Reese Fuller

Whether you like it or not, writing is an integral part of the design process these days, and no one knows this better than this week’s guest, Reese Fuller. As a senior writer for digital agency Work & Co, Reese works with visual designers and strategists to help “make the words sound good.”

Our conversation started off with Reese detailing how he works as a writer in a design agency, talked about his switch from STEM to writing, and cleared up some misconceptions designers may have about including writing in the design process. Reese also spoke about growing up in the DMV area, the difference for him between working in agencies vs. in-house at companies, and gives some great advice and resources for any designers looking to strengthen their writing. Don’t sleep on the written word — with examples like Reese, it’s clear that there’s more than one way to be in the design industry!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Reese Fuller:
I’m Reese Fuller, I’m a writer. I think that sort of manifested as being a brand copywriter in some instances, a verbal designer in other instances. But right now, I’m a senior writer at an agency called Work & Co.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Now, we’re in the second half of the year. By the time this interview airs will be in August, my goodness. How’s 2021 been for you so far?

Reese Fuller:
It’s been good. It’s been a lot better than 2020, I’ll say that much. But yeah, it’s been good. I think, the summer … I mean, I’m based in New York so the city now is sort of reactivating, as I’d like to say, in a lot of ways. It’s just been really good to reconnect with friends, really good to start going out again, just be outside more comfortably. I think work has been going really well, just excited to see what the future holds. Things has just been really positive. I’m trying to maintain that energy.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And I guess along that vibrational frequency, since we’re talking about energy, do you have any plans or anything? Anything you’re manifesting for the rest of the year?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty excited. I got a wedding coming up next month in September, so I’m headed-

Maurice Cherry:
You’re wedding?

Reese Fuller:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Reese Fuller:
A wedding of a friend, wedding of a friend [crosstalk 00:04:49]-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Reese Fuller:
… seen in a while given we’ve all been hunkered down these past several months, 18 months or so. I’m looking forward to going home and reconnect with some friends that I haven’t seen in a while.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, professionally, I think there are a few really interesting opportunities on the horizon. Some work we’ve done with past clients over the past several months manifesting into more work, which we’re all super excited about. So, you’re to get started on those projects as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah, just looking forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it kind of a big departure? I know Work & Co. has offices in a lot of different cities. They have one in New York as well. But was it a big shift when the pandemic started, shifting from working in office to now being remote?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, totally. I mean, I started at Work & Co. in April of 2020, just as the pandemic was sort of kicking into high gear. So, yeah, it was a really interesting experience, I’d say, getting to know people strictly through a Zoom screen, having not met most of the teams and people I’d be working with in the day-to-day in person yet. But I think, in a number of ways, it was better for me maybe as an individual and also as a writer.

Reese Fuller:
I found that in some places it can be hard to find the headspace or the quiet space to get really down into writing mode, like heads down kind of approach. So I’ve been able to work from home and just have more control over my space and my time, which really is an interesting and positive departure, I’d say. Definitely it had its challenges as well, but in a lot of ways it worked out for the better.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I think with any sort of thing like that, especially if you’ve been used to working in offices and now you start a completely new gig and it’s at the time 100% remote, there is a bit of an adjustment period to just kind of shifting into that different mind frame. Because, yeah, you have the conveniences of home, but you also have to be able to really, I think, compartmentalize the fact that you’re working from home and that you can’t do the same stuff at home that you would do if you weren’t working.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. No, totally. I started to miss the commute in a weird way, just to speak on compartmentalizing. Just like, be able to change from headspace to headspace, work life to home life. A lot of that happens, or at least happened, for me on the train going to and from the office. So, when your commute becomes walking to the kitchen table and taking a seat, it’s not too much of a transition.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, tell me more about the work that you’re doing at Work & Co.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Like I said, I’m a senior writer at Work & Co. I think pretty largely that means UX writing, is how I would describe it otherwise, but it feels like it’s more than that. I’ll say, organizationally, we sit as part of the design team but the role itself is super cross functional. I work with designers or strategists or even sometimes the new business team. Generally, I just say what my goal is. The simplest way to put it is that I make the word sound good or as good as they can.

Reese Fuller:
If that’s a product, for example, it’s about making the user experience however we want it to be. That could mean maybe it’s simpler, or more educational, or more inspiring, or engaging or whatever. But ultimately, just having a goal in mind or a vision for how the product feels and sounds and what it’s all about, and trying to communicate that, translate that and express that through writing and shaping a design process. That’s a part of that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, anyone that has, I think, listened to this show for, I don’t know, maybe the last two or three years has definitely heard me really sort of beat the drum as it comes to why designers need to write more or they need to start getting into writing. It’s interesting because, to that end, with this being a design podcast, we haven’t had any writers on. You’re the first writer that we’ve had on the show which, congratulations, making Black history.

Reese Fuller:
Thank you. Truly an honor every day, making Black history.

Maurice Cherry:
As I’ve done this show and I’ve gotten to talk with design managers and product managers at a bunch of different places, I’ve seen design departments now start to include writers more as part of their teams. They may call it something different than writer. They may call it content designer, UX writer, et cetera, but they’re including writing as part of the team. Can you talk to me about the importance of writing in the design process? Because you said that you make the word sound good, but what does that process really entail in the design process?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. At Work & Co. specifically, I think I’ve had a really great opportunity to be on a few projects almost from end to end, starting in the concepting phase where we’re going broad, I would say. Just figuring out the best expressions, most interesting expressions or whatever.

Reese Fuller:
Sort of problem we’re trying to solve with the product, get it down in a detailed design where we’ve had a number of reviews with a client; or are more settled in on a more specific product vision and getting into the nitty gritty of like, what should this micro copy be? Or, what’s the best articulation of this ETA? Even down to some extent into engineering and development. We actually build and then ship the projects that we’re working on, to just sort of availing myself as a resource for any last-minute edits or thoughts from a writing perspective.

Reese Fuller:
But I think the biggest addition that a writer brings to a project, just a different perspective and a different approach. It’s like coming from other kinds of writing backgrounds. Just thinking about not just the words but the entire message and personality that is expressed through words in a project. It’s just a different approach. You hear so often that projects are often made stronger or the work made better by more diverse teams and a number of ways, whether that’s gender, race or religion. But I think discipline is another degree vector for that type of diversity as well. Just adding a writer to the mix is just a new way of looking at the work.

Reese Fuller:
Today, a lot of the conversations that I’ll have with PMs or designers might fall under the category of content strategy, others may be more brand expression but at the end of the day it’s always about just making the work as strong as it could be and do what it needs to do.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting you brought that up from a diversity standpoint because, yeah, in this case it’s diversity of discipline but also, I would imagine, it is just a diversity of perspective. I mean, if you’ve got a bunch of designers on the team, they may still all be looking at something through a specific design eye or a design lens or a design framework or something. You can come in not being, say, a visual designer and look at it in an entirely different fashion that they wouldn’t have even thought about. That input is super valuable because you don’t want to have homogenous teams that are just cranking out the same stuff without those sorts of considerations into play.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Yeah, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
Like I say, writing gigs, like I mentioned, they have different titles or content designer, content specialists, content strategies. I think earlier you said verbal designer? You said that? I’ve never heard that one. That’s a new one to me. Do you think that it helps to have all these distinctions when it comes to that?

Reese Fuller:
I think so. I think in the same way people will sort of subdivide visual design, specialty or focus whether you’re a product designer, or a brand designer, or a motion designer. I think, although there’s a lot of overlap in those skill sets and the tools that you use and your approach to the work, you’re still approaching things from the same perspective either visual or verbal.

Reese Fuller:
On the verbal side of the writing side, we begin to make those distinctions as well, like I said, between content strategists or a UX writer, or a verbal designer even. I think those are just other ways of articulating what more specific perspective you might be approaching a project from and what skills you might bring to a conversation. It’s not to say that you can’t in a lot of moments contribute beyond that specific role or a specific title even, but it just helps to set expectations and level set on what you might be able to bring to the project.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what does your creative process look like when it comes to starting on a project? Where do come in the mix?

Reese Fuller:
Oh, it depends. I think my approach, it’ll vary project to project. But typically, what I want to do is find the person on the project who either is the most senior or is driving the conversation and kind of grab their ear a little bit.

Reese Fuller:
I think a lot of the time, whether you’re a writer or a designer, the experience can be getting brought on to a project in the middle of things. Like, we’ve gotten feedback from a client already and we’re just solving this specific ask or, alternatively, it’s a new project kickoff. It’s a brand-new onboarding experience for everybody.

Reese Fuller:
But typically, just trying to find the person or persons who feel like they’re leading the conversation and sort of getting a sense of place in geography around what the bigger goal of the project is at present and then, after figuring that out, seeing what problems I can be able to solve with words. It can be a very tactical thing like, “We are in our third set of design feedback on this specific purchase flow, and right now the client thinks that the copy is just too long and uninspiring. So, can you make it shorter and simpler and sparkle a little bit more?” That is one approach.

Reese Fuller:
Or it could be, on the other end of that spectrum, maybe there’s a bigger organizational issue almost where the product, or brand even, does not have a distinctive voice, there’s no documented set of brand guidelines for voice and tone, and maybe using that as an opportunity to contribute as a writer and produce an artifact and object that is super useful and helpful, and it can help put guard rails around design decisions for the future.

Reese Fuller:
So, it does vary from project to project, but ultimately it just goes back to trying to solve problems by using words, whatever those problems are.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I would imagine the stuff that you’re writing, it’s a lot of different stuff. It’s copy in terms of … I mean, I don’t know. It would depend on what the type of project is, but I would say like actual paragraphs of copy or you may be doing microcopy like alerts or statuses or things like that. Is that how it generally breaks down with the type of writing that you do on a project?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, that’s a pretty big portion of it. I think there are other opportunities as well where we can get in a little bit further upstream and, like I mentioned, be able to define the voice and tone for a brand or product and have that be a little bit more of a high-level output.

Reese Fuller:
But yeah, a lot of the time it is executions like that where it’s, here’s a moment where a user might be frustrated, a pain point. Can we insert a little bit of microcopy or a toast or notification to sort of lift their spirits and usher them in the right direction? And what is the expression of that verbally that feels right for their brand and also doesn’t take up too much time? That is in a lot of instances copy, executions like that.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a gig that I worked at recently where I was doing some content strategy work. I was in a meeting … I forget who it was; I wasn’t at this gig very long. But I was in a meeting and I remember one of the designers … I don’t know. They just went off talking about how much they hated writing. It was because they had … I think they had started to create some copy and people were giving feedback on the copy. She just burst into this tantrum, like, “I just hate writing. Writing is not my thing. I hate writing. We really need to have someone else to do the writing so I don’t have to think about it. I’m not a writer, I’m a designer. I’m here to design. Why am I writing?” I was like, “Whoa,” especially because I was the content strategist for that particular project that she was writing about.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s interesting how … I mean, I don’t know if this is a sentiment shared by a lot of designers, but I would imagine being a design writer or being a writer on a design team like that. Those, I guess, help in terms of not giving the more visual designers or maybe the more front-end people stuff they have to worry about when it comes to, “Oh, does this sound right?”

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. No, totally. I mean, although I am a writer, there is a part of me that hates writing too. You know it is work, it is a craft. You know it is something you have to try hard to get better at. But also, a lot of the time, I hate trying to design too because I think … Maybe share somewhat of a similar experience to this designer you mentioned where it’s like you’re trying to express yourself or get something out that fulfills a purpose or solves a problem, but you just don’t necessarily have the tools or just doesn’t feel right. Like, when I’m trying to put frames together and move copy around in Figma and I’m just not learning the tool. I’m like, is this deep learning curve? That’s frustrating.

Reese Fuller:
So, definitely, I feel that sometimes too. But I think part of the beauty of, like you mentioned, this sort of shift in the makeup of design teams to include more writers is that recognition of this is balancing the expression a little bit more and making the product feel a little bit more whole and fully considered.

Reese Fuller:
I think about some of my earlier internships as advertising copywriter. I will describe it as those more traditional art director copywriter duos where there is a person who thinks and communicates and expresses themselves visually, that has a dedicated partner who is someone who thinks and communicates and expresses themselves with words, and being the dynamic that hopefully produces more balanced, better work at the end of the day because people, again, approach creativity differently.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, I think writing is a lot more, maybe debatably, a more democratic kind of expression. I feel like although a lot of people will say, “I’m not a writer,” everyone writes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
Well, not everybody, but most people in professional context have to write to some capacity.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, you got to write an email.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, exactly, right? Or Slack message. So, when it comes to putting words in a product that hopefully millions of people are going to use and it’d be helpful or functional for them, there’s a lot of pressure on those words to be right; let alone, presenting those words in front of a slew of clients and stakeholders.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, it can be frustrating in a lot of instances, but I do think having writers on the team, again, just balances that out and gives someone the opportunity to own that part of a project as well and also help shape the design process too.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, it almost sounds like writing is a form of design.

Reese Fuller:
Who would’ve thunk? Yeah. Yeah, I think of … I can’t remember the name of the researcher but there was an experiment where people would see either rounded shapes or more angular shapes and be asked by the research team, “Would you describe this shape as more of a kiki or a bouba?” More often than not, people would name the angular shape a kiki and the rounded shape a bouba because I think there is some inherent connection between processing things visually and processing things verbally that we all just begin to understand in a very similar way.

Reese Fuller:
So I do think, to bring it back to your earlier point, that they’re just two different kinds of expressions, two different kinds of design at the end of the day.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think people misunderstand when it comes to what you do, being a writer in a design process? Is there other things that people just don’t get?

Reese Fuller:
I think one of the things that I’ve had some conversations around in the past just to sort of … I think setting people straight feels like a little bit too intense of a way to describe it but it is a lot more, sometimes it can be, hopefully, than, although I did use this phrase earlier, making the word sound good, that’s part of what we do, yes, as writers on design teams. But to the spirit of thinking of writing as a kind of design, it really is, in a more holistic way, shaping a project or a piece of design through writing in a way that is bigger than just, does this sentence fit on a CTA button and looked good? Does the type laid out on this headline for your welcome email looked too much?

Reese Fuller:
I think there’s a lot of moments where … I’ve experienced several moments where the design feels like it’s already set in place and they just want a writer to come in and line edit the copy. But we can really bring, I think, a lot more to a project than that by being brought on at an earlier phase. So, yeah, I think that’s one of the bigger misconceptions.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see writing as being super important because good writing engages all your senses. Of course, you read something, you hear it. In a way it also kind of, I don’t know if I might be stretching this in terms of taste, but you know when you’ve read something that is difficult to read or it sounds cumbersome or something like that. It just doesn’t sound right or feel right in your mouth, right?

Maurice Cherry:
But then, even good words that you use can trigger certain memories. Good words can trigger a scent memory, it can trigger a taste memory, it could trigger a touch memory or anything like that. I mean, it’s really important because there’s so many words that you can use, there’s of course slang and jargon. That factors into depending on what kind of project that you have. Writing is just such a really important part of the design process. I’m glad to see that design teams are really starting to embrace that more and keep writers in the design fold because it is a really powerful part of what it is that we do.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, totally. And I think, to your point, it’s also just shaping and communicating the personality of a product or a brand. Like, if you got a welcome email from a new retailer that you just signed up for their newsletter, the difference between, “Yo, what’s up, Maurice?” or “Hello, welcome to,” so and so “Maurice,” feels very distinct, and that’s a writing decision to make at the outset.

Reese Fuller:
So, in every moment, in every screen where there are words, that is an opportunity, potentially, to communicate something about the product that a user is using. Or, I think more functionally, with more utility, what they can get from it and how to do that. So, yeah, I think writing is really important in that process and in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit.

Reese Fuller:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I know we’ve gotten to know a bit about your work and what you do, but I’m curious to just learn more about your origin story, essentially. You say that you are in New York right now. Are you originally from there?

Reese Fuller:
No, I’m not. I’ve been in New York for maybe eight years or so, but I’m originally from Maryland.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
I grew up in the suburbs outside of DC. Actually, I went to high school at the same high school as one of your former guest, Ari Melenciano.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. We went to school in Maryland together. There, I was really into STEM. I was really interested in physics and engineering. I interned at NASA my junior year. I was at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
That was really fun. But that same year, I had a really awesome writing teacher and writing class. I just, all of a sudden, was really interested in writing as this structural craft. She broke down literally the formula, almost, of how to write a good essay. I didn’t know that writing could be so structural and formulaic in a way that I was already thinking about math and science and engineering and physics. I was like, “Oh, now I’m really interested in writing. Let’s pivot super hard.”

Reese Fuller:
So, coming out of high school, I went to school in Baltimore, Maryland, at UMBC. I had some personal life events happen that, in addition to the burgeoning interest in writing, really made me curious about why people behave, act the way they do; why they think what they think. So, I studied psychology and sociology. I did a double major, but I minored in writing and philosophy.

Reese Fuller:
While I was learning about behavior en masse, I was also doing all these extracurriculars. I was tutoring at the writing center on campus. We had a lit mag called the Bartleby, I was the fiction editor of. I was writing for this online magazine that was about fashion and music. It was like streetwear culture. So, always sort of complementing, or at least I thought, my academics into more research-oriented studies with this extracurricular creative thing on the side.

Reese Fuller:
Towards the end of undergrad, I was like, “Okay, I want to be in or around advertising in some capacity.” Maybe I’m a strategist, maybe I’m a copywriter. I’m not quite sure yet, but still really interested in why people think what they think and do what they do, like in groups.

Reese Fuller:
I found this really interesting grad program at NYU in social and consumer psychology, and that’s what brought me to New York. So, it was really research centric. We did psychology of branding, cognitive behavioral research, just very scientific. Through a lot of those classes my teachers would tell me, it seems like you really are most excited for the essays and those assignments versus the practice research.

Reese Fuller:
So, I did a couple internships, consulting and copywriting, just to start dabbling, I think, and trying to make it more professionally as a writer, so to speak. I interned at this digital first political strategy consultancy as a consultant one summer, and then the following summer switched gears to this full service creative digital agency as a copywriter. That was when things started to pick up.

Reese Fuller:
I was working on campaigns, digital campaigns and commercials. We’re doing a lot of scripts. It was just fun. I remember we did an ad for a quick service food chain where I, I don’t know, for whatever reason got super inspired and wrote almost like a rap song for their summer promo. Basically, the lyrics were like how to sign up for this promo and get a whole bunch of free burritos. It was just kind of quirky and funny and cool. I had a really good time doing it, and that’s what kind of let me know, like, okay, this is what I want to be doing, writing with a group of creative people and trying to put a visual expression around it or with it.

Reese Fuller:
After that internship, I was able to find a job on WeWork’s brand team. I was the second copywriter they hired. That was a really great experience because WeWork was just an already rapidly growing company with a whole bunch of different kinds of creatives. There were architectural designers, interior designers, product designers, illustrators. Everybody just making stuff to make these spaces and make the spaces really engaging and fun and cool to be in, so I just ran with that for a while. But then, there’s pretty big org shifts at the company and I started to feel I don’t really fit in as much as I would have liked to and wasn’t really getting as fulfilled by the work as I would have liked.

Reese Fuller:
I found an article online about this burgeoning discipline called verbal design at an agency called RGA and send a cold note to the head of verbal design there. We got to talk and I was really interested in this more strategic high-level approach to writing where, instead of writing the tagline or the script for the commercial, it’s we’re going to name the brand. We’re going to think very strategically about what this new sub brand or new product should be called and why, and build a visual brand around that. Or, we’re going to put together 50 pages of voice and tone guidelines with a really clear articulation of what you should always be trying to do when you’re writing for this brand, how to do that. Some voice principles, things you can incorporate into your writing to live up to that. I was just really interested in that approach to writing, that kind of writing. Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
And then, after that, I want to start working on more digital things. I want to start making websites and apps and chat bots. That’s what brought me to Work & Co. It feels like it’s been kind of a windy road and lots of different kinds of writing along the way, but I do, in some way, use all of my past experiences in the work that I do now, so it feels all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, when you summed it all up, we can wrap this interview up. No, I’m kidding.

Reese Fuller:
All right, see you later. This has been great.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go back because you covered a lot of ground there. We’re going to go back a little bit here.

Reese Fuller:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like college was kind of where you first got the sense that you sort of wanted to be a writer for a living. It was interesting how you mentioned that you first were on the STEM track and then you got introduced to this writing teacher, and that showed you how writing can be very structural and that sort of way.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very interesting because I also was on the … Well, I mean I was on the STEM track. My degree is in math but I’ve been writing, oh my god, since a little kid, maybe since four or five, all the way up to now at my big age. I wrote all through middle school, all through high school, all through college, et cetera and people always thought it was weird. It’s like, “Well, how was it that you’re studying math but then you’re also a writer. How does that make any sense?”

Maurice Cherry:
What I would tell people is that structuring a mathematical proof is very similar to structuring an essay. It’s also very similar to structuring a proposal for design services or web services. The certain aspects might be called different things, like what may be called, I don’t know, the brief inside of a proposal is the same thing as kind of setting up all of your assumptions and corollaries and such for a proof. It’s very much kind of the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that you really sort of picked up on that structural building of writing. Because I think, probably when most folks think of writing, they think Shakespeare or, you know. They think flower prose or creative writing. I think even that has some elements of structure into it, but it sounds like you were able to really make that distinction between the structure of making something sound good and how that is very similar to a, I don’t know, maybe like an algorithm or something to that effect.

Maurice Cherry:
I also interned in NASA. Not in high school like you-

Reese Fuller:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
… genius. I interned in college. I worked at Ames Research Center for a summer, and I worked at-

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… Marshall Space Flight Center down in Huntsville.

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow. I feel like the more we talk, the more we realize we have so much in common.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
That’s so funny. No, yeah, totally. I just felt like there was this lightbulb moment where I hadn’t been thinking of writing at all a structured kind of expression. I think that I’m hooked on phonics. You know, like in elementary school or pre K even, I don’t remember how old I was, just learn how to read and write. The basics, the grammar of it all. But even with those simple nuts and bolts, I hadn’t taken the next step of thinking about how to write at length with form and structure and some sort of, I don’t know, cohesive, sort of bodily shape to it or behind it even.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, when I realized that most, if not all, good pieces of writing follow similar tropes and patterns given that genre, whether it’s a novel or the different kinds of expressions of poems or even the product work that I do now, it’s like there are best practices, I would say, to use, I guess, a little bit of professional jargon. There are approaches that work. So, yeah, that was just a really big light bulb moment for me. And now, I’m just so interested in learning more of them and using them to make good work with writing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you mentioned also you interned at these agencies. You interned at, I think the first agency you’re referring to was [inaudible 00:35:48] and then after that you were at KARATs, I believe?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah, KARAT Creative.

Maurice Cherry:
At KARAT Creative, but you also had the shift from working in these agencies to working in house, particularly once you worked at WeWork. And I would probably say, “Well, I don’t know, I guess working at Work & Co. was kind of …” Do you consider that more agency or more in-house?

Reese Fuller:
I think, I mean, we are a product design and development agency, so I think of it as an agency although it’s very different than, at least, my other agency experiences-

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Reese Fuller:
… have been.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a big difference for you being a writer in an agency environment versus in an in-house environment?

Reese Fuller:
From my experience, yes. The biggest has been in an agency setting, being able, and encouraged to touch a much wider variety of types of businesses, types of projects. I just feel like, especially at this stage in my career, I just want to soak up as much information and experience as possible, and that’s why I feel more interested in working at an agency right now.

Reese Fuller:
I’ve worked on projects in industries like genomics or healthcare or retail or the nonprofit space. There’s such an array of exciting opportunities when you’re working at an agency. Versus when you’re in-house, you’re really dedicated to that one brand, that one set of products, that one mission. I mean, you really get to focus in, in a very specific way especially as a writer. Very deeply understand and appreciate the voice and tone behind the brand of the company that you’re working with and also mold it and shape and evolve it in a unique way too.

Reese Fuller:
But I think the biggest distinction, at least that I’ve experienced, has been choosing between breadth and depth. In my time at WeWork, I think I was there for almost two years, like I mentioned, the org shifted. The focus of the brand shifted more from small businesses and entrepreneurs to midsize businesses, and enterprise clients even.

Reese Fuller:
That was a big shift, I think, in the kinds of work that we were doing, the ways that we were articulating ourselves and the marketing materials and advertising and even the core product, the website and the coworking spaces themselves. To watch that happen from within was a really unique experience, but I also just wanted to change it up a little bit too, and I think you get that change of pace, which is great, at an agency.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, with Revision Path being the show that it is and the environment, we talk to black designers and developers and creatives and such. And so, I may never implicitly ask them what’s it like being a black blank or something like that in terms of what they do, but I’m curious for you since you are the first writer on the show. Being black in the industry, what have your experiences been like as you’ve furthered on in your career?

Reese Fuller:
I do feel blessed and highly favored. I think I’m very lucky to have a lot of positive experiences, but it certainly hasn’t been wholly positive either. I think part of what I’ve felt in various roles and moments throughout my career is this, like, Reese is here to make the word sound cool, like give it a little bit of flavor. Almost as kind of like the energy I’ve gotten in some context. Sometimes, and this is just me sort of trying to be honest about my own perceptions of those moments, sometimes that, I think, might be me interpreting that coming from people or just generally what they’re giving me, or sometimes even what the project needs. So, I think there’s that layer of like, “Are you just asking me to do this because I’m a black writer or is this really what needs to happen?”

Maurice Cherry:
Do people come to you expecting you to slang something up a bit or like, you know-

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Can you blacken this up a little bit?” Something like that?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. People might say, “Oh, I don’t have the cultural permission to do this, so can you do this for me?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. [inaudible 00:40:08] on it.

Reese Fuller:
Right. Exactly, [inaudible 00:40:10]. That has been something I felt at moments throughout my career. But I also think too, though, even other more senior black writers or other black professionals even in the design industry I’ve seen who, I think in some instances, very clearly have demonstrated a level of performance and excellence that is ridiculous. It’s like they’re just so good at what they do, they’re sort of being passed over for promotions or raises or even more junior people are making more money than them sometimes.

Reese Fuller:
I do think that there is a sort of, maybe not an under appreciation of black talent everywhere, but it’s definitely an issue that I’ve felt and also talked, I think, very freely and openly frequently about with some of my friends who also work in the industry. But even with that in mind, I think, especially after last year, it feels almost to be like a turning point or a reckoning moment where the powers that be are at least more aware of, if not eager, to create a healthier culture and dynamic for all kinds of black professionals. That is something I’m really excited for and glad to be living through, anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now, say we’ve got someone that’s listening to this and they want to follow what you do or they want to maybe become a writer in the design industry. Now, this might be a lofty question but I’m curious, what advice would you tell them? Are there any particular resources or anything they should check out? Anything like that?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, I’d say, I guess sort of related to some of the points we chatted about earlier. Like, there’s so many different kinds of writing and ways to be a writer in design and technology and make a living. I know people who just do naming, I know people who are really interested and focused on brand copywriting. They just want to do voice and tone guidelines or just want to do commercials, or just want to work in product. There are so many ways that writing becomes a part of the creative or design process.

Reese Fuller:
So, I think having as clear a vision of what sort of subdivision of writing you’re most interested in and building a portfolio around that or making connections with people who do that kind of work, seeing the kinds of projects that they work on and are excited by so you just get a better sense of what really jazz you up. Because I think that’s really like, the secret sauce is to, as often as possible, just do the things that get you the most excited even if that changes from month to month, quarter to quarter, year to year. Just follow.

Reese Fuller:
It’s going to be cliché, follow your passions. But I think that ultimately is what encourages anyone to show up more fully to a professional conversation. So, yeah, just figuring out what that looks like for you I think is the best advice I could give. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You said there are some people that just do naming and these are design writers, or there are some people that just do voice and tone work as it relates to style guides and thing like that. Okay, I’m curious for myself. I just wanted to know how do those work? I mean, I feel like that’s such a specific … I almost feel like that’s hyper specific to be a writer and only be able to focus on those small things like voice and tone or naming as opposed to what you have been doing with microcopy and things of that nature.

Reese Fuller:
I think when you’re that specialized, especially if you’re freelancing, you can command a little bit more compensation for the value that you would bring. There are examples, great examples of voice and tone guidelines. I think Adobe has a great one online I think MailChimp has online as well. There are examples online of great pieces of work like that, articles.

Reese Fuller:
There’s a brand blog. I think it’s like how to build a brand that has a series of great articles about different kinds of names, different approaches to naming, just like having your toolkit and your arsenal. But, yeah, there are ways to figure it out in a way. It doesn’t necessarily work or look the same for everybody, but just trying it out and figuring out what your own process could look like and how you might approach making something like that, if you’re interested in it, is an interesting way to go about it too. Because I think in a lot of those moments you get to make the rules, really.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Reese Fuller:
It’s like you get to brief yourself sometimes because a team typically who would be asking for help with naming might not know how that process really works. So, you get to leave the conversation. Although they’ll obviously be giving you feedback, you can sort of steer them in the way that you want to go.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. You and I are going to talk more about that after this interview because that really-

Reese Fuller:
All right.

Maurice Cherry:
… that extremely piqued my interest right now, so we may have to go more into that. Given where you are in your career, who were some of the mentors and people that have really helped you out along the way?

Reese Fuller:
You know, I think of all my old managers, really. When I was at WeWork [inaudible 00:45:40] I was the second copywriter that was hired to the brand team, but the first had come from Etsy prior.

Reese Fuller:
She kind of took me under her wing, showed me so much about product writing in that moment too because we’re building new micro sites and web activations for the company at the time. But I think really just taught me not only how to show up as a writer and collaborate with different kinds of designers, but how to navigate a company of that size, like a professional setting in a way that was really authentic and special. So, I appreciate that.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah, even moving on throughout my career. A number of great thoughtful managers and team leaders even, that I think overall did a great job of being themselves in a way and having their own creative process. Inviting people to become a part of that and sharing what they knew to work for getting work approved or producing good work, like different prompts or writing techniques to generate ideas even. All of those experiences have just been helpful for me in some capacity throughout my career.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, literally everybody. Literally everybody. And, again, I say blessed and highly favored, because literally everybody I’ve worked with has helped me in some way. It’s just been so great to have that experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Is this where you saw your career going when you first started out as a writer? Or rather, when you first got into writing, this teacher introduced you to the mechanics of it, is this where you thought your career would end up?

Reese Fuller:
Not at all. I’ve veered off course. I’m somewhere in the middle of the woods and just eaten berries, I guess. I don’t know. Weird analogy.

Reese Fuller:
But, no. When I first had that teacher in high school who broke down how to write a good essay for me, I was like, “I’m going to go to New York and be a music journalist. I’m going to be on the tour bus with backstage writing down all these really hot takes and his experiences into a really interesting story for The FADER or SPIN Magazine.” That was the kind of approach that I had.

Reese Fuller:
But the more, I think, different kinds of writing that I started reading and the more that I started to see writing appear in advertising, or at least think more deeply about the writing that appears in advertising and marketing and on the apps that I was using, in the websites I was reading, I was like, “Oh, writing words are everywhere,” so I have so much jurisdiction. It’s such a wider playground, a magazine or a book.

Reese Fuller:
That was the turning point for me where I was just like, “Okay, if I’m interested in this medium and there are words there, let’s try and figure out how to be a part of that.” That was the journey for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there any advice about writing or about your career that is really stuck with you over the years?

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. Read your work out loud is a big one, I think. It’s a lot easier for things to sound good in your head or look good on paper, but when you read it aloud in your voice, you might hear things that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Reese Fuller:
I think another one is to not be precious or not be a perfectionist. Again, writing is such a democratic, even, type of expression that I feel like when you’re a designer, you’re trying to solve a problem, produce the “right answer.” But a lot of times there is way more than one right answer, so be really open to other ideas and suggestions from the people that you’re collaborating with. Just don’t be precious about your work and your words because it could be better and it could be different. A lot of the time it’s better, even in a collaborative setting, to invite people into that process and let their voices be heard in a medium that they’re trying to express themselves in writing as well.

Reese Fuller:
So, yeah, don’t be precious and read your work. Yeah, I think those are the top two pieces of advice I would give.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you’d like to do in your career yet that you haven’t done?

Reese Fuller:
I have been thinking a lot more recently about submitting more creative writing to periodicals, lit mags, journals. I think that’s something I’ve kind of gotten away from. When I was in undergrad I was writing for this online magazine. I’m the fiction editor of the lit mag at school, so a lot of the writing that I do now is more solution oriented, just like making a project or product as whatever it needs to be as it can be. But I do want to get more into, or more back into, I should say to just more creative writing.

Maurice Cherry:
Man, we just had a design anthology called Recognize that we started back in 2019, where basically I would give a theme and then people can write essays, basically design essays or design-focused essays around that particular theme.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, this year’s theme was reboot. People would write essays to that, 3000 words or less. We publish them, we pay them. We stopped doing it this year because, honestly, there was a woeful lack of interest among designers.

Reese Fuller:
That’s the stick [inaudible 00:51:18], I feel like. At least my experience has been, and I think it’s why I’m trying to get the pendulum to swing back the other way is thinking of writing so much so as like a tool to solve a problem. It’s kind of hard to switch gears back into I’m just going to write more creatively, write in response to this prompt, write to express an idea that I just had. So yeah, I feel that pain. But, yeah, it’s a muscle that I haven’t used in a while and want to use more of. I would imagine, a lot of other design writers might feel the same too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, we did it for three years. We had … And honestly, the pandemic also kind of killed it. I don’t want to make it seem like it was totally just lack of interest from people. But once the pandemic happened, people were really more focused on surviving, which is fair. Like, please try to live. Don’t worry about trying to get 3,000 words [inaudible 00:52:13]. Don’t worry about that.

Maurice Cherry:
I would say even to this end, probably because things are still … I don’t know, information is still changing every day around this, it’s just not something that folks are super interested in.

Maurice Cherry:
I initially wanted to do the anthology because back in 2018, I had won the Steven Heller Prize for Cultural Commentary from AIGA. It’s usually awarded to writers, and I received it as a podcaster. But it got me to thinking about just the power of writing as a designer because it’s something that I’ve always kind of proselytized to designers for years. I’m like, it makes your proposals better, it makes your case studies better, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry:
But the more that I started doing this podcast, and especially once I started really getting recognized for it, which is why we call the anthology Recognize, is that black designers writing ensures that we are in the design history too.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s very easy to go into a bookstore, to go on Amazon or something and you can go to the design section. There’s a lot of design books and very few are by people of color, let alone black people. It’s not to say that the writing that black designer should do should always be in a novel or in book form, but it could be writing on medium, it could be something where people can see your thoughts long form and get a sense of how you think and what’s your process is and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to see that because we’re the next generation, I feel, of design writers out there, and we need to cultivate that. There needs to be a way to let people know that, hey, the only writing you do doesn’t have to be an email. You can also write about a project, or a thought process or things like that. I’ve been fortunate to have a few designers on here who are pretty good writers. I don’t know if they would really consider continually doing the writing, but …

Maurice Cherry:
Most recently I had Jeffrey Henderson on, who is a footwear designer in New York, and he owns an agency called AndThem. He’s been writing on medium probably for a few years now. Just such great writing. I would read an entire book of Jeffrey’s writing because it’s about projects, it’s about his thought process. He weaves his own personal story into coming from Cleveland and everything. It’s just so good, and it’s not writing that you see from black designers, but it is ostensibly design writing.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I mean, that’s so important. I mean, like I said earlier, so much of great work comes from passion and so much of writing becomes better when it’s grounded in intention.

Reese Fuller:
Those things overlap, right? It’s like if you have an idea that you just feel so jazzed up about, getting that out through writing is what, in my opinion, produces better writing.

Reese Fuller:
I mean, to your credit with having that won award, for me to think about writing as it extends from a novel or a poem to the writing in an ad or in a product even. I think of even podcasting as an auditory, a verbal expression, a kind of writing too. So, I don’t think that that’s too far off base. Maybe a departure from the people who’ve won the award previously, but it’s definitely all connected. It’s like that kiki and that bouba, to go back to what it’s like. These kinds of expression are all intertwined at the end of the day. So, yeah.

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

Reese Fuller:
Oh, wow. Hopefully, I think … I’ll have to say, doing what I’m doing now but on a bigger level, continuing to work on projects that I’m passionate about.

Reese Fuller:
I think one of the things I’ve been able to do more recently through Work & Co. actually is begin to work with a number of clients who are in the nonprofit space. We have the Work & Co. Fund, which is this allotment of a million dollars’ worth of work essentially invested in nonprofits that advance the Black community. It’s really the agency working to leverage this ability, that the agency has to build and design and develop and ship these digital products to enact positive social change.

Reese Fuller:
Those are the projects that I’ve worked on more recently that feel the most fulfilling and rewarding to me. I’m trying to think more about how I can do more stuff like that not only through Work & Co. but extracurricularly as well. I think in five years, hopefully, I’ll have more of my day-to-day time devoted to projects that fall in line with that.

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

Reese Fuller:
I’m on LinkedIn. Just Reese Fuller. It’s Reese, like the peanut butter filled chocolate cups; Fuller, F-U-L-L-E-R. I’m also on Instagram, which is @reesefuller with an underscore at the end, but I don’t really post all that much there. But, yeah, I try to keep a pretty quaint, minimal digital presence, but I am very responsive. If you shoot me a message on LinkedIn or Instagram, I’ll definitely hit you back.

Maurice Cherry:
A writer that’s not on Twitter? Wow.

Reese Fuller:
Yeah. I have Twitter back in the day. We could talk about Twitter. I had a Twitter back in the day. I still will lurk on Twitter every so often. I still get my [inaudible 00:58:01] my info but, yeah, just trying to be a little bit more intentional and conscious, minimalize the web presence a little bit. I think only so much output to give and trying to focus it in different places.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good strategy to have, yeah. Wow, Reese Fuller, thank you so much for coming on the show, for being Revision Path’s first writer on the show.

Maurice Cherry:
I think a lot of what you said about your process and how you work on projects at Work & Co. I think is super important for designers and even developers and other creatives that are listening to hear, to kind of get a sense of what it’s like to be on … I almost want to say, the other side of the process. You know, there’s left brain, right brain, and writing seems to be different from maybe more visual type of work.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s also good to note that it’s clear that you’ve put a lot of thought into the work that you’re doing. I really get the sense you have a strong work ethic, and even just a strong ethical core as it relates to the type of work that you do. I’m glad that you’re able to just share that with us so other people who may be interested in becoming writers can do that as well. So, thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Reese Fuller:
No, thank you for having me, Maurice. You know, I’ve listened to this podcast for so long when I was getting ready and interested in getting into the industry. I listen to you and your guests chat about their experience. It taught me so much as well. So, yeah, it feels amazing to have that all come full circle and hopefully give some of that back to folks today. So, yeah, thank you for having me on. It’s really been an honor, and I’ve enjoyed it.

Sponsored by Adobe MAX

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Support for Revision Path comes from Adobe MAX.

Adobe MAX is the annual global creativity conference and it’s going online this year — October 26th through the 28th. This is sure to be a creative experience like no other. Plus, it’s all free. Yep – 100% free!

With over 25 hours of keynotes, luminary speakers, breakout sessions, workshops, musical performances and even a few celebrity appearances, it’s going to be one-stop shopping for your inspiration, goals and creative tune-ups.

Did I mention it’s free?

Explore over 300 sessions across 11 tracks, hear from amazing speakers and learn new creative skills… all totally free and online this October.

To register, head to max.adobe.com.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Cedric Wilson

Sometimes you cross paths with people, and you never know if or how you will reconnect in the future. I have wanted to have a sound designer on the podcast for years, and through a series of conversations, now I have one — one that I’ve worked with in the past!

Meet Cedric Wilson, lead producer at Lantigua Williams & Co. We talk about some of Cedric’s most well-known audio projects, and he shared how he got into music theory in high school, which evolved into studying sound design and becoming a producer. Cedric also gives some basics on sound design, and shares why it’s such an important part of the world now. There are a lot of avenues for getting into sound design, and I’m glad Cedric is here to help introduce some of them to the Revision Path audience!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Cedric Wilson:
Hi, I’m Cedric Wilson. I am the lead producer at Lantigua Williams & Co. What I mainly do is sound design.

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

Cedric Wilson:
Lot of iPhone recordings. It’s been good. It’s been interesting. My current position actually was remote, and I started like a month right before the pandemic started. It’s been a wild ride for sure but a good year. Good year.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m curious, how has it been working in audio since the pandemic started? You mentioned those iPhone recordings, but has it changed in any other ways?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say that a lot of the projects that we work on definitely have sort of expanded in geography. A lot of the projects we work on would be, “Okay everyone, come to the studio,” or, “Hey everyone, come to this one spot where we’re going to record.” Now, because everything has to be remote anyway, it’s given us a great opportunity to be like, “All right, let’s just record this person in LA,” that we wouldn’t have access to beforehand. So a lot more just open. Yeah. Open, I’ll say open.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I would imagine when you’re recording you’re doing all this digitally. I know for some shows, for some podcasts that I’ve talked to for example, some producers, it actually has been pretty easy to kind switch to a more mobile type of a platform in terms of recording and stuff and not having to be in a physical studio. They say it’s been a lot easier because you can record over Zoom, or you can do like you mentioned, record on an iPhone or something like that. Have you found that to be the case?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah. I was really nervous at first, because a lot of the stuff we were doing in person I’d be running around, putting microphones in people’s faces. I think the biggest thing I was worried about was that people can understand, “Oh, I’m going to take a selfie video,” and understand, “Okay, I have to be in the frame, and I have to have good lighting.” But I don’t think we have, culturally, that sort of same education around sound, so I was very, very nervous being like, “All right.” So for the remote recordings, the power is in your hands completely, so like, “Ahh!”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s definitely turned around. At first, it was a bit bumpy, but it’s worked out. Quite honestly, when all of this is eventually said and done, I think a lot of it’s going to stick.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I can see that being the case. Earlier this year, I actually recorded two podcasts, I produced two podcasts, and we did it… I mean, it was completely remote, but the main producer we worked in was in Los Angeles. I was in Atlanta, and then the host of the show was in Berlin. So we were working across like a huge timezone, and the majority of the guests were in Europe, so we were working across these timezones to try to get things working. There’s no way that would’ve been able to work if we had to do it in person. You know what I mean, it would’ve been impossible.

Cedric Wilson:
Lot of transatlantic flights on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it’s been great. Like I said, I was really nervous about it at first and was trying to build a system of like, “All right, let’s have this recording. Let’s have this backup so just in case something happens, we have this.” We still had weird things happen throughout the course of all of our productions, but it’s worked out, which is great. I guess it’s the staying power of audio.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Flexible.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about sort what a typical day has been for you recently. You mentioned being at Lantigua Williams & Co. What’s a regular day for Cedric?

Cedric Wilson:
So I started that right at the beginning of the pandemic, January of 2020. And it varies, some days are pretty mix heavy, where I’m still leading all the technical, audio engineer-y type of things on certain projects. Let’s see, sometimes I do just more listening and note-giving on a technical and production level for other projects. Way more emails than what I was doing when I was a freelancer. That was definitely an adjustment.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Sort of like a lot of systems building, figuring out what tech needs we have as the year goes along and as things change. Moral support for producers on their projects, sort of workshopping and figuring out what sort of techniques they should be using or can use when they’re putting the pie together. So yeah, I would say about 50% of my day is hardcore in the Pro Tools sessions, making things sound good, and then the other 50% is just working with producers and other engineers and sound designers to make sure they have what they need to get their shows made.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is a big misconception around production like that, that you think most people just don’t know?

Cedric Wilson:
Mainly that it’s low-lift or easy. I always make the joke that making media and audio is not rocket science, but there is a certain skillset that you have to have, or should have, and I know it gets a little bit tricky because some of the tools can sort of be a barrier to creating the things we want to create, working with the people you want to with, but work goes into this kind of stuff. I usually say that as much time as people use and need in the video world probably is a comparable amount of time in the audio world too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s a good thing for people to note, sort of going back to that show, those two shows that I mentioned earlier. We would record maybe for about an hour or so, like for each episode, but then there’s so much time behind the scenes of listening back through it and editing and everything like that. Even then, the final result ended up being maybe like 10 or 15 minutes long.

Cedric Wilson:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
That can happen sometimes. It’s not as simple as just sitting down, pressing record, and then that goes right out. Hopefully, there’s something, some level of finesse that you do to the audio.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
One of the big projects that you’ve done over the past year is this audio series called Driving the Green Book. Can you talk to me about that?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, so that was one of the first big projects that I got involved with as soon as I started the job. So yeah, I would go in and record our host, Alvin Hall, at Macmillan Studios. At Macmillan, like the publishing, and they had a little studio for us to record in. He and Juleyka did all the editing for all this tape that they gathered in the field, and so then it just all got to me. Parsed it all out, made the edits they wanted, and just put it all together, just a lot of cutting in Pro Tools and picking out the music. I wrote some original music for that one too, so that was definitely like a big project to start off with, but I’m really proud with how that one came out.

Maurice Cherry:
When did that come out? That was some time last year, right?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it started publishing August, September.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
So it’s almost a year old now.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so it ran… Now that I’m thinking about what was going on at the time of year, it sort of ran concurrently with Lovecraft Country, that debuted on HBO.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh you know what, yeah I think so.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m guessing that wasn’t on purpose.

Cedric Wilson:
No. No. Oh man, it was just funny, I didn’t watch the full season. I did watch the first few episodes. It wasn’t for me. Yeah, that’s kind of… They were going on around the same time. Geez. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, if you’ve seen it or any of the listeners have seen it, it’s on HBO Max, go check it out. They did get a second season, so you can watch the whole thing. There’s an element of it that sort of deals with… I think it sort of deals either with the actual Green Book or a Green-Book-like publication that one of the main characters is writing, and that sort of ends up being sort of the vehicle that moves the plot along, at least in the early part of the season.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, now I’m thinking back on it, I remember one of the first conflicts that they got into was because they were out on the road super late in a sundown town, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s why the Green Book existed.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting, I mean, there’s sort of the case now where you’ll have these shows come out and then they also have a companion audio podcast or something that goes along with it. I think that’s both a blessing and a curse, in a way. I think it’s a blessing because sometimes, especially for more shall we say niche kind of shows, i.e. not for white people, but like more niche kind of shows. That sort of extra explanation that would come through a podcast can be helpful to understand the source material. But then I also feel like it’s too much. It’s too much. Let folks watch the show and gain their opinions about the show from the show. Like does the show need to also have a corresponding podcast and a syllabus and, “Oh yeah, read this before the next episode.” Then it becomes homework.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It feels like there’s a fine line to draw.

Cedric Wilson:
I think for TV, I feel similarly, where I just kind of like want to watch it and not critically think about it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Sometimes, depending on what the show is. But then I think I love sitting down and watching mix breakdowns. A lot of my music production is hip-hop-based, and it’s sort of frowned upon, but when people break down the samples that people use and how they flip them.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It’s a little bit like sample snitching. It’s just something you don’t really do, but I enjoy it because I’m like, “Oh, cool, I would’ve never thought to break up a sample like that in that way.” So yeah, I’m kind of half-and-half on them.

Maurice Cherry:
Sample snitching. I’ve never heard of that, but as you’ve articulated it, that makes a lot of sense. I’ve started seeing some videos on TikTok where people do that.

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Like they’ll have a song, then they’ll sort of break it down and show how the sample ended up becoming a part of this more popular song.

Cedric Wilson:
What was it, it was a Rihanna song… I can’t remember the song, but they broke down the… And I was like, “Oh my God, who would’ve thought of that? I would’ve never thought of that. That’s so cool.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Like just watch someone’s train of thought when they’re making music. I think it’s just so interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, I think you have to be listening to something almost in like a multidimensional sort of way to be able to pick and isolate that part and think, “Well, what if I change the tempo, or I change the pitch in how I could possibly use it in something else.” But a lot of older music, particularly from the ’80s and before, is ripe for sampling, which of course is what a lot of people end up using it for. There’s this, I don’t know if it’s a fairly new genre, but I certainly discovered it fairly recently, but there’s this genre called future funk that is basically just re-sampled music from like the ’70s and ’80s, but they’ve maybe changed the tempo or sped it up or they added a beat to it or something like that. It’s interesting, because it has that nostalgic sound, but it’s clearly been transformed into something completely new.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I love it. I mean, I think the art of sampling is just top-tier, honestly. Just even thinking about how it started, like with scratching and someone just accidentally did that, and people were like, “Oh wait, but what if you do this instead? What if you take that recording and make new music with it?” And it’s just an infinite amount of possibilities, I think it’s so cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of taking older stuff and kind of breathing new life into it, there’s a project that you did a few years ago called The Weeksville Project. You and I actually had first… Well, we “met,” I’m using air quotes here. We “met” through one of that shows producers, TK Dutes, who is a brilliant audio producer in New York City. She and I worked together at Glitch for a good little while. How did you-

Cedric Wilson:
Keisha.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, how did you get involved with The Weeksville Project?

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, well, let’s see at that point I was already doing some stuff in the podcast space and actually already had met Keisha through, I’ll call my music mentor, Willie Green, Paul “Willie Green” Womack. And we met at the Audio Engineering Society Convention. I think it was 2015. I think, it was a while ago. So I met her through all the music stuff, and then once I started doing more podcasts and radio things, I was like, “Oh wait, TK does this stuff, let’s talk.” So she’s definitely been a mentor in that space for me. She knew that I was really interested in sort of expanding the work that I was doing and wanting to do more podcasts, radio things. She’s like, “Hey, you want to sound design this project for us,” and I was like, “Sure, why not? This sounds dope.”

Maurice Cherry:
And now that was also… I mean not like Driving the Green Book, but it was sort of a similar project that’s kind of talking about history, right? Like talking about the Weeks… I forget the name of the neighborhood, but it’s like right around, or what the old neighborhood of Brooklyn used to be. Is that what it is?

Cedric Wilson:
Right. So it used to… Oh man, I can’t remember the location where it exists now. But yeah, it was the first free black community in New York, and it existed in Brooklyn. Yeah, it was like a fictionalized version, so the writer’s elements are from history. Historical fiction, oh my God, that’s what it’s called. And I actually never connected the two like that, but yeah, they both did have that historical element to it. That was kind of fun, too, because a lot of picking the music for it we’re like, “All right, what would exist during this time? What would a car sound like at this time?” But then also it wasn’t the type of project where it was like, “Oh, we’re in the past.” We wanted it to sound like it was actually happening, and it’s happening around you.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
So yeah, that was a lot of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to say that show came out right around the time there was another show. Bronzeville, that’s the name of it. There was a podcast called Bronzeville, and I think it was based off of fictionalized… Not a fictionalized, it was a fiction-based podcast, but it was based around, I think, a neighborhood in Chicago, if I’m not mistaken.

Cedric Wilson:
I’ll have to check that out. I had not heard of it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s called Bronzeville, and it was all celebrity actors, Larenz Tate, Tika Sumpter was in it, Laurence Fishburne. Pretty good show, I think they only had two seasons, and then they kind of faded away. But I like those kind of period piece sort of shows, because I always love how they do the sound design, especially when they sort of switch to the radio and it has that old-timey radio voice that I love how with audio you can make subtle tweaks like that, and it kind of takes you… It mentally takes you back to a certain time like that.

Cedric Wilson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
Now, right now you’re the lead producer, as you mentioned earlier, at Lantigua Williams & Co. But prior to that, how do you end up working on projects? Is it mostly like a word-of-mouth kind of thing?

Cedric Wilson:
Towards the end of me freelancing it was, but at first, it was just a lot of trying to figure out who needed things to get mixed and could I mix them.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
At the time, so really what started it was working on The Nod. I was freelancing for Gimlet. I actually found out about that job through Twitter. I’m only laughing because I was supposed to be working at the time that I saw this tweet, but I was at my old campus job. They had a media production company, and I was like helping out with lectures and guest speakers, and I was like, “Oh great, no one recorded this correctly, now I have to fix this audio,” so that was the job that I had over the summer. I didn’t have a lot of hours, and I kind of was like, “I need to be making more money.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I just happened to stumble upon, it was James T. Green’s tweet, and it was like “Hey, we’re looking for an engineer for this project for a podcast. Bonus points for any person that’s black and queer, this and that.” I was like, “All right, I fill a couple of those boxes, let me see. I’m an engineer. I’m black, let’s go.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
So I applied, or emailed. I emailed him and then was in touch with Gimlet’s head engineer to do a mix test, and it was very funny. I started the mix test for what would become The Nod, and then I was on a trip back… So I was taking a trip, and we were listening to For Colored Nerds. My partner was For Colored Nerds, and I was like, “Oh wait, I know these people, how do you know these people?” He was like, “Oh well, I listen to this podcast, I’m a big fan.” I was like, “Oh.” I couldn’t say, “Oh, that mix test that I’ve been talking about, this is actually their thing, so don’t tell anybody.” But that was really cool.

Cedric Wilson:
And yeah, I think once after doing that show for two-and-a-half years, then I just started to meet people and gigs would… Not like role in, like I wasn’t turning people away. I was still pretty new to the industry, but that’s when I got to meet really great people and got to work on other really cool projects, like that’s how I met CC Paschal and I did a project with them in Endeavor, and Mass Appeal. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of what other… There was a lot of just small things I did for Gimlet while I was still freelancing for them. And yeah, it just was a lot of just getting out there and meeting people, different On Air Fests, podcast meets, people’s houses. Yeah, it just was a lot of just doing really good work and figuring out where the people were to be like, “Hey, do you need me to mix something?”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As you go from project to project in that way, do you find that they tend to be wholly different as you go to each one?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say so. I think people’s techniques sort of vary and sort of like where the engineer or sound designer or composer would sort of fit into the equation. So for a lot of projects, I was like the last person to touch the things, like the last line of defense to a really great sounding show. There were also certain instances of Nod or Weeksville where I was super involved a lot sooner, so that way I had a really good idea of what needed to be done and what direction I wanted to go into as the thing was being put together. So it was not, I don’t want to say projects that have the engineer come in at the end as an afterthought, but it is definitely a much different experience to be involved mid-production as opposed to like at the end.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to kind of switch gears here a little bit. We talked about, now, the work that you’re doing, but I’m curious to kind of learn about sort of like your origin story, like how you first got into all of this now. So you’re originally from New York City, right?

Cedric Wilson:
No, I’m from Long Island, so close enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Is Long Island not?

Cedric Wilson:
I wouldn’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, look. Okay, I’m from the south. I’m from Alabama, so forgive my geography faux pas, because I was just fixing to be like, “Is Long Island not New York?” But that’s Staten Island, my bad. Sorry.

Cedric Wilson:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry, don’t kill me New York folks, don’t kill me.

Cedric Wilson:
Queens and Brooklyn do exist on the tip of the other end of Long Island, but it’s different and I grew up in Long Island proper. I do not ever claim that I was born in or grew up in the city. I just want to put that.

Maurice Cherry:
Got you, got you. My bad. Sorry, sorry. So you grew up in Long Island?

Cedric Wilson:
Grew up on Long Island.

Maurice Cherry:
Grew up on Long Island.

Cedric Wilson:
Based here in New York, and what really got me into the sound stuff was music. I’m a saxophonist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
It was my first instrument. I started in fourth grade and stuck with it all the way up until college.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
And started learning music production through music theory in high school, so that was a new program that the school was piloting. Based on the zip code I was in, I had got afforded a really good education, and a really good music education with really great music educators, which I know is not the norm. Looking back at all that stuff now, it’s like something that I’m immensely lucky to have experienced and grateful for.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But yeah, so like when they were piloting music theory in my high school, my teacher, Ed Schaefer shout-out, taught it through composition. That’s when I started learning how to use a DAW and this is how a microphone gets plugged in and all that stuff, so like we were producing music but then learning the terms of the music as we were making it. That’s probably what definitely got me started into all this. So I did that a lot of times in the lab after school, it was great. It was like my second home.

Cedric Wilson:
And then that led to me going to Fredonia for their Sound Recording Technology program. It’s actually kind of funny, I was going to do music education for a very long time. I made the decision, I think it was senior year. Yeah, like before I stared applying, I was like, “You know what, actually I think I just want to do music production.” Not that I don’t like teaching. I love to teach, and it’s something that I still do. But I was like, “You know what, I want to make some music.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
So Fredonia was the school that I ended up going to for undergrad, and it was on the list because my high school teacher went there and was like, “Hey, you should go. They have a really great program for education.” And then when I swapped, it stayed on the list, because they had really good sound recording program, which actually I didn’t get in at first. Their program was like a music/science recording hybrid. You had to get into school academically, which was fine. You also had to get into the music program, and my audition was okay. I was a good musician in high school, but it’s like when you leave… Big fish, small pond kind of thing. You leave the pond, you’re like, “Oh wow, these people are GOOD good.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I remember, so the first day… Oh, I went to still try to get into an ensemble, because I was like, “All right, I’m not going to be able to start the sound recording program or the music program, I’ll try again in the spring, but I still want to play in an ensemble.” So I went through that process, and it was also a mess because I didn’t realize that you had to get material weeks ahead. That’s neither here nor there, that audition was terrible. But the saxophone professor knew who I was, and apparently a seat opened up in the studio on the very first day. So I get this email from him, he’s like, “Hey, so I remember you from the blah, blah, blah. Here’s the thing. We had a seat open up, do you still want to do the sound recording thing?” Because I learned later that I got into the sound recording program fine, it was that my music audition wasn’t good enough to get in.

Cedric Wilson:
I was like, “Oh, well, yes.” He’s like, “Go email this person and run around and do all these things and figure it out, because I’m not going to help you do that.” I was like, “That’s fine.” So yeah, it was a hectic first day of class.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like it.

Cedric Wilson:
Ten hours away from home. But yeah, so I did that for four years. It was a really cool program. Got to work on musicianship skills and learned how to record, mix and edit, all that kind of stuff. And then I left spring of 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
Went back home and was like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” At that point, I already had met my music mentor and was coming in and assisting on sessions, just watching him work, but it just was hard. It was just going back-and-forth from his place in Brooklyn to my place in Long Island. And then I was like, “Well, I kind of want to get down to the city. How am I going to do it?” I still don’t know if this was the right choice, but I was like, “All right, I guess it’s time for grad school.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I decided, I was like, “Well, I could go continue and do more of what I’ve been doing in music,” and I was like, “Nah.” Not that I was like, “Oh, I’m great at what I do. I’m the best,” but I just was like, “I kind of want to learn a couple of different other applications for sound or get into something new.” So then I stumbled on the New School’s Media Studies program. It was like, “Cool, I can work on sound, and they have like a really cool film program.” I was really interested, at the time, in making documentary stuff.

Cedric Wilson:
So I started that program, and I remember there was a media design course where they walked you through all the different things that you could do in the program, so it was like video, sound, graphic design, all of that kind of stuff. It was like a sample course, and at the end of the semester, we had to make an EPK for an artist. We had the artist in, and all the video people are hovering over a camera talking about apertures and lighting and this, that and the third. I’m sitting here like, “Oh man, no.” I was like, “But I can put that microphone in the right spot and make sure that this guy’s going to sound real crispy.” At that point, I was like, “Oh, there’s so many other things I could do with sound instead.”

Cedric Wilson:
So for a long time, it was a lot of video work, helping on friends’ films, doing stuff like that for the school, and just took more classes in that vein instead of doing video stuff, and that’s how I started really learning about, “Okay, this is what sound design is, and this is what sound designers do. This is how music gets incorporated into things like this.” I took a very beginner radio course, too, and learned a bit about that world specifically. But yeah, so it was a lot of just being like, “Look, I need to work, and I want to get out of my house.” So I had to figure it out, what other things are people doing in sound, and it worked out I guess. But you know, that’s how I got to here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you just sort of had this momentum that just kept going, and you just kept along with it. I mean, that’s what I’m sort of getting from your story here is that it was sort of one thing. You went to SUNY Fredonia, and then you… Did you have some audio jobs between there and going to grad school?

Cedric Wilson:
Just with my mentor. I would come home from breaks, or be home for the summer, and just help out with either sessions, like recording sessions, or building mix sessions for him, watching him work. That was really the main thing. I got really plugged into the indie, pop scene down in Brooklyn for a while. I mean, just doing music has sort of always been the connective tissue between everything that I’ve done. Yeah, it actually wasn’t all audio either. I mean, in that six to nine months that I was home, I was also working at Forever 21 for a little bit.

Cedric Wilson:
And then I got an internship through a friend of mine from the same Fredonia program that was a manager at a post house in Manhattan, Big Yellow Duck. Interned there for a while, and then it eventually turned into a job that I started… It turned into a job that eventually conflicted with school, so I ended up… That post house was the first place I was like, “Okay, this is what sound designers do.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
They were doing a lot of stuff for animated projects, and I was like, “Okay.” When I was doing that job, it was like a lot of studio management, but then it was like, “Hey, we’re working on this show, can you put all the footsteps in for this cartoon?” So yeah, someone has to like-

Maurice Cherry:
So kind of like some Foley work, too, it sounds like.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, a lot of Foley work. It was really cool. One of the shows that, while I was there, they were working on was Doc McStuffins, so the lead engineer over there would just have a three, four, five crates of toys to add the sounds in. It was really cool to watch him work. It was dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. Why is sound design important? And I’m asking this because I’m assuming that we have, for people that are listening to this show, a large amount of visual designers, probably coders or technologists, et cetera. Why is sound design an important thing to know?

Cedric Wilson:
It’s important because when the sound is off, you know it. You might not know why, or you might even watch something and be like, “Wow, something’s off,” and might not even realize that it is the sound. But it just carries the whole… I don’t want to say carries everything. That’s a little grandiose. But if you have this amazing film, and it’s shot so beautifully and the actors are doing their thing and everything’s great, but it sounds like garbage, you’re going to know. You’re going to be like, “Oh wow, something was not great about that.” And I think that permeates so much of what we interact with, be it like film, video games, YouTube videos, all kinds of stuff. It’s literally everywhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I tell people that will tell me or they’ll tell other people how they’re not creative, for example, or they don’t have any sort of design language or whatever. I tell folks that everything that we’ve been using since birth has passed through some lens of design, and so because of that we may have intrinsic knowledge about what good design and bad design is. We may not always be able to articulate it, and I feel like sound design kind of fills that gap a little bit, because we tend to associate sounds with memories, sounds with objects, sounds with other types of things, so being able to design something with sound to elicit that response. I feel like that’s a powerful bit of sorcery to be able to do something like that.

Cedric Wilson:
It is. I’m only laughing because you said the word sorcery. I get called a magician all the time. But yeah, I mean doing a little bit of like even studying sound art or just those certain projects that just hit you. You’re just like, “Wow.” Sound is a really powerful medium, almost taps into a base part of the human brain, or something, to me. It’s just like when something gives you goosebumps, but you don’t know why, it’s because it just is.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It’s so cool. It’s really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
What specifically do you enjoy about sound design? Like I know you’re kind of working as a producer now, but you still do sound design on the side.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I would say I like the challenge of sort of figuring out how to really immerse someone in something. Because sometimes it’s like not apparent or easy to figure that out, and it can be a real challenge to be like, “Wait, something is off, but what is it?” I remember for The Nod, they did an episode for a homegoing for Madea, so we made it sound like it was in a church the whole time. I mixed it, and we did a first pass, and I was like, “There’s something off, and I can’t figure it out.” People were like, “Yeah, everyone kind of sounds almost empty or they’re speaking ghost-ish.” I put all this reverb and things like that to make it sound like they’re in this big church space, but something was just off.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
And so I finally sat down with the head engineer, I’m like, “I don’t know, I can’t figure this one out.” And so we’re going back-and-forth, and he just… We had like this church room tone recording just playing underneath the whole thing, and he turns it up, like way up. And I was like, “Oh, that’s it.” That’s it, it just needed more of that room tone recording.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
It was just like, “Oh yeah, duh.” I don’t make that mistake anymore, but I couldn’t figure it out at first, I was like, “Oh.” So I like that, I like that sort of like, “Here’s this weird thing we’re going to do,” or, “Here’s just this thing we’re going to do, how do we best convey it in sound?” Just the challenge of figuring that kind of stuff out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was thinking of a show… What’s a show that I heard recently that had really good sound design? Two shows, actually, one is a bit of a shameless plug, because I… I didn’t help work on it, but I did greenlight the idea initially when we worked at Glitch, but there was this speculative fiction podcast called Open World that has really great, phenomenal sound design. And there’s another show, it’s actually a historical kind of a documentary series, but it’s called In Vogue, like the magazine, I-N-V-O-G-U-E, the 1990s. It’s talking about basically fashion in the ’90s and all that sort of stuff. They get the ’90s so right. I would imagine it’s because they have access to the licenses for music and stuff, but they’ve got the music down and the sounds, and it’s so immersive.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, I think part of it, when we talk about sound design, we talk about the created sound, but the other part of it is the authenticity of the host. So like, for this particular podcast, they have this sort of like haggard British guy named Hamish Bowles, who’s a well-known fashion stylist. And so his sort of kind of posh British accent kind of lends credence to that time. It all sort of flows together very well. I have to actually give it to a lot of limited edition… Not limited edition, but limited series podcasts. They do such a great job with sound design.

Cedric Wilson:
They really do.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s some others. There’s Anime in America from Crunchyroll, did a great job with it. There’s a series on Freaknik that did a really great job with sound design and just like encapsulating that time period or that moment with sound. That’s a really sort of powerful thing, because sound is… We talk about, or I’ve heard the notion about how things can’t be created or destroyed, but sound is literally something that we can make ourselves, and to be able to manipulate that sound and use that sound to bring about memories or immerse someone in a particular time period. I don’t know, it’s really powerful. That sort of is what interests me about sound design, is how you’re able to kind of do that sort of stuff.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, it’s great. If I had to guess why I love it so much, I could’ve just stayed in music, but I think there’s just something about just getting the right waves to come out of the right speaker at the right time that just does something. I don’t know, it’s just endlessly fascinating and cool to work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m curious were you in marching band in high school?

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Cedric Wilson:
I hated marching band.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Cedric Wilson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Why did you hate it?

Cedric Wilson:
I was the type of music kid to like… I wanted to be in the ensemble room, air-conditioned.

Maurice Cherry:
Ah, okay.

Cedric Wilson:
Making music that way. I had a lot of fun in marching band, don’t get me wrong. I just never really… It just wasn’t for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I was bringing up marching band largely because of talking about sort of timing and everything. Like I was in marching band in high school too, and I played trombone. I had the opportunity through my… And I have to give it to my band director in high school, shout-out to Mr. McDonald, who like really introduced me to a lot of ’70s music that I didn’t know about, that I might’ve heard, like I might’ve heard my parents playing it or something like that, or heard my grandmother playing it or something.

Maurice Cherry:
But once I joined the marching band, he was a big Earth, Wind and Fire fan. And so I got immersed, really, in like a lot of their discography, because we would arrange that music and end up playing it on the field. That’s sort of how I sort of taught myself piano, at least I know my way around a piano. I’m not a virtuoso by any means, but I know my way around a piano to listen to something and arrange it for different instruments. I learned that in marching band, that we take that out and take it onto the field.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, would they always be perfect, one-to-one, note-for-note transpositions? Not in the slightest, especially when we tried to remix popular music. God. If I never hear Montell Jordan’s This is How We Do It ever again in life, I will be perfectly fine, because we played that song to death in marching band. It wasn’t even a great transposition either, or a great arrangement I should say. But then we’d get some of those… And I think the reason that we used Earth, Wind and Fire was because they had their band kind of mapped over to what you would have in a marching band. It has a strong brass section, and you could take the vocals and use that with woodwinds, or something like that, so it made sense in that way.

Cedric Wilson:
I loved Earth, Wind and Fire. Oh my God. I remember, my dad… When I was young, I was big on taking the CDs and getting them on the computer or the iPod and burning them. I’d be like, “All right, I have to burn them. I have to burn them with these settings and this is the best.” And I remember it was like this huge three-CD collection of all of Earth, Wind and Fire.

Maurice Cherry:
I had that. It was like this tall, brown like with Egyptian.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I got that for my 16th birthday. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh, man. So I used to listen to that all the time. Oh, man. Whew. Yeah no, that kind of stuff, my dad loves Earth, Wind and Fire. He was like the Motown, that kind of stuff, the funk, the soul, R&B. And then my mom was like the Anita Baker, Rachelle Ferrell, India Arie person.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Actually, no, it’s funny. They definitely instilled a love of music, and I remember it was… I actually don’t remember which song it was, but it was off India Arie’s, I think, second… One of hers, the second album?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I don’t remember, but I remember like that deciding to be like, “Oh, okay, I think I want to make music with my life.” In making that decision, I remember she was just playing one of her CDs in the car, and I was listening to one of the songs and I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to make some music.”

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Cedric Wilson:
Oh yeah, it was always stuff playing in the house. Not on Sundays, when it was time to clean, it was always music playing in the house.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so funny. This was years ago, but I had her graphic designer on the show, India Arie’s graphic designer.

Cedric Wilson:
Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Denise Francis. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
That’s dope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The one that I remember distinctly that we would play from Earth, Wind and Fire is Star, because it had a solo at the beginning, and it would be a trombone solo that I would write in for myself, naturally. But it would have a solo in the beginning, and then like once it broke out into the verse, it was very easy for marching, because it was like, “Dun dun, dun dun, dun dun dun-dun-dun!”

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so we would play like a mix… I’ll say it like this, on the field, we would play a mix of like oldies and then stuff that’s on the radio. So like we would play My Boo, this is ’96, I’m old. We would play that on the field and get people hype, but then like when you were in stands and you were in your sections, your sections could do whatever you wanted to, as long as you were the section leader. And so I was the section leader for the trombones, and my nerdy, video game-playing ass had taught my section how to play the winning battle fanfare from Final Fantasy.

Maurice Cherry:
So when the team would score a touchdown, you’d hear, “Bum-bum-bum-bum, bum bum, bum-bum-bum! Dun dun dun, dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun!” And people thought it was just like some John Philip Sousa, all-American kind of fanfare thing. I’m like, “No, no.” Listen, because I played Final Fantasy Two to death, Final Fantasy Four in Japan, but I recorded that and then I had a keyboard at home, and I would translate… Yeah, that’s what I would do. I would do dirty shit like that. I can’t imagine songs now, like modern songs, being done… I mean, not to say that it’s not done, because marching bands do it, but I don’t know if today’s music lends to that level of instrumentality.

Cedric Wilson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
I think the latest song that I heard that actually think would do really good in a marching band is Silk Sonic’s Leave the Door Open.

Cedric Wilson:
Actually, Anderson .Paak is where my mind first went.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Just generally, but yeah, ooh that’s a good… What are the kids playing in marching band these days? That’s a good question.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, because I can’t imagine any of this mumble rap stuff going over well on the field. “Nana, nana, nanananananana.” I can’t, I don’t know what that would sound like, probably would sound like a swarm of bees or something. I don’t know.

Cedric Wilson:
Some of that stuff hits, I’m sure the drummers really enjoy that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s honestly probably the stuff that has old school samples in it.

Cedric Wilson:
Probably. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
I’m curious.

Maurice Cherry:
So like, what’s the difference between a sound designer and an audio engineer, like in your eyes? Is there a difference between those two?

Cedric Wilson:
There is. I think you’ll probably get a different answer from different people, but for me, I would say an audio engineer is someone who is just doing the technical stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
Like record this well, clean this up, put this thing here. Even to like a certain extent, editing, for quality not necessarily for content. And I would say a sound designer is someone who may or may not have those technical skills. I always try to say that you don’t have to get into sound design through engineering. There are a lot of great people who came in as “producers,” quote-unquote, and just do really great sound design. But I would say a sound designer is someone who is able to make those creative choices and say, “Okay, we want this to sound like it’s in a church or in a cave or in space or wherever,” and then has the tools at their disposal to make that happen.

Maurice Cherry:
So one kind of is more creative, and the other’s more technical, I guess, just kind of broadly saying.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, super broadly, because I’ve definitely seen some engineers, especially in the music world, who can just mix their butts off and do things that I’m just like, “Why in God’s name would you ever think to do something like that?” But it sounds amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
It’s like that thing where at any job, when you’re at a really high level, is creative. But yeah, I would say the distinction there is I would say more technical to like more production-y.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I’d imagine there’s probably even… Well, I know for a fact that there’s business/branding elements that go to it, because you did some sound design work back when both TK and I worked at Glitch, you came on and worked as a sound designer for a project that we had, where you sort of made an audio jingle, or like an audio brand, for the company.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I think they’re called audio identities.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, audio identity. Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, that was really cool. That was the first time I did something like that, because TK was like, “Hey, we have this thing, can you do this?” I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So I did some research, and then listened to all the episodes of Twenty Thousand Hertz that dealt with the specific topic, and I was like, “All right, let’s go make some audio IDs.” Yeah, that was super fun. That was cool. I mean, that one was cool because the way that I just had to do it was I came at the group with three very different ideas for it. I sat down with everyone and was like, “This is what I think you all want, here’s what I think my interpretation would be, like if I were to personally do it, this is how I would do it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
And then I did one that was really abstract and just weird, because you’ve got to have one like that just to be like, “Maybe there’s something there, I don’t know.” And yeah, that was a really cool process, just kind of like going back and forth and figuring out, “Okay, this is the sound that we want, and how do we get to work?” There was like a visual element that it needed to sync up with too. Yeah, that was a lot of fun, and definitely was the first time I ever did it. I think it worked out well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say for people that probably… I think a lot of folks have heard audio identities but may not necessarily really know what it is, but like just to kind of give a broad example. For when you watch a new movie on Netflix, and you hear that sort of opening, “Dun dun!” Or Intel has “Bum bum, bum bum!”

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Or something like that. Those little types of, I don’t know what they’re called, like zingers or whatever. I’m just making up words, but those little audio blurbs can often be indicative of an entire brand, and what I think we’re starting to see now is a lot more companies are leaning into that, with the advent of smart speakers and things of that nature, you’re starting to hear a lot more audio identities. One that surprised me recently was YouTube.

Cedric Wilson:
They have one now?

Maurice Cherry:
YouTube is completely visual, but YouTube has an audio identity if you’re watching… If I cast YouTube to television, or like if I watch YouTube on Apple TV or Chromecast TV or something, there’s like an opening whoosh sound or something with YouTube, like it goes, “Shhhhwuummm, shwum!” Like it’s new, and I just recently started paying attention to it. I would imagine it’s probably to get people’s attention if they’re not looking at the screen, but it also is to just sort of signify like, “Hey, if you’re across the room and you hear this, you already know exactly what it is.” Like when you hear the Netflix sound, you know that’s Netflix. Or like if you hear a certain app or something chime or chirp, you know that’s that app, because the app has a specific sound to it or something like that.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a lot more tech companies and design companies, or at least design-focused tech companies, that are leaning into audio identities as ways to kind of brand themselves, which I think is pretty cool.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, I mean, it’s a powerful, powerful tool. I get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, as I sort of alluded to earlier, I’m pretty sure most of our audience are probably visual designers in practice, or they’re software designers or something like that. What would you tell someone that wants to know about sound design, like what should they know when it comes to sound design?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say it’s bigger than you think it is. So like when I was doing a lot of the indie film stuff in school, and would work with filmmakers, people just didn’t fully know how much goes into it. If you’re making something that’s like a huge budget, I don’t think people realize the actors don’t just say their lines on set, or in front of a green screen. They go back into a studio afterwards and dub everything afterwards.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But you know, depending on the budget, not everyone can do that. But it just is to say that the work that goes into the sound is about the same that you’ll have to put into a visual thing, so like if you have the means, a really good friend, or the budget, get you a sound person. Get you someone who can really do that work.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there certain resources or tools that you would recommend for someone that wants to get into sound design, like they’ve listened to this episode, they think this is cool, this is something that I want to maybe pick up as a skill or something like that. What resources would you recommend?

Cedric Wilson:
I would say YouTube is your best friend. I learned probably too many things on that site, which is a little annoying to say to someone that also went to grad school. There are so many people just doing the work of just being like, “Hey, this is what we do, and this is how it works.” It’s always been a great resource. A lot of plugin companies are now also really into the content creation game. So like usually like with waves… If you find the good tools, usually there’s good videos and things like that to go along with it. Yeah.

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

Cedric Wilson:
I would love to start getting into the more experimental stuff. I would love to do more fiction stuff. I think for a while I was afraid of fiction, just because I knew how much work needs to go into it, just like time-wise. And maybe some of the first sound design experiences I had… Not scared me off from it, but I just was like, “Uh, how do people actually do this all the time for work?” But I would love to do that kind of stuff more. I guess get less into the literal space and more in the metaphoric stuff and how does this weird sound or experience or whatever represent something, as opposed to this quote-unquote “interview.” I’m not trying to place a value judgment on narrative audio and things like that, but I would love to start getting into making more weirder things and just figuring out what, I guess, being an artist might look like more in the sound design realm. I know who I am as an artist from music, but for sound design it’s just like, “Oh, what do I really want to be making here?”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
I’m just like sort of figuring that kind of stuff out.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’d say to that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years or so? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Cedric Wilson:
I would love to be doing more things in collaboration with musicians and things like that. Song Exploder is a huge inspiration for me. I absolutely love that podcast, like listening to shows like Twenty Thousand Hertz is amazing, and even podcasts that are narrative but use music in really interesting ways.

Maurice Cherry:
Like Dissect?

Cedric Wilson:
Like Dissect. I need to listen to the new season of Mogul. They’re doing a season on chopped and screwed.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Cedric Wilson:
I mean, there’s so much really, really cool storytelling that can happen just around the realm of sound, and not just because you can use sound in cool ways, but just because it’s also just genuinely interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Cedric Wilson:
But yeah, it’s just like more immersion, more risk-taking, that kind of stuff.

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

Cedric Wilson:
You can find out more about me on my website is probably the best spot, cedricwilsonmedia.com. I am also on Twitter, @cedricwilson64, but I will give the warning that I don’t tweet very often. But like, if anyone ever had a question, you can feel free to hit up the DMs, but I’m not a big social media person. I’m sorry for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, no. Hey look, you’re in the studio, you’re mixing audio and stuff. That makes sense, I get it. I get it.

Cedric Wilson:
I host a gaming podcast. I really love video games. We should talk more about video games after this, but I do that. It’s called Gamer Friends. You can find that on any podcast platform.

Maurice Cherry:
I was about to say, you work a podcast and you’re like, “I have a podcast, it’s on… Oh man, I can’t think of the name.”

Cedric Wilson:
I just can’t remember the… I think the phrase that I like is whatever platform you’re listening to this on, you can find it there as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Cedric Wilson:
But you know, I’m not behind the mic that often.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s all good. It’s all good. Cedric Wilson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for really kind of demystifying sound design, not just for me, but I think for the audience as well. Being able to hear is one of our five vital senses. And as designers, of course, we look at visual things, we touch things, so the work that we do is mostly around those two senses. But sound is something I think, for those of us that have hearing, we sort of take it for granted in terms of how important it is and how useful it is. And so, it’s good to have someone on the show to talk about how they got into sound design, how it’s important, and you’ve been able to use it to be a creative person. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Cedric Wilson:
Yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was great. I had a very good time.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

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Michael Collett

“A better world is possible if we approach our work with a class- AND race-aware lens.” Michael Collett was dropping gems like this, and we hadn’t even started recording! I have followed Michael’s work since 2016, and I’m glad we finally finally got a chance to talk on Revision Path about his career and his overall philosophy to life.

We talked about his involvement with Greenworks and Design To Divest, and Michael shared some of his origin story growing up between The Middle East and the United States. He also spoke about class awareness and politics among the Black creative class, working in San Francisco, and the one piece of advice that has stuck with him over the years. We need deep thinkers like Michael in the Black design community to keep us all honest and accountable!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Michael Collett:
My name is Michael Collett, and I’m a multi-disciplinary designer based in San Francisco, California. I’m on the steering committee at Design To Divest which is an organization that seeks to center and uplift black creative talent wherever we find it. And I’m a partner at a company called Greenworks and our slogan is tender loving care for plants and people. Thank you so much for having me today, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no problem. Wow, it’s so formal. My goodness. This is a night live.

Michael Collett:
I hit my ribs real quick. [crosstalk 00:03:24].

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

Michael Collett:
It’s still 2020, right?

Maurice Cherry:
In some ways, yeah, it feels like it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. I mean, not bad truthfully like still walking around, still freelancing and keeping as busy as one can. San Francisco conspires to be approximately 60 degrees while the rest of the country is boiling, so I suppose I should just be grateful.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right. Just so folks know we’re recording this right now where there’s like this massive heat dome over the Northwest United States, like it’s crushing most other cities, but San Francisco seems to be like the ice cube in the middle of all this.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, they’re joking that even the heat can’t afford rent here, yes. Understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What has San Francisco been like now that I guess the state and everything’s opened back up?

Michael Collett:
As a San Franciscan, I hold the right to criticize my city a lot, but I will say that the pandemic and broadly reopening has been handled halfway okay. People were generally pretty willing to put masks on, San Francisco is very, very dense, we all sort of live on top of one another and quite literally.

Michael Collett:
And the mask rate was really, really high, people have and myself included quibbles about particularly things like outdoor dining and the way that that’s come to pass. But we’ve mostly reopened the cases aren’t really spiking touch wood. I don’t think it owes much to our political class so much as just our citizenry though.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s been weird how like Atlanta and Georgia, for the most part, it’s largely been open since, I don’t know, like May of last year.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I have friends in Atlanta who say the pandemic never happened.

Maurice Cherry:
It really never felt like it happened. I mean, certainly there were companies that had closed down like movie theaters and such, and even the city itself went through this whole reopening phase. Right now we’re in phase four of five of the city fully reopening, but it never really felt like the city closed.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, traffic’s been the same going out and about is largely been the same. I think there might’ve been certainly a time in early April where it felt like, “Wow, this is going to really affect the way of life here.” And then everyone was like, “You know what? We’re good.” They just kept going.

Michael Collett:
We just kept going hard and fast here by American standards for sure and the city, and much has been made of the exit is from San Francisco that the numbers don’t really back up, but definitely a lot of boarded up shops that quickly got covered with graffiti. I don’t know, I liked my city with a little bit of an edge to it. San Francisco in the last five years particularly had gotten to be a bit of a Disneyland, so a little more bite to the town always, always suits me.

Maurice Cherry:
So you think it’s sort of changing that way now that there’s been that Exodus?

Michael Collett:
We’ll see. Like I said, the Exodus is I think a lot more hyped up than real, like maybe some of the folks who were pulling down six figures and never really cared to be here other than for the job itself are in the East Bay now or somewhere deeper into the valley, but there’s still just roughly the same 800,000 plus people here.

Michael Collett:
I think what has sort of been interesting to see is that we all, for the most part, looked around and went, “Okay, I’ll put this mask on and do what I’m supposed to do.” And it broadly sort of worked, I think of criticism that I’ve had of everybody throughout the pandemic, both presidential administrations to governors and mayors, and everybody.

Michael Collett:
As citizens, we’ve been left to our own devices to figure this out, and it was pretty cool to see San Francisco by and large sort of figure it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I finally got to see you speak at this year’s where are the black designers confident. For folks that don’t know, I knew Michael, when Michael… Is Michael Collett still-

Michael Collett:
Michael.

Maurice Cherry:
… working Michael?

Michael Collett:
I probably shouldn’t say that it’s still my email address, but yeah, it’s still my email address. It was a numb day brand or whatever you want to call it for a while. I’m mostly using my full initials as a professional mark these days, but I’m always working on something that was why the name existed to begin with is because what are you doing or I’m working.

Michael Collett:
Back in the day, it was a lot of black collar work service industry stuff and that kind of work as much as graphic design. So it was an homage to being on both sides of that fence, but these days it’s mostly just graphic design.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but seeing you at this year’s conference and getting to hear you speak on that panel, I was like, “Wow, this is dope.” I was the whole event for you.

Michael Collett:
Pretty seamless, I tuned in, I was out and about on Saturday on some personal business, but tuned in and watched a session before on Sunday. And much as Zoom we’ve grown to joke is and Design To Divest is pretty notorious for glitching out whenever I get too political. The technical part of it was seamless, and then I don’t know if you stuck around for the online little after party, but there was just a wonderful sort of sense of community in particularly like the slack rooms and the chats that were going on.

Michael Collett:
I’m always impressed that people manage to produce anything resembling a human connection when it’s just Zoom screens and chat windows, to organize a real event. And then I’m somebody who grew up on Okayplayer message boards, and the old BB boards days, and that kind of stuff.

Michael Collett:
So I know it’s possible, but the idea of like running a whole conference just digitally, still strikes me as really impressive. So I was just blown away by all of it. The branding I thought was really, really nice, just some lovely illustrations and all the way through to the Zoom backgrounds for presenters, really well thought through. You know how designers can be, God, we’re so nitpicky, but I felt really touched to be a part of it and to be asked to be there. So that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I gave the second day keynote for the conference, and that was something that I mentioned was now more than ever we have, of course, like these physical groups of people that got together, pre pandemic, we have Bay Area black designers, black designers of Seattle, and other kind of similar groups.

Maurice Cherry:
But then like the number of events that sprung up over the last year, because someone, like you said had a Zoom account, they’ve got a Slack room, boom, put it together. You’ve now got a conference venue where you can bring people in and they can give talks. And like the technology has progressed to the point that allows us to sort of spin this up pretty cheaply and pretty robustly which is great to see.

Michael Collett:
And credit to the organizers, I think particularly of this year is where the black designers, without naming names I’ve been to some other things that just felt like workdays, you’re just in Slack and on Zoom all day and I’m like this doesn’t… Whereas like designers this year did not have that feel, and I think that’s the real secret sauce, if you will, is being able to take these tools that let’s be clear have been built for business purposes and to use them for something that is deeper and beyond that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think that just like black folks though?

Michael Collett:
It sure is.

Maurice Cherry:
Making something out of nothing. But yeah, the amount of different events and things that have come on and I did some of those events last year and it has varied wildly, some of them have been super easy, super smooth, and then others have really felt like work.

Michael Collett:
The first versus, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right, right. Yeah. So like you mentioned, you’re a partner at Greenworks, talk to me like…

Michael Collett:
Greenworks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that. What of work are you doing?

Michael Collett:
Tender loving care for plants and people. So Greenworks is a fun story, I was up in Sacramento in December looking after a family member who had some medical work done. And while I was just trying to calm my nerves, I started flipping through a shelf full of books and posting on my Instagram. And when I found cool typefaces, just mindless research type of thing you do when you’re twitchy about something.

Michael Collett:
And a buddy of mine, Mohammed Sillerman in New York saw one of them and it was this old ’70s plant care book called Greenworks. And it had that one of those classic ’70s wobbly font types, you can sort of picture it in your head. And the tagline was tender loving care for plants. And he joked and he said, “That would make a great T-shirt.”

Michael Collett:
And I said, “Oh yeah, tender loving care for plants and people, why don’t we do it?” And so we dove immediately into the print on demand T-shirt economy. And the more we kept trying to type set the words, tender loving care for plants and people on a Gildan T-shirt the more and more it felt like we were just really fucking up. It was just this fundamental disconnect between what we were saying and how we were doing it, because look like Gildans and the cotton T-shirt economy in general is not a fantastic one.

Michael Collett:
And we wanted to do more than just add another T-shirt to the world, right? Like in what way were we improving on not doing anything? And so we stepped back and my buddy Mo realized that he had a friend Anj in Seattle who had worked with all kinds of different manufacturing and was currently working in the legal cannabis industry there. And that we ought to reach out to her about how to take this T-shirt thing on.

Michael Collett:
And so there was a particular design detail that we wanted to do, and we were having a hard time conceptualizing it. And so we reached out to Anj, and Anj not only had already solved for that design detail but immediately picked up on the problems that we were having with the quick turnaround print on demand object universe. And said, “We’re at a point now where we cannot do this.” And we all said, “Yeah, why don’t we not do that?”

Michael Collett:
And so Greenworks now is a research company more than anything else. And what we’re trying to do is provide as holistically as possible solutions to problems that we encounter as designers. So with T-shirts, for instance, rather than running immediately to a 100% cotton blank that you don’t know how it’s produced, but you probably can guess, we’re searching out looking for and working with people who grow hemp and use recycled cotton, and who are looking at the water impact and waste diversion from what they do.

Michael Collett:
So rather than simply treating the T-shirt and the thing that goes on it as the design problem, we’re looking at as much as we can, the whole thing from stem to stern. So we’re in the process right now of developing a line of houseware solutions since we’ve all been inside this year and nobody needs really another T-shirt, but everybody could use a new pot for some plants or a blanket for their couch or an ashtray to burn some incense in, or a nice water bottle. And there are ways to produce those that are in keeping with our ethos.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. When I looked at it initially, and this I don’t know if this was an intentional comparison in general, but when I thought of it and looked at it, it sort of reminded me of what Seth Rogen is doing with houseplants with his brand.

Michael Collett:
There’s definitely I think some similarity there, I would admit that we are perhaps similarly aligned about various kinds of houseplants if you will. But what I will say is that rather than approaching things from a hype beast standpoint, we’re really interested in products as the result of design solutions rather than products as ends in and of themselves, if that makes sense, we were just having a conversation about this yesterday.

Michael Collett:
One of the things that we’re really interested in doing as we produce objects is being really transparent about processes because what we’re interested in is tender loving care for plants and people, and that extends to the people that are making the objects that we’re designing.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s a new, maybe not a new challenge for designers, because if you go back through industrial design history, there’s certainly that awareness of it. But when we think about the holy grail for us as graphic designers is passive income. You make T-shirts, skateboard deck, coffee mugs, that kind of stuff. And people buy it because they liked the design of it and you don’t have to worry about it anymore.

Michael Collett:
But that stuff isn’t without its own cost and it isn’t without its own ethical problems. And the challenge I think for us as designers now is to look at not just the object, but the process as the design challenge. So that’s what we’re doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like that’s an ethos that has started, I think, in some aspect to creep up now because the pandemic because one thing certainly that this period has done is that it’s really exposed supply chains and how fragile they are.

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
And so when it comes down to people trying to create new sorts of products or things like this, hopefully they’re looking at more ethical ways to do it ways that won’t be a big tax on other resources and stuff like that.

Michael Collett:
And selfishly ways that won’t get stuck in the Suez Canal for a month, like there’s also just the fundamental functional problems of hyper globalized manufacturing in that, your stuff is literally on the other side of the planet until it’s not. And I don’t know, I’m a designer I’m picky, that seems like a really bad way to have as much control as possible over what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s the designer way, isn’t it? To nitpick over the details and to really create something that is, I think more towards art, particularly with physical works. I’ve had so many designers over the years where yes, they may be digital designers by profession, but in their spare time they’re doing pottery or woodworking or something, they’re making something tangible and they’re doing it with the amount of care and precision and such that they probably would with a digital design.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Oh, well, I mean, I think once you look at the world that way, it’s hard not to do that in every part of your life. I bet you are very, very intent on how your onions get chopped, even if you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, you know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Michael Collett:
And that’s I think partially how I was raised both my parents are landscape architects and I grew up around them and not only in their professional peers. And so I’ve long believed that every moment is an opportunity to bring a design sensibility to things which to paraphrase Minari, I think is just a planner with an aesthetic sense. So if you’ve got a plan and a sense of taste then you’re halfway to a design. And even if that’s just chopping onions.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny you mentioned that about onions. I remember reading something, this was years ago, about how an onion will actually taste differently depending on how you cut it.

Michael Collett:
That’s exactly the point. Yes, that’s exactly it, right? Like sometimes you want the long slice, sometimes you want the diced onion. Sometimes you want to put it in before the garlic, sometimes you want to put it in after, sometimes you don’t want to put them in together at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, good point. Yeah. You’re also on the committee for a collective that’s called Design To Divest. Talk to me about that.

Michael Collett:
Design To Divest. I am just so full of love for these folks. So Design To Divest started in the context of the pandemic and the summer protests last year by a designer creative based out of Brooklyn named Vanessa. And they reached out to their network and extended black creative networks, initially for people to essentially for graphic designers to lend their skills to existing social justice organizations who needed design help.

Michael Collett:
And we quickly became a little bit of a running crew, speaking of assembling community online and in virtual spaces, it’s definitely sort of how that came to be. And over the course of, I guess, now the last year and a half, we’ve gone from hosting regular weekly meetings for black designers and allies to pulling back a little bit from the regular grind of the digital ecosystem and trying to be really, really intentional in the work that we’re doing.

Michael Collett:
And so we’re about to release in collaboration with San Francisco print shop a butt whole press that’s beauty, W-H-O-L-E, for those listeners with sensitive years. Our first Dezeen, our first publication that’s going to grapple with critical race theory and Afrofuturism and all kinds of things that are imminently topical right now that we’re only just fringe ideas six months ago when we started talking about this.

Michael Collett:
And broadly we are immersed in the process of trying to create something that I mentioned during our panel discussion last weekend, like a walled garden for black creators. And this is something that is not only, I think, a priority for me with Design To Divest, but is also a priority with my work with Greenworks.

Michael Collett:
I fundamentally believe that keeping up with particularly the Instagram algorithm for creatives is an inherently toxic and losing game. And I think anything that we can do to literally just provide a space for black creatives and black creators to develop outside of that really consumptive and extractive digital space is something worth doing.

Maurice Cherry:
And with Design To Divest and you all sort of coming together and doing these things, I guess, where do you want to see this collective grow into? Are there larger things also that you’d like to accomplish?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, we’d like to divest from white supremacy in design in general. Yeah, that’s the large goal and design as broadly as possible and divest as largely as possible. We are I think, I’m going to say today, disgruntled optimists, as much as anything else about the possibility.

Michael Collett:
It’s cliche for designers, like design can change the world, but the world is designed. So yeah, I mean, sort of, right? And that’s not to say that like any one poster is going to solve racism, but there is a level at which we can be looking to develop spaces, institutions, cultures that are not based on extraction from black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about that notion that you said of divesting from white supremacy and design, because one thing that I’ve seen probably over the past two years now is just how much more political, I guess I would say black design initiatives have become, that they’ve been largely steeped in these concepts of decolonization, divesting from white supremacy, et cetera, because it makes sense like you have to sort of strip that away in order for us to really get back to what we hope is the root of what it is that we do, because it reminds me of an essay that the late Sylvia Harris had written for Stephen Heller’s at the education of a graphic designer, where she talks about how black designers have fallen into this pattern of imitation rather than innovation.

Maurice Cherry:
And that the work tends to mimic what they might’ve been taught in schools or whatever around like the Bauhaus or like Swiss Style or something like that, and it’s less about their own kind of cultural touchpoints. And that’s not to say necessarily that that cultural touchpoint is a direct line to Africa, like a tribe or a country or anything like that, but just like where you come from. I mean, as African-Americans have a very unique culture in this country that is ripe with inspiration for so many things…

Michael Collett:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I had Brent Rollins on the show for episode 400 and I mean, just the shit that he has created out of his experience is so uniquely like African-American, but also is hip-hop and film. And I mean, the man made the logo for boys in the hood for poetic justice when he was like a teenager.

Michael Collett:
That’s very much I think the point. When Design To Divest first came together, I remember we had a conversation, somebody on the call had lamented the fact that there wasn’t a black graphic design tradition that they could call upon in school. And I was like, “What are we talking about? What are we talking about? Absolutely not.”

Michael Collett:
When it comes to the combination of text and image in terms of its resonance in our culture, black designers are without par, but we just don’t consider that graphic because it’s not Swiss School publications, poster, nominations. I mean, has the AIGA ever recognized Pen & Pencil Studios?

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t think so.

Michael Collett:
Then they are not talking about graphic arts in this country, because Pen & Pencil Studios is a Seminole, Pen & Pixels, Pen & Pixel Studios is this Seminole studio when it comes to not just the African-American, but the American graphic design tradition, if we’re really getting down to brass tacks, right?

Michael Collett:
Whatever kind of design you want to focus on, but as graphic designer, there’s a huge black graphic design tradition that we don’t even think about because it’s so denigrated. And so when we talk about decolonizing and divesting, that can get really heady. But what I mean is that like, we should be in the same way that so much of the Bauhaus and Swiss School is about, so the Swiss poster thing, that’s about wheat paste posters that the Swiss put up on the street for advertisements.

Michael Collett:
That’s what that’s about. That’s the root of the Swiss poster and all this other thing, it’s street advertisement. So if we’re in thrall to street advertisement, then let’s go find those iconic street ads for hip hop records, for clothing lines, for all of the representations of black American culture, which has been the primary driver of American culture since time immemorial.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
And so when we talk about like, what does that walled garden look like? What we’re trying to do is to coalesce and to ideally produce and publish this knowledge and make it available for people. It kills me to see it’s definitely a common refrain among folks, take us off the mood boards and put us in the creative directorships.

Michael Collett:
We are already as black people inherently creative because you have to be fly in the face of systemic oppression. And then our creativity is never what is compensated, while it is what drives all of the cultural engine. You can find discreet examples of that like the young woman who created the concept of on fleek, has the millions of dollars worth of advertising that have used that word in the last, I don’t know how many years, provided a dime to her.

Michael Collett:
But it’s so symptomatic of the extractive nature of our social media platforms, I think in particular where so much, especially now during the pandemic of our culture is not only consumed but creative.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s interesting. As you mentioned, kind of social media and the algorithm, like there are people now that I don’t want to say that they’ve come up, but what you’re finding now is like this new instantiation of a designer who is more curator than creator. It’s less about what they may themselves be making it more about what they can pull together from what others have made, because there’s so much noise for lack of a better term out there, that they’re the ones that can say, “Okay, here’s the good ship that you need to pay attention to.” And like, then that person ends up being like a tastemaker or something in their own right because of that.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah. Well, and the ability to manipulate the algorithm has now been passed off for creative direction.

Maurice Cherry:
True, true that.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s okay, sure, it is creative direction, but it’s creative direction in the service of what? And so for me, the at all opportunity is trying to turn away from the algorithm as a driving factor in the work that I’m creating, is a big point for me these days.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I’m curious to know about the Michael Collett origin story, where did you grow up initially?

Michael Collett:
I was born here in San Francisco, and like I mentioned before my parents are both landscape architects. And in the late ’80s the Bechtle company was hiring lots of landscape architects to work on a project in Kuwait.

Michael Collett:
And so my folks being relatively young and fresh out of school-ish, first couple of jobs said, “Hey, pay looks good, live abroad for a couple of years. We’ve got this kid, they’ll pay for his English school out there. Sounds great.”

Michael Collett:
And so I want to say mid-’88, we packed up here in San Francisco and flew off to Kuwait and planned on being there for, I think at least four or five years. Oh God, the timeline escapes me. But the summer of the first Gulf War, before it was the first Gulf War, we went on vacation to Cyprus to visit my godfather in Scotland and to visit some family in New York.

Michael Collett:
And when we got to New York and got settled in, in our hotel, and these were of course, the days before cell phones and people had to know where you were going and call ahead, there was a message from my aunt saying to turn on CNN and that she hoped we had packed winter clothes because Iraqi Republican Guard had not only entered Kuwait, but had set up its command center in our apartment building.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh shit, wow.

Michael Collett:
So what was the vacation very quickly turned into, I guess, we’re coming back to the states now. And we returned to San Francisco, but from there we bounced around a bit. I mostly grew up in Davis, California, which I will mostly hold my tongue about. There’s some very nice people there and some less so people there, I’ll put it that way.

Michael Collett:
But then I went to a few different schools, first University of California, Riverside. Then when my mother got a job at Penn State, I went to Penn State main campus, that was a bit of a culture shock. University of California at Riverside was the first minority, majority UC school. Penn State main campus was 85% white when I got there and it snowed in October.

Michael Collett:
And like I said, I’m from California and not built for that, but I met some wonderful people at Penn State in spite of it being occasionally a pleasant villi in the horror. And then came back to Sacramento, having not finished and then went moved to Philadelphia outside of which is Penn State Abington in order to finish my education there.

Michael Collett:
That was sort of a choose your own adventure degree, I had originally started studying political science and bounced around and did a bunch of stuff. As the child of designers, I definitely did not want to join the family business for a long time, or at least I thought I didn’t. The punchline to that story is I’m currently now enrolled in school for architecture. So obviously I did not want to do it that badly, but you know how kids are great? You know how to get [inaudible 00:34:30] against everything, I’ll go be a lawyer. And then I realized that was a horrible idea.

Michael Collett:
So by the time I got to Penn State Abington, I definitely needed to write some very persuasive essays to convince these folks why all these disparate classes from three different schools about to do a degree, but we did that. And then I ended up back in Sacramento twiddling my thumbs. I worked a traveling salesman job for a Mormon windows heating and air conditioning company just as the economy was cratering in 2007, which was weird, definitely got chased off of some Stockton front porches by the sound of cocking shotguns, et cetera, et cetera.

Michael Collett:
Surprised I didn’t get turned into a hashtag, although I don’t know if they had those then. And from there, I realized that because I could passively photo edit in Photoshop and export to PDF that for boomers, I was essentially a computer Wiz and could pass myself off as a graphic designer to people who didn’t know any better. And then I quickly realized that I was in over my head and needed to go learn a bunch of stuff, which I spent the next 10 years doing, and here I am.

Maurice Cherry:
So one of your early design gigs was there in San Francisco. You were working for Mule Design Studio, which I think for people that are listening to this show that know about design and probably heard of Mule Design because of its proprietor, Mike Monteiro. How was that job? I’m just curious. How was it like working there?

Michael Collett:
Mule was a really, really interesting gig. Mule has since shuttered and I think both Mike and Erica are consulting and mostly doing speaking and writing gigs now. But Mule was a really educational experience for me as much in terms of design as it was in terms of how to deal with clients and I think particularly about the politics of design work.

Michael Collett:
And I say politics in a lowercase sense that I mentioned that I studied political science in school. And one of the things that early, 101 political science courses talk about is this idea that politics isn’t just party A, party B, big national election. Politics is the struggle for power in any group of people larger than one.

Michael Collett:
And when you look at it in that lens, particularly client work is a lot of political reading and handholding of the organization that you’re performing the work for. One of the things that we used to talk about at Mule that I find is such a great metric for things these days is that the main navigation bar of any organizational website will tell you so much about the politics of that organization, if you know how to look at it.

Michael Collett:
An organization that has a very succinct and easy to understand top menu bar, top level nav particularly, is one that… I mean, might have its internal problems still, but at least has a proper delegation of powers, like a hugely overcrowded main nav is a symptom of something organizational and much larger than just the design.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s as much, if anything, the key that I took away from Mule, is that design is a reflection of the organizational priorities and politics of whoever it is in question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Now, I’m thinking back at the last two places that I worked before my current gig and how design was… It was a reflection of internal politics, like the first company I remember starting at it, started out as… or at least when I started there, it was just sort of small, stable, fairly well-known software company. And their design was pretty basic, off stare, nothing that’s like winning awards, nothing mind-blowing, but they were also very well-funded and stable and all their employees loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
And then we switched to becoming the startup overnight and the branding was so… I use chaotic in a good way, but the design was like, oh my God, I’m really trying to accurately pinpoint how weird this was. There was like late ’90s, early 2000s like Murakami anime style, where it was certainly trying to like push a boundary.

Maurice Cherry:
And this is a tech company, like trying to push a boundary, but then it’s also like bordering on juvenile because I mean, honestly we were a young company, we had went from being this old company to a startup overnight. And that really reflected as the company went on, the people that attracted, the way that we sort of did business, unfortunately the internal politics as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And then the second place I worked at was this very stoic Eastern European tech startup, and the design very much reflected that it was just black. I started, they had a logo and they had black and two shades of gray, and that was the brand. And that very much reflects the monoculture of the company like, “Oh, okay. Yeah. Wow. That’s a really good perception there.”

Michael Collett:
Yeah, that I think was one of my big takeaways from Mule. The other one, and this was, I think, credit to Mike Monteiro where it’s due, was that it’s just websites. I think a lot of our industry, a lot of our profession is beset with a really inordinate amount of stress and anxiety and pressure.

Michael Collett:
Some of which are self-generated, some of which is client-generated, some of which is generated by the fact that we live under capitalism. But at the end of the day, like it’s just websites, like everybody needs to take a deep breath.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something that I’m glad that I’ve been able to keep in perspective throughout my career because I started designing websites. God, this is date… I started designing websites in 1997.

Michael Collett:
Hey.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, this is basic SHTML geo cities, Athens Roads 1130. You know what I’m saying?

Michael Collett:
I thought those sites could still run, I bet [crosstalk 00:41:17] probably.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, they definitely could still run. Absolutely. I’m pretty sure if there’s a geo cities archive somewhere in my old website with my full address and phone number at the time.

Michael Collett:
Oh God.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s probably still on the web somewhere.

Michael Collett:
Oh yeah, but the privacy fails, we all committed in those days.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God. And I remember when my mom found out about it and I mean, she chewed me out, like, “Why are you putting that? Why are you putting that address on the internet?” I was like, “Nobody’s going to find it.”

Michael Collett:
Strangers on the internet.

Maurice Cherry:
“Nobody’s going to find it,” like come on. Like, yeah, there’s going to be some hacker in Stockton, California that’s like, “I can’t wait to get to sell my Alabama and find…” That’s not going to happen. But I say that to say, like having been on the web, building things on the web for such a long time, all of this shit is so ephemeral and like, it’s going to get redesigned and over it, which is why I never really sweat or stress web design in general. Like some people really like live this shit like Moses came down from the mountain with two tablets. And I understand-

Michael Collett:
[crosstalk 00:42:20] fake my eyes, I just don’t get it.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, and I understand that, but it’s like, I’m like, “Dude, in 10 years, all of this is going to be like sitting on a hard drive somewhere. None of this is going to matter.”

Michael Collett:
Not only that like, I hate to break it to web designers, but your cookie acceptance banner takes up half the goddamn page to begin with, so I don’t know what you’re looking at to start with.

Maurice Cherry:
The speed at which that has taken over every website in the past two years.

Michael Collett:
GDPR killed mobile web design and I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you go to a website and there’s like three success of pop-ups, there’s a full-page modal to subscribe to their newsletter with some snarky dark pattern. No, I don’t want to save 20%, and then you’ve got the cookie banner and then something else pops up. I’m like, “I just wanted to read this news article. Oh, wait, it’s behind the paywall, damn.”

Michael Collett:
Oh, reader mode. There we go.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh man.

Michael Collett:
But I’ll just go find the tweet and read it on reader mode because you’re not getting my eyeballs for this, but I mean, this is where we’ve arrived. This is the world we’ve designed ourselves into, or that has been designed around us, because I mean, I’m not responsible for the GDPR modals, but it does, I think come back to again that pressure that we have, not pressure necessarily but the potential that exists for us as designers to unfuck some of this.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Michael Collett:
Hopefully, I mean, I don’t know what can be done about Shell oil or whomever, but at wherever we can there’s that potential to sort of rest things towards not sucking.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. You mentioned that about Shell. We’re thinking, God, it might’ve been earlier this year where Exxon’s shareholders have to come to them and say, “Look, you all have to do something else besides oil.”

Michael Collett:
I mean, dissolve, like what else does Exxon do besides oil? I don’t know, I feel like that’s like walking up to the Fox and being like, you’ve got to eat something other than chicken I mean-

Maurice Cherry:
Diversify.

Michael Collett:
… not Wu-Tang Financial like it’s Exxon. And if anything they should be held liable for crimes against humanity and dissolved, but like, what are we talking about? Shareholders aren’t going to vote for that, but I’m sure they’ve got some crack in diversity initiatives going right now.

Michael Collett:
I’m sure there’s a bag for somebody waiting at BP to stand there and be the blackface of their diversity equity and inclusion extraction initiative.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. The higher, most likely. And I hate to say this, but it’s only because I’ve seen it as a pattern, but they’ll hire a black woman to do it.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I know. I know. And run her out like Google did to…

Maurice Cherry:
Tim Nutt?

Michael Collett:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Oh, I was just, I mean, it’s a shameful practice that particularly, I think a lot of the techies are very guilty of. We had brought up previously an article I had written a while ago, but there’s another one I had written this also a while ago now. But I think when I was at Mule, because we had a day in the office laughing about Google, having spent a quarter of a billion dollars trying to solve their diversity problem over the previous five years, and somehow not having solved it. And my immediate question was, “Well, have they tried hiring black people?”

Michael Collett:
And apparently seemed that nobody who took their $250 million suggested that to them, but then they do that and then they do how they do. So it’s sort of a damned if you do damned if you don’t, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that’s something I’ve always been wary of. And I’ve taken, I mean, in like speaking of where are the black designers, because we talked about that earlier. When I did that presentation initially in 2015 and I gave a very reluctant updates to that presentation in 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
And I say that because when I gave it, and I mentioned this in my keynote, but for people who didn’t hear the keynote, I got so much shit for that presentation after I gave it that it pretty much tanked my studio. I had to go out and get a job because like all my business stuff had dried up just because I said.

Maurice Cherry:
The answer to that question of where the black designers should not come from black designers, it has to be from a coalition of people from organizations and businesses and schools. And quite frankly, black designers create the problem, so stop asking us, and so…

Michael Collett:
That’s not an answer people want to hear.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but like I say, I reluctantly gave an update because I let it, I recorded it, I put it up on YouTube, and it’s been up there since like March of 2015 with like no comments or anything. It wasn’t until last year, like in the wake of people getting on the streets and protesting and companies saying, “Well, we want to uplift black voices and share black voices and such that people found the presentation were willing to give me money for,” and shout out to reparations.

Maurice Cherry:
And we’re talking about it now in this new light to this honestly now newly perceptive design community that was willing to hear it and was like, “Oh, this is actually good advice. Why didn’t anyone take this advice five years ago?” I mean, who knows? But I gave that reluctant update.

Michael Collett:
Obama had been president, what more do you want?

Maurice Cherry:
And listen. But I gave them a reluctant update to it because one, I was like, I really don’t have anything else to contribute to the conversation, first of all. And secondly, not much has changed. Now, I think some certain statistics around it have changed, like when I talked about the percentage of black students at schools, but I also spliced in economic data.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m like, “Look, white households in this country have like 10X to 13X the net worth of black households.” And so if you’re looking to these high tuition schools to try to find black designers, it’s going to be hard to find when black families largely can’t afford them. But also saying that companies need to stop building pipelines, because when I hear a pipeline, I think of something that strips resources out of a place and transfers it to another place.

Maurice Cherry:
And there’s always a talk about all the pipeline, there’s a pipeline problem. It’s not a pipeline problem, there’s a relationship problem because what’s happening is these companies are looking at HBCUs and black design groups and such as like this fertile soil that they can keep harvesting from, but not planting seeds. And it’s like you keep…

Michael Collett:
Mentality is totally extractive, it’s totally extractive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s totally extractive. I’m like, if you’re not also helping buy, like for a school, for example, maybe offer to embed an employee there as a teacher or help to get their curriculum up to the point where harvesting has… I don’t want to say harvesting, Jesus Christ, but like pulling students from those schools makes more economic sense in terms of getting them up to speed with what’s in the market and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I said, “Look, I’m not giving another update to this presentation, like this is it. This is it.”

Michael Collett:
Well, and the truth is, is I don’t need another pipeline, there’s a gentleman on the steering committee with us at Design To Divest, Aziz Ali. And he has a great quote he says, “Black people are over mentored and under resourced.” And I really love that as… It’s one of our organizing principles at Design To Divest, we know what we’re doing, just get off the money. At a certain point, pipelines and internship… No, just stop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Michael Collett:
Pay your taxes, pay your ties if you’re a credulous person, but just get up off the money, because that’s what it is. And whether it’s a pipeline, or some other kind of extractive relationship with black communities, it’s not the way forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve just come up off the money, write the check, or as a Tiffani Ashley Bell put it, I think she said, “Send the wire, make the hire,” or something like that.

Michael Collett:
Exactly. That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m probably butchering that quote, but it’s something to that effect, yeah.

Michael Collett:
Send the tracking number and we can get on the flight, shout out to Larry June speaking in San Francisco. At a certain point, like there’s black squares and, oh, look at, we were so sad about the way we treated all those folks in the past.

Michael Collett:
Well, have you paid them out? Are you paying us out now? Like what are we talking about? For stringently, capitalist and profit focused culture that we live in, all of a sudden everybody’s real touchy feely, talking about platitudes and emotions and shit, when all of a sudden it was the quarterly report and making sure those metrics worked.

Michael Collett:
I certainly don’t want to hear about emotions from tech companies whose whole thing is that we make data-driven decisions. Well, your bank account is data, drive it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Just go ahead and make that detour.

Michael Collett:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Seek that exit, yeah.

Michael Collett:
I mean, it’s not even a detour, because like speaking of San Francisco and particularly the way that companies behave extractively, we’re not just when we talk about the algorithm on Twitter on Instagram, and we’re not just talking about that in terms of extraction, but these are companies that have fermented and precipitated huge amounts of displacement in San Francisco who have gotten sweetheart deals from local politicians going back multiple administrations now who have never paid their fair tax share who in the state of California for companies like DoorDash and Uber, have been instrumental in demolishing worker protections in labor law just to pad their own bottom line.

Michael Collett:
So when we talk about extractive stuff and especially where design is concerned, that really covers the whole industry in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
One thing that you mentioned, wanting to talk about, and I think it’s probably tangential to what we’re discussing now is about class awareness and politics among the black creative class. So I want to open up the floor so we can talk about that, and so you can go more in depth with that topic.

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, I think a lot of it ties into some of what we were talking about on the panel discussion. When we talk about particularly like, are black people capable of appropriating from other black people? Are black people capable of being gentrifiers? Are black people capable of behaving in these extractive ways?

Michael Collett:
And the example that we brought up on the panel was the Michael B. Jordan now untitled again Rum brand that had run a foul of people who are deeply invested in the history and traditions of carnival. But there’s any number of examples with that, I know for black southerners and for people who are invested in the south.

Michael Collett:
The attention that Tulsa has been getting, for instance, there’s been a lot of discussion around who’s right it is to tell this story who benefits from the telling of it. And these are questions that involve the black creative class. If we’re in the business of telling stories like that’s who we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Listen, listen. I’m from Selma, Alabama. So let me tell you about how black people can gentrify other black people.

Michael Collett:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay? When Selma, the movie happened-

Michael Collett:
I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
… Selma, the city did not have a movie theater. I didn’t grow up with a movie theater. My first movie theater I went to I was 17, 18 when I first moved to Atlanta. But I say this to say like Selma… And I’ll let you get back to what you were saying, but when you said that, that’s really stuck out to me like, I just remember during that time and my mom telling me about how so many celebrities are coming through the city.

Maurice Cherry:
To me I’m thinking, “Okay, well what’s going to happen when they leave? Are they putting resources and things back into the city?” Because I know when I go home, downtown is boarded up. Selma is still like one of the most violent cities in Alabama, probably the number one most violent city in the state. There’s parts surrounding Atlanta. I’m not Atlanta, oh shit.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s parts surrounding Selma that the World Health Organization has classified as bad as third world countries, like you want to talk about how black people can gentrify and take from other black people. Why is Selma always a political stop? Obama and them come through and march across the bridge and then what?

Michael Collett:
And drive right out.

Maurice Cherry:
Right out.

Michael Collett:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Sorry. Sorry.

Michael Collett:
No, no, no. That’s exactly my point, right? Is that as designers, as people who deal in symbols, we need to be critical about how symbols are used. And that’s something I think that is often missing from, and the class awareness of that, because like not only is Selma this major political stop, but it remains a bastion of entrenched generational poverty there.

Michael Collett:
And the way that the black political class, the black celebrity and entertainment class, but also the black intelligentsia and the academic class and those of us, myself included, in the creative class treat not just Selma but other places and parts and people in our culture as symbols to be pointed at, as opposed to people to interact with.

Michael Collett:
And I think that’s something that is often that I find, I’ll try to be as sort of politic as possible, but that I find is often missing in some of these larger conversations. And when we talk about extractive, we were joking about the diversity and equity and inclusion at Exxon, but I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Uber in that regard.

Michael Collett:
I don’t know how much of a difference I draw between Exxon and Facebook in that regard. And it’s one thing to go get a bag and I’m not trying to call anybody out for that, but I do think that in getting a bag, we have to make sure that we’re not continuing to enable things that are detrimental, not only to communities that were part of the larger ones.

Maurice Cherry:
So back in 2014 you wrote this piece called “Now is the time for a Black graphic design”, and there’s a line at the end, I’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out. But there’s a line at the end where you say, “A black data processing associates have organized to support one another.” Why can’t we? Or maybe the better question is who’s going to stop us? Do you still feel that way?

Michael Collett:
I mean, honestly, yes, now more than ever, I want all working people to organize whether we are white collar workers, blue collar workers, black collar and service workers. As working people, we have much more in common with one another than we do with our bosses. As black creative workers, I think it is incredibly important on us and imperative for us to organize in some way or another. I am blown away, speaking of black creative talent by the TikTok strike.

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Michael Collett:
Just got out the TikTok strike because I am too old to have it on my phone, but I see it come through my social feeds. And I know that they got those white dance thieves heartened right now, because they are not putting it together for it. And I think that is maybe it’s for jokes, but I think it’s really serious. And that is very much what I’m talking about by when I say, resisting the algorithm, the commodification and the extraction of our culture, because TikTok has turned some of these offbeat as white kids into millionaires.

Michael Collett:
When the people whose dances they’re stealing are still working with cracked phones. And it’s like, I think now the hidden upside, if you will, of our digital era is that so much of what’s already been going on for generations is now not only visible but hyper compressed.

Michael Collett:
It took 20 years for Elvis to get famous from stealing from black artists. But now these kids are doing it so fast that you can still see the people they’re stealing from, and I think there’s something to that. So yeah, I absolutely believe that black creative workers of all kinds need to organize and need to unite because we are, and continue to be the driving cultural force in this country and massively, massively under compensated for it.

Michael Collett:
And that’s whether you’re talking about music and dance, entertainment, production, but also graphic design and the way that design influences popular culture.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Michael Collett:
I mean, a lot of things. The thing that I’ve been getting really into at the moment is, is something that we’ve been working on for Greenworks which is 3D printing with ceramic.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m fascinated by a lot of the potential for new materials production and new ways of doing micro industrial production, and thinking about how to rest the utility of a lot of the new manufacturing and production methods back towards more artisanal or like small run kind of production things. But I mean, I’m obsessed with lots of stuff, man, how much time we got?

Maurice Cherry:
We got time.

Michael Collett:
The other thing that I’m endlessly passionate about is the history of the city of San Francisco. It’s partially just being a unrepentant homer, but in a lot of ways I’ve always felt that San Francisco can be a bit of a bellwether for the nation, particularly both politically and economically.

Michael Collett:
This has always been a bit of a neoliberal hellscape from the gold rush onward, of course. And if you learn to read the history of it, as much as I suppose the history of any place, it becomes very clear why what’s happening now is what’s happening. And I think especially as a designer, as somebody who’s admittedly very online knowing the… And it’s also, like I said, it’s my hometown. So knowing the nooks and crannies and the how we got here is very important to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel satisfied creatively at this stage in your career?

Michael Collett:
No, never.

Maurice Cherry:
Why is that?

Michael Collett:
Well, I mean, there’s projects that I haven’t even finished coming up with the ideas for yet. I may have mentioned it offhandedly, but I’m also currently beginning to go back to school now for a license for architecture. The built environment, of course, having landscape architects for parents has always fascinated me. And the license to change the built environment, which is what an architectural license is, feels like a real sort of Mario Star for designers, right? Like oh, you can make a website, you can make a chair, but this is the thing that sets off the theme music and lets you do literally whatever.

Michael Collett:
So no, I’m nowhere near creatively satisfied because I feel like there’s just all kinds of things I could be sinking my teeth into. At 35, I finally feel like I’ve got my feet under me. A decade in the industry has shown me a lot and shown me as much of what I don’t want to do as what I do, but the things that are possible.

Michael Collett:
And I think especially now like what the possibilities between… The one thing about Greenworks that bears mentioning is that we’re all on separate coasts basically, Anj it is in Seattle, Mohammed’s in New York and I’m in San Francisco, and we’ve created a company and got up and running without ever all being in the room at the same time.

Michael Collett:
Which I guess in the context of the pandemic is a little less remarkable, but to me that’s still kind of wild that you can do something like that. And I’m really excited to explore the potentials that as much as I was poo-pooing global supply chains, the potentials of global networks of communication and idea exchange to me are just incredibly exciting when it comes to creative work.

Michael Collett:
And then potentially the idea of like I was talking about with 3D printing, being able to empower people to create things for themselves to take part in what had previously been seen as sort of enormous isolated industrial processes at a real personal level.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think back over your career and where you’ve worked, the type of work that you’ve done, et cetera, people you’ve met, what advice has really stuck with you over the years?

Michael Collett:
Oddly enough, I would probably have to give another shout out to Mule here, particularly Erica Hall, who is one of the partners there. And Erica was the one who was broadly engaged in a lot of the really naughty kind of personal one to one facilitation that enabled the graphic design work to run as smoothly as it did.

Michael Collett:
And she would occasionally come back from a tough session and flopped down on the couch in the office and let out a sigh and say, “Humans are fascinating.” I think that phrase and just that sense of not necessarily like emotionless detachment, but a professional detachment from our work that as engrossing and as occasionally anxiety inducing as it can be that it’s just websites, and people are fascinating.

Michael Collett:
And we’re very, very lucky to be able to do the work that we do in a lot of ways. And if we can keep that in mind, even in the roughest moments, there’s still something to be gained out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you see yourself doing? You’ll be 40 at that point?

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I suppose I will.

Maurice Cherry:
What kind of work do you…

Michael Collett:
Thanks for reminding me that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hey, look, I just turned 40 this year, so I’m well aware of the change.

Michael Collett:
Right. [crosstalk 01:06:16].

Maurice Cherry:
What do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Michael Collett:
Having undertaken now via, and now set it on a podcast. So I’m really fucking responsible for it. The effort to return to school for an architecture license, I would love to be working in the field in five years in some capacity or another I’m not really… I mean, between my politics and everything else, not super interested in going to work for the big firms.

Michael Collett:
I think again, the attraction is being able to alter the built environment in small and measurable ways myself. I’ve got some dear friends that go way back with who are in the construction business. And so pie in the sky, just a small little design build firm to take on particularly affordable housing, adaptive reuse. Like I said, both the city of San Francisco and the idea of being able to work on the built environment are both very important for me.

Michael Collett:
And so I think there’s ways to alter that and to encourage that change that ideally are possible.

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

Michael Collett:
The best place to start is probably the Instagram account at greenworks.earth, because all of the stuff that I’ve been talking about throughout this podcast will be slowly starting to dribble out there over the next few months.

Michael Collett:
I’m on Twitter at either __mclc or mclc__, I can never remember which. And hell, I guess I said my email at the beginning of people do want to get in touch on workingmichael@gmail.com. I don’t keep much of a web presence as is in keeping with a lot of the things that I’ve spoken with you about here today. But I do maintain a small portfolio of some work at HTTP://whatifitoldyouihadnoweb.site.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I’ve been there and it’s like a little, it’s a presentation, it’s pretty dope actually.

Michael Collett:
Thank you. Thank you. It is, as the presentation that is linked there says, now is not the time for portfolio sites. Now is the time for a black graphic design as it was in 2014, it’s still the time for black graphic design. And that’s I think what I’m focused on as much as anything else.

Michael Collett:
And also find Design To Divest @designtodivest on Instagram, which is probably the easiest place to get on our website. We’re also on a wonderful platform and I’d like to shout them out, the folks at Are.na. A-R-E dot N-A. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, Maurice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

Michael Collett:
Yeah, I’m on Are.na, just regular old MCLC, that’s probably the easiest place to find out what’s going on in my brain these days because it’s where I collect a lot of my shots.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Michael Collett, man, this conversation I feel like has been a long time coming, but I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show, so much for sharing your wisdom, your perspective. I mean, I knew when I first encountered you years and years ago, I was like, I feel like you’ve got something to say, and I don’t know if there was maybe a reluctance to talk about it, but just to see how much you have been doing over the past few years and even, like I said, hearing you’re at the most recent where the black designers conference like I want to hear so much more from you, just like your work and your words and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
And so I hope that this interview in some way can be a catalyst for that. But yeah, thank you for coming on the show.

Michael Collett:
Maurice, thank you. Absolutely. I really, really appreciate it. I think what I will say is that, I probably was trying to, I mean, this may be easy to exchange opinions over a Skype call, but in the same way that where the black designers may have thrown you for a loop, I haven’t won a lot of friends with a lot of my takes when it comes to design and politics in my career.

Michael Collett:
And so I think maybe all those years ago, I was probably still trying to play it safe, but at this point they haven’t killed me yet. So I might as well just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s a morbid way to put it, but I totally agree with what you’re saying. If there’s ever a time now to get it out, this is it.

Michael Collett:
Yeah. No, this is the time to be living as authentically as we can.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Again, thank you so much for coming on the show, man. I appreciate it.

Michael Collett:
Thank you, Maurice.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Ron Bronson

If you’ve had any sort of interaction with government services on the Web, particularly at the national level, there’s a pretty good chance your experience in some form was designed or conceived by this week’s guest — the one and only Ron Bronson.

Longtime fans will remember Ron’s first appearance on the podcast seven years ago, and our conversation starts off with a quick recap of what lessons he’s learned over the past year. From here, we talk about his career shift from education to civic tech, the emergence of consequence design, and even a Finnish sport akin to baseball known as pesäpallo. Ron’s story is a testament to the power of reinvention, and hopefully it convinces you that whatever it is you’re imagining, it’s possible!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Ron Bronson:
Hi. It’s Ron Bronson. I’m based in Portland, Oregon and I’m a design director in civic tech in the government.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2021 been for you so far?

Ron Bronson:
Interesting. Obviously, we’re all coming out of COVID slowly. So that’s obviously been a thing. And ascending to this role, I’ve been a manager of a team of seven before and now I’ve got over 30 direct reports, obviously some managers who report to me, but there’s the whole department now. So that is definitely a different set of expectations and challenges. Trying to work on a book, trying to stay involved. So 2021 is interesting to try to remap all the stuff that you lost from being in the house for a whole year.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What lessons did you learn in this past year? When you look back, how do you think you’ve changed?

Ron Bronson:
Wow. I think momentum doesn’t necessarily have to stop. I thought last year was, in my mind, when it started and things started to shut down, I was like, “[inaudible 00:03:38] a wasted year,” all the stuff I had mapped out for myself, career-wise, thinking about work, and it turned out that wasn’t true. Opportunities still came and I was still able to do things and write stuff and read stuff and speak at events, obviously virtually.

Ron Bronson:
So that was interesting to me and surprised me, but I think maybe I got a better sense of the things that motivated me a little bit. I don’t know that I necessarily … Like I said, I was operating with my outlets … not autopilot, but kind of just doing stuff and taking for granted that every day was going to be, “This is what you do. You go to these events and you go to nonprofits or you go to work and you see your friends,” until have all that taken away and realize that some of those things fueled you, that you liked doing that stuff or it inspired you in some way. To not have that is crystallizing. It also means you appreciate it more. So it taught me a lot about myself. Maybe the times when somebody calls and says, “Oh, let’s hang out,” and I’m like, “No,” now I’m probably like, “Hey, yeah. We should hang out. Let’s do it.” So it’s a big lesson for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s been interesting how … I’ve noticed this trend among friends of mine, even from guests that have been on the show. I feel like we’re at this point where everyone is reevaluating what their next step is. We’ve been in the house or in some form of lockdown or restriction over the past year and a half and, now that things are starting to open up again, everyone’s like, “Well, let me think about what I want this next thing to be. Do I still want to go ahead in the same manner that I have with work or with my schedule or do I want to change things?” I’m seeing that everywhere now, which I guess is a good thing.

Ron Bronson:
I think so. I think it’s cool that … not cool, but I think it’s important to have these conversations because we weren’t really able to take stock of them before, been able to see the world for what it was maybe a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Now, I know you can’t talk directly about the work that you’re doing because it is a government agency, but can you give just a broad overview about the work that you do?

Ron Bronson:
I think, at the core of the work I’ve been doing, for years, really, even before I became [inaudible 00:05:49] in federal service and was working in state government, is trying to identify problem spaces that exist, working collaboratively with teams to identify problem spaces, big problems, small problems, murky problems, and trying to operationalize a way out of those problems and doing that in a way that’s sustainable.

Ron Bronson:
It’s one thing to go into a place and say, “I’m going to help you solve this,” and then solve it and leave. It’s like, when you break something and you fix it, you don’t know how they fixed it. So now they’re gone, so you’ve got to call them every time, instead of doing it where you’re like, “You’re going to help us. You’re going to work with us. You’re going to be our eyes and ears [inaudible 00:06:26]. You’re going to be part of the team that helps us figure this out.” And the way, you know how we did it so that, when we’re gone, you can do it. And not only can you do it, you could teach other people to do it, too. And so I think, at its core, that’s the work that I do, that we do, and it’s pretty rewarding. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s definitely rewarding.

Maurice Cherry:
What makes it rewarding?

Ron Bronson:
I think it’s fun to see a murky situation that doesn’t necessarily have an explicit answer. And maybe a thing I learned from, say, when I started to now, is where I identified a problem, like, “Oh, I know exactly what the problem is here. Do a little research and we’ll just confirm what I knew the problem was. You get on this team and you work together to answer … Do some [inaudible 00:07:07] research, talk to some users or stakeholders and get some answers.” It turns out, not only were you wrong, but what they asked you to do was maybe the wrong [inaudible 00:07:16] problems. Now you need to revisit it or you got a prototype of a thing or idea and you talk to the people who actually use the thing and they say, “No, no, no. You’re missing the point. What you actually need it something completely different,” and now you’ve got to revisit and reboot and rethink.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to go through that, not initially. What’s fun about it is, if you can go through that and you do it in this way that’s thoughtful and you bring [inaudible 00:07:39], bring the people along, then at the end of it, the end result of what you get is more sustainable and it’s fun to see the fruits of that labor. I know, gosh, you build things. Some people who build stuff … It’s one thing when you build a thing and you’ve got to do all the work yourself or your work on a team and then, when you go away, it collapses, but it’s fun, even at my non … I started Indianapolis Design Week and then, when I left, somebody else took it over.

Ron Bronson:
It’s cool when you can see a thing that you started, somebody else takes it over and they put their own spin on it. And that’s sustainable and it has a legacy. And so to have that in my professional work, as well, is super rewarding. Even if it’s, like I said, a longer process to get there, it takes a long time, it’s nebulous, the answers aren’t as clear, that’s super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I like that part about you saying that it’s sustainable because I think, certainly if you’re a designer or a developer at … I’m just naming companies here, like a Dropbox or something like that … No shade to Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but if you’re at a product-based company, the work that you do may really not even be seen. It can easily be overwritten. It’s kind of ephemeral. And also, you don’t really know if your service is going to be around in the next five years, 10 years or whatever, whereas the work that you’re doing, you know that it has a home, almost.

Ron Bronson:
Exactly. 100%. Yep. And I think that … You talk about public sector, working [inaudible 00:09:05] or working in, say, civic tech where maybe you’re adjacent or something. By being able to do work that you know … Again, it may also be [inaudible 00:09:12] and no one will see it, but at least you know, at the end of the day, who you’re working for, either for the people in front or the folk behind the scenes [inaudible 00:09:20] people in the front. And I think that’s a cool cycle of life to have.

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

Ron Bronson:
It varies. It varies dramatically. And it’s varied, obviously, when you talk about being in sales, for instance, leadership in this situation versus maybe when I was [inaudible 00:09:35] contributor or even a couple years ago when I’m working at, say, local or state situations, but I’d say that [inaudible 00:09:41] we have a lot of meetings, obviously, but it’s a lot of content switching. So there’s meetings, obviously, to deal with just the things you would deal with in any kind of leadership role. There’s also kinds of some project-related stuff that happens, as well. In my case, right now, lots of strategy and trying to figure out how to build resiliency into teams and supporting people where they’re at, but it’s really variable. Other than, say, there’s a lot of meetings, I don’t think any two days are alike.

Ron Bronson:
The content of each day is very different because it’s so responsive to what’s happening, not only in the world, but individually or organizationally or whatever. So it can be really very variable, which is cool. Obviously, if you’re a control freak, not that I am, but maybe a little bit, it can be a little discombobulating because sometimes you don’t know what’s coming, like, “Oh, what’s going to happen a month from now?” I don’t know. It could be anything, but as long as you can relish in and embrace that sort of mystery, it’s kind of fun.

Maurice Cherry:
How have your responsibilities changed over the years? I guess, aside from going up to the ranks to where you’re at as a director, but how have your responsibilities really changed since you’ve been there?

Ron Bronson:
The scope and the size. Actually, when you talked to me years ago, I was a director then, too, but I had [inaudible 00:10:57] only a few direct reports and I was leading statewide strategy, but it was a different sort of … scale was different and also the purview is different, the responsibilities are different. And then I go to a smaller government and, obviously, I don’t have any of that kind of responsibility, more principle designer kind of work.

Ron Bronson:
And then, over the last couple of years, going from IC and doing more information architecture and content strategy work, but [inaudible 00:11:19] more strategic work, in general, to leading projects to staffing people to projects to, again, now just trying to shape an entire … figuring out how you move a team forward in an industry that wasn’t really a thing, designers working in the public sector, much less entire teams. Maybe it’s one or two people, okay. We’ve always been around, but to have the scale of, let’s say, a small agency of design type people and [inaudible 00:11:49] definitely alike. It’s a lot of making things from scratch, trying to invent it as you sort of fly the plane as you build it kind of thing.

Ron Bronson:
So for me, I think the work is similar. I think I’m doing similar kinds of things, a lot of similar kind of thinking. I think it’s just, over the years, playing a video game and going to different levels and taking the coins you get from level three and now you use them at level six because you’ve got a lot more coins in your pocket or you got [Selixir 00:12:14] on level four and you put that in you and now you’re on level eight and you’re like, “Oh, I’m ready. I got that. That wizard gave me that thing.” I mean, it’s a funny metaphor, but that’s kind of what it is. I don’t feel like it’s that different. It’s just that the other experiences prepared you for, A, more meetings and it prepared you for nebulous things and having to answer questions that are not …

Ron Bronson:
Also, you get to choose sometimes the things that you get to decide. You’re working with other people, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with you, at a certain point for certain things. And that’s weirder than when you’re … I joked before I did this with, oh, well, it was really cool being the person that you could talk to people about the work and the problems, but it’s like watching your favorite sports team on TV and being like, “If I was the general manager, I would do this, this, and this,” and then now you’re the general manager of the baseball team. Turns out there were things you didn’t know about the problem space he was in. You didn’t know that the budget was here or you need to do this or do that. So that metaphor, I think, matches very well to my existence now, where it’s the things you just don’t know until you’re in the seat and you’re like, “Oh, maybe I was wrong about that other lens I had before.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has it changed, I guess now with things being more remote? You’ve always been remote in that role. Right?

Ron Bronson:
I’ve always been remote. So for me, no, it has not changed anything about anything. I think the scope of the work is different, maybe a little bit, but no, it’s the same. Nothing changed in that way at all, which is great. I mean, I’d say this, that across government, across public sector, civic tech, whatever, it was definitely a sort of … especially when you get down to state and local levels, certainly a resistance to remote work to this kind of thing for a bevy of reasons. I know when I worked in local government, we had a heck of a time trying to get even a day where you could work remote. Well, they had to change that last year [inaudible 00:13:56]. Right?

Ron Bronson:
And so I think that, now, you deal with people and you see this and now people have a level of … it’s not savvy, but they certainly have more experience with it now. So the resistance they used to have isn’t there like it used to be because folks have had to adapt to this new reality. And so I think that takeaway has been great because it was such a difficult thing before. I think, again, you get down to these lower levels or certain, whatever, agencies, whoever [inaudible 00:14:23] maybe. I don’t know. So that part has been, I think, great to see, is just people’s comfort level with it changed in ways that you never saw before.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Do you think that an interest in civic design has changed over the years?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. I mean, I was actually talking to a friend about this, a friend who left the country for awhile and wants to come back to the country and was like, “What should I do?” And I’m like, “See, when you left, it was really just a few things you could do, a few places you could go, [inaudible 00:14:49] digital service or an ATNF or something or places like Code For America.” [inaudible 00:14:55] New York City, but you didn’t have the options.

Ron Bronson:
Now, there’s tons of cities that have these digital service teams, different states like Colorado that have them now. Local governments are starting these. San Francisco has their own teams. There are lots of private sector companies, of course, that are doing this that built in very similar models that use a lot of the same tenents. And so I think that, yeah, there’s a ton of opportunity for people now to be able to get involved in using their skills for good and for helping move things forward and helping accelerate conversations that maybe were harder before. You wouldn’t have gone to work for the IT department in your local town before. You wouldn’t have wanted to do that, but now maybe you would because of all the different ways that civic tech conversation has elevated and proliferated.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’ve had a few service designers and designers working in government on the show over the past few years. And I think, certainly, all of us have seen how design and technology can have a profound effect on how people process information. I think we can clearly look at the last five years and see how that has been the case.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
If you had to give a pitch to say, I don’t know, current designers and developers now about going into civic tech, what would that look like?

Ron Bronson:
So I think people [inaudible 00:16:14] to a lot of the other things that I work on, personally. It’s one thing to be upset about systems and structures and processes and things not working well. It’s another thing to actually try to figure out how you can not only leverage your skills to make things better, but to be on the inside, at least to see … You’re not going to do it forever, but at least to see how it operates, see where the problems are, see where the issues are, see how you can solve those. Don’t just complain about the problems. How do we fix some of the problems? And you’re not going to fix all of them, but you can fix some.

Ron Bronson:
And also it’s a nice proving ground for being able to leverage … especially people who are hybrids. You’re an interaction designer who likes research or you’re a service designer, but turns out you’re really good at product design. To be able to leverage your content strategist who also does PM stuff, to leverage those sort of skills because, in a lot of [inaudible 00:17:04], especially the lower you get down in government, they’re not going to have these massive agile teams. So you’re going to deploy those multiple skillsets. I did that when I was in local government. I really liked it, personally, because it gave me a chance to sharpen some skills. My [inaudible 00:17:17] skills got way better, being in that situation, because they had to get that way. Maybe in a bigger place, that simply would never happen.

Ron Bronson:
So I think my pitch to people who are considering this kind of work is that, if you care about community, you care about your technologists who cares about the work, it’s good way for you to give back and be involved, but also to grow skills that’ll serve you well moving forward, beyond where you are in your career right now.

Maurice Cherry:
We’re all digital citizens, in some way.

Ron Bronson:
Agreed. 100%. Yep. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, that even, in some way, we totally are all digital citizens. With social media and such, you really can’t escape it.

Ron Bronson:
So true, so true.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you and I first spoke back in 2014, and you’ve alluded to this earlier just now, you were in Kentucky, I believe. What do you remember from working back during that time?

Ron Bronson:
That job was [inaudible 00:18:08] all I want. That job was the state headquarters for the community college system. And so it was higher ed, but it really wasn’t. And actually, that was the first job that I’d had that wasn’t on a campus, at that time. So for me, it was a little weird at first to be in this [inaudible 00:18:25] higher ed, but what it really was was a government job. You’re a bureaucrat and you’re making policy and you go to 16 different colleges and you’re setting digital strategy for the entire state and working with an internal team. A lot of the processes and things didn’t really exist before we built them, when I had that job.

Ron Bronson:
So it’s why I’m here, frankly, in many ways, even though I don’t know that that was my favorite job, but it gave me a great glimpse and lens of how to manage a big team. How do you manage people who don’t report to you, but you still set policy for them and your decision impact your work? I had to learn that and develop that skill over time. How to develop training for a massive internal team, public-facing stuff. So it was a great trial by fire. People [inaudible 00:19:11] what you see on Twitter a lot. Folks will say, “Oh, if you’re qualified for a job, but you’re not sure and you’re nervous, apply anyway because you might learn something.” Well, that job is [inaudible 00:19:21], but you feel a little in over your head, a little bit.

Ron Bronson:
I wouldn’t recommend that all the time, but in that situation, the pros for me in terms of what those lessons taught me after … And a lot of them were bad lessons. It was people-related lessons, but still … So I remember that time very vividly. I’m not going to get into all of it, but y’all have to DM me and I’ll tell you all the dirt.

Ron Bronson:
But any case, the positives of that were the lessons that I learned really allowed me, moving forward, to be a much more incisive designer, a much more compassionate leader, better communicating, to own what I know. So yes, there were some really great lessons from that time that have served me well, even to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you first entered into civic designer just right after you left Kentucky, went to Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
You were principal service designer for the City of Bloomington, Indiana.

Ron Bronson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it a big shift going from education to now civic design work?

Ron Bronson:
It wasn’t, partially for two reasons; one because, again, that job in Kentucky was pretty much a state job. I mean, it was state related. So everything we did was bureaucrat-level state stuff. That job and my job now, they’re different, but it was a lot of the same kinds of economies of scale. So that prepared me pretty well for being sort of in a faceless situation. Local government was fun. I really enjoyed it, especially at a sub-100,000 size city level. In a big city, it’d be probably similar to what I do, but in a city where [inaudible 00:20:56] 80,000 people, folks have problems with the website, they print a thing out and bring it to City Hall and say, “Ah, I went to this page. It didn’t work. Can you fix it right now?”

Ron Bronson:
I really enjoyed that. I thought that was really cool. You go to parties and folks tell you that they found a thing. So much of the work that we do as technologists in any part of the space that you’re doing, and I’m being very broad about this, you don’t really get to … You interact with users in user interviews or stakeholder things, but you’re not dealing with your users in this very retail way. The same ways that, if a thing breaks, I can go take it back to the store.

Ron Bronson:
You can’t do that with a website, but in local government in a city of that size with the team that we had … That was an amazing team. I want to shout out Bloomington, Indiana [inaudible 00:21:37] open source development team. All the stuff they had built was in-house. We transitioned the site from our in-house CMS that we had to Drupal. So it was a whole process, multiple things that went on there, but it was really, really cool, actually, to get to do that.

Ron Bronson:
So no, the transition wasn’t weird. I think the hard part for me was going from being director and doing a lot more leadership stuff to going back to being hands on. I did that on purpose. It was a deliberate decision for me to … I was in an IT shop, so doing a lot more front-end development and doing design and building the design system initially, but also doing a lot of service design stuff. I did all the service design. They never had a service designer before.

Ron Bronson:
All the user research … [inaudible 00:22:20] was a collaborative effort with some other folks, but leading that UX design, writing tons of content, so wearing a ton of hats, but I wanted that experience. I missed it. For me, it was really great to get to do that while also doing strategy, while also shipping an actual, physical thing. They needed a new site app. It had been 10 years old and we shipped it. So I loved it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, through the work that you’ve done, there’s this phrase that you’ve coined I’ve seen come up called consequence design. Can you talk about how you came to that idea and what exactly does consequence design entail?

Ron Bronson:
I used to always joke with anybody who asked me about consequence … I feel like I have a better answer now, but I feel like every interview I do about this [inaudible 00:23:00] changes. So you just [inaudible 00:23:02] all us together at some point. We’re going to figure this out together, as a community. But really, what it is is … I feel like consequence design is really born out of a lot of the conversations that are happening right now around … I think there are several conversations. There’s some that are around any patterns or dark patterns, for instance, which I don’t like saying, but people know what I’m talking about when I say it, so I just say it, or [inaudible 00:23:26] some of the hostile patterns that you see online.

Ron Bronson:
And I feel like a lot of these conversations, well, one, they’re not calling a spade a spade. We already have words for what deception is. We already know what … something that’s fraud, but we don’t want to call it that. So instead, we call it, “Ooh, it’s a dog pattern.” No, this website is trying to scam your grandmother. That’s a scam and we should call it what it is. It’s fraud. We should call it what it is.

Ron Bronson:
But through doing talks about these topics over the previous couple of years all over the world, people would ask me, “Okay. Well, what do I do about it? I’m just a junior designer at a bank. What am I supposed to do about this? How do I fix it?” And so I felt like all the conversations that we have around ethics and ethical design and so forth is a philosophy washout. I didn’t like those conversations because, one, they triggered me to thinking about [Hagel 00:24:18] and not doing great in philosophy. And I’m being funny right now, but also … which is true. I didn’t do great at that.

Ron Bronson:
But the other reason I don’t like it is because it takes the agency out of the hands of individuals. Yes, you’re not going to fix certain structures and systems, but there are things that you can do, that you can impact at your level or have a conversation about with your colleagues and eventually impact through glacial change, through iterative change. So I wanted a term that was, how do we take the areas [inaudible 00:24:48] policy, service design, the user experience, how do we merge these things together and how do we take real-world experiences, things like kiosks in public spaces that have really terrible UIs? That’s not divorced from the work that you and I do every day, but people act like it is, how we foist these experiences on people.

Ron Bronson:
And so I wanted to bring all that together to have an industry-wide [inaudible 00:25:12], practitioner-wide conversation around, “Let’s identify these are problems and let’s talk about how we might be able to fix some of these things.” First, we need to identify that they’re actually problems. And I didn’t just want to keep talking about the individual pieces of it. I wanted to be able to have a way to encapsulate it. And that’s how I got to consequence design as an idea. It’s still very fuzzy. The book is not out, will not be out until next year, but I’m trying to get there.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, that’s right. You are writing a book. I saw online-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:25:41] very slowly.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw parts of what you’ve been putting together online and we’ll link to that in the show notes so people can take a look at that, but it’s not your first book that you’ve written. You wrote a book back in 2017. Right?

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. That was really more of … You know how people do … when you write your blog for years and you put all the blog posts into a book. And so that’s what that was.

Maurice Cherry:
That counts.

Ron Bronson:
The web management guide. Yeah. It was fun to get all that stuff together, mostly because all those blogs are dead now. So I’m kind of glad I got a few of those things together into a piece, but this is going to be the first time I’ve published a real print book. We did that online and you could go on GitHub. It wasn’t anything too fancy, but this will be a real thing you can put in your hands and, hopefully, use the reference guide. So I’m pretty excited about that. I’ll be more excited when it’s done, but I’m excited about getting further down the path.

Maurice Cherry:
So I read Web Management for Regular People because this was right around the time I was sort of … I mean, I was coming out of doing Lunch. I was coming out of doing my studio and looking for work, looking for something else, and really was trying to almost brand myself more as a strategist and less of just a designer because I had been a designer and I had done the studio for so long. And honestly, having a team that did the large part of the actual building and construction meant that I sort of fell behind in my skills. Yeah, I could still get in Photoshop and whip something up if I need to, but I’m nowhere near the production level work that I used to be in terms of speed. I wouldn’t say in terms of quality, but certainly in terms of speed. I’m nowhere near that.

Ron Bronson:
I hear you.

Maurice Cherry:
Not to mention, with even web design, I mean, all the stuff that went on in the mid-2010s around CSS preprocessors and stuff, I was like, “Okay, now you’ve lost me. Now that you’re introducing JavaScript into CSS, I’m out.”

Ron Bronson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember reading parts of your book because I was really thinking of how I would rebrand myself and eventually ended up doing that as becoming a digital strategist. And even where I work at now, I’m a content strategist, but reading what you had to say about strategy and how to design a strategist and things like that … I’d even talked with other people I’ve had on the show, like Douglas Davis, really helped me to form an idea of where I wanted to take my career next. So I want to just thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that. That warms my heart. That’s really cool because I didn’t know anybody cared, but I appreciate it. That’s why when you asked about it, I’m like, “Oh, right. I don’t want to talk about that,” but that’s really cool. That’s really, really cool.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s something that is certainly important now. It’s funny, I see so many strategy roles now that I certainly didn’t see a few years ago.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there definitely weren’t any back then. Right.

Maurice Cherry:
And I think, initially, they kind of were more in the purview or the domain of advertising, but now tech startups are looking for strategists and different web agencies are looking for strategists. They’re looking for someone that can sort of bridge the gap, I suppose, between the design and the business or at least has been in the trenches enough, I should say, to be able to give an overview of what should be done, where we should go, what pitfalls we should look out for. But yeah, strategy is an interesting field now in design because you’re kind of a professional generalist, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
So true.

Maurice Cherry:
And certainly, at a time in the industry when things were so heavily skewed towards product design, and I would say they probably still are-

Ron Bronson:
Still are, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… to a fault. Strategists occupy a really interesting role in the design industry. So yeah, I want to definitely thank you for that.

Ron Bronson:
I appreciate that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that I’ve noticed, looking through your history and everything, is that coaching is a really big constant in your life. It’s something you’ve done since you were a really young man, a teenager. Mostly tennis, but you’ve coached debate, as well. What does coaching do for you?

Ron Bronson:
It’s really fun to, especially coaching tennis because you just see it … I mean, debate, too, but it happened then, too. That moment where somebody goes from a thing you talked about, oh, same thing you keep telling them over and over again … You’re like, “Look, you’re going to build on this.” I remember it happens every season, all the time. These kids, you start them off early and it’s really hard, whatever it is you’ve got them doing. Maybe you’ve got them playing people that are better than them because that’s what you need them to do that week or maybe [inaudible 00:30:07] and they’re not doing as well. And then, by the end of the year, there’s this moment when they play and it comes together for them and then they win something that you didn’t think they’d win or whatever and it’s always fun when …

Ron Bronson:
I was the worst player on a really good team in high school. There were four D1 guys on my high school tennis team. I was definitely not D1 quality. I played D3 tennis, but seeing how good players prepare, seeing how they work, and also trying to figure out how to fit in in that environment. My way to fit in was to basically be the second coach. I was a scout. So I could tell my guys, “Oh, yeah, the number one guy. Yeah, Kenny, you played that guy last year. You beat him two and one.” That was really useful to him. He appreciated that information. And so it’d go from them being curious about me saying that to them to, “Hey, Ron. Hey, did I play this guy? How did it go? Calm me down. Help me out.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m in high school and I’m doing this. I’m a high school junior, I’m a senior and I’m doing this for my better players because I wanted to fit in. I wanted to be on the team. And so, as I got older … I didn’t like practicing as a kid. I liked to work on my own, but I didn’t really enjoy the way practices were set up. So I’m like, how do I create an environment where players want to get better and they want to come, they want to belong, irrespective of where they are in terms of their talent level? All you need to do is be hungry and excited about it.

Ron Bronson:
So how it ties to my everyday work is the same kind of thing. You come in with energy. You come in excited. I come in trying to help you get better and it’s not transactional. I’m not trying to make you better to get something out of it for me. I mean, we benefit from it, but I don’t care about that. If it means you getting better, it means you leave and go make more money, shout out to you because you did that. You made that happen. I didn’t.

Ron Bronson:
And so coaching is that and it’s fun over the years. I’ve been to camps over the years. I’ve been coaching high school tennis now. To have this arc of seeing kids from 1998, the first time I coached, to this year … I mean, I’ve taken years off, of course, but I coached this season. Basically, in theory, there were kids in ’98 who probably could have kids now, who could be kids of mine. Right? I’ve done a generation of this, in a way.

Ron Bronson:
And so it’s fun to be a little relevant over the times and you get to see how people evolve and grow and change and how you need to adapt your methods to resonate with a different generation. I’m almost washed, but I’m not quite there yet. I’m getting there. I’m not going to be coaching at 60. Then I’ll be super washed, at that point. So I’m not going to be one of those coaches you see, like … Oh, no, no. I’m nearing my end, but it’s been really fun and it’s … You work online. As somebody who spends a lot of time on a laptop, a lot of time on a computer, it’s very, very nice to have a time where you don’t do that and somewhere you’ve got to show up and be accountable to people and not just a … to be somewhere every day.

Ron Bronson:
And it’s different than a nonprofit or something. This is different. It’s in-person. It’s every day. There’s an ebb and flow. It’s pretty simple, but it’s not. You build the culture, but you’ve got enforce the culture. It’s a lot of lessons in it. I learned so much just from this season of coaching. I learned so much. And it’s stuff that I think applies to my everyday work. So it’s super, super cool.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now.

Ron Bronson:
Oh, man, Finnish baseball. I mean, it’s true. Pesapällo, Google it, friends, but I really want to know what’s next. People tease me, friends of mine. Even second-tier friends will tease me about, “Oh, your Twitter bio changes all the time.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m just AB testing,” but also I just want to [inaudible 00:33:28]. But one of the things I always put in there … It’s not in there right now, but it may be after we hang up, “Thinking out loud about a post-service design world.”

Ron Bronson:
And so I’m really obsessed right now with thinking about, as it relates to the work, anyway, is thinking about what does a world look like that doesn’t involve always just expecting folks to get on the treadmill? How do we build experiences that then involve people getting off? How do we build humane experiences that allow people to say, “Well, you used the thing, but you’re not using it anymore. Thanks for using it,” instead of guilt tripping them because they were going to unsubscribe from your stupid newsletter. I wonder about that. And I think COVID has helped a little bit with that, but I still think we’re still very embedded in the CRM, always be closing mentality of every … It’s permeated everything that we do.

Ron Bronson:
So I’m really obsessed with how do we … especially in terms of human-centered design, what does the next thing look like? How do we ideate paste this world that is very dominated by selling and buying things? Because I don’t like it. I just don’t. So I’m very obsessed with trying to figure that out, not because I want to invent something. Maybe I want to absolve my own guilt for being involved in this, tangentially, but that’s what I’m obsessed with, other than Finnish baseball, which I’m very obsessed with, is this topic.

Maurice Cherry:
Please go more into Finnish baseball.

Ron Bronson:
Long story short … This is your 90-second version of the story. [crosstalk 00:34:53] play a version of baseball. It’s the version they play now, since the 1920s. It’s a really cool design story, Finnish guy. He’s a Finnish Olympian, actually, in track, though. They played a bat and ball game in Europe that, basically, it was one base, whatever. He came to America twice and saw some baseball games. It was like, “I like this, but I can make it better.” So he went home and over 20 years, partially because of the way Finland became a country 100 years ago and so he was able to do this at the time when the country was becoming a country. So they sort of build this national pride over their own sport.

Ron Bronson:
And so he was able to iterate this sport called pesapällo, which is basically a Finnish version of baseball. There are nine players, there are four bases, there’s a bat, there’s a ball, there’s a field. Everything else is different. The rules are a little bit … It gets weirder. I found it online years ago … I invented a sport years ago and so I found it in the midst of doing that, but it wasn’t until about 2016 or so that I, through the internet, through magical Twitter, sort of went mini viral in Finland. It was an article about me in a newspaper. I ended up at the Finnish Embassy in New York. I’ve been to Finland since then. I’ve been on TV in Finland. It’s a whole thing.

Ron Bronson:
So anyway, I just enjoyed the game. I think it’s a really cool design story. It’s mostly a rural sport. You get more nanoseconds. It’s mostly a rural sport. There are some city teams, but it’s evolved into being a pretty rural sport. There are kids that play it from when they’re little. There are adults that play it. I just love the community and the culture around it. It’s a very specifically Finnish thing and I just think it’s a fun story to me. I think it’s been really fun to get immersed in it and you can … Now, I can watch all the games online. Back in the day, when I used to get into this, you couldn’t do that. It was three-day-old videos and there were no commentary and you didn’t know what was going on.

Ron Bronson:
Now, I just think I [inaudible 00:36:42] podcast. So it’s been a really fun way to get immersed in another culture through a thing that we all … many of us appreciate sports. Right? So, yeah, that’s the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I’m looking it up now and I like that Wikipedia calls it a fast moving bat and ball sports.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. It’s way faster than baseball. It’s definitely not boring. It’s not boring. A baseball game, you can go get a hot dog, come back and you won’t miss anything, maybe. In pesapällo, you would do that, you might miss a lot. It’s pretty great.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it played here in the States or is mostly just a European-

Ron Bronson:
No. It’s literally only played in Finland.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Ron Bronson:
It’s literally only played in Finland. I mean, there are a few pockets of places where Finnish expats have brought it. So there’s a small community in Switzerland, there’s a small community in Germany, there’s a smaller community in Sweden. There are probably eight people in America that might play it. And as it turns out, the outreach that they were doing, it’s actually a community of people playing in Bangladesh in India, weirdly enough, and Pakistan. So there’s a [inaudible 00:37:48] trying to go … not global, but a little bit, some growth going on.

Ron Bronson:
There’s a major league for the men’s [aliment 00:37:55] sport for both, but it is entirely a Finnish exercise right now. So yeah, nothing in the States.

Maurice Cherry:
Fascinating. I’m looking it up as you’re talking about it. I’m seeing all these articles and things about … I’m going to have to watch some pesapällo on YouTube. I’m interested now.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah, there’s some good stuff on YouTube and Twitter. You go to Superfaces, you can look it up. You follow me, unfortunately. You could see my [inaudible 00:38:23]. You can unfollow me after this, but it was a good run we had. It was a good run we had, but you can see all my annoying tweets about it in half Finnish, half [inaudible 00:38:32]. [inaudible 00:38:32] at Finnish. I’ve gotten better, but it’s still pretty bad. But yeah, it’s some really fun stuff, just to highlight. They’ve gotten way better at social media in the past 10 years. So you can actually follow the game fairly well online. It’s pretty neat.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What advice has stuck with you the longest, throughout your career?

Ron Bronson:
I don’t know that it’s specifically advice. I think it’s more modeling. Having had so many good bosses over the years, good managers, people who … or even people that weren’t managers, who just looked out for you. Having that model so much in my life has made me [inaudible 00:39:07] level of empathy and care and consideration that I never would’ve. I think it’s funny how you actually talked about 2014. The lesson is is that that experience taught me that, if that had been first job and that had been my first situation with a manager, my entire career would be different, and not for the better. And so it’s wild how one person or one situation can completely change the trajectory of your situation. So you need to choose carefully the places you decide to start your carer, move your career or whatever because people, unfortunately, have an outsized impact on where you go and how you move forward and how you get to brand yourself and so forth.

Ron Bronson:
But it made me very appreciative for the people before that in ways that I wouldn’t have that. It made me so appreciate for people that looked out for me, who empowered me, who propelled me, who gave me the room to fail, who gave me chances, helped me grow and put me in positions to be successful. And so I just try to pay that forward all the time, anyway I can, because I’m just so grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I look at your past interview and then, of course, when talking with you now and just seeing all the things that you have accomplished in life, aside from career-wise, you also just have very interesting personal pursuits. You’ve sort of glossed over inventing a sport, but you’ve invented a sport, you’re into pesapällo, you’re doing all these … You had a T-line for awhile. I remember the T-line.

Ron Bronson:
Dude, yeah. You go way back.

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

Ron Bronson:
I do stand up, too. That was cool. I got that out of the way. Never doing that again. It was fine. It’s just you can’t … I want to win a state title next year. That would be cool, if we can do that, only because my high school coach never got to. My high school coach meant a lot to me and then we never got to do it. Through the way schools work, a lot of the players who train end up going to private schools. So we were good, but I wouldn’t have been on a high school team if we had the players that should’ve been on the team, but we were [inaudible 00:41:06] of our state title. So I’d love to win one for him. So that’d be cool.

Ron Bronson:
Besides that, I don’t know. It’s actually a good question and I don’t have a good answer for it because I’m not sure. It’s a question I’ve wondered, myself, is, “Cool. You’ve gotten pretty far. You’ve done some stuff. Wow. What a run you’ve had. What’s next?” Getting this book out would be cool, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Ron Bronson:
I’m really curious to see, myself, what the next bucket of milestones and goals, myself, are. I’m not sure. A lot of my work right now is focused on trying to build a better world, I guess, which is hokey, but it’s true. And personally, I’m not even sure. Honestly, I really don’t even know.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess this is sort of a related question to that, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? What would you like the next chapter of your story to be?

Ron Bronson:
I want it to be intentional. I want the next chapter of my story to be intentional and I want there to be a level of care involved in it. It’d be cool if I could get out of America for awhile and go live somewhere else for a good while, maybe not come back. That’d be rad. That’d be the end of that. So [inaudible 00:42:14] embassy, call me, but something like that would be cool. I think maybe, as it not relates to that, thinking about the work, it’d be cool to see what other kinds of stuff I could do. It’d be fun to help a state scale up their own digital team and go run one of those. I love fixing [inaudible 00:42:33] problems and solving them. And I’ve got some longevity in that now. So I really enjoy that kind of work. So it’d be fun to find a bigger problem space and solve it and help [inaudible 00:42:42] work with a team of people to fix these problems and none of this stuff is done alone. So that could be fun to set those kinds of goals.

Ron Bronson:
I like being behind the scenes. I don’t need anything super, super visible. I don’t want to aspire to anything ridiculously visible, but I like solving problems that other folks don’t necessarily want to solve. But I think, much like when we talked seven years ago, I didn’t know what the future had in store. I didn’t know what my stealing was. And I think that, if I wanted people to get something from this, if you get nothing else from my interview, other than [inaudible 00:43:15] pesapällo, which is amazing, you should all love it, is don’t put a governor or a ceiling or a cat on your potential. Don’t let your own imposter syndrome or something your parents said when you were 11 or something a teacher said when you were 22, don’t let … or a boss said to you when you were 30, don’t let those things, those individual, isolated situations put a cap on where you think you can go.

Ron Bronson:
Obviously, you have to do the work. Obviously, you’ve got to show up. Obviously, you’ve got to have some luck, but if you can position yourself, the opportunities can come. The things can come. You’re patient, but you’re also doing the work. And be willing to reinvent yourself, but I think that that’s the biggest lesson from, say, when we talk to now and thinking about the future, is as long as you don’t put a cap on it prematurely, then who knows what doors can open, what ceilings can be there because I don’t know. I didn’t predict this. I didn’t see this coming. I really didn’t. I’m past where I thought I was trying to go, which is really cool, but also kind of frightening.

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

Ron Bronson:
Definitely always at Ronbronson.com, definitely on your Twitter machine. Your Mileage May Vary There at Ron Bronson and also Consequencedesign.org. I’m trying to throw things up on there, as well. And since Maurice encouraged me to do this, I’m probably going to take that [inaudible 00:44:40] and stick some of that stuff on there, too.

Maurice Cherry:
The strategty book is really good. If people want to check it out, I can link to it in the show notes. It’s a quick read and really I came across it at a time when I needed to think about what my next step was going to be because I had sort of wound down my studio and I was doing interviews and, I mean, the places I was interviewing at, I was like, “I don’t want to go and just be a designer. I can bring more to the table than that.” And so reading just what you wrote about strategy and everything really changed my mindset going into all this. So hopefully, people will check it out.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Ron, as always, thank you so much for coming on the show, for really giving us an update on what you’ve been working on. It’s been so great to hear about all the work that you’re doing, helping out our government, as whole, with the work that you’re doing. I know we’re not going directly talking about stuff, but just being able to-

Ron Bronson:
[crosstalk 00:45:39] [inaudible 00:45:39].

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, that’s true.

Ron Bronson:
Yeah. Y’all can look and see. You’re smart.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I think just, one, being able to do that work and then also how you’re encouraging and paying it forward to other people, whether it’s in civic tech, whether it’s coaching or what have you. I can definitely tell that you have that sort of spirit of paying it forward, which I think will take you very far. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Ron Bronson:
Appreciate you, too, always for all the work you’ve been doing and doing these thankless tasks. It’s a lot of work and a lot of energy and amplifying people, especially back in the day. I’ve given you your flowers while we’re on the show. I was just a guy buried somewhere and I think I tweeted at you and you were like, “Yeah, come on the show.” That is seriously the coolest thing in the world. You didn’t have to do that. You could’ve been like, “Ah, all right, buddy. That’s fine. I’ve got a long list,” and you did. So super grateful for you, not only for this, but for all the things you’ve done over the years, your different projects you’ve put on and amplifying black designers, specifically, but also people of color and just really … not just talking about the work, but doing the work and being intentional about that, and inspiring others to do that, including me.

Ron Bronson:
So just as much as you just said, “Ah, whatever I did,” it goes back to you. Your body of work speaks for itself. So super grateful for you, for now and always.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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

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

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Maxwell VanHook

“If you have a vision for yourself, go for it.” When Maxwell VanHook told me that before our interview, I knew that he was about to drop some serious knowledge. And he did not disappoint!

We started off in an interesting place — the home — and he talked about how newlywed life and how he’s been re-evaluating the concept of work and code switching in this current age. He also shared a bit about his work as an associate creative director for Amazon Devices, and his role as co-host of the weekly IG Live show Designing While Black. For Maxwell, trusting your voice and values has been key to his success…and I definitely agree with that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I am Maxwell VanHook. I am from Baltimore, Maryland, currently. In my professional life, I am an associate creative director on the Amazon devices team. That basically entails anything that has Alexa in it, but it also involves the devices that Amazon makes. You can think about your Echo Dots, Echo Shows, Kindles, emerging platforms like Amazon Luna, which is cloud gaming. Outside of my professional life, I am a music lover. I’m also the co-host of Designing While Black along with Bekah Marcum. That comprises who I am. First and foremost, I would say with all of those things, I like to show up as a friend. I’m just a friend, support system and a champion of other people’s dreams. I like to see people succeed. I’d like to see people win.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
The year’s been good. I’m not going to lie to you. When COVID hit, I think that I had some psychological and emotional barriers. No, just in terms of shifting my schedule. I had a routine. I would get up every day, probably around 6:37 o’clock, do whatever I need to do for the morning, get dressed, go to work, probably get coffee when I went to work. And so it gets monotonous. All of that broke down once COVID hit. And so now, I’m at home. Now, I’m with my wife and I’m with my cat. Nobody’s really going outside. And so I had to create new routines for myself. I had to learn how to work out within at home, I had to learn how to run within my home, I had to learn how to make sure that I was keeping my mind active outside of my day-to-day work. I also need to figure out how to keep myself emotionally and mentally stable.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so it’s been good because I learned a lot about myself. I really had to scrutinize what I wanted from life and it allowed me to be still. I know that there were a lot of things that came along with the pandemic. But now that we’re somewhat out of it, I actually appreciate it because it allowed me to sit with myself and really be introspective about how I wanted to move forward in this next phase of life. I just turned 31 not too long ago. And so I feel like I’m at a crossroads in terms of who I want to be. This has been good for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think a lot of people now, especially peer in the states who have hopefully gotten their vaccines or they’re seeing now that just restrictions are being lifted like nationwide and in many places, I think a lot of people are at that point of reexamining and reevaluating where they’re at now that they’ve come out of this and trying to figure out what moving forward looks like, because I think there’s been this big push to get back to normal. You got to get back to normal. But it’s almost impossible in many ways because the world is just a different place. We’re different people now that we have all collectively went through this extended trauma. It’s hard to just snap back into what you used to do before all of this.

Maxwell VanHook:
Now, it was important for me… I realized, especially like on a work-front, there are certain conditioning that you go through in terms of how you show up that especially in physical spaces, like when you walk into a corporate office and you’re not the dominant culture. And so things like code switching, dialect altering, I was with… not too long ago, we had someone that we interviewed and they used the phrase telephone voice. These are things that I feel black and brown people use every day to survive in these spaces. I just had to do a deep conditioning because when I was at home, I was way more relaxed. And then I realized that I’m not in the physical space with you and I’m not going to become someone different when I’m outside of my home.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I had a conflict with myself, like internal conflict. This is the space where I am authentically myself, this is the space where I can be free and open and now I’m bringing work into that space. And so I like, “No, I flipped that on its head. Anywhere that I show up, that’s how I’m going to be.” And so working at home actually allowed me to do that, getting on the phone and not really caring how I’m phrasing things, not really caring on what type of vernacular I’ll use because I was just embracing fully who I am. Especially when you put it in the context of the pandemic, you realize, “Hey, life can be snatched at any moment. It’s up to us to live use the agency to own your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. You’re like reevaluating… it’s funny… well, not funny, but I like that you said that you’re looking at home and how you bring work into it, because certainly for a lot of folks, having to work from home, it’s been tough, I think, for many people to really make that delineation between like, “This is work, this is home.” Even if you’ve got a dedicated space, you’re still bringing a totally foreign thing into your sanctuary. Home is where you… That’s where you sleep, that’s where you let your hair down, that’s where you let your defenses down. But now, it’s also your workplace and your gym and your daycare and all these other things now. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, all those things converged. When they converged in that manner, I just started to look at how I was showing up and then also how I was relating to people. I think you discover things about yourself throughout life because I believe that we’re fluid beings in that way. And just being able to sit at home, knowing that this is my space and I own it, I couldn’t even access any form of code switching or altering, if I wanted to, because it just wouldn’t sit right with me. And that just ultimately led me to say like, “Why was I doing it in the first place? Also, who told me to do this?” And that was another thing like, “Who told me to do this?” I was like, “No one told me to do this? This is a decision you made and you have to break and work to get out of this.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so if there is a danger and not code switching, that’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with, but I would rather live my truth. I feel like most people should live their truth in that sense. There’s so many people who stay away from their unique sensibilities or their unique form of expression because of how other people will perceive it and that stops you from that expansion. That’s the goal. I’m trying to expand, I’m trying to try as many things as I possibly can. With curiosity comes failures sometimes. I don’t even look at failure as failure. I look at that as a lesson, a learning lesson. I want to fall as many times as I can. I want to show up in any form that I want to show up in. Yeah, I just want to own my space. I’m trying to walk away from conditioning that may have happened beforehand.

Maurice Cherry:
Does Amazon foster that kind of exploration for you as an employee?

Maxwell VanHook:
I don’t necessarily know if Amazon fosters it. But I will say that when I came to Amazon, I was met with some very real confrontational energy in terms of the people that I was interacting with. I know there are horror stories about Amazon. I do not believe that the majority of them are true, just not in my case. But there was this presence of trying to be A type, trying to be the best, trying to always be on. And for me, there was the double whammy of walking into a social environment inside the building where nobody looked like me, and then also outside of the building, nobody looked like me. And so I don’t necessarily know if there was a support system there. I’d argue that there wasn’t and they’re trying to build it now to foster that individuality and that freedom of expression, but it forced me to build my own.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so in that way, I would appreciate the experience of coming to Amazon, being able to live in Seattle, because it put me directly in line and maybe come face-to-face with who I am as a person, as a designer, especially as a man. And so it was like a forcing function. If I was half stepping in in who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up, I couldn’t really do that there. And so there were a lot of things that I just started to think about differently life-wise once I started working at Amazon. More specifically, like my wellness, like self-care. I didn’t even get a therapist until I came to Amazon, which is odd, it’s super odd. That shouldn’t have been the case. I probably should have always had a sense of reflection or someone to help me process, but that stuff did not happen until I came to Seattle.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. We’ll talk about what brought you to Seattle and everything later, but I want to focus now on the work that you’re doing at Amazon. You said you’re an associate creative director when you’re working on Amazon products, devices I should say, Amazon devices. Amazon has been in the device game for a minute. I think everyone knows about the Kindle, but now there’s Echo, like you mentioned, there’s the Fire TV, there’s the Fire tablet. Amazon has also acquired other electronics companies. And so there’s wearables, there’s the ring security system, all this sort of stuff. There’s a lot that goes into devices at Amazon. Just like as broad as you can, and if you want to go into specifics, that’s fine, what are some creative considerations that you have to think about when it comes to Amazon devices because you’re really working with an entire ecosystem of tech here?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I would say at the center, there’s a leadership principle called customer obsession. Really without getting into too much jargon, essentially at the epicenter of any Amazon product or any Amazon device is this human focused, this human lens. Always creating product and always creating innovation with your audience in mind. And so anytime that I am getting ready to create a campaign or I’m getting ready to market a product, I always think about the audience that I’m trying to serve, because if I’m not thinking about that, then I’m probably being a terrible designer.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I would say that one is that audience, but then also balancing that as you go through and you’re innovating from device to device, realizing how these technologies may create tension points. You want to look at like Echo Dot, for instance, the way that it functions is it very much so has to record. And so it’s constantly listening. It’s pinging to see if it’s being called every so often. And that’s why when you say the key phrase, Alexa, it’ll activate. And so how do I humanize technology like that? How do I humanize emerging technology to show people like, “Hey, this is new, this is novel, but it can fit within your day-to-day lifestyle and it can be a benefit to you”? And so that’s how I think about marketing any product with Amazon. What is the human entry point? What is the human lens? How does this product help serve the customer base and how does it help enhance their lifestyle?

Maxwell VanHook:
I worked on a product, a service within the Alexa app not too long ago, which is probably one of my proudest projects. It’s called Alexa Care. Essentially, it’s for the more senior, elder loved ones in your life. It allows people to stay in touch with those loved ones without infringing on their day-to-day lifestyle. Imagine you have a grandmother who’s 75, 80 years old. She lives by herself at home and you live maybe in another country or another state. How do you stay in touch with her? And so those are the types of products and that’s essentially how we would want any of the Amazon devices to show up. It needs to be a benefit, it needs to enhance, it needs to be brought into the life of our everyday customer and improve. If it’s not doing that, then we probably won’t make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now that you mentioned, I’m thinking of other kind of Amazon devices. I think these might’ve been some that were discontinued. I remember at one point there was a… I think one was like a camera or a camera wand or something that went with Amazon wardrobe that would analyze your outfit. It reminded me of Clueless, like the opening scene in Clueless, where Cher is picking out her outfit on the computer and the closets got the dual conveyor belt curtains, or whatever, or the rods, or whatever, but thinking about like, “Is that really a benefit? Do I need to do all of that if I’m getting ready in the morning?” Probably not. I think Amazon discontinued it fairly shortly. But when you put it in that way of like the devices need to be a benefit, then I see why Amazon has made such a, I think, deep strides into the home with their devices.

Maurice Cherry:
The Echo is something that easily can blend in with your decor. The Fire TV it sits behind your TV, it’s out of sight. The ring it’s literally outside the house. You don’t really even see it. But the benefits that it adds, whether that’s security or extensibility or smart home functionality, stuff like that, it’s interesting how all of that still works together under the Amazon brand because now it, of course, ties into the services, it ties into Alexa, it ties into purchasing, or whatever that you want to do on the website.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. It’s really important to look at the ecosystem of devices that we have. I don’t even think there’s a lot of things that Amazon tries. I would say a year-over-year, we’ve increased our device output like 10 fold. I expect it to continue to grow and grow. Really, I think the goal is to provide through Alexa a service that can be personalized to the end user and can function in a way that benefits them specifically. I imagine a world… And these are not conversations that I’ve had with anyone in terms of how Alexa functions. But I imagine a world where there are no devices and potentially Alexa is integrated into the home itself.

Maxwell VanHook:
I could imagine like seeing a tiny home, it could start off there and it could just have Alexa integrated into. You don’t need to have these one-off devices in order to have it function. Imagine it already being built into the smart appliances, imagine it already being able to interface with your computer. You don’t need to have a suite of devices that ties into the Internet of things in order to function efficiently. That’s what I think is going on with most AIs. I think the overall goal is to arrive there and the device is just to open up new spaces and open up how customers relate to the voice assistance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I imagine you get a ton of data with just seeing how people talk to Alexa, how they interact with the different devices, and then you can use that, of course, to upgrade the experience. But then as you said, you can venture off into greater implementations. Like I know there’s the Amazon Go store, which I think started in Seattle. I’m not sure if it’s started to spread nationwide yet, but it’s almost like a person list convenience store. You can go in, pick up what you need and walk out. As you’re doing this, you’re automatically being rung up, like the things that you’re buying are being tabulated, you’re charged when you walk out the door, and you don’t have to interact with a person. You just go in, do what you have to do, walk out.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think, if I’m not mistaken, not too long ago, and you probably find this online, they just opened up a full fledged grocery store here in Washington.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I’m going to have to go check that out. Even like that concept, it’s interesting because it’s not like we haven’t tried that in history before. I look at the, on a smaller scale, like a lot of the grocery stores already have some form of self-checkout. But even the human psychology behind self-checkout, you look at it, realistically, if you were to assess how long it takes you to go into a store, get what you need and then go through the checkout line by yourself, it probably on average takes you a lot longer rather than having else. But it’s the thought that you are going to be a lot faster than that person who may be checking you out in line, which is interesting. But also even seeing Amazon try something like this and be relatively successful has a lot to do with studying the human behavior. But yeah, that’s not the first time in human history that we’ve we tried that before. [crosstalk 00:21:10].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, no, I’m thinking specifically of the automat, which has been around since like the late 1800s. When Amazon is doing at least in… if you look at from the automat to the Amazon Go store is essentially taking that same concept and almost treating the store like a vending machine and just having this layer of technology that handles interactions throughout the entire process.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, it’s crazy to see. I remember the first time that I actually went into… because I work in Day 1, and for anyone who doesn’t know what Day 1, it’s one of the buildings. I believe it’s actually the building that Jeff Bezos is. And so within the verticals and the business orders that he cares about, they all exist in that building, with the exception of AWS, Amazon Web Services. I remember when I first went into that store and it was such a weird thing. It was like coming from where I come from, just be able to use an app, walk in and walk out, and I stopped myself and I was like, “Am I like really…” It’s almost like you feel like you’re about to steal something like, “Am I really allowed to walk out with this?” Yeah, but it’s interesting in that I think as they become more successful with the rollout of the stores, yeah, you’re going to see a lot more of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see Amazon coming out with like the Amazon house of tomorrow. You know what I mean? It’s almost like those old Tex Avery cartoons where you got all the machines and robots doing stuff. It’s so interesting because these are concepts… Just this whole thing about home automation, for example, we’ve been fed that for like 50 years now. The Flintstones and all those little animals and shit doing stuff for them in the cave, we’ve been fed this whole thing about having the house work for us instead of us working in the house for such a long time. And so now you’ve got a company like Amazon that’s able to really do that through their devices. Other companies have gotten on this too, but I feel like Amazon was really one of the first to really do deep penetration into the home largely because I think it was tied to commerce.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, I also think it’s so interesting to see the exponential growth of technology and the rate of change and the rate of innovation and technology. I’m sure that you’ve watched Black Mirror.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. And so I remember the first season and I was like, “Oh, some of the things that are happening in this series, like the grain, the grain where you can run back all your memories, that’s super far away.” And then season-by-season, I think I realized by the third season, I’m like, “No, these are things that can happen now.” And so I’m looking back because I always feel as though like art imitates life. I think we seed ideas within the consciousness of society and then some person out there will have the goal or have the genius to make it. And now, I think we’re at a crossroads where it’s like, “All right, you put that into the world, I can make that tomorrow.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so yeah, I think you’re 100% right. We’re going to look probably within the next few years, there will probably be some sort of smart home that will have all this integrated tech. I think we’re at a stage where that next technological revolution, if it’s not already here, it’s getting ready to come underway. It’s pushing up against our beliefs about identity in how we think about ourselves. Going back to Black Mirror, that episode about VR and video games, I forget the actors that were in it, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Is this from the latest season, the Striking Vipers?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yes, Striking Vipers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
That was so interesting to me because it introduced a new topic, because that technology is not far away. It’s right around the corner. I want to say not to get too graphic, but there are streaming websites that people probably sit or shouldn’t be going to that get a lot of data and they have invested and have given seed money to companies who are creating bodysuits that can sense like AR/VR touchpoints and mimic haptic feelings throughout the body if you’re wearing these suits. And so, yeah, like seeing an episode like that and knowing… because I pay attention to angel investors, I’ll pay attention to what people are doing in the market, knowing that there are websites who want that technology and are spending money in order to make it happen means that that conversation may not be that far down the line. And that to me, it’s somewhat terrifying, but it’s also really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, I totally get what you’re saying. I didn’t even think you were going to go that way with it. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see that. I was thinking more so about like now how… A couple of weeks ago I had this guy on the show, Brandon Groce, and we were talking about the metaverse and about how there are online personalities, YouTubers, podcasters, et cetera, that have a virtual realish avatar, like a VTuber or something like that. We’re starting to see it on YouTube, for example, people that have these online-ish identities that are getting some level of fame. There’s Dream, there’s Corpse Husband, there’s probably a few other folks. It’s like these are real people. No one knows who they are, what they look like, but they’ve presented this digital 3D avatar of themselves. They’re able to use that to, I guess, be themselves online in some sort of way. But to go back to what you said with the Black Mirror portion, I do see how that’s not too far away at all. Between augmented reality and things of that nature, it’s pretty close.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Even what you just said, I love to unpack that even more, because in a sense, it’s the most ideal version of yourself. That’s what I think in a real way because I’m conflicted about social media and how it’s used, but you curated. A lot of people do not give this holistic presentation. It’s not like a direct one-to-one to your everyday life experiences. Yeah, you just amplify that and then now I can actually physically choose what I look like. If I want to be part animal, part human, or if I want to be a cyborg, I can do that. And now, we’re all in ready player one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maxwell VanHook:
I can imagine that that’ll happen. Yeah, not too long from now. I feel like I’m watching kids now and at least my… I have a godson and he constantly in his video games. If he’s not in his video games, he’s watching streamers. I hear you on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about your work at Amazon. One of the other things that you do is that you are a co-host of a show on Instagram called Designing While Black. Tell me about that.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think Bekah and I met in my first year at Amazon. And so Bekah is my co-host. What we realized is that internally there were no spaces for designers to come together, meet politic, learn from one another, and generally just have a social bond that feels like support. We wanted to change that. And so we got together. I want to say one day, we went to a mini golf session and we sent out a blast. We expected like five people to show up. I think like over 30 people showed up. So now, we realize like, “Oh, there’s a community within Seattle that we really, really need to access.” That’s where black designers of Seattle came from, just trying to create a space where black designers who may feel other, who may feel like there’s no one who shares the same interest or even walks in the same spaces that they do. There is a social circle out there that they can access.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so a lot of the times like when we were starting to have these gatherings, we weren’t talking about design at all. We were just having fun. We would go, pick a place, we would eat, and we would just fellowship. And then we slowly started to shift that and it became a little bit more educational. We started to bring people in like Tim Allen, I believe you had Tim Allen on your show.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), from Airbnb, yup.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We brought in Jessica Rochelle, Timothy Bardlavens. And so we were bringing in these different people who were really able to share knowledge, share their experience, and uplift the designers within our community. And then we were getting reached out to from agencies or other bigger tech companies because they wanted to host us in the space and then the pandemic hit and then things started to take a bit of a low. We try to figure out how to navigate the new world and the new situation that COVID presented to us.

Maxwell VanHook:
One of the things that we thought about was having a Zoom. But then outside of that Zoom, because we were specifically talking to designers within Seattle, we were really, really interested in being able to reach a larger audience. And within that larger audience, really speak to emerging designers. People who are either in middle school, high school, college, and wanting to walk in the same spaces that we’re currently walking. And it’s like, “How can we reach out to them? How can we give them content that can encourage them and allow them to know that there are people out here who look like them and are doing this work?” Because I firmly believe like if you don’t see yourself, then you may not believe it’s possible.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so that’s where Designing While Black came from. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, scrutinizing it, trying to design out the materials in the brand and a bunch of different ways. One day, Bekah and I just sat down and like, “We’re just going to do it, do it. We’re going to get out within a week, we’re going to bring on…” I think our first guest was Alyssa Johnson, “and we’re just going to keep going every week, short form content, bringing the people that we know and make sure that this gets in the hands of the right people.” And so uplifting those stories and disseminating them to the people that can access those younger folk who want to be creative and want to do design professionally, that’s our main goal.

Maxwell VanHook:
As COVID restrictions start to lessen and we get back to peopling again, our goal is to get right back into those physical spaces and those physical venues, and then maybe we can start to do those shows in a more brand way. But that’s where it started. I think her and I really, really believe in education and we both stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us. Like I specifically, one of my design mentors was in my church. I know that that’s not like a common story to have a professional graphic designer who can talk to you at the age of 14, 15 and guide you. But I want to give back to other people what he gave to me. That was the overall goal of just doing the IG Live show.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned since starting the series?

Maxwell VanHook:
One, I’ve learned that there are some magical black folk out there, real like, “You start to like.” You’ll sit down with some people and you think that you have a full understanding of everything that they’ve done. And when you sit down and you have a conversation with them and you really have to assess and dive deep into their life and their work, you start to realize like, “Yo, there are black people who are innovators in every single type of design that you could think of.” And that’s really encouraging to me, especially in the spaces that I travel. But I think the biggest thing is that like, “Yo, we’re killing it out here. We’re killing it out here, and not just when it comes to being like a director or a VP or an executive.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I met a young woman the other day, her name was Kiwi. She’s currently in school. But she was a producer on MasterClass. Yeah, and she has spent time producing for films. She just completely shifted and decided that she wanted to become an instructional, or she wanted to become not only like an instructional designer, but industrial designer more so. That’s probably like the most amazing thing like being able to meet people who have had just so many different types of experiences in life and aren’t afraid to try new things. That probably is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. I do want to ask you, as you were building out your platform, what probably is the biggest roadblock that you faced just in terms of making sure that, one, it was reaching the people that you wanted it to reach?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good question. I think it was two things. One was really me trying to get out of my own way. I think I certainly was trying to do, especially early on, a lot of partnering up with other entities to try to reach an audience that I just didn’t have yet. I should have been spending that time really cultivating the audience that I did have, like the ones that I knew were listening and were leaving reviews and stuff. Instead, I would try to talk to another design podcast or another design organization and see if there’s ways that we could work together and do some stuff. Oftentimes the answer to that would be no answer. It just wouldn’t go anywhere, even though I’m reaching out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably been a big roadblock. To be fair, I’d say money is a continual roadblock. But in those early days, there wasn’t really a whole lot that I really needed that money for in terms of I think I wanted to have it as a status symbol to myself that I’ve created something that companies will pay me for. And of course, I would use it for operational resources and stuff like that. But I spent way too much time trying to chase sponsors and chasing audience I didn’t have and I should have been really focusing inward on cultivating the audience I do have and making them really rabid fans of what I’m trying to do that can see the vision that I see. I would have done that. Because yeah, in those early days, there was… I’ll say this, it was certainly not as progressive as it is now, not by a long shot.

Maurice Cherry:
When I was reaching out to people in 2013 and 2014 there was a lot of, “Oh, we’re post-racial, we don’t do this sort of stuff anymore, et cetera, blah, blah, blah,” which then just made it difficult when people ideologically feel that the work that you’re doing for some reason is racist and it’s not. It’s like, “Oh, well, I don’t see why you would think that.” The tenor of the design community was not as open and accepting and as, I’d love to say the word woke, but it was not as woke now as it was back. Back then, people were really closed off to like, “No.” Now, it’s a lot more open. I think there’s a greater consideration and a greater perspective for what black designers are doing and what they can bring to the table and their voices and such.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I want to think back to when I first discovered your podcasts. I think, for me, especially I was young. I was fresh in the design game. And so you don’t see a lot of examples of people have had robust careers. I probably didn’t meet too many people outside of my actual mentor who had decades worth of experience in design. And so being able to access your podcast reassured me that like, “Not only can I have a long career in this, but I can aspire to do great things.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so, yeah, I just wanted to I appreciate the platform that you built in that sense because it does not only spread knowledge, but it also reinforces some things identity-wise within a young designer to know like, “Hey, there are people who are out there and there are people who are great and they’re killing it.” And so, yeah, I was really, really, really excited when I found the show. I don’t even remember how I found it. I can’t even remember how I found it. I may have been searching online. It probably was like Facebook back then. Yeah, I would just check in, listen and use it to build not only my knowledge of self and what was happening in these different spaces, but also to explore new territories.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’m certainly glad that you found it. It’s interesting because like I said, I’ve been doing this for such a long time. And oftentimes, it’s probably different with what you’re doing with Instagram because you have a live audience. But with podcasting, a lot of this is pretty solitary. I don’t really know how it’s being received unless someone leaves a review, or they write me an email, or they send a tweet, or send a DM on Instagram. Other than that, I’m just pushing episodes out into the void. I can see that they’re getting listened to and downloaded, but I don’t get that direct feedback. And that could just be honestly because of the medium. But yeah, no, I’m glad that you found Revision Path and that it was able to serve as an inspiration for you.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I feel like we should give people flowers again maybe on the internet. We don’t do the best job of that, especially when you look good like the vacuum that is Instagram in the light system. But as I live and breathe, I just wanted to let you know that… And I definitely share your podcast with young designers and people that I mentor because I don’t want people to think it’s just me out here. I’m tired of that narrative. I’m tired of the narrative of being like, “Oh, I was the only one. I’m the only black designer that I know, I’m the only black designer for 100 miles.” Is exhausting. I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t want to hear it anymore.

Maxwell VanHook:
I also want to change the narrative in terms of how people of color relate to design because I tend to think that the way that you think about something has to be vastly different than the way that another person thinks about something. And the way that you will build something is going to be vastly different than the way that someone else will build it. I think inherently, black people are designers. Even thinking about systems that were placed on us and how we’ve navigated around them, we’ve organized. We have created structures, we have created innovation and process to be able to by step roadblocks that have been placed in front of us.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I think that that’s a part of your heritage, that’s a part of your legacy. I think if you want to be a designer, you can do that. It’s just a matter of sending your mind to it. And so I tell people that all the time, especially younger folks like, “This is a part of your ancestry, bro, you’ve been creating long before you were in existence. It’s in your blood. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of ancestry and going back, I want to go back to where you grew up. You’re originally from Baltimore, born and raised. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. Did you feel like you got a lot of exposure to art and design as a kid?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Both my parents are like… We’re really supportive of the arts. My dad, he forced me to take drama classes oddly enough. He came to me one day after school and was like, “You’re signing up for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. You have an audition two days from now.” And then my mom would make sure that during the summers and after school, I was doing some sort of arts and crafts. Baltimore has this program called TWIGS. It’s attached to this high school called Baltimore School of the Arts. And so when I would leave my middle school, I would just take a bus there. And so I’m learning foundational principles of traditional art. And also from year-to-year, I’m switching off. Maybe one year I’m doing more traditional art practices and then the next year I’m learning how to act.

Maxwell VanHook:
And then that evolved. As I started getting a little bit more focused, my mom would take me to MICA. Even in middle school, I was able to get a lot of exposure to institutions that existed within Baltimore that solely focused on art. And then when I went to city, city is… I’ll say it’s the best high school that exists within Baltimore, but they have a program called International Baccalaureate. That allowed me to get a little bit more focused when it came to how I was telling my stories through art.

Maxwell VanHook:
I had some teachers who were just really, really helpful and set the foundation for how I wanted to express myself. And one day, one of those teachers came up to me and was like, “You know that you could do this as a career.” I was like, “Huh, I didn’t really think about that.” This was just something I would do when I was just chilling or late at night or when I have free time. And so once he expressed that to me… because I was going to go to school for communications, which would have been really, really bad. But I had made the connection that what you’re probably passionate about, you should follow that. You should figure out how to do that as much as you can.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so what they saw in me, they really, really poured into me. And then I talked to my mentor and he opened up that lens a little bit more and he was like, “Hey, you could go to school for graphic design. But I see something different happening in the space. And so you’re going to need more than one skill when you graduate from school. He’s like, “Don’t do graphic design.” He’s like, “There are programs out there now that will teach you those principles, but you need to be more in the digital space.” That’s how I ended up majoring in multimedia and I got crazy amount of exposure to different things.

Maxwell VanHook:
I want to say we were doing physical computing. I was messing with Arduino boards, trying to figure out how I could trigger light within a physical space, doing sound production, messing with middies, a bunch of stuff like video production, pretty much all the different types of design and art forms that you could think of. I just had so much freedom, I think. Out of all the majors in that school, we had the most electives. It was wonky. I want to say like three to four years after I left, they shut it down. Yeah, they just rolled it into graphic design.

Maxwell VanHook:
But even that was indicative of the fact that graphic design as a major or as an industry had changed, and we were using new terms and I had no idea what a user experience designer was, but also those lines hadn’t been defined yet. But to go back to Baltimore, that’s my heart and soul. Even though I’m in Seattle right now, the goal is to always return back to it. It’s taught me a lot, is where I get my grip from, is where I get my perseverance from. It’s the place where I learned to be me. And so me and my wife, we’re here in Seattle now, but the goal is always to go back home.

Maurice Cherry:
Now growing up in Baltimore and everything and with what you’ve just described, when did you know that this was something you really wanted to do for a living? Did it click at any point growing up?

Maxwell VanHook:
When did I know that this was something I wanted to do for a living? It’s really odd, but it was probably my senior year of college because I wasn’t really sure how viable a design career was. I was going back and forth and as I was starting to get closer to graduation, I was having some apprehension. It was like, “Do I just go get a master’s degree?” Both of my parents have master’s degrees and they’re both educators. I just thought that that was the path. And then my senior year, I had a teacher… It’s interesting. He led our whole program. I had him like freshman year and he leaned on me. He’s like, “You don’t understand any of these programs.” He’s like, “You have great vision, but you can’t execute on any of your visions because you don’t have the technical knowledge.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then I had him again in my senior year and he did the exact same thing, except it was a different message. He was like, “You could be so great.” He was like, “You could be so, so great.” He was just yelling at me. I could see this passion in his eyes. I’m seeing all my other classmates and they’re walking in with projects that are half thought out, or they did the night before. He’s just letting them come in and out, come in and out. What you said to me is like, “You’re not the same as them.”

Maurice Cherry:
In a good way or a bad way?

Maxwell VanHook:
In a good way, in a good way. He’s like, “That’s why I’m yelling at you.” He’s like, “I can see you doing this for the rest of your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so that really set you on that path. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
It set me on that path because I woke up and was like, “Oh, do I need to get a master’s? Why am I going to get a master’s degree?” I lit fire within me because I didn’t have that confidence yet. There was nothing saying that I was meant to do design full-time, there was nothing saying that I was going to work at Under Armour, there was nothing saying I was going to be where I am now. And that teacher, yeah, it came full circle. Like first year, lit a fires like, “Oh, you got to learn these programs.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then it was like my last year. I still remember this man. His name’s Chris Garvin. Yeah, just leaned on like… just yelled at me and would not do it to anyone else at all. But I think I saw him maybe like five or six years after that because my brother ended up going to that school and I thanked him, because there’s a level of care. You need a support system of people who are going to hold you accountable, but also people who see you as greater than what you see yourself as. That was important for me. But yeah, that’s when the switch turned. That’s when it turned and I was like, “Oh, I can do this, I can do this. I can see myself as a designer professionally.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And speaking of which right after you graduated, you ended up working at Under Armour and you stayed there for what? Six years pretty much?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. That’s an interesting story. I want to say I was up late at night once Saturday evening, probably like Sunday morning, around twelve o’clock in the morning. I’m on Craigslist. I’m just applying for anything. I have my busboy job. I’m like, “I got to pay off these loans quick as possible. I’m working as many shifts as I can. I’m not trying to live in my parents’ house forever.” And so I’m like come across this ad that says, “Oh, we have a contract position for a designer working with a sports organization within Baltimore.” I’m like, “Hmm, what could that be?” I was like, “Could it be the Orioles? Probably not. Could it be Baltimore Blasts? I don’t know.” I was like, “It’s not going to be Under Armour. They would just have it posted on their site.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Got a call probably… I’m in church. I got call around nine o’clock. Someone leaves a voicemail. It’s like, “Hey, we want you to come in tomorrow, take a test.” Still don’t know what it is. Go in, fail the test. Yeah, failed the test. There’s an old version of Photoshop that I’ve never used before. Completely different set up. I think around that time it was like CS3. There might be like CS1 or something like that and they still send me in. They send me in. I’m at the door. At this point in time, my parents are telling me like, “No, the only way you get the job, dress up suit and tie, blah, blah, blah.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I have a suitcase on, I have a suitcase, Maurice. I have a suitcase. I pull my portfolio out of a suitcase. This a woman, she comes and she gets me. The first thing that she says to me, she was like, “Don’t worry, you got this.” The person interviewing me, comes like, “You got this.” I don’t know what she saw in me. She was like, “You got this. This is yours.” This is as someone else’s walking out. I know that they’re interviewing other people. But yeah, I ended up getting the job. I walk away from that interview, by the time I catch the boat back across the harbor in order to go home, I get a call and saying, “Hey, they want to bring you in.”

Maxwell VanHook:
What started as a contract position evolved into a six-year career with Under Armour. They were a fledgling team. I worked on the e-commerce team there, really supportive people. It was a blessing because I got a lot of experience that typically contractors don’t get. I was able to work in their custom CMS. I got to see how you grow a business, how you grow a platform. We essentially went from just supporting ua.com to looking at the whole digital consumer journey. It was like ua.com and then now all of a sudden it’s emails, it’s social paid and organic, it’s apps. I’m looking even at designing for touchscreens within retail stores.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was only like 23 years old. And then we go from there and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, we got all these different channels that we need to marketing now. The brand team can’t support all of these. You all need to figure out how to extend these stories.” That’s when the art direction experience comes in. And so now I’m in studio and I’m internalizing these products and figuring out how to craft stories and narratives around them that are compelling, and not only tell the technology story, but then also give that emotional and aspirational lens to the product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m started off in studio and that was a really good experience, and then now all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, can you go on location? Can you scout places? Can you work with athletes? Can you put them through training regiments?” I got a lot of crazy experiences from that. I got to meet Steph Curry while I was working at Under Armour. I got to work with him on set. That was key for me. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because that’s where I learned how to really fly in, like really be a leader. They allow me to pitch ideas. No, they didn’t accept all my ideas, but they allowed me to take chances there. I really appreciated that.

Maxwell VanHook:
No matter how many times things may have not gone perfectly, they always gave me another chance to push my ideas. And that also gave me a lot of confidence. I probably wouldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t worked there and worked around the people that I worked around. There was a lot of black leadership. When I was there, there was a lot of black leadership at Under Armour. Like Adrienne Lofton, she’s a black CMO, Julian Duncan, he now works with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a CMO, but he was a director, Thomas Harden, Ernie Talbert, he works here at Amazon with me, Tai Foster. These were the people giving me the opportunities. These are all black people. Like that, that matters. Looking back on it, that was a blessing for me. That was really, really key because I would say the majority of designers who enter into professional workplace don’t get that level of support.

Maurice Cherry:
No, absolutely not. I’ve had a number of folks here on the show and like… There are some that will go into agencies and agencies may have some kind of apprenticeship type setup or something like that. But it’s rare to go into a real corporate design space, like I’m sure Under Armour was, and still feel not just that supportive, but then also to have that many black creatives around you supporting you as well.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and opening up the budget for you to fully realize your idea. It wasn’t until I left Under Armour that I realized how special that environment was, kind of like when we were talking about like, “Yeah, I hold that near and dear to my heart,” because I realized that that’s not the case for everyone. I cherish that moment. I still have relationships with those people now.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what prompted you to move out to the West Coast because you went to school at the university of arts in Philly and it sounds like this opportunity was it, like this was the reason you moved out there?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I had always wanted to live on the West Coast. Nothing’s like Baltimore. Baltimore is always… will be my home. I love it like I said earlier. But I feel like when you put yourself in new spaces, that’s when you learn new things about yourself. And so I like being uncomfortable because I firmly believe that it leads to expansion. And so a part of going to the West Coast was about not falling into this sense of like comfort and familiarity with my environment. I just knew I got to a point probably when I was like around 26 where I was like, “This feels amazing. I feel like I know everything. I’m starting to feel like at work. I don’t have to try as hard. I don’t have to exert myself as much.” And that’s when I knew I had to go.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was like, “I made a plan.” I was like, “I have to go. Because if I stay here, there’s the potential that I plateau.” And so I set up a plan for myself. West Coast was the ultimate goal, but I teared it out. It was like, “Getting to California, number one. Number two, we stay at Under Armour and then we go to Amsterdam.” I lined that up. Number three was going to be like even moving to Virginia. Yeah, because I was just like, “I need to have some new experiences.” That’s really what drove it, having new experiences, being in new environments. Living in Philly gave me a little bit of a taste, but also both of my parents are from Pennsylvania. My dad is from North Philly. Then Philly was like a second home to me.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so even though I was away, I wasn’t ever really away. I wanted that experience, I wanted that moment. That’s ultimately like it landed me in the bay with Athleta, which is a part of Gap. But yeah, I didn’t even stay… I loved Athleta. They had a wonderful environment, completely different than Under Armour. They were way more focused on empowering women. And then also it was more so from like a wellness lens, but then I got that opportunity you with Amazon. Once again, it was someone who believed in me so much so that a position that I did not even apply for, they wanted me to come and work with them.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I got a call from… He’s not my hiring manager anymore, but I got a call from a man named Kay Tran, a Vietnamese man. He’s like, “I know that you exist as a designer right now, but I think that you could be way bigger than that.” It was like a costume theme within the experiences and the interactions that I’m having. He was like, “I think you can be an art director.” He was like, “I think you can lead these projects. I know that you have no experience in tech, but I’ll support you and I’ll work with you.”

Maxwell VanHook:
He held true to that. He held true to that. I owe a lot of my success here to the support that he provided me initially at Amazon. And that also set the foundation for me wanting to create the spaces with Bekah that we’ve created so far. But yeah, and he reached out to me, called me, told me to come up here, gave me the lowdown on how it would be. I remember that one of the first calls that we had, he was like, “I used to live in the Bay.” He’s like, “Seattle is not the Bay at all. So be prepared for that.” I think it’s worked out for me, it’s worked out for me, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It certainly sounds like it has. I can tell. When you look back at your career and you’ve dropped a few names throughout this interview, but who are some of the people that have inspired you? Any mentors or colleagues?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. First and foremost, one of the people that inspires me the most, I’ll go to my first mentor, that Sean Cunningham, the man that I met at my church, a professional graphic designer over 20 years. He worked in agency life and he really, really took me aside. He would spend time with me on Sundays, on the weekends showing me how you craft a portfolio. Because I think a lot of times, kids can think that they’re putting their work together and they have a bunch of pretty pictures, but they don’t have any story behind it. There may not be any depth. And me having access to him, he started to mold me and shape me and pull back the curtain. He was one of the people that really blocked down field for me, because if he wouldn’t have spent that time with me, who knows if I’m in the same space that I’m in? Sean Cunningham would definitely be a really, really big one for me.

Maxwell VanHook:
In terms of other mentors, definitely I have to give… My parents are really, really keen and influential in my life. And so a lot of the principles that I have… I do think that this relates to the design as well. My parents are extremely empathetic. I don’t believe that you can be a good designer if you do not have empathy. If you’re just out here making decisions and building products and doing work solely because you think it looks good or solely because you think you’re making the right decision and you’re not considering the people that you are doing it for, then it’s all for nothing.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so one of the sayings that exists within my church is, “It’s all about relationship or ain’t about nothing.” My parents are the embodiment of that. And so they pass that empathy along to me and that’s how I like to show up. And not just in how I think about my work, but also how I relate to people. Those would probably be my key mentors. Of course, like all the people that I currently fellowship with now, even though back in [inaudible 01:04:11] like relatively like the same age, I think being in contact with her has been a form of mentorship for me. John as well. John has been huge for me, especially in these past couple of months, just in like owning your agency and owning how you want to show up for people and making sure that you do it with a spirit of service. Those would be my mentors, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Maxwell VanHook:
Okay, this is a side thing. I’m absolutely obsessed with how the market is changing currently, like how it’s peered into the social conscious of millennials specifically. I’m seeing this stuff that’s going on with AMC and hedge funds and Citadel. And for whatever reason, that really interests me. It’s like this story of fighting against the man and government agencies and little people banding together. Outside of that, I’m really, really, really into vinyls. I’m copying a different vinyl every other week. I’m searching, going in different spaces. That probably consumes a lot of my time. I’m trying to look to see if I can get a new credenza soon. We were just talking about getting rid of furniture. That’s going to be a big purchase for me. I don’t even know if it’s like 350 anymore. We’re probably approaching over 400.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, I got more [crosstalk 01:06:01].

Maurice Cherry:
You got storage for it and everything?

Maxwell VanHook:
No, man, I don’t even know. Yeah, I had a credenza and I thought it’d be big enough and then I filled it up. So there’s probably about 150 of the vinyls that are either in the crate or they’re on a shelf. I need to create a storage space specifically for it. But even past that, I have to go home and probably grab like another 500 or 600. My dad called me because I think it was a little bit of a test. They allowed me to go into the storage and grab my uncle’s records because that’s really why it’s important to me. It’s kind of twofold. It serves as this design inspiration. You look at these covers and the sleeves and how they put everything together, is like a master’s class in design.

Maxwell VanHook:
You look at some of the type, the color palettes, the photography, and the composition, it boggles my brain. You don’t know all the people who have done these things. Some of these people are hard to find, they’re dead. You can have someone in present day who can say like, “Oh, that was my great grandfather who did this cover for The Spinners.” That’s really interesting to me because you’re actively discovering things with a sense of duality. Not only from this perspective of looking at it as a creative, but then also musically. Not just like discovering new sounds, but like, “I am learning things about my family and my uncle Candy, specifically, in terms of his tastes.” I’ve never met the man, almost like him and I are having a conversation through the music and I can take that to my dad.

Maxwell VanHook:
For me, it’s been really good, especially in contrast to what you get with streaming services because this is way more passive with streaming services. They serve it up to you, they give it to you and you just consume it. I know that you have to be active. You got to look through it, you have to touch it, you got to look at those songs, you got to look at their artists and then you have to put it on the turntable. And then once that side A is done, you got to flip it over to that side B. There’ve been fascinating things that have shown up in that vinyl collection. I’m like, “I got an original test pressing of a snake fundraiser concert.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, it’s wild. I got to figure out how to… Yeah, I got to figure out how to get that into the right hands because I feel like I personally shouldn’t own it. I feel like it should be in a museum somewhere. But yeah, it’s a part of my family history and I want to keep it intact and establish a library around it where I can give it to my kids, God willing.

Maurice Cherry:
Something like that ends up being really like a family heirloom, but it’s something that you keep continually adding to and diversifying and curating and everything. That sounds amazing.

Maxwell VanHook:
It’s been a good discussion starter, or just catalyst for how I talk to different family members because a lot of them have at some point in time come across this collection or have contributed to it in some way, shape or form, like even the snake record that I have, which has a speech from Jesse Lewis on it, and that original test pressing came by way of my aunt’s old boyfriend because he used to help him disseminate those vinyls and sell them for the fundraiser. I can talk to her and then get the background and the story behind that and then also get her other stories. She used to work for the Schomburg Center. She used to be a part of Freedom Rides citizens. And so that’s what these vinyls have done for me, where it was like, “All right, this is a really, really interesting piece. Where did this come from?” And then all of a sudden I’m getting a story around like how it was made and then all the experiences that are connected to it. And now, I’m learning more about my aunt, Roberta.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I think in the short-term, I’ve leaned more into the visual side of design. There’s a people focused in that, especially working for Amazon. Data is super key. But I want to get more into the product side. Especially with what I’m seeing in a lot of the technology that’s being created, there are inherent biases that exists. And so when you’re designing, you have to design with those problems in mind. If the room of designers that you have are largely white, the same issues that exist within society and exists within the world, probably going to exist within that product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m like, “Hey, maybe we need to take a step back from visual design and get more into product and user experience. And with that, get a better understanding of how people are interacting with the products and how these systems are set up, how we can decolonize those, in a sense.” I have a lot of different thoughts about how we think about accessibility. All right. Traditionally, accessibility is like people who may be hard of hearing, people who may not be able body. But I also think that race may be a component of accessibility as well. And so I don’t fully understand why we divorce those things. And so I just want to do more of a foray into that space so I can figure out how to set up structures that will be more encompassing of people who look like me.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. You can find me on Instagram @maxwellvanhook, and you can also find me on Instagram as well @designingwhileblack. Either of those, feel free to follow me, feel free to reach out to me also. If you are looking to get into design, if you want to politic, or if you just want to share your passion about design and your experience, I’d love to connect with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Maxwell VanHook, I want to thank you so much, one, for coming on the show, but two, I think it’s obvious from anyone that’s listening up to this point that you bring such a deep level of passion and introspection to your work. You’re a very thoughtful designer that really takes a lot of considerations into account when it’s not just about the work that you’re doing, but also the impact that it’s going to have on people and on communities and such. I think this was just such a great interview, such a great introduction of you to the Revision Path audience. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Maxwell VanHook:
No, thank you for having me. It was great actually being able to talk with you and, yeah, meeting you. I feel like I’ve listened to you so much over the years. Finally getting down to talking with you has been somewhat surreal. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share this space with you.

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

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

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

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