any of it. And so what Leaf Community Arts did what they were partnering with an agency on the ground that was trying to do that cultural preservation and help raise money to do things like build recording studios, or hire artisans that know the native language to native songs, the instrument making, the dances. And they actually make it really cool for the youth where they’re putting their phones down, and totally engaging, and dancing, and singing. And I found that particularly interesting. I love the beauty of cultures, and how different cultures are, and how you can learn something completely and different from a culture that you never had experienced before.

Maurice Cherry:
And now are you still doing work with them? I know that now you’re also the new president of AIGA Asheville, the founding president, but have you waned your work with Leaf Community Arts?

Reggie Tidwell:
I have still a supporter of it. I worked all the way up to my presidency in 2017 and then my term ended. So I’m now board president emeritus. I’m still, the Leaf Community Arts people are family, they actually put on a huge music festival three times a year. I’ve met Arrested Development, Speech. Now we know each other by name. I’ve met, gosh, we’ve had Angelique Kidjo, and Mavis Staples, and Indigo Girls, and all these amazing bands that have come played. The Family Stone. But they put on this music festival in the spring and in the fall and this really beautiful place out in Black Mountain called, Black Mountain, North Carolina, called Lake Eden. And then they do one in downtown Asheville in the summer. And that basically raises money for all of the work that I mentioned before that they do with cultures and with the youth.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Nice. And we’ll talk more about your AIGA Asheville work a little bit later on in the interview. With everything that you do through Curve Theory, what gets you truly excited about your work?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I love to solve problems. Quite honestly. I love working with clients and trying to find out exactly what’s not working with them and helping come up with solutions that one, inspire and excite them. But then also they continue to propel me forward in my love of the work that I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now let’s dive a little bit into your personal story. You talk about this I think a bit on your website, but you grew up in St. Louis. Is that right?

Reggie Tidwell:
Born and raised?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Tell me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I was raised mostly by my grandmother, an amazing dad too, that was also in the picture. But most of my time was spent with my grandmother, who was an educator. She taught for 36 years and she was a huge supporter of education. And so in the summers where all my friends were out playing and running around, I had to do homework before I could go out and join them.
And of course I hated it then, but on some level I understood the importance of it and it would come into play in many periods throughout my life, just being someone that is studious. I ended up testing the highest in the seventh grade in language and math in the entire school that I was in seventh.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
In seventh grade. Which that said a lot about my grandmother’s dedication and how she worked it with me, but it wasn’t with a heavy hand. She just understood that she wanted me… I grew up in a very, I would say mean, just put it bluntly. It was a poor neighborhood, lot of gang violence, a lot of break-ins and theft. And I saw some pretty horrific things in my own neighborhood, just in my own alley. It wasn’t a place that I wanted to definitely grow up and grow old.
And so education for me was the key of being able to get to a more ideal situation. So I wouldn’t say I was a first generation college student. My mother had a degree music, actually two. She had wanted music and art, possibly three maybe in education. But my grandmother, of course was educated. And so it set me on my path to discover who I really wanted to be in the world. I think you had mentioned very briefly what was it that made me choose this path of design? But all that didn’t come quite easily.
I ended up pretty much blowing away my first couple years in St. Louis at a junior college called Florissant Valley. I think I had a 1.9 GPA because I wasn’t inspired. I picked business administration because I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. But you’re asking a 18 year old, 17 year old, 18 year old kid to decide what they want to do for the rest of their life. And yeah, of course I want to run a business. Oh yeah, business administration, that’s what you should do. But that’s such a broad topic. I wasn’t inspired.
I actually went from that student, at one point I was the student in the back of the class nodding off, not very inspired. The teacher would call on me and not only did I not know the answer to the question, I wouldn’t even know what the question was because I was probably asleep. So I ended up taking a break after four semesters of that, I said I got to do better. This isn’t going the way I wanted to go. So I ended up taking a semester off and really doing some deep diving and soul searching. I talked to my counselor at the school. I really thought long and heavy about what I liked and the things that I knew I liked were being creative. I was always drawing from the time I could hold a pencil, I was sketching and doodling. And so I always loved art. My mom was an artist, is an artist. And so that was an inspiration.
And so I went back to school. I decided at the time that I wanted to be an interior designer or a architect. And the path to both of those were mechanical drawing and a lot of drafting. And so that was all I needed to be inspired. I went from that student that I mentioned before to the student making the top score on every test in every class until I graduated. I went from a 1.9 GPA to a 3.2 GPA, graduated with honors and got my general transfer studies to go on to a four year college.

Maurice Cherry:
I know there’s that saying that goes, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t necessarily want to do to try to get to do the things that you do want to do. But I think also to that end, just from what you’re mentioning, that whole period of high school going into college, there’s so much pressure to try to decide exactly what it is you’re going to do. And I mean we also, I think have to put this in the context of just where the world was at this time. Because I’m guessing this is around early nineties. Early nineties.
And there was just this push, and I was mean I was in elementary school then, but I mean still there was this push to know exactly what it is that you’re going to do with your life at fairly early age. Look at the state of the world with what’s going on, what is it that you want to do? And for a lot of people it’s tough. I mean, even when I started out in college, I ended up switching majors because I thought I wanted to do one thing just based on societal norms and such. And then I was like, eh, I don’t really like it.

Reggie Tidwell:
I know. That’s a big part of it. I mean, thinking about it nowadays students take what they call a gap year. I am a firm supporter of that because I do feel like somebody that young needs to go out into the world a little bit and understand who they are. I mean, up to that point, they’ve just been a student studying all the basic electives. There’s nothing in that that would potentially produce career inspirations. Maybe you like math and maybe you like biology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a mathematician, or a scientist, or a biologist.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, I feel like that would’ve served me well. But thankfully I was able to make that comeback and find that inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
You ended up going to Maryville, University of St. Louis and there you studied graphic design. Talk to me about that time.

Reggie Tidwell:
So yeah, actually Maurice, I started, remember I said I was interested in just interior design or architecture. That’s what got me to Maryville because they actually had a nice interior design program. And I got there in those first two years I thrived. I was still inspired and I was still being a great student and loving the experience. But at one point I got, so the way Maryville’s program was set up at the time was you did all your art electives and got all those out of the way, and your art electives as well. You got those out of the way the first two years and then you dove into your concentration.
Right as I was about to make that transition, I talked to my counselor, Nancy Rice, at the time and I was like, I don’t know if I want to do interior design. I like the sketching part, I like the conceptualizing, but then it’s all floor plans and elevations and it gets super technical and that’s the part that’s where I get lost. And this particular teacher who, it is funny because I’ll tell you this in a second. She basically told me, Reggie, you’re great at computers. You love computers. I’ve been working on computers since I was 15. My grandmother bought me a Commodore 64 and I was programming in basic, I was playing games. I became very comfortable in that computer world. The nerd, the invention of the nerd. I took that as a compliment. She’s like, yeah, you’re big in the computers. And then she said, and you also love art, so you should consider graphic design.
And for me that was a new term. I hadn’t thought about it. And once I did the exploration and thought about it and understood what graphic design was and understood that I’d already seen it all around me all the time already and thought about how I could be someone contributing to that. Yeah, I was like, you’re exactly right. This is exactly what I want to do. And that’s where it started. I feel, I feel really fortunate that I’m someone who got a degree in something that I’m actually still doing.
I guess it was a few years ago, I reached out to her because we’re friends on Facebook. I thanked her. I didn’t remember if I’d ever thanked her, but my whole career came from that decisive moment where she told me about something I didn’t know about. And then I ran with it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’m trying to think, I’m trying to place this in time because we talked earlier about early nineties. So this is mid nineties or so.

Reggie Tidwell:
So this is mid nineties. Yep. Mid nineties. Actually…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. When you said…

Reggie Tidwell:
…ended up graduating with my BFA in graphic design and December of ’97.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Tell me what it was studying design back then, because you also have the big advent of the personal computer. You’ve got the coming of the internet as we know it. What was it studying design during that time?

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, it was wild. I mean, first and foremost, we’re working on Apple Performs 4500s I think was the model number.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
And I mean these things were tanks and dinosaurs. You could have Photoshop open, only, or Illustrator, but not both. And if, we’re talking 32 megabytes of RAM and I mean lots of crashes, so you had to frequently save your work. We definitely did some cut and paste stuff because that was just not too far out of the rear view mirror that people were still making the migration to computer. So there was still a lot of manual cut and copy and paste, cut and paste design, lot of assemblage, a lot of that stuff was still going on. So of course it was part of our curriculum.
And I’ll tap into my photography side as well. I always find it a little bit of a, for me, I paid my dues. It was a rite of passage that I actually got to do photography. I got to take photos using film and understand the value of the frame and not just take in 450 shots and hoping there’s a good one in there. And then actually developing my film in the dark room, all that stuff was happening around the same time, which all feels of course very archaic now. But that was the start. That was what it was like back then.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean it sounds like it was just really hands on because the computer couldn’t do everything. I mean, it could do some things, but you still, like you said, have to do copy and paste, or cut and paste, or you still have to take photos and develop them yourself. It’s so wild now when I think about digital cameras, because I remember in high school having Fun Saver cameras. You go to the party, you have your Fun Saver camera, you take all kind of shots, you don’t know what you’re going to get back until you get it back from Eckerd or wherever that you got them developed at. But yeah, and I took a photography course back then too, so I know about developing in the dark room and stuff, which now seems… It’s funny. I’ll watch a movie or something and they always paint it as this, I don’t know, old school way of doing things. Developing. And it’s not that far away from now.

Reggie Tidwell:
No. No. And honestly it’s become of a niche for some people. I know a lot of people that actually I say a lot, but a handful of people that are still shooting film and still developing in that handful of dark rooms that are left. And it’s something, I think maybe they embrace it, not because they’re too stubborn to switch to digital, but it’s a craft for them. Some of them are people that have embraced digital, but they also still really love film. I admire that. I think it’s great. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the smelling the smell of fixer and then and not knowing what you’re going to get until you are dropping it into the developer and hoping that you nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I could imagine even doing design back then because computers were changing and software was changing and everything. Were there trends back then? I’m just curious because I feel like a lot of stuff still carried over from print, but were there specific graphic design trends that you remember from back then?

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I mean I think there was a time where decorative fonts were really starting to become prevalent. And you started, I mean this was quite honestly, I think this was when fonts like Hobo were actually still being used.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
Oh yeah, yeah. Papyrus. Yeah, I feel like there was a exploration… Fonts just exploded. And with the advent of the computer, fonts started off trickling in and then they exploded. And I think designers had to be really disciplined to not, I feel like most designers were going really far out and using all these crazy decorative fonts and still having their design disciplines about them. So they may only use one decorative font and a nice San Serif that balanced it. But those fonts were not elegant, at all. And it of course, depending on what you were trying to do with it. And I think what has happened, we’ve seen from a time where people were trying to get away from using the tried and true fonts, the Adobe Garamond, the Futura. People were feeling like those were overused or they were too basic and so they had to expand their typeface horizons. And then I find these days, man, some of the best brands go back to basics and are going back to some of those tried and true fonts and looking for things that are a little more elegant.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t even think about the proliferation of typefaces as something that was part of design back then, but it was. I mean really because you had, of course, greater displays that were coming out and you could just do more than what you could do with print in terms of the types of typefaces. You just had different things.

Reggie Tidwell:
I think that was it. I think it was so many people were used to doing manual print design and then all of a sudden you’ve got access to 3000 fonts. Hold me back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s exactly what it was.

Maurice Cherry:
So you graduate from Maryville. You’re out there in the real world as a designer. What was that early postgrad career like? Talk to me about that.

Reggie Tidwell:
So the first thing I did, so going back to that whole wanting to be an entrepreneur thing, that still was in me. I still definitely wanted to have my own business and I started actually working with clients before I graduated. I worked at Office Depot, so I met a lot of people and there were people coming in that needed business cards, but they were really awful designs that they had or they didn’t have one at all. And I said, “Well this is what I do.” So I started developing a clientele before I even graduated and then spent the first year postgrad being an entrepreneur, working in the basement of the apartment that I lived at in at the time, it was actually a townhome, doing branding work. And it was mostly just branding and identity systems that I was doing early on. But about a year into that, being someone that’s super social, I started to get that cabin fever and wasn’t around people as much as I’d like to be.
And so I had a side job working at Circuit City. On one particular day I was venting about, man, I really think I want to work in an agency or a company. And there was a guy by the name of Mike whose dad headed up a division of Lid Industries, which Lid is a Fortune 500 company and they had a division in St. Louis called PRC. The acronym got dissolved, so I don’t know what it ever originally meant, but it was in PRC. Anyway, they were hiring a resident graphic designer and at the time, you’ll appreciate this, in terms of historical relevance in the design and web design world. They had a Macromedia authorized training facility and I got the interview, got the job. They wanted me to teach Flash and Fireworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Reggie Tidwell:
So I ended up being the only guy in St. Louis teaching Flash through a Macromedia authorized program. And so that really just kicked off all kinds of just awesome awesomeness in my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know you were in high demand back then. Cause Flash was everywhere. Everywhere.

Reggie Tidwell:
Everywhere and everything. And that was right at the onset of its popularity. So I stayed with that company for about a year, ended up, gosh, being in a big metropolitan area, teaching Flash was awesome. So I ended up getting hired away by a information graphics company called Xplain. And I ended up being their interactive team leader. That was pretty exciting. Did that, ended up teaching at Washington University while I was there because the Art and Design faculty at Washington University wanted to learn Flash. I did a summer workshop for the Art and Design faculty. They loved it so much they invited me to create a multimedia class as part of their visual communications curriculum based on Flash and other video and other multimedia applications. And that was amazing. And I ended up partnering with a lot of design agencies in the St. Louis area, fairly large agencies because they didn’t have a web team or division.
So that was cool. I ultimately got laid off from Xplain. They went through four rounds of layoffs. I went in the last round and because they still needed the work that I did, they became my first client. So that’s how I started Curve Theory in 2000, and or in 2001. It was just one of those things. I was still popular, the work was still necessary, the company was needing to make some pivots. And that was a blessing on my end because I always wanted to have my own business business. And that’s how it happened. I started, I launched Curve Theory with them as my first client 21 years ago.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I mean, I can’t think of a better way to roll into entrepreneurship like that. You were already super highly sought out for your design work in another medium. The company you’re working with goes out of business. You start your own business. That’s perfect. That’s a perfect handoff.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, it was. And they didn’t go out of business, thankfully. They did go back to their original, I think they grew to like 45 employees at one point, but they went back to the original 13 and they’re still around a day and they’re still thriving. But yeah, it’s getting kicked out of the nest but then given a nice little mattress to land on.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
It was great. And I really love St. Louis, but I definitely knew that at some point I was going to want to leave St. Louis.

Maurice Cherry:
So what brought you to North Carolina?

Reggie Tidwell:
So at the time, the woman that I was dating was also in that same head space that she was ready to leave St. Louis. I was still teaching in Washington University and then actually had just been encouraged by the design chair, the Art and Design faculty chair to apply for this tenure track position that was opening up in the Art and Design department. And so I was at this crossroads where in my heart I knew I really didn’t want to stay in St. Louis that much longer. Things… I had envisioned leaving St. Louis almost as soon as I graduated but things kept falling into place career wise, which was great because those things were setting me up. But at one point my partner and I, ex-partner and I, were having these frequent conversations about where we would ever relocate to and at one point I mentioned that a good buddy of mine had in passing talked about moving to North Carolina.
And so I asked her, “What do you know about North Carolina?” And she said, “Oh my god, Asheville. Asheville is absolutely amazing. You would love it. Check it out.” And of course, since we had the web then, I looked it up and I mean, I think within 20 minutes I knew it’s where I wanted to be. It wasn’t landlocked. There’s a four hour drive to the ocean. Mountains, waterfalls, streams everywhere. Hiking trails, mountain bike trails, you name it. That’s the kind of guy that I was. I mean, thankfully had a father who raised me. In the time I spent with him, we would go camping and hiking. And so early on I garnered a love or appreciation of the outdoors.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you had the job that allowed you to do this work from anywhere. So why not go to a place you really want to go?

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. I actually, I had to finish that first semester at Washington University and then I had the whole spring semester. So this was in 2023. Loved that semester, loved my students. Finished that semester, turned in my grades in May and the following weekend was Memorial Day weekend. I’d literally moved a week after I turned in my grades and never looked back.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been there ever since.

Reggie Tidwell:
And been here ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You’ve been a part of the Asheville design community now for such a long time. You mentioned your community work earlier and you’re the founding president of AIGA Asheville, a new chapter. What was behind bringing an AIGA chapter to Asheville?

Reggie Tidwell:
That’s a great question, Maurice. So for me, one of the things I did mention that I was on the board for the St. Louis chapter in the mix there. I think I joined the chapter while I was, might have been while I was still at Lid in PRC, but I know I did two or three years on the board as their web chair for the St. Louis chapter. And I really love that community of design, the comradery, the people that you surround yourself with understand your day to day trials and tribulations, they get it. So that was, I really appreciated that as it pertained to the design community in St. Louis. And I got to Asheville and we didn’t have that. As a matter of fact, I was trying to find designers just to connect with, just to network with and they just weren’t around.
I think I had maybe three or four design friends at the time, but we knew there were more designers in and around the area, there just wasn’t anything in place to help bring them out. Out of the woodwork. And so we had a lot of early conversations about, I would reach out to these other designers that I knew in the area and tell them how much I wanted to have a chapter in Asheville, because the closest chapters were in Knoxville and Charlotte. It’s a couple hour drive each way in either direction. And so for me, just selfishly, I’m like, God, I want that here. I don’t want to drive two hours to have community. It took a while. Originally you had to have 40 sustaining members just to even be considered to have a chapter. And I think given the fact that we were having a hard time finding 20 designers in Asheville at the time, that was a tall order.
So we ended up creating this thing called Design Salon, which ended up being a hang for designers in the area. And the more people gathered, the more the work got spread out, and the more designers you realized were here. The more you understood that there were some really talented people that were in Asheville. And because Asheville is such a draw for people all over the world, somebody that’s here now probably wasn’t here two weeks ago. That’s how’s how it works. There was a woman named Jamie Farris who’s also a really good friend of mine that took Design Salon and started adding programming to it, and that made it even better. And so the more program she added, the better. The more it had an actual format instead of just being a creative hangout, the more I saw that we were there, it was time.
And so 2019 was when I had a feasibility meeting. I just called a bunch of people that I knew and they invited other people and I said, “Hey, I think it’s time to finally start a chapter.” I didn’t actually know the requirements had changed in my mind. I was still thinking 40 sustaining members. So half the way through, we learned that it was only 20 sustaining members, but we actually turned in our petition to become a chapter with 43 sustaining members, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Just because we are a little bit of a smaller city and I wanted to show how bad we really wanted to be a chapter.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And from that first meeting I was able to build our first board of really awesome and engaged founding board members. So yeah, we started literally the year before the pandemic and have thrived through the pandemic and we’re still kicking it.

Maurice Cherry:
That is amazing. That’s amazing to hear that. And now when you say sustaining members, is that members at a particular membership tier? Because I feel like they had that at one… I feel like sustaining was one of the, if not the top, but one of the top tiers you have to have.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I think Design Leader was the one after that. I think the sustaining member was at the $250 giving level and then it went to Design Leader, which doubled to 500.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reggie Tidwell:
And so that is, especially for a professional association, that was a lot to ask, but I was just elated that many people wanted it to and believed in us having a chapter that much that they signed up. We still have a tremendous amount of sustaining members. We probably have more sustaining members than we have in any other giving level. And they have changed the price structure and the names of the giving levels a bit. And so it’s, I think easier now than ever to join the AIGA and I feel like that was part of the reason behind just sort making it a little simpler, especially after the pandemic. But yeah, it’s quite wonderful to be in a city that now has a chapter. We have great programming. We’re putting on our first design weekend, which is a mini design week that’s coming up at the end of the month.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh. Very nice.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, first weekend of October, so it’s September 30th through October 2nd. Super excited about that. We got David Carson coming to speak at our annual meeting in November. That’s going to be pretty cool, Mr. Masterclass himself. So yeah, we’re happy to have a chapter and we’re happy to be able to have such a positive impact on our design community and that means everything for me.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all your experiences, is this how you imagine yourself when you were a kid in St. Louis?

Reggie Tidwell:
No, not at all. And it’s funny because I think being a kid in St. Louis and growing up where I grew up, I feel like my grandmother knew and saw my potential, but I didn’t see it because it’s hard. I’m surrounded by the things that I was surrounded by. And I think it’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re in that scenario. And for me, I don’t think, honestly, I still get surprised. I think at some point in your life, Maurice, when you’ve accomplished a lot, when you’ve done a lot, when you’ve had this longevity of experiences and learning, at some point you start to realize that people see that in you and they see all the experience and all the leadership and the guidance and they start to seek it out.
I get called to be on boards, I turned down probably seven board positions last year. I’m publicly a leader. And so I think it still surprises me sometimes where, and I think it also surprises me that sometimes somebody asks me a question and I think I’m still that 25 year old in school and still on his path figuring things out, and learning, and discovering. But then I start to answer, I hear the question and then my head just gets filled with all of this relevant information that you don’t even really think about. You’re not just sitting around thinking about all the stuff, but when someone calls and asks for mentoring or it’s a colleague you’re just shooting a breeze with. You start to realize how much of that stuff is in there and it’s quite amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
What gives you purpose to keep doing the work that you do now?

Reggie Tidwell:
I think for me it’s those relationships and experiences. I’ve always said that if I won the lottery and had all the money that I would ever need, I would still be a designer. I would still do design, I would just do mostly nonprofit work, and do it pro bono, and just take a select number of projects a year. I love the work, I’m passionate about the work, and I’m passionate about the people that I get to work with. I’m very particular about the clients. If a client doesn’t seem like they’re the right fit or I’m not going to have a mutually enjoyable experience, then I’ll pass on a project. And I’m pretty thankful to be in a place in my career where I can do that.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give for someone who, they’re listening to this interview, they’re hearing how you’ve come up throughout your career. What advice would you give somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps?

Reggie Tidwell:
I would say, and I talk to young people all the time, I actually mentor. And the thing that I feel like is the most important is to really keep exploring who you are and what you like, and don’t follow the money. I feel like it’s very easy to, I’ll talk back to a time in my life when I worked at Office Depot when I was Florissant Valley in Junior College, I was asked to get into the managerial track at Office Depot where at the time I might have made, once becoming a manager, I may have made $35,000 or $30,000, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. And that’s a very easy distraction. That’s a very easy temptation. And I had a friend at the time who also was a really, really talented artist. He also was wanting to go to design school.
He ended up getting in that track and hated it. It just completely dominated his life. He wasn’t fulfilled. The money at some point wasn’t even relevant because he never had time to spend any of it because he worked so much. I turned it down because I knew, I think at this point I was already at Maryville University, so I was already in the graphic design program. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. So in order to get to that point, you have to do some self exploration. You have to understand who you are, what it is that you really value and set your sites on being able to do that for a living. And don’t waiver.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Man, I would love to retire in five years. I’m 51. So that’s definitely a tall order, but in a perfect world, I might completely crush it for the next five, six years or so and retire early, or at least partially retire. But I do see myself in leadership. I do see myself still trying to bring positive change to communities in whatever way I can. Through social justice, through design leadership, through, I’ve hinted at the thought of being, it’s been mentioned and it’s been a internal conversation and conversation I’ve had with colleagues about the AIGA trajectory, and perhaps maybe serving on a national board at some point. I have friends on the national board. I love the organization and I love what the organization provides to the design community. And I always see its potential is limitless and to be able to serve in that world at a higher level, definitely. But yeah, that’s probably something that I would look to within my five year trajectory. And more than anything, I always want to make sure that the work that I’m doing continues to be meaningful.

Maurice Cherry:
I think you should definitely consider it. I mean, I’ve done work at the volunteer level, at the national level, and it’s great. It’s been great. I highly think you should do it. And I’m sure other people have probably mentioned this to you as well, but there’s a book in your story. There’s a hundred percent a book in your story.

Reggie Tidwell:
Yeah, I don’t know if anyone’s outright said that, but I definitely know there’s stuff in there that I always find it intriguing to look back in my past and see where I’ve been, and where I am, and how I’ve been inspired, and how I’m now able to inspire. That all is important to me. But yeah, thanks for saying that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, there’s a hundred percent a book in your story. I mean, one, I think just because of how you have managed yourself through how design and technology have changed, but then also I think your personal story added in as a layer on top of that. And with the work that you’re doing now through volunteering and giving back, that’s the best seller. You might want to think about it. You might want to think about it. I’m just saying I’m putting it out there.

Reggie Tidwell:
Thanks. You’ll get their first copy for sure.

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

Reggie Tidwell:
Absolutely. So curvetheory.com. C-U-R-V-E-T-H-E-O-R-Y dot com is my commercial website. There is a link to my print work on there, which yeah, prints are great, but if you want to see the bulk of my commercial photography, landscape stuff, nature, and cityscapes, that’s a good place to go. I also am on Instagram Curve Theory on Instagram. And there I don’t really put a whole lot of design work on. I do have a separate account that I’m hoping to start building up my, putting all my design work on, but really photography… Years ago I had a mix of photography and design and it always just felt all over the place for me. And one of the things I always noticed when I go to other Instagram accounts and I see these really nicely curated feeds that everything just, there’s something nice about the continuity and you’re like beautiful landscapes, and then there’s a logo. It just feels odd placed. And so I took all my design stuff off of there and it’s just my photography on my Instagram account. But those are the best places to find me. And I’m also on LinkedIn. Reggie Tidwell on LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Reggie Tidwell, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, of course, like I just mentioned about there’s a book in you, your story and the passion and the service that you’ve given back to the design community is something that I think is really inspiring for a lot of people. Certainly your local community. But I hope that people that listen to this interview also pick up on that as well, because you mentioned being raised by your grandmother and her being a teacher, those values that she instilled in you, you’re continuing to give those back out to the community, which are really the basis of your success. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reggie Tidwell:
Hundred percent agree about my grandmother, and thank you so much for having me on, Maurice. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

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Kevin Hawkins

The good thing about design is that if you have access to the right opportunities, your talent can really take you places. Take this week’s guest, Kevin Hawkins, for example. While he cut his teeth in the Washington DC design scene, for the past few years he’s been working in Europe, including his current role as global UX director for Glovo in Barcelona, Spain.

Our conversation started off with learning more about Glovo, and Kevin shared some of the rewarding bits and some of the challenges of his work. He also spoke about how his parents inspired him to be an entrepreneur, designing in DC and San Francisco, and how a trip to The Netherlands influenced his decision to work in Europe. Kevin’s story is a great example that when you take a chance on yourself, you will never lose!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Hello, I am Kevin Hawkins. I am the global UX director at Glovo in Barcelona, Spain. I manage a team of designers, researchers, operation specialists, content writers, and it’s about a 90-person team working on global food, grocery and everything delivery, in about 25 countries.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should also mention that you also live in Spain. You’re not just working remotely because of the pandemic.

Kevin Hawkins:
Correct, yes. I’ve lived in Barcelona now for just over six months. I moved for this job, and it’s been going really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. How’s Barcelona?

Kevin Hawkins:
Super hot. The heat wave has been roasting Barcelona, but it’s also the time of year where they have neighborhood festivals. So it’s been super nice to get to know the city and see it come alive, but also see all the tourists sweat in the sun.

Maurice Cherry:
So aside from this move, how’s the year been going in general?

Kevin Hawkins:
The year’s been going really well. A lot of unexpected changes. I was previously living in Amsterdam, so it’s been a lot of big changes; another move for me, a new job, a new house, a new language. So it’s been a year of change.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing at Glovo, where you mentioned you’re their global UX director. Talk to me about Glovo.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so Glovo, if people don’t know, it’s really big in Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia. We don’t have a presence in North America, but we used to have a presence in South America. It is essentially if you were to combine DoorDash plus Uber Eats plus a little bit of FedEx. We are a delivery logistics company that started out doing food. We do groceries, we do appliances. We’ve started doing COVID tests. Essentially if you want anything in the city, we deliver it, we schedule it, we get it to your door. And we operate in 25 countries and just recently merged with a big group. So now we have about, let’s say, total, a couple billion orders a year that we handle as part of Delivery Hero.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How has business been going during the pandemic? I’d imagine probably pretty well.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. This is one of the kind of outlier industries that did really, really well. As everyone started ordering from home, we ramped up. We were one of the first in Europe to start scheduling at-home COVID tests, because we could deliver you the test, but we can also deliver you the test with a nurse or someone to actually administer the test. So it was a really good time for us to launch new features. I only joined in February, so I came in on the high wave of all this growth, really trying to use that extra momentum and the profit margin that came with it to really invest in big things to keep that momentum going as people go back into the world and things open back up.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the team that you’re overseeing.

Kevin Hawkins:
The team is my favorite part of this job and favorite part about the entire company, honestly. So Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which if you know anything about Spain, the different groups and factions, they fought for a while. There’s distinct cultures, so it’s different than Madrid, it’s different than Valencia or other areas of Spain. Very humble, very sweet, very down to earth people. The founders are both from this region, and it’s very much seen in the culture of the company. And so I really love the people. The roles that end up reporting into me are typically design and research, but also design ops, research ops, localization and internationalization teams that handle our translations and cultural differences, as well as the content writers and little bit of program management.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a sort of typical day look like for you?

Kevin Hawkins:
There is no typical day, I will tell you. So I am the highest ranked design person at Glovo. I report directly in to the chief product officer. So my typical day is a mixture of diversity and inclusion and hiring practices, meetings, making sure that research plans are adapted to different countries, dialects and languages. I have one-on-ones with five different heads of UX. Generally, I’m talking to a software account manager about renewals or new feature development, planning a research trip, or as part of my work with an employee resource group, we are planning an event or sharing new guidelines or new fact sheets to inspire the company to be more inclusive.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just about to ask you about that. You head up this ERG called Colours at Glovo. Tell me about that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, Colours of Glovo is a really fun part of the work I do. So the employee resource group is dedicated to diversity and inclusion as well as cultural differences related to ethnicity, race, and a lot of the nuances that happens within countries or within cultures. So generally speaking, we have ERGs dedicated to Pride and women’s inclusion and disabilities, but our ERG tackles all of the gray areas, the really specific things regarding operating as a company that has a bunch of gig workers. How do you handle the issues felt by the couriers, who are often immigrants? How to be adapt the product to be mindful of cultural differences and sensitivities in Western Asia and the Middle East and Northern Africa and Islamic countries? How do we modify for language, a number of things, delivery to women in homes where a man can’t enter the home? The number of things that comes through the ERG is super fascinating, and we help the company navigate these kind of differences and choices.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think Glovo will take off in the US? Is that a plan, to expand into this market?

Kevin Hawkins:
As someone who was born in America, I definitely think about this a lot. I don’t think we will. We have a really successful strategy, which is based on being number one or number two in all the markets we operate in. Given the intense competition of Uber and DoorDash and everyone in the US, I think it would take a very dedicated expensive effort to come in and be number one or number two very quickly. So I don’t see it happening in the near future. But now that we are part of Delivery Hero group, we are in the top three delivery companies globally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I would imagine if Glovo were to expand into the US, you’d have to contend with Amazon. And they’re just everywhere, I mean, ubiquitous. I’m surprised, I know they used to do food delivery. It’s funny, they used to have Amazon restaurants or something, but I guess they just decided to give that up. And now they just do, of course, package deliveries, they do grocery deliveries, et cetera. But for what you’re mentioning with Glovo, it sounds like this FedEx, Door Dash, Uber Eats kind of hybrid sort of probably covers some gaps that maybe something like an Amazon wouldn’t cover.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, we have a couple of things people don’t expect. There’s a really famous feature from the very beginning of the history of Glovo called Anything Picture, or in Spanish, [Spanish 00:09:21], which is you actually describe what you want to receive and the courier will go out and get it. And that means you could say, “Hey, I need two pillow cases and a pillow from Zara home.” Zara Home isn’t a partner of Glovo, but this courier has a credit card and can go into the store, buy it, expense it to you and bring it to your house within 25 minutes.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty good. That reminds me of … Oh my God, I’m trying to think of … Do you remember Webvan?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my god, it reminds me a little bit of Webvan, from back in the day. I don’t know if they were that exacting, but I like that feature. That sounds really cool.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, there were a couple concierge apps that came out back around then. It was like Cleveroad, and there’s some older ones that are no longer existent, because the margins were terrible. And trying to accommodate random requests at random times always became very challenging. But it’s cool because we still have that part of the app, because it’s the oldest feature, people love it. And when it works really well, I mean, it’s a moment of absolute customer delight.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. We have a place here in Atlanta called Zifty. And Zifty has been around probably since, oh my God, maybe 2003 or something like that. They’re like the pre-Uber Eats or pre-DoorDash or something. If you wanted to get something from a local restaurant, depending on where your zip code was, they could get it for you. But also, they had a little grocery store. So if you needed to get toiletries or aspirin or whatever, you could get that along with your food, and they’d sort of bring it all together. I think they might have taken a bit of a stumble during the pandemic.
Well, one, services Uber Eats and such came about, so now you didn’t have to use Zifty. You could use any of these other services, which were cheaper. But the thing with Zifty is they were really good about trying to make sure that all the drivers were paid a livable wage, all that sort of stuff. They weren’t trying to undercut your own tips or anything like that, as maybe a similar type service might do; not naming any names, but you know what I mean. They might not try to undercut them on that sort of stuff. I don’t know how well they’re faring during the pandemic, because they stopped doing the grocery stuff, because I think just the possibility of transmission of COVID. And so now it’s just restaurants. But they’ve expanded into a mobile app.
I’m curious to see how they weather it through, because they’ll be coming up on 20 years next year. And it’s amazing how they’ve managed to weather the storm as society has changed. Because I think in the beginning people were like, “Wait a minute, the only thing I really would order delivery would be pizza or maybe Chinese food.” And now you can get pho, you can get sushi, you can get pillows, like you mentioned. You can get anything now via delivery.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, exactly. The thing that we saw really spike during COVID was what we call quick commerce. So it was these brands like Gorillas or Getir, in some cases even grocery stores, directly offering what was 10-minute delivery for things. And this is what led to the same rat race that Amazon triggered when they launched one-day delivery. All the retailers have tried to scramble to get three day, two day, one day, same day, few hour delivery, sparked by this kind of, “Oh, that’s possible.” So then people find use cases they didn’t normally have.
In our space, it was quite literally the grocery store companies and these quick commerce companies pushing food, because food was always, “We get it to you.” You have companies that have couriers like us, and then you have some restaurants that have their own drivers, like notoriously Domino’s. And we merged them together.
But then you had products that were committing to $10 or a 10-minute guarantee and you get your money back, which is significant pressure on the logistics company, because you don’t have staff. People are volunteering. They get online when they want to get online. It can rain. You might be in a hilly city like San Francisco. The number of variables were endless, let alone things being out of stock. So we had to contend with this really, really heated race. Getir raised a billion dollars almost in funding, which is an unheard of number for a company that just started. So it was a really fun time for the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
It also sounds like, I think you mentioned this earlier, but you are also delivering COVID tests too. I don’t know of any other services really doing that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think it took a long time, but I think Uber eventually decided to start letting you schedule COVID tests with CVS, and then perfectly scheduling to pick up and drop off. But that was the closest I’ve seen on the large scale. We were actually delivering tests and then also delivering practitioners who could administer the tests, because it was just a perfect remedy. We started doing supply-based delivery. So if you were ordering an appliance, we’d have an installer; you’re buying a TV, we have an installer. Imagine everything from Best Buy, they have that service called Geek Squad where they come and install things. It’s just timing and scheduling of a person to arrive with goods. So we were like, “We sell goods, we deliver them on time, why couldn’t we deliver a person with them?”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So it’s sort of also like a TaskRabbit in there too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, a little bit, as long as we could estimate the cost before, because TaskRabbit, there could be overage. We didn’t really get into that. We have a single transaction, single promise, single sale. It was applicable to many, many things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned the team being the best part about what you do. What would you say is the most difficult part?

Kevin Hawkins:
I mean, it’s also the size, the scale. The differences within the markets that we operate in is probably the difficult part. Whenever you come up with what you think is a simple solution or that makes sense, it is never going to apply equally in Portugal as it will in Kurdistan. It never really makes sense the same in rural Nigeria or rural Kenya as it does in downtown Barcelona or in a very dense three-city country like Poland. When you have urban sprawl, when you have a six-language barrier, when the couriers or the partners speak completely different languages than the average customer, these complications, these nuances, these details makes the work for the team really complicated and also makes funding and prioritizing research … I would say fun, some would say complex.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve served at a number of different companies. You’ve even worked internationally before, which we’ll get into a little bit later. I want to take things back to the beginning and sort of talk about your origin story. Tell me about where you grew up.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I don’t get to talk about this too much, but I’m originally from the Washington, D.C area. So my first home was in the city, and then we moved back and forth between Rockville, Maryland, Silver Spring, Maryland, and back into the capital. And I spent pretty much all my time in D.C., with a lot of travel with my dad, who is from the military, and then my mom’s family, which is African, from Liberia. So we spent time flying back between the two continents, but also just around the US at different military basis.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. First generation. I like that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you have a lot of exposure to art and design and stuff growing up?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so my mom was a nurse and then broke away from the family expectations going into medical because she wasn’t happy, and became a fashion designer. And that was a big inspiration for my ability to problem-solve and really understanding when people say they want certain things but what they really want is something else, which is of course a big skill for designers. And then my dad was in the military but then left and became a labor rights attorney, and was really working with a lot of politics and advisory, and also had his own business. And so I was always surrounded by creative thinking, problem solving, a lot of politics, a lot of public relations. And it always made me think about, what if I did something similar to this? And I ended up helping them build their websites and their marketing collateral. And that’s really how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you of know that this was something you really wanted to study and go into, as a kid?

Kevin Hawkins:
So, that happened really early. I think it was probably as early as 10. So when I was super young, this is like seven or eight, if you went to school in the States especially, you know had to get a book cover and you had to get a binder cover sometimes, because you had even and odd days in middle school. And all your textbooks were either rented or they were really expensive, so you wanted to cover them to protect them, maybe sell them back later on in the year.
And my mom and I came up with the scheme of making the coolest covers. And so we had a little business called Cover Me Cool. And I essentially would be the model at school, and people would ask questions, and then you would sell them. And that got really big, and we ended up going to a trade show. We talked to me to Mead and Five Star, we got a patent attorney involved. It was my first [inaudible 00:18:29] really getting involved in business. So by 10, I had sold a company and had understood a bit of the politics of trademark law and copyright law, and decided I wanted to be more on the creative side of business. But definitely my teeth wet, and was really excited to do more independent design work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you had your own business and sold it by the time you were 10?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would say sold is a nicer version of this. Ultimately, we couldn’t afford to scale and license NFL prints and everything. And someone [inaudible 00:19:06] buy from us. And we said, “Obviously, that sounds great.” So we sold. Sometimes I think about what would happen if I hadn’t, but I think ultimately, it was a great learning lesson.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, look, an exit is an exit. And the fact that you were able to sell off the business and still keep going, that’s a great thing. I say this of course as you are a child, but that’s great that you are able to have that experience really early on that way. So given that, did that sort of put in your mind, this is something that you really wanted to do as a business, was design?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes. I still wasn’t sure what discipline within design, so this is when I started looking at school differently. I used to be very anti-school. I was very good at primary school. I really hated tests, so I didn’t really the process of going to college. But then I was like, “Maybe I can be excited by the idea of web design,” and what they were calling new media back then, because I was like, “Oh, this is not traditional. This is not just marketing collateral. This could be service design. This is marketing automation. This is branding.” It always had a bit more to do with the business than just the service provided. And I liked that, and that’s how I got started.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of school, you did end up going to the Art Institutes for a while. You studied web design and interactive media. What was that time like?

Kevin Hawkins:
It was really intense. So my family, I’m the child of divorced parents, and so money wasn’t always consistent. So me having these jobs where I was doing websites and making templates on WordPress and stuff like ThemeForest and all this was a great revenue source for my mom and our household. And so when I went to school, I had a job already, and I was still working full-time doing marketing and creative service stuff for nonprofits in Washington, D.C. And I was like, “Oh, okay. So I really like my job, but I should go get certified and get a degree and get some kind of accreditation for it.” Ultimately, I ended up learning more from my job than I did from school, and that’s ultimately why I ended up leaving school.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like that’s a lot of the case when it comes to design, I think particularly design … And I’m just sort trying to place this in terms of timeframe. If you did this anywhere in the early 2000s, I feel like that was totally okay, because a lot of schools didn’t really have curriculum that spoke to web design, visual design. Maybe they had advertising or communication design, or you went to a for-profit school like the Art Institutes and you learned stuff there. But a lot of what you learned, because of how the industry was moving, was just being hands-on. You learned through working.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I learned a lot more always from learning from people I looked up to, people who wrote books or spoke or were generous with their time, or just people at the workplace who were willing to teach me or delegated work they didn’t want to do. Whatever way it came to me, I was able to take these opportunities and find a way to make myself passionate about it.

Maurice Cherry:
And now after you left the Art Institutes, you worked at a lot of different places. And I won’t go into all of them, but I’ll list off just a few of the more prominent places where you’ve worked, which is Chase. You’ve worked at Capital One, Gap, the Brookings Institution, PwC, EY, many others. When you sort look back at that time, because you were sort of contracting from place to place, talk to me about who that Kevin Hawkins was. Who was he? What was he thinking? What was he trying to accomplish back then?

Kevin Hawkins:
I never intended to go to any of these companies and leave. I think that’s one of the things that millennials get blamed for, the whole job hopping fad. I ultimately always wanted to stay, but I just had a lot of, let’s say, self worth from my mom and the way she raised me. And whenever I dealt with workplace discrimination, ageism, racism, any of these things in the workplace, I always said it would be better for myself and my career for me to be happy at work than to … I never saw going through discrimination and oppression as earning my dues. So I found new places or I worked on startups or I made enough money making websites for people to give me a month or two to find a new job.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a powerful statement there, and I think it’s something that … I don’t know, it’s interesting, when you think about people in their early careers, is that whole pay your dues sort of bit. I get that. Look, I got a Black mama too. And she certainly was like, “Sometimes there’s things that you have to do that you don’t want to do to get where you have to be.” And I understand that to a fault. I get that there may be some things where you just have to learn it, this is how you learn it. But if it’s like you’ve said what you’re putting up with these pervasive isms at work, racism, sexism, et cetera, why stay? You’re not winning any awards by staying, you know what I mean?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, exactly. And that wasn’t always the reason why I left. Sometimes new opportunities come, sometimes you start to stagnate or you stop learning. I always say either you’re there to learn or to earn, and sometimes there’s other motivations like a passion or a mission that aligns with you. But when you’re not learning, when you realize the industry is getting bigger, it’s getting very profitable, the work is extremely valuable, it’s being tied to massive growth and revenue, you also want to start earning more. And because I came in without a degree, I was originally second-guessing myself. So my whole tactic was I’m always more valuable in the interview phase than I am two years into a company. So if I want to make up for the money than I’m not earning by not having that degree, it makes more sense for me to take opportunities when people present them to me, than to trudge through the interview process and promotion panels, with the people I’ve been working with for two and a half, three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you just raised something interesting there I want to touch on. So you did go to the Art Institute, you got an associate’s degree, right?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So even though you had that degree from an institution that someone could look at and say, “Oh, you must be a designer,” did that still not help you throughout your career to have that as sort of a … I almost want to say a status symbol of sorts?

Kevin Hawkins:
No, honestly it wasn’t looked at the same way. The Art Institute doesn’t have the prestige of a Corcoran or a SCAD or a RISD. In addition, I got into web design and I was doing a lot of user experience, information architecture, HCI work. So they didn’t see it as directly relevant. I got a two-year degree but I didn’t take the final exam and do the official ceremony. So I always had to send in transcripts versus the official diploma letter that comes from the university office. And I didn’t really care. I was really happy that I made that choice to leave, and the work spoke for itself, more often than not. But then there would be companies, especially as I got higher up in D.C. or in New York that just would look at nothing else. And California and Europe started getting more and more attractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m just curious about that, because for example, I don’t have a design degree. I did go to college, got a degree in math, and then started out as a designer, even though I just picked up design in my spare time. And even now at this stage in my career, I’m at least 20 years out from my first design position, me not having a design degree I think is still looked at some places as like, “Oh, well, you’re not really a designer,” despite the fact that I’ve run my own studio, have all this design experience in other companies. They’re like, “Yeah, but you don’t have the degree.” And I feel like companies sometimes still place way too much emphasis on that.

Kevin Hawkins:
Certainly. I mean, I can tell you the number of jobs where I actually got to the final round … I even have jobs where I was given the offer, and then it was rescinded because they hadn’t checked which degree I had.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, man.

Kevin Hawkins:
And I thought that was insane. Some of these companies had public stances on articles and in Forbes, “We don’t look at degrees anymore. Degrees are not a requirement for most of our jobs.” But the second design started getting a seat at the table, design was informing P&L, it was informing business strategy partnerships, they started really looking at designers, especially when you go into UX, as part of the business organization. Sometimes you reported in to COOs or CMOs. And they ultimately saw it as flywheel effect, that you invest in UX, you get customers happy, they buy more, you have more customers, which is great. But at the same time, we’re still always interviewed based on portfolios, you’re based on references, you’re based on the work you’ve done in your past. So why is the degree so important, when you spend 80% of the interview looking at work done?

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, that’s true. That’s very true. I remember vividly when I got … it wasn’t my first design job, but I was working at AT&T as a senior designer. And it was one of the campuses here in Atlanta. And pretty much everyone else on the design team not only had a design degree from the Art Institutes, but they kind of all went to the same classes and stuff together. It was very much a pipeline from this school to this company, which I think may be why some companies look at that, and think, “Oh, well, if you’ve come from this school and you have this degree, then you can automatically meet maybe this baseline level of work.”
But when I tell you I was designing circles around those jokers at AT&T … and a lot of them paid me dust because I didn’t have a design degree … and these would be other Black designers too, wouldn’t even talk to me. And so when it was time for me to leave, I was like, “I’m out, I’m out. I’m gone. Peace.”

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I 100% understand the want to get at a company and you want to be there, and it just doesn’t work out. And it’s not anything that has to do with you. It’s company culture stuff, it’s all kind of other stuff. And it’s like if you don’t feel happy here, why stay?

Kevin Hawkins:
Exactly, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
And what I noticed from just doing research, you also had your own things that you were doing throughout this time. So you weren’t relying just on working at these companies to, I guess, fulfill this creative want that you had. You founded other companies, Pipevine, QReview, BravoScore. Talk to me about those. It sounds like you were pretty busy.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I’ve always had this, and I think it’s probably from watching my parents be in jobs they weren’t super happy about and then watching them start their businesses parallel to their work, so I always thought, “Oh, that’s a thing you can do.” It isn’t like you have some contract where you are enslaved to one employer and you need to tell the employer you’re going to leave before you do work for a new employer. I always saw that small businesses are often started alongside full-time jobs.
And I said, “I do like what I do for a living, and ultimately, I see myself advising business. I see myself advising product directors and program managers. And this is what they use to determine budgets and this is what they use to determine expansions and launch strategy. I can do that. Why shouldn’t I launch something as a UX designer with the background that has worked also in research? I can validate a problem. I can talk about size of the market. I can talk about who is addressable within the first version of the product that we release. I could do a pitch. I can definitely do this.”
And I started looking of course more and more at San Francisco and startup companies and how they got their start. And you’re like, “Cool.” Designers, I personally think … this is even before Brian Chesky and Airbnb … because designers, I think, are better startup CEOs. They pitch things, and you want to listen; they’re beautiful, if they do their job with communications design very well.
And I said, “Let’s start some companies.” And I had no idea where to look. And I ultimately looked to people who were already that passionate founder visionary type, and they didn’t know how to build great user experience. They didn’t know how to collect email and newsletters and do a landing page and build up momentum before it launched. And I partnered with them as their technical co-founder because I knew enough code, enough front end, enough design to be dangerous. And they were the business, finance people.

Maurice Cherry:
So you really got your own business education in a way, too, by running these businesses and working with them.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I definitely can empathize with that. I’ve always had my own thing on the side, wherever it is I was working. And I’ll tell you what’s interesting, some of these new startups, and I know this just from working in startups in the past five years … And I don’t know if a lot of them have them, but the ones that I worked in always had a clause that you had to disclose anything else that you were doing outside of work that might … I don’t know if it might conflict or whatever, but they just wanted to know that, “Well, what else are you working on that’s not the 9:00 to 5:00 job?”
And sometimes I would answer and sometimes I wouldn’t, because it’s really none of their business, because none of the places I worked for had any sort of relation to what I was doing, which was this podcast. But I find it interesting now that companies are like, “Yeah, what else are you doing to try to, I guess, I don’t know, capitalize on your time?” I know there’s this whole thing now about quiet quitting. And I hate that term so bad because it’s really just about setting boundaries at work. It’s not, whatever, I don’t know, 19th century Industrial Revolution thing you might be thinking about with quiet quitting. I just hear that just, I hate that term.

Kevin Hawkins:
It does hurt me, honestly. It’s like, okay, either it’s disengagement or it’s just the phase before someone gets fed up. But it’s not disingenuous to be tired of bad conditions or being undervalued or underpaid or outgrowing opportunity. If you feel like life is taking you a different direction than your current employer, there is always going to be the phase before you quit. And that isn’t called quiet quitting, in my opinion. That’s just called really assessing your worth, your value, and your future.

Maurice Cherry:
I might get in trouble by saying this. Part of me feels like that the media is a little bit complicit in this, because I really am only hearing this from Business Insider, Wall Street Journal, stuff like that, that are talking about quiet quitting. But I feel like it’s also retaliation to a lot of workers, at least here in the States, now realizing the power that they have with unionizing. And so they’re cutting down on this whole quiet quitting thing, because I mean, at least in some of the places I worked, that quiet quitting, I’m using air quotes here, were the seeds to start unionizing. That was the fertile ground for people to start thinking about, how can we campaign for having better work conditions, et cetera? And they talked to a union rep, and now we got a union. Like I worked at Glitch, and we unionized, shortly before they laid most of us off, but we did at least have that happen. And I want to say that the fertile ground for that was a lot of people just being sort of fed up with how certain conditions were.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. And honestly, businesses will always have, let’s say, a fiduciary interest in not wanting people to unionize, because it’s easier to manipulate and get what you want as a business, for your shareholders, or even for yourself, when you are dealing with individuals. It’s also why the whole idea of people knowing what everyone makes is dangerous to businesses, because then you know if you’re getting paid less, and you know if they value that same work at a higher value. Some of these things are solved in some places in Europe, and it’s still the same battle. I have to deal with lots of cultural differences, and this is one of them. A lot of the teams and companies I work with and some of my peers in Spain and Portugal deal with this, which is, I think it’s quite positive, but it is tricky, that our employees talk to each other about how much they make. If we do a market adjustment and someone was adjusted more than someone else, it definitely comes up much quicker than you think it will.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you were running these businesses, you were working at these different places. It sounds like you were doing a lot here in the States, between all of that stuff. But eventually you ended up moving, you moved to Amsterdam. What was behind the decision to do that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah. So I moved to San Francisco for four and a half years, and I was really happy out there, but I really couldn’t see myself building life in terms of buying a house, starting a family, with just the cost, the income disparity, the homelessness crisis, and really just it’s quite out of touch, if you stay in certain bubbles. And I always had a really good balance. My family is quite mixed, African, Filipino, American. I see different classes within America and other countries on a regular basis. And so to juxtapose the comments and things you would hear in Silicon Valley with the reality of most of the world became a bit frustrating. And I said, “Am I really doing myself a service, spending all of my money, all of my energy just trying to survive in this city, or maybe I go back to D.C., or maybe I finally go and try out Europe?”

Maurice Cherry:
And Europe ended up winning.

Kevin Hawkins:
Europe ended up winning; winning at a very interesting time, who got elected-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Yeah.

Kevin Hawkins:
… safety of Black people in America. I mean, a number of things, right? And so I was really happy to be able to go and visit. And then once I was able to secure a job that was able to sponsor me and keep me there, it was a big sigh of relief that I exhaled, because it was just such a significant upgrade on my quality of life.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you ended up working in Amsterdam, you were working at booking.com. And then now you’re here in Barcelona working at Glovo. I’m just curious, I mean, this is from the dumb American perspective, so forgive me here, but is it easy moving between countries like that in Europe?

Kevin Hawkins:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Kevin Hawkins:
No. I really wish it was simpler. Honestly, the visas don’t transfer between countries. So we were just talking about the whole degree thing. And I won’t talk too badly about my new home country, but I had a high qualified migrant visa in the Netherlands because I worked in tech, and they wanted more tech workers. And I made good money and I brought lots of job opportunities and revenue by having a high-funded, well-run company be headquartered in your country. But that same visa wouldn’t transfer to Spain, so I had to requalify, do background checks in America and in the Netherlands, do fingerprinting, do a degree certificate, all these things all over again, as if I hadn’t just lived four years in Netherlands and bought a house. I considered myself European at that point, but that’s not how it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. And you’ve been now in Barcelona you said for about six months?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yep, about six months.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the design scene like there? Have you sought it out or have you found it there?

Kevin Hawkins:
So there are probably around like 2,500 startups. Glovo isn’t definitely in that top group of the biggest. We’re a unicorn. But the design scene isn’t as large, of course, as a London, which is massive, or as an Amsterdam, which is definitely a tech hub, but it’s very warm, I would say. The UX community in Barcelona has big players like HP and Amazon who are directly our neighbors. As Glovo, we’re in a neighborhood called Poblenou, which is the tech hub. But then you also just have to factor in the culture.
There’s a lot of illustration and animation in the UX and design community within Barcelona, just because of the culture is so rich in architecture and detail and craft. The community is very warm because the city is very warm, and people are generally happier, in my opinion. And they have beach meetups, and there’s a thriving tech scene that’s definitely growing. And it’s really fun to be there at the moment where it’s blossoming. It’s definitely going to surpass, in my opinion, some of the bigger cities. The only key difference is that pay in the south is lower than in northern Europe, which models very similarly to pay in the South of the US versus New York, for example.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. How would you compare the design community to, say, the one in Amsterdam or in D.C.? Was that something that you thought about as you went to these different places?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, certainly. I think that I always think about diversity of groups and communities. And D.C.’s definitely a melting pot. Amsterdam’s a melting pot. Barcelona is one of the largest cities in a region of Spain, and therefore it’s not Madrid, it’s not the capital. The tech that’s there isn’t one industry, like the military or government or FinTech. And so it’s a lot of people from completely different backgrounds, a lot of immigrants from other Spanish-speaking countries or from Latin America or Hispanic America, like Brazil and Argentina. And so, there is this really interesting new kind of perspective that you get. A lot of the competition or comps we talk about at work like Roppy and companies that don’t even operate on the continent, because of the backgrounds people have and the different kind of work they’ve been doing. And it’s really cool. I still do all of my work in English. And I’m still able to navigate the community, and the community’s very open and friendly to expats. They often speak three languages. And it’s a very vibrant, different community, but I really enjoy it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good to hear that they’re friendly to expats. I had always been curious about that sort of thing. I mean, I’ve been considering … at this stage where I’m at right now, as we’re recording this, I am currently, we’ll say, between opportunities at the moment. And look, I’ve been in the US for a long time. I’m from here, whatever. But I also know that the skills that I have, I’ll look for the types of positions that I do, and most of them are in Europe. None of them are in the US. And I’ve thought about possibly maybe doing it, like, oh, just visiting or something. Part of me is like, maybe I’m a little too old to do that. Also, I’m close to my family that’s close to where I live here, and I don’t want to put an ocean between us. But it really sort of sounds like you’ve found a way for yourself throughout your entire career. You didn’t have one set path that you really were trying to follow. You just of went where your passions led you.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think the only thing that’s been consistent has been I wanted to be a C-suite executive. I think that’s something that my family makes fun of me for, from being a kid. I used to be called the governor. I probably am still called the governor [inaudible 00:42:23] family because I always projected these long-term visions, five-year plans, “We’re going to do this.” I was always rallying people towards a mission or a goal. And so I’ve always known I wanted to be in a leadership position, but as I got into design, I didn’t really see one. So I was always trying to navigate my way into learning new skills, because I wasn’t in the business area, I wasn’t in operations, I wasn’t in marketing, I wasn’t in the area that had C-suite positions.
And I said to myself, “If I’m ever going to get there, it has to be the story of the receptionist who learns all the skills by being around all the people in the business and eventually become COO and then CEO.” So I told myself, “I’m in design, there’s no direct ladder to that role, so I’m going to have to get close to the marketers and close to the engineers and close to sales and close to legal, and really understand the in and out of every business I worked for.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re in the C-suite now. Would you say that’s sort where you’re at now with Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
Almost, yeah. I mean, no one else above me does design work. I report to the chief product officer, but I am solely responsible for all the budget for design research, content. It’s about a 90-person team and growing. And so it does feel like I’m almost there. I think the one thing that would get me there would be a VP of experience position or, very few companies have these, but a chief design officer.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you worked to stay your authentic self throughout your career?

Kevin Hawkins:
It actually is easier to answer than I thought it would be. It has been teaching. So I never did it with the intention of keeping myself grounded, but I always felt and was making time to mentor people into the industry. I have some close friends now who came from program manager jobs at NASA or were teachers or bankers, and now they’re in UX or in different areas of tech. And I always found it really, I don’t know, just thrilling to show them how transferable their skills were or show them that you have a passion to make apps, and yes, app companies and companies in general fail at the 90% mark, but these are the skills you need to be able to validate your assumptions and listen to customer feedback and iterate quickly and fail fast, and get them into positions where they either were launching their own companies or working in UX or in different tech roles. And that is what led me to eventually teach a class on data visualization at Georgetown University and then start teaching in general UX courses, design thinking courses, sort of about six years of me teaching now.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. So you’re teaching. Is that something you’re also doing now in Barcelona, or are you’re just working at Glovo?

Kevin Hawkins:
I am just working at Glovo. I was working with a bootcamp in Amsterdam called Growth Tribe, but now that I’m in Barcelona, I’m looking for new opportunities, mostly by partnering with the department with local universities, Ironhack in Barcelona, building an apprenticeship program, which I feel like is really missing in the industry; when we talk about not enough junior positions, at the very least, people should be teaching and bringing in people who are early career programs and apprenticeship programs to build that pipeline for juniors.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find a lot of companies now don’t really want to talk to people. When it comes to positions and stuff, they’ll make sure that the, I don’t know, applicant tracking system does all the work. They don’t really want to talk to you or interview or get to know you unless you pass through those hurdles and stuff. But that apprenticeship part certainly is something that’s missing. I feel like that’s something that has been identified throughout the years, and a lot of companies just haven’t tried to make that a part of what they do. I mean, they still have take-home tests within interview processes, so I feel like having an apprenticeship, it might be a little bit too much for them to handle at the moment, but I would like to see more of that kind of stuff too.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I think there’s always a scapegoat, whether it be time or team maturity. But having an intern, having an apprentice, having a really early junior requires that same level of consistency with how the department or organization is run, with also there being clear career paths. But then in addition, having someone actually be responsible and given credit for molding the mind and techniques of a new person in the industry. And I think because of the number of operational admin and HR-related aspects of this that are not in place at most companies or are always in some state of shift, they always want to say, “Oh, we just won’t do it,” but then at the same time will complain about why it’s so expensive to only hire seniors or why the [inaudible 00:47:06] maturity isn’t great when none of your team has any experience mentoring people.

Maurice Cherry:
I know I certainly hear it from … I’ve heard of that, companies I’ve worked for, where they’re like, “Oh, we can’t find any good candidates,” or they’ll put out a listing and get 300 resumes and then not look at any of them. I don’t know. Hiring in itself is broken. And I may be speaking from a bit of a jaded place at the moment, because I’m looking for work. But that’s something I’ve noticed though throughout my career at places I’ve worked, where designers, it really is that thing about you have to know someone. It’s really hard to just come in right off the ground floor to get into some companies. But that’s pretty sad.

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, I would agree. Design is becoming like real estate. Everyone has to get some comfortable shoes and go door-knocking and cold-,calling and there’s tons of doors being slammed and phone calls being hung up on. And especially with any kind of recession, it gets really tricky. The majority of my career, I would say, post- the engineering marketing design stuff I was doing, was in 2008, 2009. And obviously, it was the worst time. But I came in super humble, obviously didn’t need a ton of money. In terms of what people were expecting for the top of the band for certain positions, I was undercutting them, because I was there to learn. At the same time, I also was keeping all of my expenses super, super low. That is impossible anymore. The market is insane. The cost of inflation has gone up just for living in places. And we’ve all talked about this ad nauseum at this point, about whether people should be paid living wages or not, which is an obvious answer.
And design has, and tech in general has been such a savior for some people because it has been rapidly growing in income, and people are making great salaries and new positions are being formed in leadership, and there’s career paths. But then when it doesn’t have respect at companies, you can look at Fannie Mae for example, you see whole divisions being cut or companies no longer investing in UX. And it really shows you that we have to, not just because we find it interesting, you have to develop these other skills, you have to develop these networks. And that awkward phone call or email or walking up to a random person at a conference feels like a luxury we can ignore for a lot of the time. But when it comes down to it, those are the people and the connections that have saved me most at times when I didn’t have a job or went to a new country or got laid off or in one instance got fired.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best piece of advice that you’d give to someone that they’re hearing your story and they want to follow in your footsteps? What would you tell them?

Kevin Hawkins:
I would say, and this is going to be a quote, because I love quotes … I want to get this quote correct. “So it is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed,” which is a quote by Napoleon Hill. And it’s just me being generous with my time. It’s me taking random phone calls for Brazilian graphic design students at 12:00 PM when it’s their 5:00 PM, so that they can ask questions, how to go from graphic design into UX. It’s me going to a Lesbians Who Tech drink in D.C. randomly to see if anybody’s there because they’re looking for a technical co-founder or they don’t know how to do something. It’s just me volunteering at design critiques or UX speed dating, where you’re giving people advice quickly or you’re answering questions in a Q&A.
I think these things are the things that we can always make time for. Ultimately in the moments when I didn’t have a job, I did more of them, because they build connections and there is a bit of a bias or an interest for me to make connections. At the same time, it’s what keeps me motivated and inspired and keeps my spirits high in the lowest moments, is the people who I’ve helped or the people who use me as a reference or call me when something has shattered their world. But for me, it’s something I’ve done 10, 15, 20 times, and can easily walk them through how to navigate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively?

Kevin Hawkins:
In my current role, yes. I think I haven’t been for a little bit of time. I’ve been a director now for three years. I was a director at a small company and then I was in management but not a director at Booking. And at Booking, I was extremely, extremely happy. And then the recession hit, and that was ultimately why everything fell apart and I left. And I was looking for about a year and a half, almost two years for another place where I could see myself being home. And Glovo definitely is that. But the director role is less about designing mock-ups. It’s more about designing career paths, designing a culture, designing product marketing and employer brand.
I’m building the team I wish I was on, I’m building the kind of company culture, onboarding practices, promotion processes that I wish I had in my career. And then I’m also building myself up to hopefully be an inspiring speaker and leader and even better teacher. And I look up to people like Bozoma Saint John, who was the former CMO of Netflix, and in that kind of realm, always looking to share more knowledge, invite more people into the room at a seat at the table, and just constantly question the norms we see.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say you’d make a great public speaker. Have you been looking into doing some more of that?

Kevin Hawkins:
Yes, every chance I can get.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Where do you see yourself in the next, let’s say, five years or so? What do you want the next chapter of the Kevin Hawkins story to look like?

Kevin Hawkins:
This has gotten trickier ever since I moved to Europe, because I think the answer used to always be some version of fame or being CXO, chief experience officer, at a thing or a really notable household name globally. But now it really has to do with about being … like I’d rather be really, really important at a small company for people who really need our services than to be just another person in a role at a very large company with customers who don’t really feel any passion towards our product.

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

Kevin Hawkins:
Yeah, so I’m most active for work things on Twitter, which is @KevinHawkinsDC. And then on Instagram, @KevinHawkinsDesign. Same thing on LinkedIn, Kevin Hawkins Design. I’m often posting about work we’re doing, public events. I do quite a bit of public speaking both in the US and in Europe, so I have several talks coming up this fall, but I’m mostly sharing work-related things, things tied to my business, and how I’m developing myself and my team on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Kevin Hawkins, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Sort of like I alluded to earlier in the interview, I can really tell that you’re someone that has continually throughout your career, throughout your life probably, really taken a chance on yourself. You know the skills that you’re able to bring to the table, you know what you’re able to do. And instead of waiting for an opportunity to come to you, whether it’s starting your own business or moving to another country, you are taking the chance on yourself to further your own career and further where you are in life. And I think that’s something that’s super inspiring for anyone right now to really hear. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Kevin Hawkins:
I really appreciate the time. I really love the show. Big fan. I think that everyone should reach out to whoever they want to talk to and learn from. And like you said, take a chance on yourself. And you’d be surprised, the odds are in your favor.

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