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Joseph Cuillier

“If you don’t see it in the world, see that as an opportunity.” Wise words from this week’s guest, the one and only Joseph Cuillier. Joseph is perhaps most well known for The Black School, an experimental art school teaching Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs.

I spoke to Joseph fresh from his move back to New Orleans, and he spoke on how the city feels now in the midst of gentrification and other new developments. We also spoke on his work with The Black School and the school’s principles, the unique studio model that helps fund the school, and how he works to center Black love in such a unique learning space. Joseph is truly building upon a family legacy to help educate the next generation and beyond!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joseph Cuillier:
My name is Joseph Cuillier and I’m an artist, a designer, and the founder and co-director of The Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
How are you holding up these days?

Joseph Cuillier:
Good. I am good. I just recently moved from New York City. I lived in Harlem for about five years, and Brooklyn before that for about five years. I just moved to new Orleans after 10 years in New York, and I think I’m much better because of it for a lot of reasons. There’s been a pandemic and people have been trapped in small apartments, in cold climates, and it’s good to get away from that. It’s good to be closer to family, I see my family a lot even though I lived in a different part of the country from them. I would come home holidays and summers, and that was difficult not being able to see my family. Being closer makes it so much easier. And trees and sunshine man, that’s a long way. That’s long way, and good food, and good people, and good music. Everything that makes New Orleans great is healing me at the moment, at this traumatic moment for all of us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to go to new Orleans so bad.

Joseph Cuillier:
Come through and let me know.

Maurice Cherry:
I will as soon as all this pandemic mess is over, and I feel comfortable jumping on a plane I want to go to New Orleans.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. Hopefully sooner than later.

Maurice Cherry:
I know you’ve been away for 10 years, but does the city feel different to you now?

Joseph Cuillier:
It is very different. To be clear, I moved to New York from Houston. I was living in Houston at the time, but both sides of my family are from new Orleans so I would always be here. Holidays, summers, things like that or whenever, a birthday party, it’s family reunion, just to come down and see family. I think new Orleans is going through a lot of the things a lot of black cities and black communities around the country are going through. There’s gentrification, there’s new things happening in this city for better or worse. And I think a lot of people feel frustrated because they’re not being included in the decision-making of the new thing.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or the new thing is coming and that means you have to leave which is messed up. There’s a lot of displacement in New Orleans, and in a way it’s a little bit more kind of celebrated due to the aftermath of Katrina, and the displacement that man-made disaster created. It is very different but in a lot of ways it’s still the same. There the blackness, there’s deep love, there’s deep creativity that is just baked into the city that I don’t think gentrification is strong enough to ever change that. Natural disaster or anything I don’t think is strong enough to change that.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been kind of working and moving through this pandemic? Was that a loaded question?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s a layered question. A layered question. What does that mean to me as a husband and a father? What does that mean to me as a designer or an artist? What does that mean to me as a person that creates platforms? A person that brings people together to exchange knowledge? First it’s been difficult but not insurmountable. Our family, we found ways to make the best of it. We found ways to still have romance between me and my wife. We have our indoor dates or our out in the park dates. We found ways to meet with folks, meet up at the park, chill on the porch, chill at the patio, things like that. And as a kind of artists and designer it’s been a shift. For me it’s been less about making work and showing work and more about purpose, more about spirituality, more about laying foundations.

Joseph Cuillier:
And before the pandemic we were rolling, I talk in the we because I don’t do this work alone. My wife is my partner in life and in our endeavors, our ventures in the world. Shani Peters, she’s an artist very much in her own right doing really big things. And also just the work I do is very collective, I bring people together to work on issues and problems much larger than one person could address or transform. This slow down gave us the opportunity to refocus and think about the long-term vision for the work. The Black School was in New York, it was functioning as this kind of school that was mobile in architecture, so we would attach ourselves to host other schools, would be high schools, middle schools, youth organizations, art institutions, and we would do programming and collaboration.

Joseph Cuillier:
And now we couldn’t really do that, we couldn’t get people together. I mean we shifted some stuff to Zoom, but it’s only so much that could shift and keep going the way the world was turning. We shifted to thinking about where we wanted to take the organization. After all these years of programmatic success doing the art school, doing The Black Love Fest, doing the design apprenticeship, we felt like we really needed a space of our own. That meant sharing that idea with the people and be like, “What do you think? Is this something you would support?” The response we got was overwhelming yes. Folks came out of the woodwork, we ended up raising 300K to build the community center in my hometown of New Orleans. We’ve raised money for staffing the school, we’ve made all these connections of people who want to support in any way they can.

Joseph Cuillier:
Long answer, the shift, the slowing down, the re-jiggering we had to do to work in this moment meant that we had to do some deep thinking, and some deep listening, and have some deep conversations to really think about, “We’re standing still, how do we see the future? How do we want to see the future?” Because we have a moment now to really think about the future. And for us that meant moving to New Orleans and trying to build a school, trying to build a radical black art school in the Seventh Ward.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s jump more into The Black School, because I’ve been hearing about it for years now from different folks who I’ve had on the show. I was a mentor at… Well, I guess you could call it the mentor. I don’t know. I think they called it mentorship at NEW INC in New York City. I don’t know if that’s where I first heard about it, but I definitely heard about it during my time kind of mentoring and helping advise folks there. I really want to learn more about in essence what this radical black art school is all about. For those who are listening who may not know, can you just talk a little bit about the school and its mission? And we can sort of dive in from there.

Joseph Cuillier:
The Black School is an experimental art school that teaches young folks and old folks black history, design, activism. And the idea is radicalizing our people to envision a future where we’re not just tolerated, but a future that we create, that we build with our own hands so it’s a radical black art school.

Maurice Cherry:
And now there’s a lot of different principles that the school follows, among them self-love, prison abolition, environmental justice, LGBTQIA rights. How are these principles reflected to students?

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, the principles were developed by students. The first workshop we did was we did this community engaged research. This high school in Brooklyn, we went around the surrounding area and within the school. And we asked folks what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And what The Black School should teach? And based off of that feedback we got from folks we did this principle, this platform creating exercise, where we just went through the things, the issues, the ideas that folks are raising. And then we distilled them down into these overarching principles. And we’ve continued to add as we go, especially looking back to ancestors, the history, the things that were laid down for us before we even got here. And we took those kind of principles and built this larger kind of I guess rubric to learn from.

Joseph Cuillier:
And that includes self-love, it includes black love more specifically, and includes all the guiding principles of many different black radical organizations. We took inspiration from all these different ways black radicalism has popped up through feminist initiatives, queer initiatives, art movements. And that’s kind of how we came up with the principles, and we share those back in our card deck, we share them back in our website, we share them back in the topics that we explore in the school. Maybe a workshop will be based on this one principle or these two principles. We are making sure our young people know what we stand for, know something that possibly they can stand for, and are aware of a political language to describe the experiences that are happening in the world.

Joseph Cuillier:
They may see white folks from out of town moving into their grandmother neighborhood, they may see the cost of living in their neighborhood going up, they may see the bodega start to sell different things, but they may not know what gentrification is. And they may not know the history or the tactics that folks have used in the past to fight those issues. It’s our idea that we create learning tools, and learning opportunities to share that back with folks so they can know what to do, so they can know that they don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they see a problem. They can just build on what’s already beneath them.

Maurice Cherry:
And now the interesting part about the school is that it also contains a design studio, is that right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. The Black School studio is full service design firm. We do client work. I’m traditionally trained as a graphic designer. It was a matter of seeing the teaching that I’m doing. Since I graduated that’s not just something I do on the side, but at the center of my practice. And the studio allows me to do that to the greater extent. We do client services, we have experienced upper level designers, but we also have apprentice. And the design apprentice are young folks, high school age who have no experience in graphic design. We teach them the basics, the fundamentals of graphic design, typography, image making, grids, all of those fundamental things. And then we teach them Photoshop, Illustrator InDesign. And then once they know just those basics, then we put them on actual client projects so that they’re learning on the job from seasoned designers.

Joseph Cuillier:
And we’re collectively creating too, because I mean what company doesn’t buy and sale, or trade on black cool? What company doesn’t use black youth culture to move their message forward or sell their products? It’s our idea that instead of having all these people coming into our community take the things we create and sell them back to us, how about we talk to our community? How about we communicate with each other in the ways we know how? And how about we harness the power and energy of black youth culture, a culture that has made it all around the globe and back? And right now black youth culture is the culture, so how about we harness that power? And that’s the idea, that’s the vision behind the design school being rooted in a school… I mean, that’s the vision behind the design firm being rooted in a black school.

Maurice Cherry:
And how do the studio and the school work together? Does the studio help fund the school or what are some ways that they work together?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s the vision. When you’re doing this type of work it becomes very easy to become very reliant on grants, donations. And that may be fine but what happens when funding trends change? Right now black people and black liberation is kind of a hot topic but 10 years ago it wasn’t, we were in a post-racial society. What if we go back to a post racial society quote unquote, and these foundations start funding other causes, other issues more aggressively. I mean is what we’re doing really self-determined? If that’s the case, in my opinion the answer is no. Not to say the money we get from foundations isn’t cool, that’s our money, that’s the money, the wealth our great grandparents have generated for this country. But being realistic we need our own.

Joseph Cuillier:
I believe in black nationalism. I think we need our own everything, but we definitely need our own sources of revenue if we’re going to run a sustainable organization. The idea from the design firm is the design firm can generate income, earn income and fund the school. Now it’s two years old so we’re not there yet. We’re still kind of trying to figure out how it works, how it functions but that’s the idea. But the school and the design firm they’re kind of tied together. And we have students from the art school that come through the design firm. Students that show a little bit more interest, students that maybe want to learn more about graphic design specifically, students that may need opportunity to make some money, need a job, or a seasonal job or something.

Joseph Cuillier:
This is our way of generating income for our community. Because it would be irresponsible to go to black youth and be like, “There’s economic future for you in art.” Because honestly I’m a professional artist, my wife’s a professional artist, and it’s hard to make money out of art. It’s hard for us. We do all these other things and generate income in all these other ways, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting some young people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that are economically oppressed. I would be irresponsible to tell them, “You know what, you can make a living in art.” I mean you can, but I need to give you the tools, I need to give you the map, and the pathways that I found to make a living in art. And design is one of those pathways.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, that makes sense, you want to definitely… Especially with kids at that age, they see a lot more than I think we think they do in terms of picking up on patterns and behaviors and stuff like that. And it is one thing to say, “We’re the black school and we want to do these things.” But then also… Or even as you’re saying, making money as an artist but then having to do these other things. You don’t want to lie to them essentially.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. I don’t want to send them out in the world unprepared like what we call real art schools do. Sending their students out in the world without necessarily the tools to do the most basic of things, sustain their lives. It wouldn’t be a radically black art school, it would be just an art school if we did that. We do pay our students. It’s a very different way of looking at schools. We pay our students to learn because we believe our students need it. If you’re not flipping burgers or stacking grocery sales, how are you going to generate income for yourself, for your household, if we’re asking you to come spend this time with us learn about black politics, learn about home design, learn about the nexus, where they meet. We have to be realistic about what the needs are of our young people while they are in our care.

Maurice Cherry:
And then this might… I don’t know, this might be a silly question. I think basing some of this off of my personal experience, but as you’ve been doing this have you been getting a lot of black community support financially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. We did a crowdfunding campaign to go fund me. I mean, everybody supported, black, white, Asian, Latinx. Everybody supported, saw the vision, but a lot of our support was from black folks. Monetarily, just connections we made. The black folks at Adobe reached out, folks that work there. We found ourselves in very different places, and we find ourselves with a lot of resources that the story being told about us is like we all come from a lack. But there is a lot of resources in our community. [inaudible 00:25:25] showed up with those resources, made what we do even possible. If it wasn’t for the black community there would be no Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we’re recording this, and it’s interesting because we were supposed to do this a while back. And I know you were moving and everything, had a bunch of stuff kind of going on. But I had written back then… And just so people who are listening, this was… When was this? About the fall last year I think we were supposed to record initially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I wrote down about how several major cities in the US have been protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police. Fast forward to now, same thing. And then you of course have all these companies that are committing themselves to at least saying black lives matter. Although it’s now been shortened out to BLM and I feel some kind of way about that, how quickly people just sort of roll it off the tongue. How are you talking about these things at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s funny that you say it because there is this linguistic activism, insane black lives matter. I never thought about that, shortening it to BLM defeats the point. But you’re right, you got something there. But I’m sorry I was distracted by what you just put on me there genuinely. Say again the end of your question.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you talking about what’s happening now? I guess I could say two black people, but there’s a lot of shit happening to black people right now. But I’m speaking specifically about people protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police, companies that are now kind of coming on and giving their support and saying that they support black lives even if it’s just for show. How are you talking about these sort of metacultural thing at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
How are we talking about it? It’s hard for me to say specifically to this moment, but generally it’s been a while now that the light bulb came on for me. And I realized that history is a cycle, and you say from fall to now we’re in spring, this cycle has turned over once more. And our folks are in the street, and companies are pandering pretty much to the movement the same way it happened this past summer. This happened when I graduated from Pratt around the same time while I was at school. I was in graduate school for design and Trayvon happened and it was there… It wasn’t there that happened. Everything that’s happening now has happened to a lesser extent. It’s more intense now but it was happening. Then Eric Garner happened a couple of years later.

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, I’m referencing George Zimmerman getting off, because that was a moment for me because I didn’t see him getting off. If I’d only looked at history, of course he was getting off. There was no way he was going to jail if I looked at history. But we get into these moments where we just forget about history, everything’s out of the window, we live in a new world. But history tells us this cycle of black people being brutalized comes to a boiling point and black folks said, “No more.” And white folks say, “Let’s figure this out, let’s make this right.” Then time passes, white folks stop caring, black folks continue to be brutalized, boom cycle continues. That’s why The Black School exists, to be 365 know.

Joseph Cuillier:
Every day of the year to yell that we need our own. How many times are white folks going to have to tell us no before we realize the answer is no. You want your freedom, you want your justice, you want economic opportunities, the answer has always been no. We ask they say no, we ask they say no, we ask they say no. And the cycle happens where the no’s are replaced to, “Maybe.” The no’s are replaced with, “Okay. Give us some time.” The no’s are replaced to, “Later.” But always behind all of that facade it’s always no. This moment still weighs heavy on my shoulders, it’s not like it doesn’t affect me anymore. But I know that this is just a cycle, I know they’re not going to stop killing us.

Joseph Cuillier:
I just know it and it’s not because I’m a psychic, history tells me. 400 years in this country tell me, if I opened up the books they wrote it’s going to tell me. I just got to take that note and say, “I’m going to build with my people. And my vision and what I would love to see in the world is a black nation for Black Americans.” Of course there’s a lot of black nations in this world, but a nation for Black Americans, that’s my goal. And if that’s not the answer, cool, but that’s the direction I’m walking in. We need all of it, it needs to be ours. What that looks like I don’t know, but we need our own.

Maurice Cherry:
What does it look like to center black love in a learning space?

Joseph Cuillier:
I think it looks like we all have seen it in our own experience. Maybe it’s learning from your mother over the kitchen table, or maybe it’s learning from a grandfather out in the garage and the driveway. There’s all these ways we learn in our community that are rooting in love, and rooting in care, and rotting in blackness. I think we can look to that, go back to history, we look at our personal histories and what kind of learning spaces felt loving, and felt effective? What kind of learning spaces worked for me? You’ll probably think of your living room, you’ll probably think of your kitchen, you’ll probably think of your backyard. That’s where we’re taking inspiration for the architecture of the school. Whether that be bricks or just how we’re structuring the curriculum, how we’re exchanging when we’re in this space, how we’re talking to each other, how we’re laying out the desks.

Joseph Cuillier:
We don’t even have desks, because when I think about the ways I like to learn it wasn’t in the desks. It was maybe over a work table, maybe it was an artist studio and it was over a work table, maybe it was in a circle on the floor. It’s all these other ways that are not being showed or even explored in the conventional school. One way is asking folks what they want to learn, not walking into a space with any assumptions. Before we start a workshop we ask our students what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And we may show up with screen printing supplies, or collage materials, we may show up with part of the workshop. But the rest of it, what we’re making, why we’re making it, who we’re making it for, that comes from the students.

Joseph Cuillier:
We are sharing the skills we have and the resources we’ve been able to generate and acquire, but it is an exchange. They are sharing their experiences, they’re sharing their needs, they’re sharing their passions, and that’s the learning community. It goes both ways, it’s not a teacher at the front, students lined up at the back. They are empty vessels, I have the knowledge, I put the knowledge into the empty vessels, they go out into the world [inaudible 00:34:30] repeat. It’s not like that. It’s really about you know about this very specific thing in the world, I know about this other very specific thing in the world, let’s put it together and what could we build?

Maurice Cherry:
Now there’s a third part to The Black School. I know we talked about the actual school itself, we’ve also talked about the studio. There’s this sort of third component to the ecosystem which is events. How have you been able to keep that going even with this sort of pandemic that’s keeping people apart?

Joseph Cuillier:
We haven’t kept it going. We have done workshops which is events, but specifically Black Love Fest, our music festival we do, we just paused it. Right now it’s going on the second year. We do it every summer, so last summer we didn’t do, this summer we’re not doing it. When it comes back it will be in collaboration with the New Orleans African American museum so it will be in New Orleans. The past three years it was in New York city two years, and then Houston at Project Row Houses.

Joseph Cuillier:
If you’re into the black school and the work we do check out Project Row Houses if you haven’t already, because they are the precedence that we’re working off. They’re the antecedent, they are the ancestors when we’re talking about ancestors that have done it, are still doing it. We essentially paused it, which was needed, we were tired anyway before the pandemic even came. And there’s no sense in getting people together and potentially hurting the people that the whole intention of the festival is to care for our people. It would just be a contradiction. And honestly I’m Zoomed out. I’m Zoned out.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Joseph Cuillier:
No more Zoom so we’re not doing a Zoom festival. I don’t think the intention behind the festival would even translate to Zoom. The intention is a barbecue, a cookout with some guiding principles behind it that we’ve talked about already. We can’t recreate everything in the digital space, we can’t create the real barbecue that we’re trying to create in a virtual space. It just makes sense to pause it, again do some deep listening, some deep thinking, some deep compensation. And then bring it back when we’re ready, when the world is ready for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, when we started doing… Or we were going to do a live tour in 2020 with Revision Path. I had been talking to a couple of AIGA chapters, and we had started the tour. I started in February in LA, did a show out there in Leimert Park with a local architect. It was great, standing room only. And when we’ve done past events… And I get what you’re saying, it’s the actual space itself that becomes this crucible for fellowship that you just can’t recreate over a Zoom call. Even when we’ve done events in New York, we’ve done events here in Atlanta. And for me the best thing about the event is when it ends, and people are still staying around talking for an hour, hour and a half, the venue-

Joseph Cuillier:
Stacking up their plate metaphorically.

Maurice Cherry:
… Right. The venue’s kicked us out, we’re standing outside and folks are like, “Well, let’s go to a bar and keep talking, or let’s go to a restaurant or something.” That kind of fellowship you just can’t do the same thing over Zoom. When the lockdown sort of first started happening and the chapters were getting back to me like, “Oh, well we can do a Zoom call and we can do this.” I was like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m already Zooming enough for work and I don’t want to have to try to do the same thing over Zoom.” One, because it’s just not the same. What I think the audience gets out of it aside from listening to the people, is to actually meet up with other black creatives in their city that they may not even know about. The fact that the event exists means that people are coming to it, and without that actual physical event then it’s just not the same.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. There’s a lot of things the internet can do, what you’re describing ain’t one of them. We haven’t figured that out yet with the internet. I think the intention is to love up on each other, the vision is to create this movement that will get us to where we need to go. When we’re doing the festival in Project Row Houses, Fox News actually came by. The local Fox chapter not the Fox News, but the local Fox station came by. And they asked me, “What is this about? What are you doing?” And I was like, “This is a movement. The purpose of this is to start a movement for black love, and to center black love at the center of what this country is.” Don’t we deserve it? Don’t we deserve to not just be tolerated, but to be loved after all we’ve done to literally build this country, to expand the freedoms and the rights of this country, to fight for them, die for them.

Joseph Cuillier:
I mean I was a little more and more crass. I was like, “The intention is for America to pay reparation, and dissolve, and reconstitute under black love.” I told Fox News that, they did not air it but that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do. And we’re using the vessel that is the cookout, that is the street art, the public art, that’s some part of our culture, that is the performative nature. You dress up, we sing, we dance, we do all of these things that is just natural to our way of being, our blackness. And I think that it’s worth the wait, if it takes two years for the pandemic to subside it’s worth the wait. So we’re just going to wait.

Maurice Cherry:
Now kind of switching gears here a bit from the school which we’ve talked about for a good while now. You mentioned being in NYC, but you’re originally kind of between Louisiana and Texas. You kind of mentioned you kind of went back and forth a bit. Being in that sort of part of the South, I’m pretty sure art, music, and design were kind of a big part of your growing up, right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it didn’t look like graphic design or fine art, but it’s definitely been with me since day one. The story I tell growing up in Baton Rouge, where I went to elementary and middle school. And my family we would go to Southern University football games, and it’s a HBCU so we had tailgate. All day before the actual game in the evening, we would barbecue or have a seafood boil. And this was every weekend which is crazy. The amount of food that we would buy, cook, eat with people, it’s crazy that we did this every weekend. I’m realizing that as I’m been growing up, and I am doing seafood boils now, I’m hosting them or I’m hosting a barbecue. But the funny moment that I always remember is maybe the week before the season started, my mom came home with a handful of clothes like the Polo’s and the Tommy’s. The things we were wearing at the time. And the other brands like the Sean John, and all that, and the FUBU.

Joseph Cuillier:
And it was such a moment of joy. I can see now that I was being brought up and cultivated into fashion design. I was being made a connoisseur of design. That may have been the intention consciously, or maybe an intention subconsciously, to have just a big stack of fresh clothes just thrown on my bed like, “Here, now you’re set for the whole season.” And as long as I can remember I’ve loved fashion, I’ve loved clothes, and I think that kind of introduced me to design. But when it came time for me to figure out what do I want to make myself as opposed to not just being a connoisseur but a creator. And I tried fashion, I tried street art, I tried a lot of different things, but graphic design was the thing that I don’t know, just came the most natural to me. And learning about it, learning the history of it, it was fascinating to read about the Bauhaus, read about the International Style, read about the shifts that were happening in art and design in a world that was creating these new ways of thinking, and these new ways of making.

Joseph Cuillier:
And technology too, also being so [cordially 00:44:20] in term with it. And that kind of put me to graphic design to study that. But even with that, the medium, the form making was interesting to me, but I think of myself as the designer that doesn’t really care about design. I know about the Bauhaus, I’ve been to the Bauhaus, I’ve been invited to the Bauhaus but I don’t care anymore. At the time I did, but right now I’m way more interested in learning about Orishas. I’m way more interested in learning about my family history, and how that relates to New Orleans. I’m way more interested in learning about black radical politics. The work I do is me just taking those ways of making and those ways of seeing, and just imply my interest to it. And as a result I think I look a bit different than most designers. Like my career, the things that I make, the things I put out and produce with these skills, in a lot of cases may not even look like design, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
But I think that’s my approach and it comes from those early influences, those early cultivations that my family placed on me. I come from a line of educators. My grandfather Joseph Cuillier, Sr, has a school named after him in New Orleans on the West Bank. There’s reasons for me to approach art and design from the lens of a educator. And it was kind of put into me before I even realized it was there, it’s been there. Growing up in Houston, being around Project Row Houses at the time that I was discovering fine art, it kind of put in pressure in my head like, “Oh, that’s fine art.” I learned about fine art in a city that took a very different approach to art. Thanks to the folks that Project Row, and Rick Lowe, and all the artists, and collectives that came together to create their vision. To be clear, Project Row Houses is a organization that started from this artists being challenged by young people in his community.

Joseph Cuillier:
They came to the studio, the folks from a local high school, and they saw what he was painting and they were like, “We don’t need you to paint about issues happening in our community. We know the issues. Who is this for because it’s not for us. You’re a creative person, how about you do something about it? How about you use your creativity and try to apply that to the issues and see if you could get some moving and shaking.” To have that down the street while I’m in college, and I’m just starting to go to galleries, and just starting to go to art spaces, it kind of made me think, “Oh, this is fine art.” When really it’s this ghetto eyes pushed it aside version of fine art that hasn’t really been supported in the same ways like an object maker is supported in the fine art world. Someone who makes paintings and sculptures. Long story long, the way I came up and where I came up has everything to do with the type of artist, the type of designer I am and I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s been this thing that’s been going around lately around this concept of decolonizing design, where I think the notion is that you’re sort of introducing different sort of design cultures or things. It’s a person’s teaching practice or design practice in order to break them out of particular I would say just Eurocentric design sort of standpoint. Would you say that’s what you’re trying to accomplish with The Black School? Is something similar to that?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yes. And I’m just trying to decolonize not even in a metaphorical sense. I’m literally trying not to be a colony anymore. My wife was talking on this call and she was talking, and it was a group of folks from around the world. I don’t remember the country. Or I would’ve know the callers to even know the country. But it was an African sister and she was saying that decolonization has nothing to do with America. Africa we were colonized, what y’all got over there is something different. But really the opposite is true. I mean, not the opposite but we are still a colony. The colony never ended, we never decolonized. I feel like design, the tools we have to transform are tools that we can use to just de-colonize, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
I do believe decolonizing design is a part of that. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to the design discipline. But we also have to learn about the contributions of black folks, period. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to revolutionary thought. We’ve got to learn about the contributions of black folks to cultivating land, to building economic engine systems. And I think that will help you as a designer of course, but I think it will help us to the eventual goal is liberation, freedom, justice, these bigger ideas. Because I think design has that power. I have a deep faith in art and design, not the art world or the design world, but the actual mechanisms, methodologies, the act of creation.

Joseph Cuillier:
I think we can not only make it look sexy as far as revolution. I think we can make it look good because we have the skills to do that, but I also think we can do it if we use design in ways that are decolonized. It doesn’t have to be all about client services, that can generate revenue, that can generate income, that could generate economics in a community, but it also can be about… There’s an issue of gun violence, maybe we can design our way out of that, and it’s not going to be about typography. But there’s this certain set of perspectives and approaches that we use in design that can translate to bigger problems we see in our communities.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, I feel like… And just for people that are listening to this, we’re recording this the week of April 19th, we don’t really know… Both Joseph and I don’t really know kind of what may transpire the next few days, that by the time you listened to this podcast might’ve already set some shit off. But it’s a rough time for black folks right now, which is an evergreen statement these days. But what keeps you motivated to keep going?

Joseph Cuillier:
Family for sure. Baby got to eat so got to get up and do what you got to do to make sure that happens. I just got this book and I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi. Freedom, by Edward Onaci, I think he pronounced it. And it’s inspired by another book of the same name, Dr Imar Obadele. And Obadele was a part of this black radical organization called the Republic of New Africa. And their vision was to take the southern states of the United States, so from Louisiana to Georgia and build a independent black nation. Which is one of the most creative, imaginative visions I’ve had or I’ve witnessed for black liberation. I’m super inspired by the work of those folks. At the moment that’s what I’ve been reading about. I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi, where they tried to get it going. And we obviously don’t have a black nation in the borders of the United States, but they got…

Joseph Cuillier:
Or folks inspired by that movement have bought all of these properties in West Jackson. We’re staying at this co-operative for New West Jackson that owns 67 properties in the hood. And they’re building farms, they’re building housing, they’re building economic engines in the space to employ people, to bring money to the space that has been all but abandoned. Isn’t crazy. Jackson is the capital of Mississippi, and if you drive around Jackson you come away with a clear idea that white folks in Mississippi don’t care. They do not care that it’s their capital, it’s like 90% black. And all you got to do is roll through West Jackson and you can see how much folks do not care. You would think, “Oh, this is a image of this state that we are projecting out to the world.” That does not matter, not to the white folks in Mississippi. And this cooperative has…

Joseph Cuillier:
Like you turn the corner onto a block and it’s like just walking into a oasis after walking through hundreds of miles of desert. It’s beautiful, the houses are beautiful, the land is beautiful, the people what they’re doing, and their vision for the world is beautiful. That’s one of the things that is inspiring me. I’ve really been into kind of reconnecting Afro spirituality, Afro spiritual practices like the hoodoos, and the voodoos, and Orisha based Yoruba kind of religious concepts. That’s been super inspiring to me today, I mean for the last couple of years. But right now it’s something I wake up thinking about, going to sleep thinking about, and it’s a lot of different things. My mind goes and gets pulled in a lot of different directions. Like yesterday my tufting gun arrived in the mail. You know what a tufting gun is?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s a rug creating machine and it looks kind of like a gun, but the gun shoots yarn through a back in fabric you would use to make a rug. That’s one thing that I’ve been super inspired by. In that instance, buying that comes from my still love and interest in fashion. And it’s showing up in my practice as like I’ve been making these textile art works lately for the last few years now. I’ll create a collage, and Photoshop, print it out on fabric. And then sew it together, or make some new kind of construction out of it, some new kind of architecture out of it. That’s super inspiring to me, riding my bike is super inspiring to me, my wife and daughter. I lack no shortage of inspiration which is a good thing and a bad thing, because it distracts me from finishing one thing. Get super excited about something, then move to the next thing, then move next, but I’ll always come back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has there been a piece of advice that has stuck with you over the years as you’ve gone through life, as you’ve built out the school and everything?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s hard to call anything to mind specifically. I think there’s lessons learned that may not be succinctly wrapped up in statements of advice. With certain lessons you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, which sound depressing. But it’s taught me that you might as well just do what you want to do, because either way you’re going to end up at the same place. You might as well just say F it and be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Because I mean you could fake it, and be unhappy, and still not reach where you’re meant to reach.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or you could just live in that thing and deal with the initial discomfort of just being in your skin, and being who you are. But I think eventually you will end up where you need to be. I really believe in purpose right now more than ever, because I’ve been forced to sit down and think about that a lot. I believe what’s meant for you is meant for you, can’t nobody stop or take that. But it takes time for folks to really figure out their purpose, and it’s not just like a goal, it’s a moving target. I say figure out what that is for you, and live that unapologetically. Just go hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing? How do you want to… I imagine of course you’ll still be wanting to build out the school, but what does 2026 look like?

Joseph Cuillier:
Whoa, I think I need to put some pen to paper about that very soon. But hopefully the school… Not hopefully. What it looks like is the school will be built, will be functioning, doing art and civic engagement initiatives with our local community. That may look like our design workshops, or apprenticeships, or a community garden where we’re feeding ourselves food from the land. Hopefully it looks like me still creating, making things. I think of myself as a person who does two sorts of things, or artist or designer who does two sorts of things. I make things, object making, and I make experiences, platforms, producing and sharing knowledge.

Joseph Cuillier:
And I see those as two different kind of sides of a coin and hopefully I have a balance. Right now it’s real tilted towards the platforms, the community building, but I would love to spread it out a little bit more evenly. Hopefully The Black School is up and running to a degree where it’s second nature. We have our rhythm, we have our stride so it allows me, frees me up to do all the things, follow all those inspiration, and passions, and pursuits that kind of make me happy, and fill me with joy and fulfillment.

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

Joseph Cuillier:
On Instagram, you can follow me at Joseph Cuillier first name, last name, or at The Black School. On the interwebs you can go to my website, josephcuillier.com or theblack.school. Not .com, not .org, .school, so theblack.school.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Joseph Cuillier, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Really thank you for talking about the school, and really how you’ve built it out, what you’re trying to do in the community. I’m glad that we were able to spend a lot of time really diving into what it’s about, and its structure, and of course what you’re trying to do in the community. I think it’s something that is super important and I really want to see kind of where this goes from here. Thank you for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Joseph Cuillier:
Thank you, brother. Appreciate you, appreciate what you do. You’re building this platform for folks like us to just share knowledge, share experience, share space, it’s super appreciated.

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Douglas Davis

I couldn’t think of a better way to start off the month than by talking with author, professor, and strategist Douglas Davis. Longtime fans of the show will remember our initial conversation from 2016, so it was good to catch up and talk and get an update over what he’s been doing.

What follows is less of an interview and more of a general conversation that ranges a number of topics: creativity during the pandemic, design equity, social justice, the value of remote design education, relevance vs. belonging, AIGA, fatherhood, and a lot more. Hopefully this conversation gives you some food for thought and starts some much needed conversations around our place in this current world as designers!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Douglas Davis:
So, Maurice, thank you so much for having me back on Revision Path. My name is Douglas Davis, and I’m a strategist, I’m an author, I’m a professor and a for the last, about three years, I’ve been the chair of the B.F.A. in Communication Design at New York City College of Technology. We are the design program at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. And what I love about being the chairs that I’ve been able to make our mission an extension of my own personal mission, which is to increase the variety of voices making a living with their imagination.

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

Douglas Davis:
2021 has been a blur. I still remember March last year when we stopped having in-person classes. And I pulled my team together for our last in-person strategy session, where we just audited all the normal functions of a semester what had happened within this formal timeframe last year. And from there, I was able to diffuse the operations among my 15 person team so that I could focus on forecasting new systems design. And so it was a really important move because it helped me to set the tone that would bring us into a year later.

Douglas Davis:
Now we’re in April of 2021, but most of that has been a blur, but that, I guess, I can say it’s been a blur because of those reasons that I’m glad that we were able to pivot because I saw what the problem was, immediately, we were able to identify how we needed to redesign our own systems, communications or just how we actually carried about the normal day-to-day so that I could focus on finding the constants in this variable environment so that we could actually make decisions that would basically bring us into this point. So it’s been a blur, but I will say that we have a little boy, he turned two during the quarantine. And so it’s been, I think the best thing was to be here every day to see him. So I will say it’s been a blur, but it’s also been a joy because I would have never been able to watch my son grow in the ways that he has. So I’m grateful for that part of it.

Maurice Cherry:
In a way, it sounds like the blur has been a blessing.

Douglas Davis:
It has been. I think that’s a great way to put it because not only has it allowed me to for this last year of being chair, usually, whenever you are elected chairs for three years and you decide to renew that or not, I’ve decided not to, but after the first two years, I had already accomplished all of my goals. So this third year in that pivot has been about reinventing what it is that we offer. And it’s been difficult because usually, you can walk down the hall, you can bump into your coworkers and ask them what’s going on or observe yourself. And you’re there, you can watch, you can experience the environment, but I’ve been flying this plane blind because the only place that our offering exists is in Zoom rooms, right? So we’ve got to, in this year, we had to figure out what is it that we offer? Where’s the value? And how do we even talk about it?

Douglas Davis:
And so we had a two year run of quite a lot of positive press releases and quite a lot of awards. And we were nominated for an Emmy twice and we won the Emmy. And I told my dean and the provost and the president not to expect any of those things from us, because I don’t even know what it is that we’re attracting students to.

Douglas Davis:
And so until I can figure that out by talking to literally every single person, we have about maybe 80 adjuncts and that 15 member team, I make 16, and just talking to them and asking them questions, what’s working, what’s not working and why in order for me to figure out, maybe even what shouldn’t come back from online, what should stay there because we can still get a level of quality, but what is hurting? What is not actually what we would want if we had a choice, things like advanced studio photography, for instance, who’s learning apertures and f-stops and lighting with the camera phone, right? Or things like figure drawing. If you’re really about learning the aesthetics of line shape, form, space, color, value, texture, all the things that they teach you in our school traditionally, can’t really do that at a distance.

Douglas Davis:
And so we’ve been trying to figure out how exactly we can offer our students the best value at a distance during this time the whole world is shifting in addition to the fact that right now, I like to say that the most important students are my staff, the professors, because it’s almost like Thanos snapped his fingers in an instant, how exactly you went from freshmen in college the first day on the job totally changed along with what you do on that job, how you do that job.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think it’s really important to invest in the people who spend the most time with the talent that we’re developing for the industry. And if we are not tapped into what those shifts are, if we’re not useful to our own clients in the boardroom, then what I have to teach you in the classroom, especially whenever you’re attempting something that I’ve never done myself, like you’re entering the industry, you’re finishing college in a pandemic on the couch. And so I think it’s just really, really important for any educators out there to really think about that, that in an instant, institution’s competitive advantage that was built on an in-person experience was flattened. And any of the competitive set, I think it’s arguable now, whether those go-to “schools” that most recruiters recruit from, it’s arguable whether they still can produce the same level of quality when no one was prepared to make this shift.

Douglas Davis:
So I think that is a big opportunity for the challenger brands like us, but it all depends on what everybody did with their time. It’s been a year, but in that year, that pivot and how you can take your resources, redesign your processes and think about what your new priorities are and then invest around those new priorities so that you can focus on that forecasting, focus on new systems design, focus on decision-making, decentralized decision-making, focus on operations. Those are, I would argue, the newest central skills as a result of the pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, a lot of things have changed with the pandemic, as you mentioned, I think for educational facilities, whether it’s a college or even something like a bootcamp or something, it’s how does that value translates? I know here where I’m at, I live near some HBCUs here, Morehouse College, Spelman, et cetera. And I know for a while they transitioned into doing only online learning. I think some of the schools have said now that I think the vaccine is out there, that people are going to start transitioning back in the fall to try to do either some sort of hybrid model or like fully on campus instruction.

Maurice Cherry:
But I think what is the tricky thing about it is people are going to have to almost be re-introduced in a way back to society. There are so many people I know that are just workers that are like, I don’t know about going back into the office. I like working from home, where they’ve gotten used to, or they found a way to compartmentalize being able to work from home and still have a home and not feel like they live where they work and that sort of way. So there’s a number of different considerations and factors that go into it. And yeah, I can definitely see for college, because it’s so expensive students are like, well, what are we paying for? I mean, yes, it’s the education, but we’re not going to a building or sitting in a lab or using facilities, we’re all at home. So should it be less expensive because of that? There’s a number of questions that go into all of that.

Douglas Davis:
Well, that’s the challenge. Again, I mentioned earlier that in the blink of an eye, not only did the industry change in terms of what your job is and how you do it, but how you actually enter this industry changed. We went from being the most experienced people in the room who could say, you know what? Do what I do because I’ve done it and I can help you do it, to I’ve never done this before. None of us have. You don’t have any more experience than I do, I don’t have any more experience than you do. We’re all doing this together. And I think that’s a better place to be, but only if everybody in the room can actually admit that.

Douglas Davis:
But I think that what you’re pointing to started before the pandemic happened. I think that there has been price pressure on universities and colleges because of the fact that credentialing and how much tuition costs and how it’s continued to go up. And as Clay Christensen, the late Professor Christensen would say, this particular category, the education space had not been disrupted in what? Three. It never, pretty much been just like this for hundreds of years. And I think that the fact that that overhead is also factored into that tuition. And again, that competitive advantage, that brand is charging you a premium, not just for the brand itself, but for the caliber of professor that they’re attracting, that then is also factored into the tuition along with the network that you’re around, like the people who you’re going to leave with, that’s factored into the tuition in addition to keeping that brand, whether it so it can continue to attract those types of people so that they can keep charging you that much money, but that is under attack.

Douglas Davis:
And it’s funny because I said to my dean the other day and the provost, I said, “Wouldn’t it have been interesting if the disruption would have happened in a complete different way being that, what if the experts that are online right now that teach in these very entertaining, short videos for free or for a little bit of money? What if those experts had to buy expensive real estate in order to create a physical campus? What if they had to build the buildings on that real estate? What if they had to go and get their PhDs and make sure that anybody who taught on their platforms had their PhDs? What if they had to approve their curriculum through the state? I mean, think about the decades of a headstart that traditional universities would have had. The problem is that the opposite happens.

Douglas Davis:
So right now, we’ve been pulled into their space. And this is a space where production value matters because we’re competing for students’ attention. You can’t just stand there and speak your two hour lecture in person online in front of the camera. It’s not going to work. You’re going to be bleeding people who don’t have the attention span in the first two, three minutes. And so I think as a result, that price pressure is something that I think for us, I like to say with the public path to a creative career, because even though we are about four to five times larger than our private school competition, we have a fraction of their resources and we also cost a fraction of what they cost. And yet, our students are competing for the exact same opportunities because we have an accredited BFA just like they do.

Douglas Davis:
So I think we’re really well positioned, we’re a commuter school, but I think, though our tuition and our revenue model is not under the same pressure as like a division one or R1 research institution that has dorms and meal plans and all that kind of stuff, it still is a competition between us as a traditional four year path into the industry and these low end disruptors that charge you a lot less money, but that offer this practical advice about entering the industry.

Douglas Davis:
And there’s some really quality players out there. My friend, Chris Do, the Futur, or General Assembly, there are a lot of places that you can go to learn skills. And I’ll give you one better, because if you rewind back to 1999 and you’ll appreciate this because you work at a startup, but back then, if you think about it, and this is when I entered the industry with all the dot coms and digital advertising, nobody had a degree in web design, you couldn’t study, it didn’t exist. And what that was about was the fact that these people, whatever they studied, they got that opportunity, including myself, because we were willing to learn a new language.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that if you fast forward to right now, we’re back to a point where I think in 2017, Microsoft and Apple and Google, they relaxed the requirement of having to have like a college degree in order to enter their ranks. So we’re back to skills being the thing. I think the challenge, though, is that when you think about black and brown folks like us, oftentimes, we have to go to college to get the degree, to get the confidence to even apply to those places.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think overall, the challenge there becomes, we’ve got to understand how, oftentimes, a student will say, well, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. And so I don’t really need a school, I’m going to drop out too. And I always have to remind them that that’s not you. I don’t know what family Mark Zuckerberg was born into, but maybe his mom was on the board of XYZ company and they already have the capital, they already have the connections. And if you don’t have any of those things, if you don’t have a network of all of those elements, it will be a mistake for you to do what Mark Zuckerberg do as a black man or a woman. And so I think overall, those are the things that have to be thought through in order for us to figure out exactly what the value is now and how we can extract what the value and the opportunities are right now.

Douglas Davis:
So it’s a bigger question of the education space and how we’re going to continue to compete if we all know how Blockbuster versus Netflix ended up. And so I think that if we’re not careful as the traditional university space changes, if we don’t think about how much we’re charging, if we don’t think about developing those new skills, and if frankly, our presidents rely more on their PhDs than they do their people skills, the pandemic has really required all of us to change and to develop new skills.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that presentation skills, marketing skills, the things that our clients pay us for, we are uniquely positioned as creative people to deal with these pivots. And if that PhD or the things that used to be the ticket into these exclusive spaces, if that still continues to be the yardstick with which people deem that you are smart enough to handle this problem, or if that’s the thing that they keep requiring for you to be on a problem, versus just thinking about what the skills are that are needed, what is the issue and how do we deal with it, then we’re going to be in trouble. And so I think some things need to shift.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I think we’re already seeing some companies, honestly, I mean, I think every company is still trying to figure it out, but with some places, they’re definitely trying to skip back and forth between saying one thing and something else to see what is going to work the best. So for example, last year, when the pandemic has happened and everyone was forced to go remote, a lot of positions then opened up to become remote positions because you can’t go into the office to do an interview, you can’t go into the office to work. So you’ll have to do all your work distanced over Zoom and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And companies, at least companies, I know that I’ve encountered, we’re still trying to kick the can down the road to figure out how much longer they were going to be doing this until they could get back to what it used to be. So you may apply for a position and they say it’s remote, but then they’ll say, oh, but when we’re back in the office, you have to move here. Is that okay? And it’s like, well, they’re not going to offer relocation. They just expect you to pick up and move because you’ve got a job there, which is not realistic at all. I mean, pandemic or not, that’s not realistic.

Douglas Davis:
That’s the misalignment, right? Where looking backwards versus focusing forward and understanding that there’s an aspect of what we used to do, walk around maskless, breathe in each other’s maskless air will-nilly, shaking hands, and hugging each other and being in tight spaces and watching movies and stuff. There’s an aspect of our culture that may not return. And I think that waiting to base what you’re going to do based on what used to happen or how quickly we will be back to that versus focusing forward in and understanding that there are some new priorities here, I think that that’s the classic thing that’s going to determine who wins and who loses in this new environment.

Douglas Davis:
I think that if we’re talking about companies and if we’re talking about people, I think it really does boil down to two things, relevance and belonging. I think if you’re an institution or if you’re in a leadership position or if you’re a brand, if you’re a college, it doesn’t even matter, but if you’re not really asking yourself as a brand or a company or an institution or an employer are we relevant, if you’re not asking that question and if you’re not then basing your answer yes or no, based on how many people or groups can come to you and say, I belong and therefore, I’m going to stay here in this culture, then you’re in trouble. That relevance, belonging metric, I like to say, it’s a column response because whether you’re a person, individual and you’re going to a college or a certain brand to be employed, and you’re in some ways asking in your everyday interactions with that company, whether they’re good or bad, you’re making a determination if you belong or not, you’re asking, do I belong?

Douglas Davis:
And so if you end the interactions, whether that’s just the culture of how things are set up or if it’s customer service, if it’s how you are or not invested in, if you determine in your aggregate that you don’t belong because of those experiences being bad, then they’re going to leave. And we’ve all left places because we’ve deduced that the way you’re being treated is not what you want to continue to experience.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think, again, companies and people, or the college that you’re going to, you’re asking yourself, do I belong? And the way that that brand treats you is what’s going to help you to arrive at your answer, but then if you’re that employer, if you’re that institution, if you’re asking yourself, are we relevant and you’re basing that on how many people can conclude that they belong, then you’re in a good place.

Douglas Davis:
But if you’re tone deaf or if you’re looking for diverse candidates in the exact same way that you’ve always been doing it and you’re going to the exact same schools that you’ve been going to and you’re not really thinking about right now that the pandemic might be preventing some of the best talented people who you could have from even applying because of the new barriers that the pandemic has put into place, then you’re going to miss it. You’re going to miss that human potential, you’re going to miss that diverse team, because you’re basically looking for diversity as if I’m a black, white person. That’s the only way that you can conclude that there aren’t any diverse candidates or you can’t find any, you’re looking for black people with the same process and at the same places that you look for white people.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s something that I know I’ve talked about in my Where Are the Black Designers presentations before, but I mean, it’s something still, which is coming up, like for example, Revision Path as a job board. And we’ve gotten more companies that have posted to the job board, which is great, that’s wonderful. But it’s interesting, because then they’ll turn around because maybe they don’t get the response that they thought they would get from it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I don’t know, it’s interesting. I think just because you put a job out there doesn’t necessarily mean that black and brown people will flock to it. I think a number of companies know either to post to these sorts of boards or they know that if they put these kinds of listings out there, they’ll attract certain people, but I don’t know, it feels like it’s almost over-indexed in a way, every position you put out there is not going to have a bunch of black and brown people clamoring for it, especially if the position that you’ve written is written in a way that might exclude them or they may not be familiar with your company or it’s not remote or like there’s a number of different sorts of reasons.

Maurice Cherry:
Like I had, I’m just going to give an example, but I had a school that was in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest and they posted a position and then they came back 30 days later and they were like, well, no one applied. Can I get my money back? And I said, no. But it was also sort of like, well, how many people of color are going to live in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest to teach at your college?

Douglas Davis:
Well, that’s what we’re saying, it’s about the culture. And I think some part of what you’re identifying is that everything that employers are dealing with in terms of diversity or in terms of race or in terms of just dealing with whether it’s the Asian hate that’s going on right now, that terrible, despicable Asian hate, or whether it’s just what black people have had to endure from the beginning, we’re talking about American society’s issues. And it’s obvious that those issues would show up in your company, because we’re talking about whether people belong or not.

Douglas Davis:
And Maurice, when you really think about this, if we’re still in 2021, and I say this every year, because change is not happening fast enough, but it’s 2021, and when we can continue to say the words first and black in the same sentence and we were born here, it’s clear that we’re not woven into this society that we are a part of. And there’s still so many different barriers and I mean, that’s not even to mention the barriers that COVID-19 is presenting. It used to be, hey, wear a suit to your interview. Now your bandwidth is how you present yourself, just like that suit in person. If you’re going to college, because you want to change your socioeconomic situation that you were born in, but you live in the projects, you don’t even choose your bandwidth because you don’t actually buy your internet service.

Douglas Davis:
So again, thinking about our professors as the most important students, if I am a classic design professor and I want to show you the highest resolution image, but I don’t know how to teach online. And so I’ve got all these high resolution hogging, bandwidth hogging images in my Zoom and I keep kicking you off because your bandwidth can’t handle my presentation or my videos. This is really about making sure that the environment that you’re trying to attract that diversity too, is set up to actually handle that diversity.

Douglas Davis:
And that’s why I give a lot of respect to companies like Google and Microsoft. And I say that because they saw us at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, they see our diversity, they know that we have about 140 or 150 different languages spoken in our student body, they know that we represent about that many countries around the world, just in our student body because of the fact that there aren’t any barriers to our program. And they flew out from the West Coast and they set up shop.

Douglas Davis:
Microsoft actually interviewed our students in a two-day series of either giving workshops or interviewing our students to ask them, is it our tool that makes it the barrier? And to ask that question was wonderful. They observed our classes, they embedded themselves within the department. They conducted maybe like 15 or 16, 45 minute interviews where they really did ask. They asked a highly diverse group of young creatives, is it our tool that is preventing you from coding? I mean, that question alone and flying out from the West Coast and really investing in trying to figure out what the answer was. And they went to several other schools as well, but they made it a point to come to us. And so same thing with Google and showing up at our school and sending maybe seven or eight people from their office in order to recruit. And we also had this pilot where they had a group of students from California State Northridge University, as well as our program at City Tech. They met with and sort of paired our students with Google Alert.

Douglas Davis:
And so they checked in every week. And basically what and I really love about this. This was the equity engineering team, Jason Randolph, big shout out to him out on the West Coast. But the program was to introduce our students to the same problems that you would find if you were interviewing for a job at Google. And so that’s how they’re reaching into the pipeline, but also making sure that the environment itself, they’re asking the hard questions about their own tools and about their own decisions they’re willing to listen.

Douglas Davis:
And they’re willing to make sure that regardless of who you are, that they’re tailoring, how exactly they come and find you. Those are the examples that I want to hold up and I have a lot of respect for them because it’s not just that they’re saying that diversity is important. It’s not just that they’re saying these things, but there are press releases or appointing very high C-suite level diversity people. And yet the numbers keep staying the same. They’re really trying to do something about it. And so they earn my respect in that way.

Douglas Davis:
But again, it’s not just about saying the right things or putting a posting in the right places. It’s about understanding that again, I’m not a black, white person. You’ve got to really think about if you want me to feel comfortable in your environment, in your culture, you got to make sure that you’ve created a culture that we would feel comfortable.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now a couple of years ago, I know you were a co-chair for AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. I was also on the task force several years ago. What do you remember about that experience?

Douglas Davis:
First, I want to say that Antoinette Carroll and gosh, Andrew Bass, gosh there has been so many people who were investing in the work long before me also Jacinda Walker. And so it was great to show up at the AIGA and say, I don’t think you guys are actually telling the story or having the impact that you could have. And so I just offered my services as a strategist. And since I was about to have a baby, I was about to become chair. I was applying for full professors, a lot of things going on when they asked me to chair the task force, I said, yes, if I could have a co-chair. And so Phim Her was my dynamic co-chair, she’s a wonderful, wonderful person. And I know you know her, but it was just really great to work with her.

Douglas Davis:
And I think that the challenge with the AIGA as an organization at that time was just that in being an organization that had been around for so long, but that was so late to the conversation about diversity, double digitally in so many ways that in communicating that to them that the belonging idea that we talked about earlier, that when people show up and they keep hearing the exact same thing over and over again. And they don’t really know what the value is of the money that they’re paying. They’re not going to stay if their needs are not getting met. And we’re not the only organization having conversations about diversity because there’s so many other places where that conversation is being had and where change is happening. And just for instance, thinking about the advertising space, and again, the caveat being that in design, it’s not this aggregate profession, right?

Douglas Davis:
You’ve got all these individual, design firms and you might do a logo for different brands or identity or websites, but in advertising, you’ve got holding companies and agencies that have accounts. So in a sense they’ve been sued as an organization, Human Rights Council of New York, making sure that black people were represented as a certain number of the population within the ranks in these holding companies, even though that hasn’t happened. The point though, is that it was attempted, and it was attempted in a way where New York city was willing to sue.

Douglas Davis:
And so as a result, a lot of these C-suite level organization and titles came out of that. And so knowing the history of those things, and again I’m going through it pretty quickly, but knowing the history of where the diversity conversation was in the advertising space, I just was trying to communicate that we are aware, really arriving very, very late to this conversation, even though there’ve been some really amazing people who’ve had some progress and who’ve pushed the conversation forward within AIGA to then take that mantle up and try to push things forward.

Douglas Davis:
We did as much as we could do, but I think that the culture itself, there were a lot of changes and bunch of turnover and just the structure itself, I think needed some change. And so after about a calendar year, I realized that it might be more helpful if we sort of stepped aside because as much as I like to try to push things forward and really win change, it wasn’t possible with that title and in that organization. So wonderful, wonderful people. I have some wonderful friends who’ve been able to find progress in that space. I just needed to redirect my own time and no love lost, but I didn’t need to focus forward. So it was a good experience. I think that we were able to show a different way to lead, but ultimately we were not effective. That’s how I remember that experience. And, I do hope that as the conversation about equity and black lives and just all the things that we’re dealing with right now continues to evolve. I do hope that not only AIGA, but many other organizations and many other professions, I really hope that we can sort of look at like what places like Canada is doing-

Maurice Cherry:
Place like RGD?

Douglas Davis:
Yeah. And not just even RGD, but like also their colleges and universities out there. OCAD U there’s a woman out there she’s the Dean of Design name is Dr. Dori Tunstall, she’s been doing some wonderful things like cluster hires of like black faculty. She was able to hire five black faculty members in a space that had no black tenured faculty for over a hundred years. And she hired five black people on tenure track lines. And she’s in the middle right now of an indigenous cluster hire where they’re looking for indigenous faculty members to join in that way, but she’s been making some real change. And so there are far beyond the diversity and inclusion conversation that America has been sort of steeped in.

Douglas Davis:
They’ve moved towards anti-racism and decolonization and so I think that looking at countries and people who have moved far beyond where we’re at and really taking note of what they’ve been doing, and then figuring out what that looks like within the American space and within our own companies or our own universities, is what our hope happens as a result of just being able to mention it and bring it up within the context of this conversation. That’s where I hope we are able to go because they’re further along.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Even thinking about like this year, for example, I’ve met a lot of design educators on the show. I usually try to have a good mix of design educators and stuff, but even thinking like how you said before, how teaching has changed and how different organizations are changing. One thing that sort of struck me last summer was a lot of these different companies and such putting up black squares and saying that they now are in on all lives matter. And we’re going to, I mean, that all lives matter. Sorry, all black lives matter and we’re going to start celebrating Juneteenth and things like this.

Maurice Cherry:
All of that is clear virtue signaling, first of all. But I remember getting just asked from other people and such like, how long is this going to last? And I’m like, I don’t know, like few months maybe like as the next extra judicial killing crosses the airways, like things happen to come at such an interesting nexus point with this pandemic and there not being any sports and not being able to travel and such where people were sort of forced to now see it in a way that I guess they had been privileged enough to ignore it for years and years and years. It’s kind of astonishing to me how many people were just sort of woken up last year because of this.

Maurice Cherry:
But like even that whole habit of like black squares and such like around that time, I was also looking at old issues of Ebony and Jet magazine around the time when Dr. King was assassinated and the same types of things were happening. Companies were posting like an all black square for an ad. Like what does that accomplish except using up a lot of ink?

Douglas Davis:
Exactly. Well, I think we’re in marketing, right? So the fads and trends are something that advertising agencies and design firms are going to really, I think just be attracted to because what we do harness is culture. I always like to say that creative people are the spoonful of sugar that make business and marketing objectives palatable to the public, but they can’t go public without us. And so if you think about advertising and the fact that like the authors and drivers of American culture, not just black culture, American culture. And I’m saying this off the heels of last night’s versus, Earth, Wind and Fire versus the Isley Brothers. So the full glory enriches of black people were on display last night for the world to see. But we’re the drivers of American culture we’re the authors of American culture we’re the influencers of American culture and fashion.

Douglas Davis:
And again, I’m not saying that no one else does anything. I am saying that there is an outsize contribution to that from black people. And yet, if we are not represented within the same proportion of the population, there’s something wrong. Because if our industry is built on crafting messages, building relationships, brand values, customer relationship management, if we’re built on that, and if we’re built on crafting those messages and targeting groups, if I’m excluded part of the authors and the influencers of American culture in this country, if I’m excluded in a profession that targets and craft messages and brings them to people, then it’s because it’s on purpose. And I think that we can sort of get caught up in the moment of like basically being embarrassed if you’re not posting something that’s pro-black, which I think a year later, if you look at someone’s actions as an organization or a country, or even as individuals. If you look at the misalignment if you look at the mixed signals that exist in America right now, you had literal people carrying blue lives matter flags, having an insurrection on the Capitol, beating police officers with it.

Douglas Davis:
Like there’s so many mixed signals within our country. There’s equal justice under law on the top of the Supreme Court and yet we’re watching right now, George Floyd, his character is basically on trial for his own murder right now. And so there’s all these mixed signals that exist in everyday life in America. And so it makes total sense that if in the moment, if the trend is sort of pointing towards black lives and black people being in fashion and being pro-black about a specific issue, if that’s in style, then of course. If we’re in this profession, if we’re being honest, then yeah, you’ll be embarrassed if you’re not about it. But if you even look at the laws that are meant to suppress voters right now in Georgia, and the fact that these companies they hire lobbyist, they knew what was in those bills before they were passed.

Douglas Davis:
They were pressed on it from black corporate leaders, as well as black employees at those places because black dollars are ones that they want. And so at the end of the day, even those companies which I’m glad that they’re speaking up, but they’re speaking up too late and we still are in a situation where we don’t have what we need. And so I think overall, it’s great to have that black square. It’s amazing to have that hashtag, but that’s easy. I think, again, going back to what I can say from what I’ve seen and what that experience has been with Google and Microsoft choosing to help us because our partnerships are how we have more impact than what our resources can produce. And so I think at the end of the day, when you have partners who understand that there’s different problem in order to engage different people think about the internship sort of structure and if it’s not paid, who can afford to do that? You got black and brown and talent just asking themselves, can I afford to be a designer? My work has to pay for my existence.

Douglas Davis:
And so if you can’t afford to get that experience, then you’re going to work somewhere, but that’s not going to be a part of your career because you got needs. Whereas someone else is getting the experience that they need because they don’t need the money. And so I think that being able to have that diverse team, being able to see the socioeconomic differences in attracting and retaining different groups and making sure that you can build your culture in a way that says that you’re relevant because you got white people, black people, Asian people, Indian people, and gay people, trans people, you got everybody there because they do feel like they belong because you thought about how to actually have company that’s not like you.

Douglas Davis:
I think that that takes work. And I think at the highest levels is going to take some incentives changing. It’s going to take the laws changing, and Maurice man, it’s exhausting. I can say to you that this year has been a blur because of the pivot that’s been going on with the pandemic. But it’s bigger than that, right? Like we’ve been watching ourselves get shot or hung or killed, or the mysterious circumstances where a routine interaction with police turns deadly because you’re unarmed and black. And I always post on social media next time it’s going to be me, one day it’s to be me. My mom hates it, my family and friends hate it and they say, “God forbid.” And I say, “You know what? That’s exactly what George Floyd’s family said God forbid. It happened to you. But it happened. We’re no different.”

Douglas Davis:
And so until all these things are factored in, of course, we’re bringing this to work. Of course, these are all the challenges that we have to fight through in society at work. If we’d literally just now had to pass laws where you can’t discriminate against me because of my hair. I’ve had to cut my hair to get jobs before. Who has to do that? What if a white woman had to do that to get a job? The condition is you cut your hair. That’s crazy. And we don’t even think about it like that because we’ve always had to walk in a space that wasn’t designed for us. We’ve always had to walk in a culture that wasn’t designed for us. We’ve always had to navigate a criminal justice system that wasn’t designed to give us equality. And so I think it makes complete sense that these things show up in the companies that we are going to work for. And it also makes sense that the trends towards whether it’s social justice or even just mentioning black lives matter, because you couldn’t even say that for a while.

Douglas Davis:
You were look at like you just said, hail satan or something crazy. And it was like this radical sort of thing versus like, no my life should matter. And I’m so angry that I got to say that. And yet it’s what we’ve been able to navigate because we’re still here and we’re going to be here and we still drive culture. And we still are the authors of American culture. And in so many ways that are very creative and just whether it’s poetry or whether it’s music or whether it’s fashion like we still are a great source of America’s competitive advantage if it would just love us back. That would be nice.

Maurice Cherry:
That would be nice. It would. Is that fair?

Douglas Davis:
Fair? Ooh. There’s so many… If we were going to wait for fair Maurice and you know I’m glad we’re talking about this so that people can sort of understand that this is what we have to go through. But you know what I realize is that there’s two sides to what could be seen as fair. Think about the imposter syndrome. Think about all the different social issues that we just talked about and then think about how much confidence you do or don’t have in doing your job. Think about all the internal turmoil that you have to deal with in addition to all the social issues that you got to walk into work with. All the barriers, all the different tests or things that were set up to give you a certain score on the SAT based on like asking you questions that have nothing to do with your culture. And some people actually believe that outward measure of what their potential was. I didn’t believe it.

Douglas Davis:
I took the SAT like three times, my guidance counselor in high school didn’t have one conversation with me about college. And so I said to myself if I don’t go to college, I wanted it to be because I chose not to go. So I went to summer school myself. I took my extra math. I took my extra foreign language. I took the SAT three times. And you know what, after those three times I probably got like a 780, my highest score. So by that measure I’m stupid, Maurice. But if I looked at that, that number and let that number tell me what I was capable of then I wouldn’t have an Emmy. I wouldn’t have two master’s degrees. I wouldn’t have gone on to write a book, I’ve done anything because I’d have been too busy moping.

Douglas Davis:
But that fairness, if we’re talking about fair think about how you have to be deliberate and determined in a way that white people don’t have to be in order to make it. And then there’s the opposite side, right? So as I mentioned, I’m chair of the program and there’s about 650 students, about a hundred people on my staff. And it’s one thing to have to fight through any of the imposter syndrome. Thank goodness I didn’t suffer from those things but you do have to see yourself as worthy to be a leader, worthy to make decisions in order to perform in that job, you got to be focused on the fact that you are qualified and that you can do it as well as anybody else. But then there’s the opposite side to that fairness. White people have to see you as a person who they can follow. They have to see you as a person whose decisions that might affect their choices as something to respect. They have to see you as somebody who they’re willing to give a chance, because if they don’t then no, it’s not fair that the decisions that you’re making with all of the training with two master’s degrees, having written a book about strategy, having proven that your tactics and the way that you move in the world do well.

Douglas Davis:
Having won an Emmy, having brought all of the goals that you said that you had set out to bring, having done those things early, but still having people question whether you know what you’re talking about, still having to say the same thing for a year before you’re even heard. All of those things, if we’re talking about fairness, it’s like this double-sided coin where you have to see yourself as capable and worthy and why not you, but then even if, and when all those things are true about you and you are capable and you are worthy and you do make it. If people don’t see you as worthy or capable and don’t trust you or don’t follow you, or they’re insubordinate for the sake of being insubordinate, even with all the accolades and that’s not your issue, even though you got to deal with it.

Douglas Davis:
And no, that’s not fair, but that’s the same issue as having that routine parking or traffic violation or traffic interaction with a cop and having those two master’s degrees, being an author, being a global speaker, and yet being an unarmed black man, and having them look at you and deem that you’re a threat and deciding to shoot you for no reason other than you’re unarmed and you’re black and you’re a man. I mean, how many times have we seen that?

Douglas Davis:
So, no, it’s not fair. And yes, it’s exhausting and yes, we see it in American society. And yes, then we have to deal with it in the companies that we go to work for in our everyday interactions in this system that wasn’t set up for us. And yet we’re still bringing a level of contribution to all of it that America wouldn’t be any other what it is without our contribution. So it’s thankless, it’s completely thankless and you’re not only not wanted, but at the same time, what would America be without us? And we all know the answer to that question. And so, no, it’s not fair. And no, we don’t even get the equity that we put into it. And yet you can’t stop us.

Douglas Davis:
If anybody had any question, I’m a dark skinned red bone on the inside. If anybody had any questions, but I do believe that things will change over time, but is it just on the surface that it changes or will we be able to as creatives, as black creators as the people that we are, will we be able to affect change and influence brands from within? Will we be able to step up to those leadership positions and make the decisions that will shift the culture or the places that had locked us out or that don’t call out to people? How are you going to leave the space that you walked into? How are you going to push it forward?

Douglas Davis:
And I think that if all of us could just look at pushing it forward just a little bit. And I think lastly, I would just add onto this, that again, like a lot of the topics that we talked about are heavy, a lot of topics that we talked about proceed both of us, our grandparents and great-grandparents were talking about these same things and nothing’s changed, or it hasn’t changed enough that if they were still alive, they might be confused that we weren’t in their time in 2021. So progress is slow, progress may not sort of shift and move into the place that we would like it to in our lifetime in our kids’ lifetimes, who knows. But I think that overall, we have to also take care of ourselves, right? Who’s to say that you want to actually be a part of the places that don’t want you? Who’s to say that those places they don’t deserve you?

Douglas Davis:
And so I think that it’s important for anybody listening to really understand your own worth. They need us as well. And so you can determine who benefits from your presence as well, that is within your control. And, again, we all have to balance the fact that we have to eat as well, but I think it’s very important to understand how much we are worth and how much our contribution is worth. Is not just checking a box, having a black face, being able to give the company some cover to say that they are about diversity because you’re there at the table. We all know that doesn’t work. But I think really understanding that where things are shifting in a way that there is more control in our hands, there is more opportunity because of the internet, even though there are some barriers that come along with it. Because we can go straight to the world, straight to the public with what we have, things will and are changing.

Douglas Davis:
So again, I think about Timbaland and I think about Swiss Beats doing verses it makes total sense that that came from two musicians from us, from our culture and look at what they’re doing. Look at what the D-Nice has been doing Club Quarantine like our creativity cannot be stopped. And so there’s this love-hate relationship that America has with us and it can’t get along without us. And yet I’m hoping that it can learn to embrace us in a way that we can unlock the potential of little black boys, little black girls, minority black, brown, queer boys and girls, so that we can really move and be and have that outlet that we’re going to get out there anyway. It’s going to happen anyway, that can’t be stopped, but it’d be really nice if there wasn’t such resistance or so many barriers to fight through. That would be fair, but stay black and die and pay taxes, right? That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
One big change and I think we’ve probably all heard it in the background as you’ve been talking, as you became a father over the past few years, as we had you on the show, how has fatherhood changed you?

Douglas Davis:
Yeah, my son, Jonathan, it’s changed me in a lot of ways. And I’m sitting here smiling as I think about how exactly I can share in the amount of time that we have, how it’s changed me. But it’s been transformative in the way that now I understand the fear that my mom had when I would leave the house. And when I was rebellious and when the cops would harass and I was this outspoken young kid who was not about to hold my tongue, no matter what. Now I get that terror because now I have a son who is a light of our life and who is something happened to him it would be devastating. And now I know what that feels like to have so much to lose, but to have so much potential. And I guess, I’m speaking from the standpoint of how it shifted me. I think it’s made me more aware that at some point my son will go from being this cute little kid that everybody looks at on social media when I post.

Douglas Davis:
At some point he’s going to go from being cute to a threat. I mean Tamir Rice was a little kid, Trayvon was a little kid. And so I think the way that it’s changed me is it’s made me hyper aware of how blessed I was and why when at whatever point, because I didn’t discriminate, but why, what, at whatever point I had a white girlfriend, my family was uncomfortable, but they still embraced that person because they loved me. And so I think that the challenge at different points is that that change is what you then become your parents. You can see from their perspective, you understand the fact that to protect your son, that you have to sacrifice in different ways that if it was just you maybe it wouldn’t matter.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think the way it’s changed me is that it’s made me even more aware of all the things that we’ve been talking about. And it’s made me really question whether I want him to have to go through all of this. Again, if we’re going back to fair. I can’t lie to you and say that we haven’t thought about and really entertained leaving the country. I can’t say that we haven’t entertained thinking about what zip code we might want to live in so that when we call the cops they actually come. And that sucks, man. Like it’s exhausting because I would much rather be focused on the fact that he loves Dora the Explorer and that he loves to say, “Yum, yum, yum, yum, yum. Delicioso.” And that he’s running and jumping around and we’ve got to tell him to stop and get off that and take that out of your mouth. Like I would love to focus on just that. And for right now we’re safe, but Breonna Taylor thought she was safe too when she went home and locked the door and went to sleep.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think there’s no way to escape America and the weight of America. And so it’s changed me by making me even more aware of how precious life is and made me even more aware of the responsibility that we have to change things so that at some point we can just be. Because I want my son to just be, he waltz around the house, his toys everywhere just like any other kid and yet we can see him recognizing patterns and stacking his blocks in certain ways that they look like a sculpture garden as you walk through room to room to room, you know he’s been there. And being able to be here in a pandemic to have the privilege of being the boss during a time when I can make the decision as to whether we are or not going to go back in person. And I can make the decision as to, you what I don’t want it on my conscious that I put mixed signals out there to attract students back into a situation where they could get sick or I don’t want to put my staff in harms way, or I’m not going to ask anybody to do anything that I’m not willing to do myself.

Douglas Davis:
And so, you know what, a year ago I decided we were going to be on this couch. We will be remote for the whole school year. And I’m glad that I could say that because not only did it help me to make sure that I didn’t put anybody else’s baby in harm’s way, it allowed me to be home and actually help my wife to raise mine. And so I think this just goes back to, in some ways, the call for anybody who is thinking about leadership or taking more responsibility, I want to encourage you to take that step. And yes, it’s a burden. It’s very difficult and yet if you can learn operations, if you can learn new systems design, if you can learn strategy forecasting, if you can learn decision-making and negotiations, if you read Creative Strategy and the Business of Design it can help you with the strategic part of things.

Douglas Davis:
But if you learn those things and take on more responsibility you can help to create the environment and make the decisions that not only benefit the people who you will be responsible for, but it also help you to benefit your own family. It is still a sacrifice, but at least it’s you making those decisions versus somebody else making those decisions for you, and we need more of that. I believe we need more of that. I’m probably the first black boss that my staff has worked for and I’ve worked for as many black bosses as my staff has worked for. It’s crazy, right? But in some ways becoming a father has helped me to really just be more responsible with that.

Douglas Davis:
And just full disclosure and for accuracy sake I had a son when I was in Hampton I was like freshman year. So I was probably about 18. So my oldest son, his name is Douglas and he’s down in South Carolina. I had a son back then though, it was a very different interaction in terms of I’m a kid and he’s a kid. It’s one of those things where right now is very different because I’m an adult and being in a pandemic and being able to have two sons, but just to have a little one here with me, it has changed so much. And both of my sons thank goodness are healthy, but it really does when you become a father, makes you think about what your decisions are and what the impact of those decisions are. So it transforms you, definitely does.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Douglas Davis:
Well, I mean, that’s a really interesting question because as I mentioned I’m not going to have chosen not to continue on as chair. Because I’ve been able to accomplish the change in our culture and raise our visibility, win those awards, do all the things that I set out doing. And on July 1st, when I’m not chair anymore or when my term ends I won’t even be 45 yet. And so in that I can say that success is not accomplishing all these things even though I’ve been able to accomplish those things and go to Hampton and then go to Pratt and get a master’s and then go to NYU and get another master’s and travel the world and write a book and speak globally and do these things. Success is keeping your word to yourself. Success is doing what you set out to do.

Douglas Davis:
And I always define success as that, because things come and go. You can be on the top of your game one day and be on the bottom the next day. And so if it’s just about what you’re able to accomplish or what your paycheck is, then that definition is a bad definition because it always puts you in a situation where you’re always looking at the material or you’re looking at what people pay you to be creative. And I need to be creative because that’s how I live and breathe. I need to do that for free because that’s who I am. I need an outlet because it’s inside of me and it needs to come out. And so success is keeping my word to myself. Being able to say, I’m about to go do this. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to accomplish it. I’m scared even, but you know what, that’s exactly what I’m about to go do.

Douglas Davis:
And I’m thankful that that’s the way that I see it because when I went to Hampton it was great to be taught about work ethic because it continued to build on the same lessons as my grandfather or my grandma or my mom when they tell you, when you cutting the grass down south and it’s real hot, you know this you got to be inside before 10:59 in the summer, you cutting that grass or else you going to be faced down in the grass. And so knowing that I was taught by people who were doing things and who had integrity and who said, if you’re going to cut the grass and cut it right. If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep it right. But to know that when I went to Hampton that those foundational lessons from those people in my own family and community, to know that that was the beginning of my education in my family.

Douglas Davis:
To then go on to Hampton and be taught if they ask you for five, then do 55 and choose the best five. That lesson had already been laid. It was just built on to then go to New York and wonder whether I could compete. Even though I graduated Hampton with a resume, I had a Disney internship, also worked at Hampton University had a microgravity collaboration so I was able to work with NASA and the Smithsonian several times, but I knew I still needed more. So then when I went to Pratt, not knowing whether I could compete in New York being scared to death. I’m moving to New York and then being like I’m moving to New York, both that was excitement mixed with fear because New York has everything you’ve ever wanted and everything you’ve never wanted rolled into one.

Douglas Davis:
But knowing that, you know what, I’m going to go test myself on the biggest stage that I could find as a Southern boy from the country. Can I do it? I don’t know. So let me go test, let me go see. And to know that I didn’t know whether I could, but I did know that I wasn’t going home. And to know that all you have to do is say that to yourself one time, but you got to spend every day meaning it and being able to keep your word to yourself despite having to fight through alcoholism and drug abuse. I think I learned the importance of what success is and how I define it because I didn’t have control over my own, what I said my choices. And I knew that when I got so far into addiction that I couldn’t keep my word to myself. I said, I’m not going to drink anymore. I said, I’m not going to get high. I couldn’t keep that promise to myself. That’s when it scared me.

Douglas Davis:
So that’s when I realized that that’s what success is. If you can make a promise to yourself or say something to yourself and then follow through with that, that is successful. And if you can define it that way, then you’re not as a creative person looking right and left and being afraid of people who are talented as well. You’re looking right and left and you’re being inspired whenever you see somebody do their best, because you understand that you’re competing against yourself. You’re trying to be better than you were last time. You’re trying to beat your best time the last time. You’re trying to get higher.

Douglas Davis:
And when you know that it’s you competing with you, then it’s very easy to understand that that’s what, in the way that I’ve found what success is and how to define it. It’s not about what I’ve been able to achieve. It’s not about fact that I own my home in Brooklyn, it’s not the fact that I’ve been able to become chair and I’ll be able to lay that down before I’m even 45. It’s really about just being able to keep my word to myself. That’s success.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like after, hopefully this pandemic is a thing of the past and whatever sort of new world or new reality we end up coming into. Like what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Douglas Davis:
That’s a good question because I think knowing that those new skills that I’ve been able to develop in this pivot operations, new systems design, forecasting, decision-making all of those things are a part of what I’m going to write about. Because I think on the one hand as creative people, we have to keep changing what we learn in order to keep doing the same thing. So I like to look at the timeline back in the day you learn Flash and then you could even learn ActionScript. And then now none of that is even there anymore and so I think the fact that we have to keep learning to typefaces, you got to learn how to do Basecamp, you got to learn Slack, you got to learn all these different ways to do the exact same thing. Strategy and marketing, all those skills or things that we needed to add in order to be a better creative person in my perspective, that’s why I wrote the book.

Douglas Davis:
But I think that now in this new world, learning how to make decisions, my son is so funny, learning how to make those decisions, learning how to lead and developing those skills I want to write about that. I want to continue to develop a body of thought leadership around that. But I think obviously I also want to put those skills into practice. But I think just going back fundamentally, I want to turn my book back into an online class. That’s how Creative Strategy and the Business of Design started, I wrote a four lesson online class for how design university is not even there anymore. But it did really, really well and so I was able to leverage that into writing a book. But now since things are shifted, I want to turn the content back into an online class because I never want to lose touch with teaching people, reaching students, whether they’re professionals or whether they’re pursuing some sort of credential or degree.

Douglas Davis:
So I want to always be able to say, do as I do versus do what I say, whether that’s to my sons as an example, or whether that’s to my students. I want to be able to reach them through reason and reach them through understanding that I’m never going to waste their time. And so in order to be useful in the boardroom, in the classroom or at home, wherever, I want to always do the things that I’m asking people to do, I want to lead from the front. I want to show them that I’m not going to ask you to do anything that I’m not willing to do, or haven’t done for a client. And so I want to make sure that I can continue to be a teacher, continue to be an example. Because even though I went to Hampton, there was no black design professors when I went to Hampton University, HBCU. There was no black design professors at Pratt. There were no black strategy professors at NYU. And then I became a strategy professor. I became a design professor.

Douglas Davis:
And so I think the type of work I want to do is whatever’s going to allow me to use me as an example for people who didn’t see themselves. And I think that whatever that looks like is where I want to offer my skills, but I also want to make sure that wherever I’m offering my skills is a place that appreciates what I bring. And so I think I’m open to the world and really thinking about other countries and thinking about other places or I can stay right here in Brooklyn. But I think whatever I do I want to feel like I belong. I want to feel like I’m contributing to a culture that is striving to be relevant to as many people as possible and taking down those walls. So whatever that looks like that’s what I’m interested in. I just don’t know what that is.

Douglas Davis:
And therefore, I think in being able to be comfortable with what I’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time, whether that’s in my current role or whether that’s just as somebody who has not even made it to 45 yet, I feel like I’ve been able to move in and out of spaces after being effective or as effective as possible. And being able to be comfortable with that success and then say, you know what? I don’t know what the next step is. Just like I didn’t know whether I could compete in New York and that fear is always mixed with excitement, but I got my own back. I believe that whatever I do, apply my skills to I’ll figure it out. I’ll be able to bring something to it in the way that I do.

Douglas Davis:
And so I know that there’s some place that is exactly where I would thrive because in answering this question, I think I’m trying to acknowledge the fact that as the world shifts, which is where you started with the question, you can sort of find yourself misaligned, whether that’s in the country you’re in, based on how they actually treat children, or how they treat elders. You could find yourself misaligned in the culture you’re in at your job based on how they are or not dealing with the pandemic. You can find yourself misaligned in so many different… The society that you’re in based on whether they do or don’t live up to the mission statement that’s in the Pledge of Allegiance, right? One nation under God with liberty and justice for you all.

Douglas Davis:
I think we’re in this situation where because the whole world is being rethought I think it’s okay to not know what the next step is and to really sort of rethink the decisions that you had already taken for granted. Because that’s what we do in our profession, right? Like we sort of have to organize that chaos and question the answers that our clients come to us with that used to work six months ago, or a year ago in our case with COVID and really rethink what was the answer before, because the environment shifted.

Douglas Davis:
And so maybe that’s not the answer anymore so that we can turn, find those insights and then execute on whatever that plan is. And that’s how I’ve been moving through teaching. That’s how I’ve been moving through speaking, how I’ve been moving through writing, how I move through creating solution for my clients, but it’s also how I approach my career decisions. And so I might not know what’s next, but I do know that in questioning the answers, I am asking questions about things that were settled, I’m reopening areas that were given and I’m excited about that. That uncertainty excites me. Yes, it’s scary, but I’m excited about it. And so I don’t know what that means, but I do know that in order to keep my word to myself, in order to continue to test myself that I will be adding additional challenges. I just don’t know what they are right now. And I’m comfortable with that.

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

Douglas Davis:
Absolutely. Well, if you check my website out, it is douglasdavis.com, but you can also find me on Twitter, I’m @DouglasQDavis, you can find me on Facebook I’m Professor Davis. You can definitely see me with my son, I’m always posting on Instagram I’m @dquejuan. So hit me on IG as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Douglas Davis, I want to thank you again, just so much. I mean, one for taking time out to come on the show, but to really be so open and honest and candid. And I think also just thoughtful about not just the work that you do, but how it impacts the society and world around you. And really like take the time to think about just where we are in this current point in history and what that means for us as designers, what it means for you and I, and others as black people, as minorities. Thank you just so much for opening up and sharing all that, I really appreciate it.

Douglas Davis:
I appreciate you having me, Maurice. Thank you for having me back. I’m thankful, I believe in your venue, I share your posts because I believe in what you’re doing. I believe in who you are, and I’m thankful that I can call you a friend. So thank you for having me.

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.

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Sean Mack

This week’s guest is a real treat for me. Sean Mack is an illustrator and graphic artist in Detroit, and I first ran across his work around a decade or so ago on Tumblr. His work has really taken off since then, so having him on to talk about his journey as an artist was a lot of fun.

We started off talking about his recent work on a commemorative comic for the late hip-hop artist MF DOOM, and Sean went into how he and writer Brandon Howard came up with their popular comic The Revolutionary Times. We also talked about balancing his art while working a 9-to-5 job, working with big clients, and creating new work through the pandemic. If you’ve never heard of Sean or seen his art, then this interview is a great place to start!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Sean Mack:
My name is Sean Mack. I’m a graphic artist, illustrator, graphic designer, comic book artist, storyboard artist, just all-around graphic artist, mostly all art, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so, how are you feeling right now? How’s the year going so far?

Sean Mack:
The year has been challenging. I’ve been trying my best to keep up with things, keep up with my craft, keep trying to stay the right path for the most part. I think I’m doing an okay job.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, you sound like … What’s the guy’s name in Kung Fu that has to walk the path? I forget his name, played by David Carradine.

Sean Mack:
Oh, I know who you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re trying to walk the righteous path.

Sean Mack:
Right, right.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about what kind of projects you’re working on right now.

Sean Mack:
Mostly freelancing at the moment. I just got done with a tribute comic for the rapper MF Doom.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice.

Sean Mack:
It’s nothing like anything official. It’s just a nice, small, short story that covers his career in an entertaining way. I’m not too sure when that’s coming out. It’s still in the process of being produced. But, that should be coming out this year, and then just a few freelance projects here and there, just a couple … music stuff, covers for musicians and so on and so on.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you a big MF Doom fan?

Sean Mack:
I was, I was. I wasn’t the biggest MF Doom, but I loved the music that he put out. I think it was … I don’t want to say weird, but it was weird. It was weird and it was eclectic. It was something I had never heard before, something I had never heard put together before quite like the way he made music. So, when he died, I was like, “Ooh.” That was a heavy one. So, just to be able to do this comic, it was pretty cool, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I mean, the way the news came out especially with his wife saying he actually had passed away months prior, and she had just, I guess, waited until the end of the year to drop the news. Not many people know this, but, I think every episode, most episodes of Revision Path that I recorded here in my little makeshift studio, there’s a 24×36″ poster of Madvillain to my right.

Sean Mack:
Oh, nice.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if many people know how much of an MF Doom fan I am, but yeah, when I heard that, man, that got me. I got the action figure. I got all the CDs. I got the magnets. I got a bunch of stuff, MF Doom patches and stuff. Man, what a loss, what a loss. How did you get involved with doing a tribute comic to him?

Sean Mack:
So, I am friends with … Her name is Maia Crown Williams. She actually was the person who helped put it together. It’s written by a great writer by the name of Troy Allen. She basically was what got me involved with the project because she’s known me over the years. She runs a comic convention out in Detroit called MECCAcon, and I’ve done it once before. We’ve just been in touch over the years because she likes my work. She thinks I’m cool. So, when he was looking for artist, she hit me up to do a test drive for what would be the final comic. He liked what I did and it was just history from there on. He just knocked it out over the, I think, last month or so. Well, yeah, I worked on the art the last month or so, and, right now, it’s still in the post-production stage of everything. So, it turned out pretty good, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, hopefully they put it up for sale or just have it online somewhere where people can take a look at it because he has a legion of fans around the world, me included. That sounds pretty dope.

Sean Mack:
I’ve only seen a few of the finished pages so far, and they look phenomenal. I really like how it’s turning out. I think people will dig it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, now, you mentioned doing some album covers, some music covers and stuff. You’re kind of connected with a music company, is that right, called Soulstar?

Sean Mack:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [crosstalk 00:09:25]

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about that.

Sean Mack:
Soulstar is actually Musiq Soulchild’s company.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Sean Mack:
Yeah, Musiq Soulchild, that’s his imprint for not only his regular music Soulchild stuff, but his side passion projects as well. I’ve actually had a chance to work on all facets of those projects, so that’s been pretty cool to do. Yeah, that’s Musiq’s … I think it’s his label and his imprint at the same time.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that name takes me back all the way to, God, maybe freshman, sophomore year in college, the year 2000. Oh my goodness, it’s funny you mention that because I know he’s done some work with India Arie. Oh my God, this was years ago I had designer for India Arie on the show, Denise Nicole Francis. This was years and years ago. I don’t know if that name sounds familiar to you or not, but I know they’ve done some work together in terms of doing design and imprint and stuff. So, when you’re working with a label like that, I’m sure it’s more than just album covers and stuff. What all kind of stuff are you designing?

Sean Mack:
It’s been like his side projects and whatnot. I don’t know if I can’t talk about one of them because we’re still working on it, so it’s still behind the scenes. But for the most part, I had designs for logos like certain badges for his certain personas, his musical personas. That’s where his side projects came in. So, for instance, I had a badge for just Musiq Soulchild. And then, there was a badge for his persona called The Husel, which is like his rap hybrid persona. And then, there was another one called P. WondaLuv, Purple WondaLuv, and that was his Prince, funk-inspired persona. I did badges for all of those. I also did covers for them, as well. I did the latest album that came out, Feel the Real. I did the artwork for that one, and then his Husel side project and his P. WondaLuv side project. I did the art for that, as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Very cool. I can imagine there’s no shortage of interesting and creative ideas that he can come up with that now he can just turn around and have you work on. That’s pretty dope.

Sean Mack:
The thing I don’t think most people know about Musiq is that he is a very, very creative dude. He is also very … I don’t want to say nerdy, but he very much embraces geek culture, and that’s how we connected through our love for stuff like anime and comics and whatnot. The stuff that I work for him, a lot of that influence shows. It showed in the concept and just execution of it, so that was a very cool thing to find out, working with him.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I first found out about you and your work years and years and years ago through Tumblr. You have a comic called The Revolutionary Times.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, so, The Revolutionary Times, it’s a comic started by me and my longtime friend Brandon Howard. He’s the writer. I’m the artist. We started it back in 2008 while I was still in college at the time. We were just inspired by … Boondocks was off the comic kind of thing for a while. It ventured into TV shows, so we were just like, “There’s not many Black comic strips out,” at the time, so we were just like, “Let’s start something. Let’s start something.” We were inspired by Boondocks. We were inspired by, obviously, the classics like Charlie Brown, Calvin and Hobbes, and we just put our own personal lives and mixed it with pop culture, mixed it with politics. It just turned into this comic that we’ve been doing for a while. It’s been off and on, but we’re still in the midst of trying to push more comics out.

Maurice Cherry:
Where did that idea … I guess you alluded to it. Now, you were inspired by the Boondocks and other similar types of comics, but where did that idea first come from outside of that? You just wanted to fill the void that you felt was left behind from those comics?

Sean Mack:
Yeah, yeah, because, originally, it’s all Brandon’s idea. He came to me one day. He’s like, “Man, you still drawing?” I was like, “Yo, I’m in college right now. Yes.” He’s like, “Man, let’s do a comic.” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do a comic.” And then, he just came up with these ideas, these references to pop culture, to politics that was just amazing, and I helped with some of the humor part of it as well. The way it flowed, it was just amazing. Originally, yeah, it was all Brandon. I was just the guy with the pencil at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
And you all have still kept up with it. I think the latest one that I saw, it was Madea protecting [Peria Megan 00:15:27] from Security or something like that.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, yeah, that was a quick one we had to put out because we just had to. It’s just one of the many crazy things that come across our minds that we say, “Hey, let’s make a comic about this.”

Maurice Cherry:
I know that The Boondocks was supposed to come back on HBO Max last year. Maybe hopefully it will happen this year. Certainly, I would love to see what the next season would be of just what they could pull off. I personally don’t count the fourth season of The Boondocks. The first three seasons were great. Season four, eh, it was all right. It was okay. I want to see what they come up with for the fifth season.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, I think they pushed it back to later this year. But, I look at the fourth season of Boondocks the same way I look at … what was that season? The third season of The Chappelle Show. I look at it the same way as that. It doesn’t exist. It’s nonexistent in my mind or in my history.

Maurice Cherry:
I rewatched it recently because I got HBO Max and I was going through it and everything, and I rewatched the fourth season just to see if maybe I missed something. I think I was watching it like everyone else was watching it on Twitter. They’ll watch it and give commentary and stuff. It was not hittin’ at all. They had that weird sort of Good Times reference that strung through the whole season. What the fuck was that about? It was not good. It was not good.

Sean Mack:
Right, and then they tried to spoof Breaking Bad. It was just weird. It was weird.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they were doing what I see sitcoms do when they run out of ideas in that they sort of start making up these fantastical parodies, and it’s like the show itself is already a bit of a fantastical parody. You don’t need to try to mimic something else. Yeah, why are they mimicking Breaking Bad? What’s that about? Are they just trying to cash in on that cultural moment? I don’t know, it’s just not good.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, so, hopefully, I don’t know what they’re doing with the newest … I don’t know if it’s a reboot season. I don’t even know. I hope this one is a little bit more Aaron McGruder [crosstalk 00:17:58]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I really hope he’s out there creating some heat because even Black Jesus was funny, and then it was on this weird hiatus. You’d catch and episode here or there. It was almost like Steven Universe. It didn’t stay on a regular schedule. You just had to catch it when you could catch it. So, I hope so, man, because so many people are missing his humor and everything. I don’t know. So, when it comes to creating comics, what does your process look like?

Sean Mack:
Well, it depends. For instance, with Revolutionary Times, the script itself, the scriptwriting itself is more so me and Brandon bouncing ideas back and forth recently, yeah. And then, when it comes time for me to actually create the work, I pull up all my references, background references, character references, and I just have them set up in another monitor. I have like, three monitors. I have one monitor for my main art program, and then the others for my reference to just look at while I work. The process is basically just putting all that together to try and tell a story, trying to tell a cohesive story, sometimes without words. It’s a long process. It can definitely be a long process, but I’m getting the hang of it, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
When you say character references, what do you mean? Do you have a file with information on a character or something like that?

Sean Mack:
Yeah, for instance, if I’m drawing, like Madea, I have pictures pulled off of Google of Madea or Tyler Perry or, what are they called, the royal guards. I have them all set up on one screen just to glance at as I sketch out to draw everything into the final, basically. Then, I use that for if I’m coloring it, if I’m doing the actual colors. I’m using that same picture as a pallette to get the right colors, color flats on the characters, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, I gotcha. What is the design scene like in Detroit? I’ve only had a handful of folks on the show that are in Detroit and working as designers. But, for you, what’s the design scene like there?

Sean Mack:
It’s kind of hard for me to explain about it because, this whole year, everyone’s been stuck inside, so it’s hard to describe it. We have our design firms and whatnot. And then, you have the freelancers, the people who are just the wild guns of the design industry. I would say that, art-wise, Detroit is building a lot, I would say. Design-wise, like I said, there’s the firms. Art-wise, there’s a … What is it called? It’s called murals in the market. Well, they didn’t do it this year, unfortunately, of course, but they have it set up in the place called East St. Market where they pull a bunch of murals, paintings from around the city, and they go around that East St. Market area and they’re making murals on different buildings, and you get to see the sea of different styles all around you. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever gotten a chance to see. I hate that I couldn’t … It just wasn’t a thing this year because of the pandemic, but, art-wise, Detroit is booming quietly but steadily, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
We have something similar like that here down in Atlanta called Living Walls, sort of like a muralist fest. Well, actually, it’s an art organization. They put on an event also called Living Walls. They do little murals … not little murals. They’re huge. They’re on the sides of buildings and stuff. Of course, we have underground artists and such that do all kinds of different interesting interpretations of murals like Fabian Williams, occasional superstar. I live in the hood. For folks that don’t know that live in Atlanta, I live in the West End. So, there’s a Caribbean restaurant near me called Mango’s, and, on the side of that building, he’ll do different sorts of murals.

Maurice Cherry:
I think the last one I saw, which had to have been prior to the pandemic, which lets you know how far I’ve gone outside my apt. It was Martin Luther King, but I think he had a high-top fade and had cuts on the side or something like that. So, he’s done these modern/’80sish interpretations of civil rights figures. There’s Coretta Scott King, but she’s got an asymmetrical bob, Pepa from Salt-N-Pepa, something like that. But yeah, Atlanta is a big mural city like that, especially if you’re downtown. If you go outside of downtown, outside of the perimeter, I can’t be responsible for what you see once you leave outside of the actual city. But, in the city itself, there’s so much graffiti and murals and wall art and stuff like that.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, I’ve been to Atlanta, I think, once or twice, and I’ve seen some of the graffiti there. It’s amazing, so I get an idea of what you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, before we get more into your career, let’s take it back to the beginning. In your bio, you mentioned that you grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. Tell me about that.

Sean Mack:
Ah, Saginaw, Michigan, Saginaw Michigan … Growing up in Saginaw, Michigan was an experience. Saginaw is a very small town. Well, I take that back. It’s not a small town, but, if you compare it to someplace like Detroit, it’s small. Growing up there, I’m not going to say I had it rough. I lived in the suburban part of Saginaw, but it was just a small town. Everybody knew everybody. If you’re from Saginaw, it’s like that Kevin Bacon … What is that thing called?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, like Six Degrees of Separation?

Sean Mack:
Yes, yes, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, that is basically living in Saginaw. You know everybody or somebody knows you from somebody. But, living there, it built me up. It built who I became to be, and that’s … I’ve fallen in love with art. We don’t really have an art scene, well, not that I know of, now. At the time, there wasn’t really an art scene in Saginaw, but there was always comic book stores, and that is where I found my love for art, in the comic book store. My folks would take me to a 7-Eleven, and there would be that lonely stand of comics just rotating in my face. That’s where the love came from. And then, I found actual comic book stores to just peruse and look at. It just grew out from there.

Maurice Cherry:
Marvel or DC?

Sean Mack:
I am neutral.

Maurice Cherry:
Aw, come on! Okay, all right.

Sean Mack:
I’m sorry. I have a ton of favorites on both sides. I love Batman. I love Spider-Man.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Did you watch the Snyder cut of Justice League?

Sean Mack:
I did. That, I’m still astounded by the differences that that movie has. I watched the original one, the Wheaton version before I watched the Snyder one, and it’s just night and day.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

Sean Mack:
Yes, man. It’s just so night and day. I’m still astounded by it. I don’t think there has been a director’s cut that is this drastically different from what was put into the theater since Blade Runner. That’s how I feel about it. I loved it. I loved the Snyder cut. I’m sad that it wasn’t the first movie that I saw in 2017, but I’m glad it came out because it was everything a comic book person would probably want.

Maurice Cherry:
Does it help if you watch it from a 2017 perspective? Because, that’s when the original Justice League movie came out. I was wondering if it had aged over the years since it’s been in obscurity because of the studios and everything.

Sean Mack:
I don’t think it aged, necessarily. There’s still a bad joke in there or two. There’s definitely some bad … not cringeworthy, but it’s eye-rollable, kind of.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s four hours. There’s got to be something in there that’s … Everything can’t be a hit.

Sean Mack:
It’s not, it’s not. Have you seen it?

Maurice Cherry:
I have not seen it, and I refuse … Okay, refuse is a strong word. I don’t feel that DC has earned enough good will for me from their current movie offerings to sit through four hours of that.

Sean Mack:
Understandable, understandable.

Maurice Cherry:
I did watch Justice League. Did I go to the movies to see Justice League? I don’t remember. I did see justice league. I have not seen Suicide Squad or the Harley Quinn movie. They just didn’t interest me, and that’s not so say I’m not a DC fan. I am a DC fan. I’m pretty split between marvel and DC, myself, but I feel like marvel does better live-action movies. DC does better animated movies.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, yeah, that’s definitely the case because the latest animation … No, I think the latest one we did was a Batman movie. But, the few animated ones that I’ve seen have been like, “This is the same company?” The quality is far beyond what you would get with the live-action stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, but the writing is good. They all have a consistent art style. They have that kind of Bruce Tim art style and they take bold strokes in terms of storytelling. It’s not all canon types of things. You have Justice League Dark. I think they did one like with the apocalypse one. They take broad strokes in terms of storytelling that, of course, with live-action, would probably be expensive and risky to do. But, with animation, it’s probably cheaper, I would imagine.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, and that’s partly why it’s the more superior brand. But, I will say I did enjoy Birds of Pray. I enjoyed Shazam. That was a nice one.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Shazam was good! Shazam was good. I forgot about Shazam. That is a DC.

Sean Mack:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean Mack:
Yeah. Shazam was good. Aquaman was good, but the fact that they shelved this version of Justice League is just one of the most baffling things in my entire viewpoint, because there had to be a way to just trim it down to two hours.

Maurice Cherry:
How long was the original Justice League?

Sean Mack:
The one that came out in theaters?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean Mack:
It was under two hours, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Sean Mack:
From what I’m guessing, Josh Wheaton reshot a whole bunch of everything, really, because even the endings are completely contrast of each other. It is an interesting thing just to see how different things movie came out to be.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re convincing me to see it because I don’t remember that much from the original Justice League except for the showdown where they all fought Superman, and I remember Cyborg, it felt like Cyborg was a bigger part of the story, or was at least a substantial part of the story in the original. And then, from what I’ve heard, he has a much more substantial role in the Snyder cut.

Sean Mack:
So, the part where they’re fighting Superman, that’s still the same, still mostly the same thing. The way it ends is slightly different, but Cyborg is the main character in this movie to me. Once you get into the later parts of it, he is the heart and soul of this movie. I feel like I just repeated like a critic somewhere, [inaudible 00:31:20] but it’s the truth. It’s the truth. The fact that his entire storyline, which is cut for him to say booya at the end, it was weird to see. So, I would say, if you do watch it, watch it … because, it’s cut in chapters, so I would watch it in chapters, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, so it’s not just a full four-hour slog. You can watch a chapter, come back to it?

Sean Mack:
Yeah, I would watch it in chapters because it’s worth to see. I think it’s worth seeing that version of the story.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, all right, you’ve convinced me. I say this like I won’t sit through and watch four hours of Bridgerton or something like that, so I can watch Justice League. You talked about earlier going to school for art. You went to Detroit College for creative studies. What was that like? What was your time like there?

Sean Mack:
It was pretty interesting because, before that, I went to … My high school was called Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, and it was a school that focused, basically, on sciences and arts. It had a heavy focus on the visual arts, performing arts like theater and dance. Then, you had your global studies, your biology, your scientific aspects. It was a unique school experience then, so it kind of prepared me for when I did move to Detroit to go to CCS. It was just more of an expansive view on art because I’m in this place where there’s different personalities, different styles. That was an eye-opener. That was a real introduction to just a lot of people that I still know to this day, honestly. It was eye-opening. It was a good experience for not only social-wise, but it was a good experience for me growing in my art, in my craft, because I learned so much at that school, and it’s just a lot of things that I still carry with me to this day, as it should, because it was expensive. It was just a good tool. The professors there were amazing, and they’re still people I still talk to to this day. They still help me out in my career, so I think it was a good experience. It was a good thing to utilize, still a good thing to utilize to this day.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. It’s so interesting because I often hear the opposite from people that say they went to an arts college. They’re like, “Eh, it was okay,” or that it didn’t really prepare them for going out into the working world, doing what they do. But, it sounds like you had a great experience. That’s good.

Sean Mack:
Well, I would say there were those parts, too, the long nights of trying to finish projects. It was more so focused on our craft. There were classes here and there about the actually business side of the art world, but it was more so focused on bettering us as artists. I would say I learned more about the business side of illustration, for instance. I learned more so about the business side of that just through experience, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha, gotcha, okay. What were some of your work experiences when you graduated?

Sean Mack:
It was more so just freelancing because, when I graduated, I moved back to Saginaw, and then I was just more so freelancing, so it started off in event posters, mixtape covers, album covers, logos, and then it grew into more granter things like full-on album designs and full promotional designs or promotional releases or whatnot. Yeah, it just grew, and I started getting actual clients like Musiq or like ESPN or Complex.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I see you’ve done some work with some pretty big brands and big clients. When you look back at those past projects, what did they teach you?

Sean Mack:
Patience, patience, definite patience. I consider myself a pretty patient person as is, but freelance can bring a side out of you. I would say patience and just seeing a project through the end. I think, that part, a lot of people, it’s hard to get to the end, honestly, with some projects because of the time put in, the energy. There may be changes, and there are changes after changes. But, just seeing a project through to the end is one of the most satisfying things, no matter how you feel about the project itself. Just seeing it through the end is a satisfying feeling in itself, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from that, you’ve also done a lot of collaborative projects. We talked about The Revolutionary Times, of course, being probably one of the bigger ones. But, for you, what’s the value of collaborating on projects?

Sean Mack:
I think collaboration opens your world up to other people’s viewpoints, other people’s creative world or creative ways of doing things. I think if you find that right person that you can mesh with, you could bring something pretty cool to the table. I’ve done, aside from working with Grid … and I’ve done collaborations with … There was one guy, his name was CJ Johnson. We worked on a full graphic novel. It was called Kill Or Be Killed, but it wasn’t some action type of graphic novel. It was a story about rich Black Manhattan type of people like bohemian style characters. It was just a story that you typically wouldn’t see in a comic book, just telling of a life of these classy but still kind of edgy characters. It was just something I had never done before because I was just used to doing funny comic strips and whatnot. That, for instance, is something that I always see as a good collaboration because it was a mixture of something that I’ve never experienced before, which, I think, bettered me as an artist to be able to tell CJ’s story. So, I think if you find that right collaborator, yeah, something magical might come out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m mentioning this not in any sort of disparaging way, but you have a full-time job that doesn’t deal with art [crosstalk 00:39:28] I’m not going to ask you what that job is. I know you have a full-time job that doesn’t deal with art, but how do you balance the two? How do you balance having that extra time to pursue your creative passions?

Sean Mack:
It is very difficult. It is almost impossible. There was, unfortunately, a year or two where it was impossible because of how this job just took out my energy. Well, I will say it is an essential job, so I was pretty much still working all last year.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, so, last year being one of those years where it was just difficult to do art, it can get to you. It can overcome your passion. But, I think that you just got to find a balance. Because, at the time, it was impossible. It was impossible to really get a balance of work and getting time to be creative. But, I just had to set time aside because this is something I want to do. I don’t want to do this job, the essential job for the rest of my life. I want to do art for the rest of my life. So, I just had to set time, had to do what I can. It was just like taking a little sketchbook and sneaking in some art in the middle of the job. I had to do what I could just to be like, “Hey, I am still an artist. This is what I want to do.” So, it’s hard. It’s hard. I’m still dealing with it to this day, but it’s just something you just got to keep pushing for.

Maurice Cherry:
What would it look like for you to be a full-time illustrator, or full-time graphic artist, I’ll say?

Sean Mack:
Definitely wouldn’t have to wake up at 4:00 in the morning.

Maurice Cherry:
Oof [crosstalk 00:41:33] my God.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, it’s not fun. I would say just being able to spend time on projects whether it be just one main project or small multiple projects, just taking time out of my day to work on these different ideas. Because, in my head, I have a lot of ideas just running around in my head that I never have time to actually get out. But, being a full-time artist, that would open up that time to be like, “All right, this will be my hour of personal creativity, food, and then another hour of professional work, and whatnot.” It would just be a day full of creating, basically. That’s what I would want, just to be able to create whether it is just a sketch or something more polished, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your artistic influences?

Sean Mack:
Names or genres?

Maurice Cherry:
Both.

Sean Mack:
The first name that pops up in my head, his name is … Well, there’s a couple names, but John Romita Jr., Chris Bucello, Aaron McGruder, obviously, LeSean Thomas. He worked on The Boondocks, but he also has his own anime that’s on Netflix right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Cannon Busters or something like that?

Sean Mack:
Yes, Cannon Busters, that’s exactly it. There’s a few other names. J. Scott Campbell, he did a comic book called Danger Girl.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I remember Danger Girl. I actually have two of those issues, I think, of Danger Girl.

Sean Mack:
I loved Danger Girl. I loved his work, just how detailed his work was. Oh no, I’m going to ruin his name, the creator of Cowboy Bebop, Watanabe.

Maurice Cherry:
Watanabe, Shinichirō Watanabe?

Sean Mack:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m a nerd over here. I know stuff.

Sean Mack:
Thank you, thank you. There’s like 1,000 others, but those are the ones that pop up to me first and foremost.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Chris McCulloch work on early-stage Generation X and the … I think that had to be in the ’90s or early 2000s. His work is so indelibly seared into my mind when I think about great comic work. He did some work for the larger X books, too. But, particularly with Generation X, I just have a big fondness for that team in general. They were done so dirty with that movie on Fox in ’96. I think it was ’96 when they had the Generation X movie.

Sean Mack:
Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m sure it’s on YouTube. If you’re listening and you want to find it, first of all, buyer beware, i’s very bad. And, I think it was one of the first if not the first … well, not one of the first because I’m sure they had Fantastic Four shows and movies and stuff. But, to come out of the Mutant X kind of realm, Generation X was just so bad. I hate how bad it was.

Sean Mack:
No, that was like the first live-action thing they did with X-Men, because they had the animated show and whatnot, but that was like the very first live-action. They went onto the movies, but yeah, that was-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, like, Jubilee was played by a white girl. Come on. It was so bad. It was so bad. And, they got a British woman to play Emma, but maybe Emma’s mom. She was way too old to be playing Emma. It was not good. It just wasn’t good at all. They deserve better. Although, I’m glad Monet, who was my favorite … I mean, I didn’t like how she was portrayed in the movie, but she was my favorite of the team, that she’s part of the main X Team now. Although, I still need to … I’m so behind on the comics, now, especially marvel stuff. I just catch a trade paperback here and there because that’s the best I can do these days.

Sean Mack:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best advice you’ve been given about what you do?

Sean Mack:
This advice isn’t necessary exclusively on what I do, but it’s one that sticks with me the most. It’s advice that my dad always gives me whenever it involves a project or just anything, just life in general. But, it’s like, if you do something, do it to the best of your ability. And, if you do something, see it all the way through. That is literally what runs in my mind every time I do something. It’s just like, “If I do something, I have to do it to the point that, when you look at this, you know that I drew it. You know that I was a part of this project somehow and just being able to finish it all the way through.” Like I said before, it’s just a wonderful feeling no matter what project you do because it’s a feeling of accomplishments. So, I think it has nothing specifically to do with art, but, that advice that my dad gave me, that my dad gives me all the time, that’s the one thing that pops in my head all the time.

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

Sean Mack:
I would love to storyboard for a movie. Well, I take that back. I would love, for instance, to make The Revolutionary Times into a movie. That’s a top goal, basically, but I would love to do some kind of work for a major production storyboarding or character design or something like that. A personal goal would be to draw a Deadpool comic. I don’t even have to do a series. Just give me a few pages or something. That’s definitely a goal. Yeah, I would just love to be able to work on something that’s a big production, just be able to have my style on something that’s going to be seen by millions of eyes. That’s something I would love to do.

Maurice Cherry:
What is keeping you motivated and inspired these days?

Sean Mack:
I think the one thing that’s been motivating me has been … because I follow a lot of artists on all my social media, Twitter, Instagram, all that. Just seeing all this work that people are able to create, even in the midst of all this insanity that we’re dealing with, that’s inspiring to see the different styles, the different techniques, techniques that you could bring back to your own work and try and see if that’s something that you can adapt to your own style. That’s just the way of artists. You’re constantly growing. You’re constantly building yourself up to be like the better part of what you were before. You’re always transforming. You’re always evolving, basically.

Sean Mack:
So, I think that’s one of the ways that I keep motivated, just trying to elevate myself, trying to see what I can do differently or see what I can mix up to create something that I haven’t done before. And then, there’s always just taking a day off and watching anime for a whole day. That’s one way to do it, as well. So, it’s a lot of ways. It’s a lot of ways that I’m trying to be inspired.

Maurice Cherry:
What shows are you watching right now?

Sean Mack:
Honestly, I’ve just been rewatching Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Sean Mack:
That, when I’m down, when I’m not sure what to do, it’s always, just pull up Cowboy Bebop and running through a couple of those episodes. I did start rewatching Attack on Titan, which is traumatic, to say the least. There was another show that I just finished watching. It’s on Hulu. No Guns Life, I think it’s called. That’s what I started watching. It’s pretty good. It’s a pretty interesting concept to it. For the most part, I just go back to the classics. I’m always open for people to give me some new ones to catch because I feel like it’s like comics. That’s another thing that I’m trying to catch back up on because I’m still trying to find the new joints, basically.

Maurice Cherry:
What genre of anime do you like the best? Comedy? Action? Supernatural?

Sean Mack:
I like a little bit of hybrid. I like the ones that have a mix of comedy and action to it. For instance, one of my favorite ones is Trigon. That has the comedy. That has the slapstick comedy, the action to it, the serious tones. So, that has a little bit of everything. I think the one that I fell in love with was the more so space-centered ones, because then you had Gundam. You had Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, a lot of those space-centered stories. I would thank Toonami and the Syfy Channel for all that, but you know. I would say I like a mixture of all the genres, I would say, the hybrid ones where you have its funny moments. You have your stressful moments as well, so yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you see … God, what’s the one? You were mentioning one, and I was wondering if you saw it because it did come on Toonami, I think … not Toonami, Adult Swim. What was it called, Eureka Seven? Did you see that?

Sean Mack:
I did not see Eureka 7 no, that I haven’t seen. I think that’s one of the ones on my list that I have to sit down and watch. Yeah, I have a list of so many movies and anime that I just haven’t watched yet. It’s a long list, and I don’t think I’m ever got to get through it at this point, but it’s on there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’ll also give you a recommendation, but this one is pretty old school. I think it’s probably on … It’s got to be on one of the anime streaming services like Crunchyroll or VRV or something like that, but Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It’s an old one. It’s like an ’80s anime, so it’s got that different kind of ’80s anime style, but very complex storytelling. It’s set in space. It’s very much a space … I was going to say a space opera. That’s kind of the best way to put it. It’s like a military space opera kind of thing.

Sean Mack:
You said it’s called Legend of the Galactic Heroes?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Sean Mack:
Okay, all right.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s pretty long, though. It’s over 100 episodes, so it’s not a quick one.

Sean Mack:
Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s not a quick watch.

Sean Mack:
Oh, it’s one of those, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I think Eureka Seven is like 26, like a standard 26-episode thing, but it’s not as long as Naruto, which is like 500-something episodes or more.

Sean Mack:
Yeah, see, when you get to the shows that have like 1,500 seasons like Naruto and One Piece, I’m just not going to be able to get into that. I’ll enjoy the references along with everybody else, but I can’t sit down and watch 500 hours of Naruto. I’m sorry, I can’t.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think the last modern anime that I watched … I’m saying modern like within the past five years. It was either … It was a couple. It was SSSS.Gridman, which was pretty good. I watched [Personify 00:54:24] the animation because I played the video game, and, oh God, this one called Inuyashiki, which is … I’ll say it’s an acquired taste. I think it’s a 13-episode series. The protagonist is an old … I don’t want to spoil it, but the protagonist is an old man that is also a heavy robot arsenal. It’s an interesting [inaudible 00:54:50] I’ll put it in the chat so you can see it, but it’s an interesting story, Inuyashiki. There were some clips of it floating around in 2017 or so because I think Donald Trump is featured at some point in the anime. It’s kind of out there. I don’t want to say it’s morbid, but, you know what, you watch it and you tell me what you think about it. Also, for those of you that are out there listening, if y’all have seen it, let me know what you think about it. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What do you want to be doing?

Sean Mack:
Well, hopefully not waking up at 4:00 in the morning every day.

Maurice Cherry:
Amen to that.

Sean Mack:
The only thing I would definitely love to be saying that I would hoping to be doing I five years is just still doing art, still creating. I can’t honestly say what the next five years would look like, but I would just hope it has me creating something whether it’s illustration or even doing that big production, doing art for that. I just want to be able to keep … be able to create, basically, and, yeah, maybe I’ll be part of a studio or still doing my own thing freelancing. Or, maybe Brandon and I are able to take Revolutionary Times and make it to a bigger platform. It’s a lot to say. Five years, you never know. We didn’t know what last year would be like, so …

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

Sean Mack:
At this point, I’m just like, “I can’t make any plans,” because life is very weird. Life is way too weird to make plans. Plan making is still important. Don’t go through life without a plan, but just know that life can always throw that one curve ball just like, “Oh, hey, there’s your plan in the bottom of the ocean somewhere.” I just would say I want to be able to still be creating in five years.

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

Sean Mack:
I guess the main place, Instagram, @silentsmack, all one word. I am on Twitter. Follow me if you want. It’s not much art on there, honestly. @ShizukaSam, I can’t spell it out right now, but @ShizukaSam on Twitter, and then @RevTimes on Twitter, @RevTimes on Instagram, and therevtimes.com for the comics. My personal site: smackillustrations.com.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Sean Mack, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. But, first of all, I was really just excited to talk to you because I’ve been following your work for such a long time, The Revolutionary Times and everything, so it was good to actually talk to you about the process and everything behind it. I think, certainly, with the work that you’re doing, the fact that you are such a keen collaborator and that you’re putting work out there that speaks to people, I hope that’s something that you will continue to keep doing throughout the years. I mean, the work that you’re doing, I could see this blowing up. I really can. We got to find a way to break you out of Michigan, but I can see your work blowing up in the next few years. So, hopefully, folks that are listening, make sure you check out Sean’s work. But, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

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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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Steenz

If you have been a listener of the show for a while, then you know I love cartoons and animation. So having a chance to sit down with this week’s guest, Steenz, was a lot of fun. Steenz is one of the few Black women syndicated cartoonists in mainstream funny pages for her work on “Heart of the City”, and her work on previous titles has netted her several coveted awards, including the Eisner Award, in the cartoon industry.

We talked about her picking up the torch from Mark Tatulli for “Heart of the City”, and she walked me through her creative process for starting on new projects. She also talked how she first got into comics, her teaching at Webster University, and one of her dream projects — a re-imaginging of Encyclopedia Brown! Keep an eye out for Steenz — I think we’ll be seeing her work in the world for years and years to come!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Steenz:
My name is Steenz, and I’m a cartoonist and editor and professor of comics.

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

Steenz:
So far, we’re still in the pandemic. So, we’re doing the best we can on that front. But in terms of work, pretty good, still working on Heart of the City as well as my new graphic novel. We just started the production on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about Heart of the City. What’s it about?

Steenz:
So, Heart of the City is a comic strip that had been going on since 1999. So, the original creator, Mark Tatulli, he wrote it back then and had been doing the art form and writing for it for the following 21 years or so. And so, he decided to retire and the syndicate, Andrews McMeel, decided to, instead of retiring the entire comic, to get a new artist and take the story to a new place for 2020.

Steenz:
Heart is about a young girl named Heart Lamarr who lives with her single mom in Philly. And so, the stories are about her and her friends’ lives as they grow up through middle school.

Maurice Cherry:
And how has it been inheriting such a well-known comic like that?

Steenz:
It was super intimidating to begin with just because if you pick up something that’s been going on for 20 years, that’s a long time to kind of make a name for yourself and really put in the backstory into a comic. And so, it was intimidating to jump on and start anew especially since my background was traditional comics like single-issue comics and graphic novels and not so much syndicated comic strips which are definitely a bit more… You have dimensions that you have to work with. You have types of terms of phrase that you can work with.

Steenz:
So, it was definitely a lot to get used to at the very beginning. But thankfully, my editor, she had a lot of confidence in me and rightly so because I ended up getting on the train pretty quickly. So, I didn’t really have anything to worry about in terms of actually doing comic strips.

Steenz:
Well, that’s good. I mean I think it’s one thing to slip into something that’s kind of well known already has an environment built around and then trying to discover that as you go. But I’m curious how have readers been taking it? What’s the reception been like?

Steenz:
Yeah. It’s a little hard to tell. Syndicated comics, the way they work, typically, you don’t really see them going one and done. They usually are comics that last for a very long time. And, usually, the creator is the same for a very long time, and it was the same thing for Mark Tatulli 20 years. And so, the fan base is definitely not one to greet change very nicely, I guess, is the best way to put it.

Steenz:
When you work with a graphic novel or a single issue comic, there’s so many ways and avenues for someone to read your book whether they picked it up from a comic book store or Barnes & Noble to whether a teacher recommended it or a friend recommended it, whether they read it right when it came out or years after. You always have so many different kinds of people that tell you this is what they thought of the book whether it’s on panels or over Twitter or anything like that.

Steenz:
But when it comes to syndicated comics because they are so specifically in newspapers, really, the only way for you to read it is if you are reading that the newspaper that has purchased that comic or if you are reading it on gocomics.com which doesn’t really have a very well-moderated comment section. And so, like I was saying about the fans who are not very welcoming to change, that’s pretty much where you’re going to see that.

Steenz:
So, I don’t usually go on to go comics because why head towards negativity, right? But I’m not really sure what people think of it. Occasionally, someone will come up and say like, “Oh, this is really good,” or if they like this arc. And that’s really nice to hear. But I think I’m going to find out more what people think about it when it’s collected and more widely available.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good idea. Never read the comment section.

Steenz:
I know. I know. It’s just like it’s so strange because the kinds of things that they had issues with was not even like in terms of storytelling. It’s just because I’m not Mark Tatulli. There weren’t even any real issues people had except for the fact that I wasn’t him.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, some of the other titles and comics that you’ve worked on include Rolled and Told, Witchy, Archival Quality, Quincredible. What do you sort of remember the most from each of those titles?

Steenz:
Well, they’re all very, very different in that how I’m attached to them. So, Rolled and Told, Witchy, Quincredible, those are all books that I’ve edited. So, my connection to those are in the form of I need to get the story out in the most effective way possible, so that not just the writer is happy, but also it is an entertaining read for people.

Steenz:
Meanwhile, Archival Quality was the first graphic novel that I did with my co-creator, Ivy Noelle Weir, and that, it took us many, many years to complete as graphic novels do. So, I also had a huge hand in creating these characters and creating their mannerisms and how they interact with each other in addition to the storytelling that Ivy brought to it. So, it’s just an entirely different process, and I definitely feel a lot closer to Archival Quality than I do to the other books for that reason.

Maurice Cherry:
So, with some of the work that you’re doing now, it sounds like you work in different roles. Sometimes, you’re editing. Sometimes, you’re creating. Let’s say from the creation process like, say, you’ve got an idea for, I don’t know, a comic or a strip or something like that, what does that process look like to go from start to finish?

Steenz:
I think it really depends on if it is something that’s longer or something that’s relatively short. For example, so, the other night, my husband and I, we have been watching the Riddick universe movies because we love them, and I was thinking as I saw him working the next day, that he was on the Riddick IMDb page. And so, in my head, I was like, “he’s still thinking about Riddick.”

Steenz:
And later in the day, my husband was like, “I’ve been thinking about when Riddick 4 comes out,” and I’m just like, “I need to know when we’re going to see it.” And then, he reminded me of this meme that’s going around where this woman is in bed with her husband, and she’s like, “I bet he’s thinking about other women,” and in his head is like whatever the punchline is, is what he’s actually thinking about.

Steenz:
And so, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I did a comic where we’re sitting in bed and my head is I bet he’s thinking about Chronicles of Riddick 2004 and the punchline is [Kia 00:11:28] is thinking when does Riddick 4 come out.” So, it’s like on the one hand, a lot of my jokey strips come from just conversations that I have with my husband or things that I see online, and I want to make a joke about or a situation that I thought was hilarious and wanted to share with others.

Steenz:
Meanwhile, if it’s something for like Heart of the City, I think about an entire storyline, okay. So, if they’re going to theater camp, what’s something that they’re going to get out of going to theater camp? What is Heart going to get out of it? And so, then I think, “Okay. Well, if she’s going to get an idea of knowing when to stand up for something versus how to pick your battles and how can I show that kind of story,” and then, I’m just break it down further and further and further to how does the story get played out, which part of the story is going to be my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

Steenz:
And then, also remembering how am I going to make sure that this punch line is delivered as well because, for the most part, comic strips do have to be funny as well. So, it really just depends. If it’s something longer, if it’s something short, I just wait for inspiration to come pretty much. I’m just thankful that I get inspired by a lot of different things. I have a lot of different hobbies. I watch a lot of different types of media. I played different kinds of games. I read all kinds of books. So, I think I’m always going to have something to pull from when I’m creating these stories whether it’s real life or other people’s creations.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that, I don’t know, decomposition is a part of the process to start with something bigger and then break it down because it almost feels like it would be the opposite.

Steenz:
That’s what most people think. But I always say that work smarter not harder. It’s very scrooge things to say, Scrooge McDuck thing to say. But it’s true because if your idea is this magnum opus of a story that spans hundreds of years and goes across all space and time, where do you begin? So, you have to deconstruct to even find a starting point.

Steenz:
So, usually, when I’m working with my students or with clients, I really like to get to the base of the story. I know you want to tell a story about this witch and her interactions with her brother. But what’s the conflict? Who is the person? Let’s get down to the bare, bare bones and get it as deconstructed as possible. And then, we can build on top of that because if you go the other way around, what you’re going to do is you’re going to fill in the space with things that you think will solve plot holes. But you don’t get that problem if you start small and add on to it because you can always go back and say, “Well, if I add this, how is it going to interact with everything else that I’ve already created?” It’s just so much easier to start smaller and go bigger than the other way around.

Maurice Cherry:
Great advice. I like that. That’s really good. So, you’re based in St. Louis. Is that where you grew up also?

Steenz:
So, I was actually born in Detroit, and we moved into St. Louis when I was around 10 years old. So, I did go to high school in St. Louis, and that’s pretty much all you need in order for anyone from here to know that, “Oh, you’re from St. Louis.”

Maurice Cherry:
Is St. Louis a big comic city?

Steenz:
Yes and no, I guess. we don’t really have a comic convention that comes to the city that isn’t wizard world. But wizard world is great value conventions. [crosstalk 00:14:57] better than it is. But there was a lot of comic book stores here. There are a lot of creators here. Marie Enger lives here. Matt Kent, Cullen Bunn, Brian Hurt, there’s a lot of creators that are here in the St. Louis greater area.

Steenz:
So, I always felt like I had something to go to whether it was ink and drink or a collective to put out comics with or drawing groups. So, I never felt like I didn’t have that sort of thing. The only thing that St. Louis lacked was corporate “jobs” around comics. There wasn’t a publisher for me to work at. In New York, there’s publishers on every corner. And when you have a very specific industry comic books, they’re just not going to be in every single city. So, yes and no for St. Louis. Yes and no.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. It’s interesting as kids, we’re exposed to so much animation and comics and cartoons and everything. When did you start making comics?

Steenz:
I didn’t start making comics until I was an adult. I was 21, 20 when I started making comics because that was never an option for me, not because I didn’t think it was something I couldn’t do. It was something that never occurred to me. And when you don’t see something, you just don’t believe it. If someone’s like, “Why don’t you be a comic book creator?” It’s like, “What?” What black women comic book creators are there? Especially when you’re nine years old and you’re watching Justice League, the idea that that’s something you could do growing up just isn’t there unless you see it.

Steenz:
And I never saw it which is why I didn’t even go to a comic book store until I was an adult as well. I didn’t really believe that they existed because I never saw them where I live. So, I started my interest in fandoms and comics industry. I really, really loved superhero comics. I loved reading standalone graphic novels. I was hugely into manga growing up as well. That sort of thing has always been a part of my life. I remember the first purchase that I could have ever made on my own was choosing which shoes I wanted to buy at Payless, and I chose the Sailor Moon shoes.

Steenz:
So, on the one hand, I’ve always been attached to entertainment. But on the other hand, it was never something that I considered as a career until I dropped out of college, and I saw people doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Speaking of college, and I don’t know maybe you just answered my question, I mentioned that you dropped out. But what was it like there? You went to Maryville University of St. Louis.

Steenz:
Yeah. I mean I like the college experience. I like not living with my parents and getting drunk and meeting new people and figuring out who I am as a person. That’s the college experience. But did it prepare me for comics? No. I mean I would say it prepared me for nothing. I think with college, you really need to know what you want before you go. So many kids, they’re 16, 17, 18 years old when they’re told to go to college and figure out a career for the rest of their lives. But they don’t even know who they are. And when you’re that young, you don’t even know what the right questions are to ask.

Steenz:
I was in the art department, and I knew that I liked drawing, and I liked reading comics. And the question of what do I do with this, how do I succeed at this, what can I do with my talents, those sort of questions, you just don’t know to ask when you’re that young. I went because I was supposed to go. That’s what you do when you graduate high school in the suburbs. You go to college, and that’s what I did.

Steenz:
But as I went and as it was getting more and more expensive, and I don’t come from money, so it was all financial aid and figuring out what I could afford. And at a point, it was like this is getting too expensive for me to pay on my own, and they’re not really helping me with any sort of direction. So, I’m leaving. What’s the point of me staying here? So, that’s when I just got into the industry and just started working. So, I was working at Victoria’s Secret. I was working at a Hallmark Store. I was working at all these different part-time jobs just to make ends meet.

Steenz:
And eventually, I ended up getting a job at the local comic book store, and that’s where things started to take a turn was when I was more exposed to creators and the actual process of creating comics and selling comics. I was in comics retail for four years. I was a manager there. So, I learned a lot about how to sell a comic, and what sort of things you need in order to be successful in the comics industry. And so, all of that knowledge was there, and that’s where I got it from the actual job of being in a comic shop. So, no. College did not help, not that it can’t help because I do teach cartooning at college.

Steenz:
until we get to a point where college is not a money farm, I don’t know if we’re going to find a lot of programs that are appropriately preparing kids for the real world. The fact that a lot of colleges don’t have a mandatory this is how you do taxes course, tells me enough. So, hopefully, when people are going back to school or they finally decided that they do want to get that education, if they decide to get it Webster University, you’ll have me as a professor, and I’ll teach you the basics of cartooning. But for me, it was I had to be hands-on because that’s all that there was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a great point about knowing what it is that you want to do once you sort of get to college. For me, I went to an HBCU. I went to Morehouse. And even when I was choosing my major, initially, I went because I had a scholarship. And then, I was going to do computer science, computer engineering and started out doing it, but really wanted to make websites.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember my advisor telling me like, “If this is what you want to do, you need to change your major because the internet is a fad.” I should mention this this is in 1999. So, the internet literally just was starting to become a thing, and people really didn’t know the depth or breadth of what could be done on the internet. And I switched majors to something that I liked which was math which probably sounds weird to say. But I went-

Steenz:
No. [crosstalk 00:21:19] math too.

Maurice Cherry:
I went all through college and majored in math. But by the time I graduated, I had nothing lined up at all because I didn’t want to go to graduate school which was really the only thing that my major was sort of preparing me for was to be a professional, not a professional mathematician, but to at least go to graduate school. That was the next stop, and I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that.” I did 12 years of school plus four years of this. I’m done with school right now, and they’re like, “Oh, well. Good luck. There was nothing to do.” I also did a bunch of just retail jobs and customer service jobs before I ended up falling into my first sort of design position. And even then, yeah, it was sort of you learn on the job because, unfortunately, you didn’t really pick it up in college.

Steenz:
I mean you also learn what you like by finding out what you don’t like.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s the truth.

Steenz:
I mean when I was in school, the art program was studio art graphic design or interior design. I knew for sure I wasn’t interested in interior design, and I didn’t know if I was interested in graphic design because all I knew is that I like to draw, and I like to use a tablet to do it. So, does that mean I need to get into graphic design since they focus on digital work while studio art focuses on gallery art?

Steenz:
And so, I went to graphic design thinking, “Well, this is probably the right direction, since I use a digital tablet to draw my comics or my illustrations.” And then, I get there, and it’s just, “Oh, this is all just working for somebody else. This looks shit. I don’t want to do this at all.” I went back to studio art. But now that I’m back in the studio art is like, “How am I supposed to be using my digital illustration in this course that is trying to teach me watercolor and oil paint which I like?” It’s fine. But it is not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Steenz:
So, yeah, that’s why I think it’s so important for people to actually just go out and work. Everyone needs to do at least one retail job, one food service job so that, A, you know how to treat people who take those jobs and then also so that you can find out is this something that you’re passionate about. What did you like about being in retail? What did you like about working in food service, because what I liked about being in retail was to be able to actually hear what someone wants and to help them get what they want to get.

Steenz:
So, while I may have been a beauty lead at Victoria’s Secret, yes, cool. I learned about makeup. But I also found out what people wanted to see when they put on makeup, what they’re looking for when it comes to their skin care, actually having those conversations with people and figuring out what they needed. And I think that sort of thing led me towards being a better editor and teacher because I can actually hear what people are saying and figure out what are you getting, what are you not getting, what can I help you with?

Steenz:
So, in a way, even the jobs that you don’t think are going to be stepping stones to your future. They are. Everything you do matters which is why I’m like, “So, be careful when it comes to taking out life-altering loans.”

Maurice Cherry:
I tell people sometimes that your expertise is sometimes the sum of your experiences. It may not necessarily just be, “Oh, I went to this school, then this school, and that.” It’s a lot of things just like you mentioned. It’s food service. It’s retail. It’s things outside of what you think you want to do that end up informing your overall view of what it is that you want to do. [crosstalk 00:24:47]

Steenz:
And then, everything moves forward as well. So, I was doing four years at comics retail. And so, yes, I had experience with retail management. But I also had experience with books and learning about the BISAC codes and the reason things are produced a certain way so that they fit on shelves. That information and knowing about doing events for the store, that’s community event building. That’s event organization. All of that information helped me be a better librarian. All of my information about being a librarian helped me to be a better marketing person at a publisher.

Steenz:
All that marketing knowledge, all that library knowledge, all that retail knowledge helped me be a better editor because I knew what was already out there, and what works, and what doesn’t work, and why. So, it’s like everything that you do leads to something else. You just have to trust the process that things will work out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, eventually, you ended up working for a comic book, a publishing company. But in 2019, you struck out on your own as a cartoonist. Talk to me about that.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, that was really scary because when you’re used to getting an income from a W-2 stable income, it’s scary to have to be your own boss. So, that is something that I always want to tell people that it is not not going to be scary. It’s okay to be stressed because it’s stressful. When you are a freelancer, there’s a lot of stuff you have to take care of. But I knew that there were certain things that I wanted to do.

Steenz:
I was talking to, I consider her, my editorial mentor. I don’t know if she knows it. But she was saying, “What’s something that you want to do when you wake up in the morning? What’s something that you know that you want to do every day, not a job title, not a company you don’t work for? What’s something you want to do?” And so, I said, “I want to make comics. I want to continue to edit comics because I love helping people bring their visions to life.”

Steenz:
And I also want to teach because I’ve done a bunch of different kinds of workshops and getting people to understand comics. But the reason I want to teach is because I want to open that door for more people to get into the industry because it is so difficult, and she was like, “Then, that’s what you need to do. That’s what you need to find a way to make lucrative so that you can keep a roof over your head and work that way.”

Steenz:
And so, I first started off by doing editorial pitches. I was helping people with their pitch PDFs and giving them editorial feedback on not just the story but also the entire pitch as a whole. And so, for the first part of my freelance life was that last half of 2019 was a lot of that doing a ton of editorial for small publishers, for individuals, for groups who were working on magazines and then also doing comics for magazines, illustrations for businesses.

Steenz:
So, I was doing a lot of things that I was already doing while I was working at the publisher and while I was working at the library. But now, they’ve just moved into the forefront, and I’ve just been doing even more of that because there was a lot of stuff that I would turn down because I was busy. I had a job. I can’t just say yes to every creative endeavor that comes to me. But also, I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted. When I was working at the library, when I was working as an editor, I loved it. I loved editing comics. I loved helping people, and I did not ever think, “Man, the goal for me is to be my own boss.” That was never my goal.

Steenz:
I was like, “If I can find a way to get a steady pay in for the rest of my life, and I can still make comments on the side, that would be ideal.” So, yeah, it was never my goal to just be a freelancer because that’s a lot of work, and I don’t like doing a lot of work, I mean in the nicest way possible. When I finally started doing freelance, it was a lot. It was very hard, and I’m really thankful that I have an agent, and I’ve been able to get so many different opportunities from not just illustration but editorial opportunities.

Steenz:
And I even had someone say, “Hey, I can’t teach this class at Webster because he got a promotion.” And so, because of his promotion, he couldn’t teach one of the classes, the cartooning class at Webster. And he saw that I had a lot more free time now, and he reached out to me, and he said, “Would you want to teach the cartooning class?”

Steenz:
And so, that’s how I ended up with my job at Webster University which is another thing that they don’t tell you in school, is that you don’t have to go to school to be a college professor. You just need to have the experience. And so now, that’s what I do. I teach cartooning, and I edit freelance. And then, I also do my art as well.

Maurice Cherry:
So, yeah. Let’s talk about Webster University in your class. Tell me about it.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, I teach cartooning which is the class you have to take before comic-book making. So, it is a prerequisite course. You learn about the basics, basics, basics of comics. I mean we’re talking about simplifying your illustrations to one panel comics to silent comics, to strip comics and not only do I teach them the basics and the fundamentals of cartooning. But I also teach them tools that they’ll need to succeed in the future. So, whether it’s taxes or a little bit of knowledge about copyright law, just those kinds of things that will help them when they get out there.

Steenz:
Anytime I think about my college experience, I just get so mad that I wasn’t prepared more. And so, I do the best I can to prepare them for what I can whenever we have the time in between big sections in my class.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Steenz:
Man, honestly, how to be funnier. Honestly, I laugh so much not at my students but with my students because they’re just… I don’t know. It’s nice to see young creatives because they have not yet been brought down by the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Fair. Yeah.

Steenz:
And it’s depressing to say it. But that’s what it is. So many times during the finals which is to create an a 10-strip booklet, so, it’ll have 10 comics. They have an overarching theme. They individually can stand on their own. But they all go together. With that project, I find so many fascinating stories, so many different styles, so many ways to story tell that it’s nice to know that the knowledge is all there. It’s easy for anyone to make comics if they put their mind to it.

Steenz:
So, there’s so many students that come in and like, “I can’t draw, or I don’t know if I have the right tools to make a comic book.” And I just want to be like, “You’re starting too far ahead. Just think about storytelling. Think about what makes you laugh. Think about how words interact with images. That kind of baseline thinking is all you need to make comics. And if you slow down and you put your sights right, you can create some pretty incredible stuff without even realizing it.

Steenz:
I’ve read some comics that I just loved. And no, they were not Michelangelo’s David in terms of illustration. But it didn’t have to be, and that’s one of the best parts about comics, is you don’t have to know how to draw, be an incredible draftsman. You don’t have to have created comics for 20 years to be able to make comics. And I’m reminded of that every time I teach.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine, like you say, what I sort of get from this conversation with you so far is that you really have this immense capacity for helping people. And like you said, you really love to make people bring their vision to life. And so, I can see how teaching would be sort of a natural extension of that.

Steenz:
Yeah. I mean I someone to walk away with something when they finish their interaction with me. So, if I’m teaching them comics, I want them to be able to walk away feeling a little more confident that they could make comics, or if I am editing them, I want them to walk away feeling like they’re a better writer after they’ve worked with me than they were before.

Steenz:
If someone’s reading my comics, I want them to walk away with that was funny and gave me an iota of happiness for a half second. And so, it’s just like I want people to get something out of things because I guess it may just be my history of going to school and feeling like I wasted a lot of time because I didn’t really have a direction. That’s why I always feel like I need to make sure that you get something out of this especially if you’re a student, especially if you go to any college, they’re not cheap. If you get a scholarship, that’s great. But they are not cheap. You cannot deny how much money people are putting into these schools. And so, I want to make sure that they get something out of it because there is nothing that infuriates me more than people wasting their money.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one thing that I’ve mentioned before we started recording that I’ve had a few cartoonists and artists and such on the show before. And something that we always end up talking about in some respects is representation which I think something it’s a huge thing right now, I think, especially as people look at comics and animation not as a juvenile thing. But it’s just another medium to tell stories. It feels like representation always sort of comes into that conversation particularly within the past, I don’t know, year or so that the larger world has woken up to the fact that black lives matter and all this sort of stuff. Do you ever feel like that you have to sort of “represent” in the work that you do?

Steenz:
No. I feel like I have to just represent myself. And the more authentic I am, the better that is for younger people who look to me because when I was growing up, I’m sure we have a similar… Anyone that likes anime and manga or punk music or alt style, that sort of thing, oftentimes, isn’t really embraced in black families.

Steenz:
For me, it’s really nice to be my authentic self so that people who do not feel like they are enough or doing the right things the right way to show that their way is the right way. There’s always this question of like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m black enough because I don’t listen to X, Y, Z or I read manga a lot or whatever.” And I it’s like that’s not the way it has to be, like, “Are you black? Yes. Do you read? Manga. Yes. Okay. Well, then you’re a black manga reader.”

Steenz:
So, I think for me, I’m not really trying to represent blackness as a whole. I’m trying to represent authenticity and knowing that who you are is who you are, and that’s why you are who you are. I don’t know. I know that sounds crazy. But I mean I don’t know. I want people to feel okay in their own skin. And oftentimes, that happens when you see authentic stories. And so, for me, if someone is, for example, one of the strips that I did for Heart of the City was Charlotte and Dean are supposed to be watching the stream of the Street Fighter competition, and she forgot that she had wash day on Sunday.

Steenz:
So, she’s got to get her hair done all while holding up her phone so that she could still watch the stream so that she and Dean has something to talk about. So, the story was just really cute where she’s like, “Mom, watch gently,” and she’s trying to get her hair blow-dried, and she’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe that guy isn’t even blocking.” She’s just being herself. She’s doing the things that she likes to do. She likes to watch Street Fighter competitions, and she’s also black which means she also has to do wash day every once in a while.

Steenz:
And so, when you do that sort of storytelling, it shows people who are not black that we are just like everybody else. Yes, we have these cultural things that we must do like wash day. But also, you can catch me watching Twitch to see who’s doing the best when it comes to Street Fighter. I think it’s important to just be yourself, be authentic, and that is enough to show people that there is more than the stereotypes. There’s more than the box that you think you have to be in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a good point. I like that. I need a wash day myself actually now that I’m thinking of that.

Steenz:
Oh my god. I’ve been just putting gel to hold it back. So, I’m like, “Hold on, guys. I just…”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve been holding off because I’m like, “Do I want to do this in the middle of the week or do I want to wait till the weekend?”

Steenz:
I know. I know.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a pain.

Steenz:
[crosstalk 00:38:16] in the weekend, then, you feel like you wasted a large part of your weekend.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. I don’t know. I’ll figure it out anyway. [crosstalk 00:38:25] Yeah. So, do you have a dream project that you would love to do one day or that you would love to work on?

Steenz:
Yes. So, I actually started on this dream project, and I believe that’s what got me in my job at as Heart of the City. I want to do a retelling of Encyclopedia Brown as a comic. Do you remember that book?

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. First of all, yes. I am very much of the mind that Encyclopedia Brown is black, very much so. I mean his first name is Leroy. So, I’m like, “Come on. He’s got to be black.” But no. Go ahead. I didn’t interrupt you. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Steenz:
Yeah. So, I want to do Encyclopedia Brown. And back in 2019 when I had all this free time, [crosstalk 00:39:10] I literally was like, “I have no excuse for not doing this mini-comic. I have no excuse at all.” It was before I was too busy, I got work, I’m too tired. But now, it’s like, “What are you waiting for? What are you waiting for?”

Steenz:
So, I just made a mini-comic where I took one of Encyclopedia Brown stories. And the only thing that I changed was that Encyclopedia Brown was a black girl, and they kept everything else so their turn of phrase definitely still sounds like they’re in the ’60s even though they’re dressed today. So, I was leaning towards that whole Romeo plus Juliet Baz Luhrmann style where it’s current, but they’re also using older turn of phrase. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Steenz:
And so, I made that mini-comic, and I loved it, and it was so much fun. And I want to be able to do a full book of those. But I sold that mini-comic at SPX. And at SBX, was the editor of Heart of the City, and she saw that. And I think me showing the retellings and the re-imaginings that I really, really love to do, once I actually did them because I love to do them, people saw them, and they saw the Heart went into it, and it led to bigger and better things.

Steenz:
So, yeah, my goal is to make an Encyclopedia Brown comic. I definitely want to do that. I also have a comic that’s been on the back burner for a while. It’s a comic about how to buy a house as a freelancer which is super, super important because it’s hard out there, and it’s especially hard when you’re in the creative field, and you’re trying to prove to people that you’re legit, and you actually make money. So, that’s another thing. I’ve got all sorts of comic goals and whatnot. But I’m working on a graphic novel right now. I have to pace myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I think both of those ideas are great. I mean I would love to see that retelling of Encyclopedia Brown. And actually even as you mentioned that how-to comic, it sort of reminded me of these sort of comic explainers that you see. I see them sometimes on the Nib or on similar types of publications. And those are super helpful.

Steenz:
I love that.

Maurice Cherry:
I was a freelancer.

Steenz:
[crosstalk 00:41:30] favorite things.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was a freelancer for a long time and renting. And I’m still renting now. But I do, at one point, want to have my own separate little studio space whether that’s a house or whatever and like, “Yeah, it’ll be good to know what that process is like.” And now, as comics and things are being seen as more of a medium to tell stories, that’s a great way to do it.

Steenz:
Yeah, for sure. And I think those are the kinds of things that I really like to do. I mean I like telling goofy one-off stories. But the non-fiction stuff is the stuff that really excites me because I get to really break down information in the easy-to-understand way. That’s the goal, is to make it so that it’s easy for anybody to be able to do because it can be done. You just have to know the information. And for you, if you want to buy a house, the best advice that I can give you is to, once you decide you want to buy a house, give yourself two years before you apply because the first thing that a loan person is going to want to see is that you have stable income from the past two years.

Steenz:
So, if that’s getting all your 1099s together, making sure you’re completely organized when it comes to the money coming in and the money going out, if you do that for two years straight and have all the records for it, getting a loan for a house is not going to be hard for you. It’s really all about keeping track of all of your information. So, think about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good information. Thank you for that tip. On a personal level, what have comics really done for you?

Steenz:
I think it has helped me figure out who I am as a person. As we’ve been talking about how much I really enjoy helping people and getting their stories out and making things easy and simple and giving the information away, all that stuff, I don’t think I would have learned any of that without comics. So, I think knowing what I think my master goal, my reason for being here, I think I don’t know if I would have figured that out if I didn’t have comics.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say has been the best advice that you’ve been given about what you do? It could be about just life in general. It could be about comics in general, anything like that.

Steenz:
Well, as someone who had always been very anxious about what sort of projects I should or shouldn’t take on based on whether it was good for my career or whether it was the right step. There was always a lot of anxiety about which direction should I be going, and what direction is the right way. And a friend of mine, Shivana Sookdeo, who is a designer, she said that everything that you do is a stepping stone to where you’re going to be, but you do not need to step on every stone to get there.

Steenz:
And I think that made me a little less anxious about opportunities about trying new things, about saying no to things, about passing on things because when you’re a freelancer, saying no or passing on something means you’re not going to get that money. And so, your first thought is, “Okay. Well, where else am I going to get that money?”

Steenz:
But if it really feels like something that you don’t want to do, if it feels like something that’s going to make you really anxious or take up a lot of your time or be hard on you physically, then, don’t do it because there will be another chance for you to get that money. So, just knowing that I don’t have to say yes to every single thing that comes my way, in order to be successful, has helped with that anxiety, freelancer anxiety.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to anyone out there that’s listening to this, your story is resonating with them, and they want to sort of follow in your footsteps?

Steenz:
I would say keep very organized records whether that’s getting an external hard drive, investing in a printer and a file cabinet, keep good records, and that isn’t just records of boring work stuff. I mean records of things that have made you happy, records of letters that you have received. I think it’s really important to always have those records so that if you want, you can go back to them, and you can look at those, and you can feel those feelings again.

Steenz:
I always think about memento mori. We’re all going to pass this mortal coil. But while we are here, we should be able to reminisce on the things that were and also the things that you want in the future. So, keeping those records, what have you done? What do you want to do? What are you doing currently? Sometime in the future, you’re going to want to look back on it. I don’t know when, and I don’t know for what reason. But you will, and you’ll be happier knowing that you have those somewhere.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five year? It’s 2026. All this pandemic stuff is behind us. Where do you see yourself? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Steenz:
Well, by 2026, my second book will be out and as well as my collection of Heart of the City. So, I hope that I’m filthy rich and an island of my own with a diamond suit. Now, I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in the next five years. I mean I like what I’m doing right now. I would really like for this pandemic to be over so that I could continue to do what I like right now which is traveling for conventions, meeting new people. Traveling for conventions is such a huge part of the comics industry that I really, really, really, really, really wanted to come back.

Steenz:
But five years from now, hopefully, doing the same stuff because I’m pretty happy with what I’m doing right now. Maybe, I’ll have even more mentees and new students that can take my advice, and I’d like to see them succeed as well. So, doing what I’m doing now, I’m pretty happy.

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

Steenz:
So, you can find me on social media as Oheysteenz. That’s O-H-E-Ysteenz. You can find me on Twitter, on Instagram, TikTok. And then, if you want to reach out to me for work, my email is oheysteenz@gmail. And then, also my website is oheysteenz.com. I like to keep things simple. So, it’s the same across the board. But yeah, that’s where you can look me up and find me. I’ll be there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Steenz. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show for really, I mean one, sharing your story, but also really putting forth. Like I said earlier in the interview, I really get the sense that you really love helping people, and that’s something that definitely I got from listening to more about your background, hearing what you do with teaching even what you’re doing with helping with editing and things of that nature. It definitely feels like comics is a calling for you, and it’s a way for you to tell stories to the world. So, I’m glad to be able to interview you and to share your story with our audience. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Steenz:
You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

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.

John B. Johnson

If you were a part of last week’s State of Black Design conference, then you’ve already been introduced to this week’s guest — John B. Johnson. As the principal of A Small Studio in Seattle, he leads a team of creative professionals that specialize in authentic digital design.

We spoke about how his business has changed through the pandemic, as well as his process with new projects (such as DOSE). He also talked about growing up in Cleveland, studying architecture, and how these experiences led him to start his studio and his moves until settling in Seattle. This is a really thoughtful and deep interview, and I hope John’s story resonates with you all!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

John B. Johnson:
Hey, my name is John Johnson. I am a identity architect and principal of A Small Studio, where we use our gifts of design to bring peace to people’s lives.

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

John B. Johnson:
Maurice, the year is going well.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounded like a loaded question. The way you sighed made it sound like that was going to be a heavy answer.

John B. Johnson:
Every time somebody asked me that question, it’s always heavy because you can reflect on yesterday or you can reflect on the last 10 years that have brought you to this moment to even be ready for this year or ready for last year. And I take that deep breath because it’s an opportunity for me to really intentionally answer that question. For me, man, this year has been incredible because we’ve grown as a company, I’ve grown as a man, I’ve grown as a husband. We’ve grown to six people now. This time last year, we had three so we’ve doubled in size in a year. If anybody knows about growing an agency, every person you add, it adds another layer of complexity.

John B. Johnson:
We’ve already exceeded our revenue that we made last year, this year, which is incredible. We’re in three-and-a-half years in terms of our growth. But more specifically, and I’m turning 33 this year, I’ve been approaching this year very intentionally, because 33 is just a really incredible number for a number of reasons. Me and my wife are also planning on moving back to Cleveland, where I was born and raised, and actually building a home there, and really starting to put in some roots after being a nomad for the last nine years.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s your Jesus Year as the old folks would say.

John B. Johnson:
It’s my Jesus Year. That’s it. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
So growing from three people to six people, as folks know, for me, that I’ve done this podcast, I had a studio for nine years called Lunch. You’re absolutely right, every person that you bring on, it’s a different layer of complexity, it changes the culture, it just adds more to the business. Of course, you want to bring people on to help out with tasks. But it’s amazing how even just bringing on one more person can really change the dynamic of everything. What inspired you to create your own studio?

John B. Johnson:
Simple answer, I realized that I had a gift for branding and I realized that the people that needed branding the most, organizations that needed branding the most had very little access to it because of how inaccessible it was through the agencies. As you know, the cost goes up really high the more people you add. I actually set out with a friend of mine, Troy Thomas, who’s our creative director, and the co-founder of A Small Studio to create a agency that really made branding accessible to individuals and organizations that really were attempting to make an impact in the world. So you can say that I saw how ridiculous agency costs were to impact organizations and how inaccessible they were. And I decided that I was going to build an agency that made that work as accessible as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, given the name of the business, A Small Studio, is the goal to keep it pretty small?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. In the typical sense of the word, small, we want to make sure that we stay smaller in size as far as the team, specifically. However, we know that through technology and through our skill set of design, that we can actually reach many people with our work with products, with services, with education, so on and so forth. So we want to stay small in the physical sense of the word. We don’t want that large overhead, we want to get rid of middle people, account managers, project managers, things like that. And we want to only have people in our team that are intentional about the work, and how they can use their gift to bring peace to our clients and to communities that we interact with. I can dive into that more, but we want to stay small physically so that we can make more impact externally with the resources that we will have and the resources that we can gain through that small nature.

Maurice Cherry:
You said earlier that revenues already exceeded what you’ve made from last year. So it sounds like business has really kind of, I guess, changed and improved over the past year or so given the state of the world.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t think it’s any shocker to people that technology is booming, especially when it comes to digital design. So that’s what we specialize in, is authentic digital design, I want to say. With these organizations and these technology companies, startups, money is still flowing through the tech space. A lot of money, if not more money, than before. And these organizations, they need designers, they need people that can not only help them get started but also help them grow to the next level. As we built our reputation over the last three years, we’re getting more and more referrals from people that we’ve served in the past and it’s been spectacular.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your process look like when you start out with a new project?

John B. Johnson:
We always say everything starts with identity. So when I start working with a organization, first off, we want to make sure that they are a good fit to work with us and we’re a good fit for them, and then we dive into who they are. I actually have started to make it a requirement for my clients to go through the Identity Architecture Workshop, which is a individual workshop to help people reflect on who they are as individuals. Say, “What makes you one in 7.8 billion?” I created this workshop to really help people reflect so they can live life on purpose or live more authentically, and align who they are with their passions and their motivations. I found that through agency, and you may be able to relate to this, Maurice, I really have no desire to work with people that are just doing their work for money or doing their work for things that really aren’t eternal or aren’t connected to their experiences as individuals.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve started to create these workshops to really start to filter out the nonsense or I like to say the clutter of the industry of the world and start to get to the core of who someone is. And that happens through the Individual Identity Architecture Workshop. And then we take the whole team through a Corporate Identity Architecture Workshop. And what that does is that gives me and my design team a authentic foundation to build off of and start designing the brand identity and everything that goes into a brand identity. And then now distributing that brand identity into the products and/or experiences that we will be designing for them.

John B. Johnson:
As of right now, one of our clients is ShearShare with Dr. Tye Caldwell and Courtney Caldwell out of Texas. They’re actually in Dallas and they are building a marketplace for the beauty industry. Actually, they call themselves the HAIRbnb. They actually help stylists and barbers to find seats or chairs across the country but also help the salon owners sell their chairs and make sure that they’re getting revenue from them. That is something that’s unique and core to who they are as people. Well, Dr. Tye is a master barber and they want to build a community around that. So we have taken them through that exact process that I shared with you and been able to apply their authentic identity to their mobile application in the marketplace that they’re building.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really interesting way of … Because I guess, in a way, you’re sort of also onboarding the client by kind of letting them see how you work and what your values are and why they’re important to how you do business. I can see that being a big clarifying step. Because sometimes you’ll get clients and they just want the work. They don’t necessarily care about the why behind it. They just sort of need a set of hands to do the work. And it sounds like those are not the best kinds of clients for you to work with. Which makes sense, because you’re spending the time to really sort of get to know them, have them get to know you and build something together.

John B. Johnson:
Exactly. That’s what makes this so fulfilling for me. I’m not going to burn out by getting to know people. That’s for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Aside from working with clients, are there sort of projects that you initiate on your own through the studio?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Many, actually. There’s been projects that have come to me, most of our business has been built through relationships that I either already had or developed as I was building the business. So we’re very relational in the way that we’ve done business. We’ve actually have had maybe one client that wasn’t a referral from someone. So as I mentioned before, how do we make this work more accessible? There’s been many people that have come to me seeking support, thinking that they need a logo or thinking that they need a website. And I’ve been able to help people get through those early stages of their company or their startup or their idea because I’ve been able to do that myself.

John B. Johnson:
And I’ve gone through that process of building a startup, building a brand from scratch, building a mobile application from scratch. I not only helped them really assess what is their next step, simplify their approach, that MVP or lean startup model. But then I actually am able to spend that time coaching them, supporting them, and then use my team to maybe help them get started. Whether that’s a brand identity, whether that’s a website, whether that’s some mock ups of a mobile application to help them get some investments. And these are typically people that have nothing but a desire to help make the world a better place. Or like I said, bring peace to people’s lives.

John B. Johnson:
I’ve done this in the past when one of my buddies came to me saying, “Hey, I have this idea and I want to do it, I need to do it.” He’s actually building a marketplace to make the world more generous. And he was building a marketplace that would help people like millennials, maybe people our age, give more. And the way he thought that would happen is if he can actually allow millennials who have a lot of their money locked up in stocks, [inaudible 00:14:42] use with their corporations. I know that I’m like that with me and my wife. My wife works at Amazon so we have a lot of our wealth locked up in stocks. What if you can actually give one stock to a nonprofit that you loved, and what if you give one stock, that stock will continue to get gain value but that you don’t have cash. So give that stock.

John B. Johnson:
He was changing the way that people would give. I loved the idea and I believed in him as the leader. So me and my team helped him create a brand identity for his company, and we created some mock ups. He got launched. The next year, he was already doing, I think, $30,000 a month in reoccurring revenue. He had closed his seed round. And then he came back to us for some help to build out his platform further. We did that all completely for free just because we believed in him.

John B. Johnson:
And there’s been other projects that have come and gone. But we just do the work because we believe in the people not because they can pay or not pay. That’s the business but we have a responsibility as designers to help these products come to life and these people launched their products to the world, especially impact driven leaders. That’s something that keeps me on fire every day because what we’re doing is we’re building a creative studio that we can create anything with this team. Why would we ever say no when we know it’s going to make a huge impact in the world?

Maurice Cherry:
One of the projects that I saw that you created was this website called Dose. And I heard that you and your team built that in four days. Can you tell me the story behind that?

John B. Johnson:
Dose is one of those projects, I don’t know if you’ve ever had that moment, Maurice, where you just do something because it feels right. And the next thing you know, you’re like, “Man, that’s what we should be doing forever moving forward.” That was Dose. So Dose happened I want to say beginning of June, it was shortly after George Floyd was murdered, and was publicized all over the interwebs. I actually didn’t hear about George Floyd until a friend of mine called me and told me about it. He was really, really torn up about it. So I was able to be there with him in that moment because I had not seen the video yet. But then after he called me, I had to go and see the video.

John B. Johnson:
I’m sure many of us, I was nauseated. I felt a feeling in me that I don’t think I ever felt before, and I had no idea what to do. So I went back to work in my bedroom, as all of us were, in June. Protests were taking place, Seattle was on fire in many ways because me and my wife live right downtown. There were people that were storming the Patagonia that is literally right across the street from my bedroom. There are people shooting guns off to break into the stores, there are people peacefully protesting, and I had no idea what to do. I wanted to go out and protest, my wife did not feel safe or comfortable so I wanted to support her and make sure she was okay. Then I also have my team to deal with on a regular basis, talking through with them.

John B. Johnson:
But there was a moment when I was on a client call and while I was on it, I lost interest completely. I want to say I’m a pretty present person, and I could not stay present. I was like, “Why am I on this call and all of this is taking place right outside my doors?” I felt so inauthentic to myself. I remember getting off that call, and I laid on my bedroom floor, which is my office, and I curled up in a ball and I started crying. I called my mom. And I’m like, “Ma, I don’t know what to do.” Bless her soul, she sang me a song. That’s all I needed to hear at that moment. Then I went for a run, which running, for me, is my way of not only meditating but also releasing. I went for a run, and while I was on a run, I want to say I heard God tell me that, “John, you are acting inauthentic. I’ve given you this team to do something so use the team and do something. That’s what the team is here for, is to bring peace to people’s lives. Do it.”

John B. Johnson:
Through, I guess my nature, I literally stopped and I called my clients and I told them, “Hey, we got to do something about this. We’re shutting down the business for two weeks. If you have a problem with that, I understand. We’ll do our best to accommodate. And if you don’t have a problem with that, we really appreciate it because I need to do something and move this needle forward.” Every one of my clients was completely understanding about it. I called my partner and told him like, “Hey, this is what we’re doing.” I called the team, told them, and next thing you know, we had, I think, 12 people on a call that night to figure out what we were going to do to move this needle forward. How are we going to use our gifts to bring peace to people’s live. Dose came out of that.

John B. Johnson:
And one of the woman on the call, her name was Dr. Julia Garcia [inaudible 00:19:58] and she is a psychologist, she specializes in mental health. And she had a framework that really, she used with a lot of youth to help them work through how they were feeling. She calls these Doses. When we thought about that, we were like, “How do we create contents that can help people use their voice and share their perspective, share their Black perspective, and also help others listen to that perspective in an intentional way that’s not just absorbing content on social media?” We worked through that whole problem that evening. And then over the next four days, we had a team of, say, 10 people, all of the small studio and then others who were there to support. It was one intern and there was actually one of our employees who was planning to join us that next week or so, and he joined us early to work on this project with us.

John B. Johnson:
Over those four days, we built out this whole platform. We built out the brand identity, just like I told you, in our process. We built out the web application, utilizing Webflow in no-code. In four days, we were launched and shared it with our community. Over that time, we got so many stories of people sharing about a time when they got pulled over by the cops and how they fear for their life. A time when they went running after Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in the street on a jog and how that felt afterwards. We saw this change in this shift of people being able to hear the story in a new way, but also share their story in a new way.

John B. Johnson:
Now this day, Julia Garcia, who we built it for, it’s her product. It’s not ours, it’s hers. We built it with her, we built it for her. She now uses that in all of her presentations that she does the youth, that she does with corporate workshops. She still uses this platform to not only gather information to serve those people better, but also to allow them a space to deal with their emotions, just like I did.

Maurice Cherry:
The project is still up and running today, right?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, the website’s still live. We built it for Dr. J and she is still crafting her life’s work to figure out how to use it in the best ways. So she’s using it, it’s still on there, giveadose.co. If you want to go on there, you can share your story or even participate in some of the activities that are on there.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing how many things have arose out of last summer, really. You’re in Seattle, off the top of my head, I think about the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, and how much that was in the news in terms of the protests and people sort of creating this sort of, I guess, you could call it a safe space. I’m trying to remember from what it was during the summer, but creating this space of no police intervention and things of that nature. There’s a number of different initiatives and events and things. I mean, that time, I think really woke a lot of people up. Or at the very least, I think it just exposed them to long standing issues and things, which of course, you and I, as Black men know, have always been there. But because there’s no travel, there’s no sports, there’s no entertainment, now so many more people are forced to really confront it at face value at times when probably before they never did.

John B. Johnson:
And on top of that, I mean, I gave you a very vivid response to how I reacted to that moment. But I also did not just go and engaged in the way that everybody was doing it. I had to find and take a moment to figure out what was the way that I was going to get involved uniquely me, with my experience, with my guests, with my resources that I have in my family. And I think that that’s something that everybody I hope took some time to do during that time when we didn’t have all the distractions that we normally would have is say, “How can I show up uniquely in this moment?” Not to just run with the herd, but also like, “Hey, is this what I’m called to do?” If I am to protest peacefully or to go out and talk to a police officer that we know or to build them a website.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, it’s just that space that you talked about, it created space for me to reflect on who I was. And it brought up some really, I want to say, deep-seated things that I never dealt with because I am mixed race. My mom is Italian, my dad is Black. I never met my father. But some of the things that I shared during that time with the team that was helping me build the Dose platform was that I was a product of racial tension. And I never actually thought about that until I started to see the nation and my family and my friends and the city that I was living in start to be torn apart physically right in front of me. Because I, like many other people, may have not had to deal with it in that way.

John B. Johnson:
So I started to reflect on who I was and my story and my unique perspective. And my unique perspective was the fact that I am a product of racial tension. And how do I use that to help others start to bridge the gap between races, whether it’s Black and white or mixed race and Black or whatever it is, I just use that as an opportunity. And I’m so glad that I had that opportunity because I don’t know if I would have ever taken that time to reflect on that moment, not only let alone use it, to start to project me forward in a more authentic and intentional way.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch gears here a little bit, because you’ve brought up your family, your mom, your dad. Tell me about where you grew up.

John B. Johnson:
I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, actually. Right on Lake Erie.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like growing up there?

John B. Johnson:
I was born in ’88. So I grew up, most of my childhood was spent during the ’90s, early 2000s. Cleveland, in that time, I want to say was pretty poor. Do you know of Bone Thugs and Harmony? Which I hope you do. That was their heyday, during the ’90s. Cleveland was pretty rough, I would say, especially where we grew up. We grew up on the west side of Cleveland, on West 69th in Detroit. So we were just right outside of the city. To give you some context, I actually grew up in a, I want to say, a pretty much Italian neighborhood. Actually, there was a time people there were Puerto Ricans, there were a lot of different types of cultures in Cleveland, which is why I love the city so much. But they all didn’t really want to be with each other, so another part of that racial tension.

John B. Johnson:
Let alone my mom, being a single white mother. I have two older sisters and an older brother who are all mixed race also. When I was 10 years old, my brother ended up … Was involved in a gang, ended up shooting someone, and die the next day. So my brother ended up turning himself in. And he’s been in prison since then. That was in 1999. He was 17 years old. That, I want to say, was a big part of my childhood. 10 years old, the only guy in my life ended up going to prison in that way. It was one of those experiences that really helped me stay away from those things, the system, the temptations, the opportunities to get into that type of trouble.

John B. Johnson:
I like to say that my brother was somewhat of a sacrifice for me to stay out of becoming a statistic in that way. One in three Black men in America will end up in prison in their lifetime. My brother ended up there and I made sure, my sisters also made sure that I didn’t follow in his footsteps. So that was a big part of my childhood. And that was, I think, a good representation of Cleveland in the ’90s. And I want to say that it was a great place for me to grow up outside of some of those events. I think it’s a really Midwest, kind of small, big city to grow up in Cleveland. A lot of culture, a lot of experiences. But it also was a very poor and hostile environment during the ’90s and early 2000s. And I’m just grateful that I was able to have a supportive family like my sisters to help me end up going to a private high school. And ultimately, one of the reasons why I got into architecture school.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you grow up in Little Italy?

John B. Johnson:
We were the little Little Italy. So we were in Little Italy that typically people know of. We were just outside of there, but they had a strong Italian hold and they would paint the fire hydrants the Italian flag and the flag poles and all of that. They had a strong culture there.

Maurice Cherry:
I know a little about Cleveland. My dad’s side of the family is from Cleveland and Youngstown, in the sort of Cleveland-ish area. I’ve only been … How many times I’ve been to Cleveland? Once or twice. I want to say at least twice. I know I’ve been once as an adult, which was back in 2014, 2015 for an event there. Cleveland’s a great city. Cleveland’s a great city. I really enjoyed my time there. I like how scrappy the city is. There’s a certain grit to Cleveland that … I mean, coming from Atlanta, I sort of see that same type of grit, that same type of hustle. I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe because it’s Midwest, it’s sort of buttressed by the railroad industry, steam industry, coal. All of that, I guess. It’s more industrious, I should say. I had a great time when I visited Cleveland. It’s interesting, you also mentioned that about your brother. I’m curious with your brother, I don’t mean to go too far into this or anything, but you mentioned that he was sort of this influence on you, even though he wasn’t really around. Did you feel like a lot of pressure being the only man in the house?

John B. Johnson:
I want to follow up with a question with you for asking that, because I feel like you would have to understand that to really even ask that question. Yes, 100%. I felt an immense amount of pressure to not only be a man, but also to be a support to my sisters and my mother, who also had struggled with men in their life. They are all single mothers, even to this day. So not only was I watching them go through relationship after relationship, man after man, that I had to observe and watch how they would respond because I was the youngest by seven years below my brother. So that made me nine years younger than my youngest sister, and 11 years younger than my oldest sister. So I felt that a lot of pressure, 100%, to attempt to be a man.

John B. Johnson:
Which actually, ultimately, after leaving Cleveland, which I want to say that pressure was the reason why I left, was I started to find out that that pressure even existed. Because before that, I didn’t know that that pressure existed on me. And I set out to only make them proud, make my sisters proud for taking care of me and being able to send me to school. Make my mom proud because I know she had a son that ended up going to prison. Even though my brother is my best friend, and I talk to him every single day, even today I talk to him every single day, because he’s a big part of my life, back then, I didn’t talk to him at all. I don’t even know him.

John B. Johnson:
I was just the kid, the boy that had all the opportunities and talent. I was smart, I was athletic, so on and so forth. And I want to say that that was a lot of pressure but I used it, thank God, I use it in the right way. Because that’s what got me through architecture school and ending up being the only Black person in my graduating class to get my master’s of architecture, to get my MBA. Also, at the same time to be able to actually move out of Cleveland. Because I’m the only one in my family to ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
That pressure is exactly what I needed I think, in that time in order to grow into the man that I am. And now I’ve been able to release that pressure because it was all made on me. I made it up. And now over these last nine years after being away from Cleveland, I’m now returning to Cleveland with my wife and I’m ready to be there, and to be there for that city, and to be in that city and be there for my family because now I know what it means to be a man. I had no idea what that meant back when I was 10 years old, because I had no men in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I empathize with that largely because my older brother also … It happened when I was 14, I think, he went to prison. I guess the relationship is different from what you’re mentioning with your brother in that you all are still friends. Actually, that time has completely estranged us. We are strangers to each other. He’s out now. He’s four years older than me. He’s out now. But we are complete strangers to each other. And the reason that I asked about that pressure is because I empathize with that not just the pressure of you now being the only man in the house that has to sort of provide, in a way, but then you’re also the baby, which I’m also the baby in my family, you can’t be the breadwinner and the baby. You can’t be both in that respect.

Maurice Cherry:
But then also going to school and being really smart and being really recognized for that … There are very few people I think, that really understand that sort of weird push-pull tension of being in school and achieving and doing really well and being recognized for that. And then you come back to this home life that is not that. You know what I mean? I don’t know if I’m really articulating it properly. I think you get where I’m coming from in a nonverbal way even though we can’t see each other.

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s a weird particular kind of tension, because certainly, you’re achieving and you’re doing well but yet, you also have this societal pressure, this familial pressure to do well. It’s almost in a way, like you’re under a microscope. Every kind of decision that you do is scrutinized and looked over. When you said, “The pressure is why I left,” I felt that I felt 100%. “The pressure is why I left.” Because you want to break out from that crucible. You want to see what’s out there in the world past Cook County. Cleveland’s in Cook County, right?

John B. Johnson:
Cuyahoga.

Maurice Cherry:
Cuyahoga County, sorry about that. You want to break out past the county and sort of see what’s out there in the world, see if the person that that society has sort of formed you to be can exist outside of that. Because I think it’s one thing when you’re like a kid, and you’re being recognized for all your talents and things like that, but you’re like, “Can you cut it outside of this sort of environment where you’re being praised and lifted up? Can you really do well outside of that structure?” If that makes any sense.

John B. Johnson:
I think that you articulated well, Maurice. There’s not only the pressure of the family and being the baby and knowing that you should do better than those that come before you because you should be able to learn from their mistakes. But the fact is, is that as a man, being raised by all women, I felt very alone in the way that I felt, in the way that I operate and the things that I was thinking and doing and so on and so forth. Nobody could relate to me because I was the only man in my life. The only role models that I had were all attempting to court, for lack of a better word, my sisters and my mother, and I couldn’t trust them. I wanted to, but I didn’t know them. I didn’t know my father, I didn’t know anything. So I had to find out who I was almost on my own because I had no other men in my life.

John B. Johnson:
And I think that that’s a common thread in America. Especially Black America, you find our generation, the millennial generation, is one of the most … We don’t have a lot of father figures and male role models that can teach us what it means to be a man. And the generation that come before us also. That’s something I’ve had to realize, I had to get away to realize those things. I was able to use the pressure in a way of helping me accomplish and overcome a lot of barriers, which would be getting my master’s degree and leaving and so on and so forth, which aren’t easy things for anyone to do and I know that.

John B. Johnson:
But the biggest thing is, what do you do after you overcome and release the pressure? What do you do with that? That’s where I think my journey started, was when I left Cleveland and started to actually understand who I was as John B. Johnson, and not who I was as the brother and the son and the uncle and all the other things that came with that responsibility, because I had no idea what all of that was. I didn’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, man, I feel you. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s funny, I did an interview last year and someone asked me this very, kind of the same thing I’m asking you. They were sort of like, “How did you deal with it?” And it’s sort of like that, I guess, it’s like a parable or a tale about the frog in boiling water. And how the frog is sitting in the water and then you continually crank the heat up, and the water gets to the point where it’s boiling, the frog doesn’t know that the water is boiling, they’re just in the water. That’s what that experience is like.

Maurice Cherry:
You know that there are all of these psychosocial factors that are affecting you at the time but you’re not thinking of it in this sort of outside way, like, “I have to strive to do better and get through this.” You’re just getting through it. You’re just having to go through life. It’s something that you can look back on, I think, with reflection and introspection and hindsight. You look back and you’re like, “Damn, I really went through some shit and I came out on the other side.” But when you’re in it, you don’t really know that you’re in it.

John B. Johnson:
And that’s why I think it’s so important for people to leave their environments, at least for a little bit, to start to see it from a different angle and a different perspective, if possible.

Maurice Cherry:
So you ended up going to Kent State, you study architecture. What was your time like there?

John B. Johnson:
Well, Kent State was the first time I was able to go and be on my own even though I was only 45 minutes away from home. I went to all boys …

Maurice Cherry:
That’s far enough.

John B. Johnson:
That’s far enough, exactly. It’s far enough for my mom to come in and grab my laundry for me. So it was perfect. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, Benedictine High School in Cleveland. After that, I think I wanted to rebel a little bit so when I left high school, I kind of rebranded myself, which actually is a interesting point of … I call these filtering moments throughout my life. High school and college was a filtering moment where I not only filtered the people and friends that I had, but I also filtered who I was and tried on some new John Johnson. One of those ways was just obviously being away from home. Another one was just filtering out the people that I hung out with. This was also a new phase, because I had no idea what architecture was all about when I went into it.

John B. Johnson:
I knew I was good at math, I knew that I wanted to do something in engineering and mechanical. Architecture was that balance of art and science that I found to be fascinating but I had no idea what it was truly. So when I enrolled and got accepted, I took it. I had to filter a lot of my habits because architecture, if you know, is one of the hardest Bachelors of Science degrees that you can get. It was not easy. So I filtered a lot of my habits of hanging out with friends and partying and drinking and all of these other things that attempt to be the good students and to get through the schooling, which was excruciating.

John B. Johnson:
Going from high school, which is pretty easy to me, to college was a huge shift, especially in this focus of architecture. So my first semester, I almost fell out, I got a 1.9 GPA. Thank God, I did not get kicked out but I was able to … that was a wake up call that I needed, “Hey, John, this is an opportunity that you squander,” which I think happens a lot to people, especially kids going into college for the first time. So I took that as a kick in the butt and I got my GPA up to 3.5 by the time I graduated, but it was an uphill climb from there. And my whole time there was all about architecture, because that was the only way I was going to survive.

John B. Johnson:
Studying, I was in a studio, I pulled many all-nighters to do the work there. I don’t think I had a very similar experience as many people might have at Kent State, which is known as being a party school in many ways. But Kent State has an incredible architecture program that is accredited and nationally ranked. So I was blessed with the opportunity to be a part of that program. And it gave me a lot of opportunities like studying abroad in Italy for my junior year. I actually got to study abroad in Florence, Italy, and that changed my whole perspective of the world. One of the reasons why I couldn’t stay in Cleveland after I graduated, I knew there was so much more out there.

John B. Johnson:
I got to go to the UAE, United Arab Emirates, and actually present a project there. I go to Amsterdam. I got to see the world. And that perspective really changed my life, it changed my perspective. And it’s no wonder that I’m the first one in my family to leave Cleveland, still one of the first people in my friends group to leave Cleveland because I got those incredible opportunities that I think are a privilege. I actually gave a talk about this, Maurice, before. I say that design thinking is a privileged way of thinking. And I want to say that, again, that idea of design thinking during architecture school, by going and studying in Italy, by going to UAE and seeing these different cultures and meeting with different designers across the world. And not many people get those opportunities.

John B. Johnson:
So you want to talk about pressure, I’m just thankful that I had those opportunities but I also know in my heart that my family didn’t get those opportunities. My brother didn’t get that opportunity. My mother, my sisters, even my nieces and nephew haven’t gotten those opportunities. But I did so what am I going to do with them? That was the question I kept on asking myself after I graduated when I decided to get my master’s in architecture and my MBA at the same time. Like, “What am I going to do with them?” I have a responsibility to do something special with these gifts. And I think that that’s really what Kent State really set me on the path to do.

Maurice Cherry:
I almost failed out my first semester of college, too.

John B. Johnson:
We got to hang out more, man. We got to hang out more.

Maurice Cherry:
I got to Morehouse and I lost my mind. It was so different from everything that I had known and had grown up around. It was a big city. This was right after the Olympics, and Freaknik was sort of dying out. It was right after the Olympics and Atlanta, I mean, Atlanta still has a reputation of being a party city. But back then, man, I tell you, the clubs would actually send charter buses to the college, they would pick you up, take you out to the club, you’d go to the club, do whatever, and they’d bring you back to the dorm.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I’m surprised I got through my first semester the way I did. I mean, it was wild. So I know exactly where you got it from. But you get to college, you want to try something, try a new identity, kind of see what else is out there. Because now you’re not who you are back home. For me, this is totally different state, totally different city. “I’m going to be somebody different. I’m not going to be the kid that they thought I was back in Selma. No, I’m going to be somebody different.” I know exactly what that’s like.

John B. Johnson:
I don’t know if I would have made it at Morehouse with those stories, man. Kent State, that’s all that was there. It was the university. Ma, way to get through it.

Maurice Cherry:
So you got your master’s degree from Kent State, you graduated. Is the experience of Kent State and studying abroad what caused you to move out of Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
I want to say it had a big influence on there. Also, my wife now, we went to school together at Kent State. She was a big influence on me, and I’ll admit it. She ended up getting her master’s degree at ASU, Arizona State University, while I was getting my master’s degree at Kent. She, I want to say, was the biggest influence for me to move to Phoenix, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time.

Maurice Cherry:
So you get to Phoenix, and you create what is essentially your first startup called Feel Free. What drove you to create your own tech startup after spending so much time working and studying architecture?

John B. Johnson:
While I was working in architecture in Phoenix, I worked there for two years at a firm called Architekton. I had this desire to be an entrepreneur. I don’t know what it was, it was just like this gut feeling of I am not good at being an employee. I had this desire to start to do my own thing. I actually got my real estate license while I was working at the architecture firm and started to use that as a way of allowing me to leave my job. I also realized that I didn’t want to be an architect, in the typical sense of the word. I started to see up close the partners at my firm, and I didn’t see myself as them. So I had to make a big decision to say, “Hey, architecture is not for me.”

John B. Johnson:
When I realized that, I gave them 30 days notice and I left architecture. Right after I did that, my friend of mine talked to me about a project that he wanted me to design a building. And that building, long story short, ended up translating into this mobile app called Feel Free, which was a mobile app that when you walked into any built environments, you were automatically checked into that space and you will see a list of all the other people that were in that space also. And the idea was to create more organic face-to-face connections outside of the typical norm during that time, I think it was 2014, of connecting with people all over the world.

John B. Johnson:
It was taking people out of the space versus making them present to the space. Which the reason why I loved architecture so much was this ability to build the built environment, and to create the human experience within spaces. So when this idea came to life, it was like, “Wow, I could use this as a tool to enhance the experience of any built environment across the world. So it was that aspiration of using technology as a way to enhance, and I want to say multiply the impact that I could have on spaces across the world versus one building at a time. That’s the typical sense of architecture. That’s what inspired me to go down that path of building a tech startup.

Maurice Cherry:
So you started Feel Free, it’s out there, you’re helping people out. What happens?

John B. Johnson:
Well, me and my co-founder gained a lot of traction. I mean, we built a brand that expanded all the way to the UK of people that wanted Feel Free in their space for that specific reason I was just sharing with you. And me and my co-founder, this was our first time ever building a startup. We had no idea what we’re doing. We were learning every day. And after a while, a number of things happened. We didn’t make any money, we did not figure out how to generate cash flow for the app. We were in the process of raising capital for the mobile application. At that time, I was struggling. Remember, I left home.

John B. Johnson:
I was about to go bankrupt. I was back on my car payments, my mortgage. I was back on everything, and I needed cash. My business partner didn’t need cash as much as I needed it, and it caused some friction. It honestly caused a lot of hostility in me, because I was attempting to build this company and make this influence and close the round of capital. Didn’t seem like he was as eager as I was. And honestly, I would say that my ego got in the way, his ego got in the way, and we clashed. Next thing you know, we split up and everything failed. Just literally stopped right there. So that was about a year-and-a-half in. That was my first, I want to say, big failure as an entrepreneur.

Maurice Cherry:
What did that teach you?

John B. Johnson:
I learned a lot both from the failure but also from the successes of that venture. Specifically, with my co-founder, taught me the value of communication with other human being that’s in the business with you, the value of, I want to say, trust. But also the value of not leaving any room for gray area. We get into trouble in business when you leave room, gray area, because it doesn’t make it as black and white as it needs to be. Because the gray area is the fact that we’re human beings, the business is black and white. That’s just something I learned tremendously from that experience. And I will never enter into a business relationship again without a signed operating agreement, without very clear understanding of how things will happen if things happen. Things that we did not have in place when we broke up and when all that friction hit the fan. That was huge for me and it helped me have healthier business relationships moving forward from there.

John B. Johnson:
And on the flip side of that, we built an incredible brand of just a well-known brand across Phoenix. And it started building traction across the world. We built a beautiful mobile application experience. I found my passion for building those communities. Feel Free was when I realized that I had a passion for community building, and I was living that out. Even after we failed, that feedback from people saying that, “Hey, you live that community building piece that Feel Free represented.” That was just a really good piece of encouragement I needed after failing in my first startup but that’s what I used to drive me in all of my other endeavors. Even including A Small Studio now.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, that’s a good thing to still be able to kind of draw something from what could be, for a lot of business owners, a really bad situation. You start your own business and it doesn’t work out. And you have to cash out or you have to sell it or you have to shut it down and you have to move on to what the next thing is. I know a lot of times in entrepreneurial culture, and I feel like this is probably specific or maybe endemic of Black entrepreneurs, this whole thing about having to hustle hard and grind and there’s so much emphasis put on making the business work.

Maurice Cherry:
That when it doesn’t work, it can really sort of cast a shadow over you and make you feel like you failed. But you drew something from that experience of the fact that, one, it showed that you know how to build a brand, which is what you’ve been able to use as the catalyst for A Small Studio. But then two, now you know what not to do next time, and that’s a lesson that you really, unfortunately, you have to learn the hard way of what not to do.

John B. Johnson:
I mean, failure is one of those ways of learning so much. I don’t even think failure is a bad thing. I think it’s a really good thing. We’re all going to fail at something. And I hope we do because that helps us learn just, like you just said. It just helps us learn what not to do, it helps us learn what we should do. Those opportunities to reflect are important. I want to comment on the hustle culture that you just shared, because I think it’s just a culture in general, hustle, grind. And that’s one of the main reasons why I want to say I failed at the beginning was I was constantly trying to get to the yes versus getting to the no.

John B. Johnson:
And that was one of the biggest things that I learned on my journey is that as I understand myself better, and I understand what I’m being called to do and what my mission is and vision and focus is, I don’t have to deal with trying to work with everybody and trying to get money from everybody, to try and get everybody to download my app or whatever it is. Now, it filters a lot of the nonsense and a lot of the distractions the more intentional and the more reflective you become on your identity. And that’s, obviously, a big part of my work now.

John B. Johnson:
But the more I understand myself, the less I hustle. Because I worked harder and now I work smarter, not harder. The more I understand who I am and what I’m being called to do, the less I try to get yeses from everybody. And I think what you were referencing in Black culture, what I’ve seen is that scarcity mindset of, “I’m not good enough so I need to show up in a way that people would think that I’m good enough and will give me the help that I need or the support I need or the money that I need.” Versus, “Hey, I’m good enough. I’m everything that I need to be. Here’s what I’m doing. Do you want to be a part of it with me?”

John B. Johnson:
That’s what I learned, is I was trying to get help from everybody because I needed help. And honestly, I probably, now that we’ve talked about it, it relates back to my lack of a father, lack of a male role model. So I was trying to get help from everybody, when actually, I needed to take time to understand what was I being called to, who am I and then present that to people authentically and to see if they align with that or not. It would have saved me a lot of pain, it will save me a lot of money, would’ve saved me a lot of time.

Maurice Cherry:
After what happened with Feel Free, how long did you stay in Phoenix before you ended up moving to Seattle?

John B. Johnson:
We were there for about a year-and-a-half. Feel Free ended, I want to say, early 2016, and we left at the end of 2017 so about a year-and-a-half.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. And you mentioned your wife works at Amazon. So that’s sort of what prompted the move also?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah. Jeff Bezos came with his checkbook and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. She was working at PetSmart and then got the opportunity with Amazon. We actually had just bought a home and settled into our townhome, furnished it, and everything. And six months later, we were in Seattle. So we kind of uprooted everything and moved there.

Maurice Cherry:
How has Seattle been different from Phoenix?

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is much less diverse than Phoenix, even though Phoenix is much less diverse than Cleveland. Downtown Seattle is a very, very unique place. I would say that I’m one of a handful of Black people that live in downtown Seattle because of how expensive it is to live here. The property values and the way Amazon has blown up the city has been uncanny. I mean, for the longest time, Seattle had the most number of cranes out of anywhere in the world. It’s blown up. Phoenix was not like that at all. Phoenix was actually the exact opposite from a density standpoint. Phoenix was much more spread out. We had Scottsdale, Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, all these cities, but Phoenix was, I mean, Phoenix is one of the longest, I guess, largest cities per square miles out of any other city. It’s massive so it’s spread out. There’s a lot less of, I want to say, resources in Phoenix, especially from a startup perspective. So much slower pace than Seattle.

John B. Johnson:
Seattle is a big city. I mean, it’s one of the biggest cities in the country. And for me, going from Cleveland to Phoenix to Seattle, I had to change my way of showing up. To the point of like, “Hey, I’m in a much more affluent city. These people really are doing things that are on a larger level than in Phoenix.” Phoenix felt like a early stage city. They want to be big but they’re still trying to figure out who they are. And Seattle was a little later stage. They’re a little more mature. And the dichotomy of the two was Phoenix had that welcoming, warm community feel of like, “We’re all figuring it out together.” Especially in the startup world.

John B. Johnson:
And then Seattle had none of that. It was like you either know people or you don’t. And if you don’t, good luck. There was no warm welcome. There was no place where you can go to get connected into the city, into the communities. None of that existed, which actually prompted me to build a 1 Million Cups Community here in Seattle and get into other things. Because I learned a lot from Phoenix where there they had this grassroots ecosystem of entrepreneurship and the startup experience. Seattle, there was no grassroots. It was all big players. You had Amazon, you had Costco, you have Microsoft, you have all of these huge players.

John B. Johnson:
I like to think about it from a conceptual standpoint, these are big trees. The monkeys hang out in the trees up above the ground. Phoenix was more on the ground level. They didn’t have big trees down there. They didn’t have any big players in Phoenix. So when I got there, I’m like, “Hey, where’s everybody at? What are we doing here on the ground level? What seeds are we planting?” I mean, coming in very optimistic and also naïve, I’m like, “Let’s try to plant some seeds.” And I just decided to start building things. I didn’t wait for people to tell me what to do or how to do it.

John B. Johnson:
I was meeting people. I’ve met 40 people in the first two weeks that I was there from all over the city. I learned a lot of what I learned attempting to find myself and build my career in Phoenix. I used all of that to move the momentum into Seattle and show up in a different way. I want to say that operating in Seattle has definitely matured me as a business leader. It’s also matured me, I want to say, as a man, as a husband living in, in a big city, downtown Seattle like this.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard about the infamous Seattle freeze. Sounds like that’s kind of a little bit of what you experienced when you started out there.

John B. Johnson:
Unfortunately, that is something that’s very relevant here. I think it’s just a lack of belonging, a lack of culture, a lack of community. It’s either you’re in or you’re out. Thank God, he gifted me with a gift of charisma and fearlessness because I broke that Seattle freeze real quick. [crosstalk 01:01:42]

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. I swear, Atlanta is the exact opposite of that. Everyone that comes here is welcomed, almost profusely, in some way. It’s interesting that Seattle still carries that connotation.

John B. Johnson:
You can’t even make eye contact on the streets when you walk down the street.

Maurice Cherry:
Really?

John B. Johnson:
When I go home to Cleveland, I’m like, “Hey.” It’s nice to make eye contact with strangers on the street because Seattle, people don’t do that. It’s wild.

Maurice Cherry:
You wouldn’t get away with that in Atlanta. You try walking by somebody and not speaking and see what happens. Don’t do that. As I’m talking to you, as I’m getting a sense of your body of work, identity is a key factor in pretty much everything that you’ve done, pretty much in who you are. Why is that so important? Why is it such an important facet in your work?

John B. Johnson:
Identity is something that is core to each individual as a person. It’s only something that you can find as a human being. I think we all can agree that each and every one of us is unique in one way. We’re all one in 7.8 billion. Identity is one of those things that I found to be very overlooked and I want to say written off as not that important. Specifically, in my generation, I found people attempting to go after the hustle culture, the money or the success or the fame or the girl or the guy or whatever it is, before they even think about who they are. As you so beautifully walked me through my story, Maurice, you see there’s a lot of dynamic experiences in my life that have made me uniquely equipped to approach this work and help other people reflect on those experiences.

John B. Johnson:
Just like the ones I just shared with you, in order to realize, “Hey, you can use those experiences as motivation, instead of being motivated by money, instead of being motivated by success or climbing the ladder, or whatever it is.” So my brother is one of my biggest motivators because he is somebody that went to prison at 17 and has inspired me in ways that I can’t even comprehend. He’s been in prison for 24 years. What better motivator can I find than that? That’s a unique experience only I have lived through my eyes, along with my mother and my sisters, and my Cleveland experience and Italy and Feel Free and architecture and all of those things. All of those experiences give me a unique ability that no one else has in the world to show up and to impact people’s lives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
And I started to realize how powerful it is for people to find that little bit of light that lives inside of them or what I like to call identity. Because they can use that as a candle that will never go out, as a flame that will never go out, and motivation that’s unlimited. And to use those experiences to help others, I believe that that’s the purpose for our life. Identity is something that I started to realize do my work of branding. That I was helping them brand their company. But what I realized was that that who they were as people was the exact thing that they needed to focus on to stand out in the marketplace, to find the motivation to grow the company from $1 to a million, to lead authentically and powerfully their people or to be innovative.

John B. Johnson:
Whatever it is, all of that came from within them. It didn’t come from outside, it never does. It always comes from within, I started to realize that. So identity architecture was a term that I came up with to utilize my $80,000 degree that I didn’t make $80,000 on, but I had to put it to use somehow. I started to realize how important it was to empower individuals with this. And by empowering individuals to understand who they are, it actually starts to strengthen the communities in which they belong to and ultimately starts to reshape cultural outcomes. So for me as a Black man in America, I’m one of the few that are agency leader. I’m one of the only one in my family to ever get married, I’m the only one in my family ever leave Cleveland.

John B. Johnson:
And as I move back to Cleveland, I know that I’ve overcome and changed cultural outcomes just by understanding who I was better and not attempting to identify or attach myself to cultural stigmas or stereotypes or stats that would actually put me in prison. You know what I mean? Specifically for Black America, our identity has been dismantled and raped and just crumbled for a reason. I feel like identity and helping people understand and check in with themself in ways that only they can to make them one in 7.8 billion would actually be the key to us creating a better society and a better world together.

Maurice Cherry:
I wanted to kind of dive into sort of that title of identity architect. But you did a great job there of kind of just explaining it. Like other Black agency owners, I mean, I don’t know sort of how it looks in Seattle in terms of other just Black businesses that you’ve encountered. But have you met any other Black agency owners, whether it’s through networking or anything like that?

John B. Johnson:
Yeah, I’ve met a few. Gus Granger, he’s actually down in Dallas. He works at VSA Partners now. He’s an incredible guy. I met a couple others that are a little smaller agencies but it’s been very, very few and far between. I didn’t set out to build an agency. When I started A Small Studio, it was just something that I felt like I could do. Next thing you know, I’m building a movement in the way that I’ve just shared with you. So I haven’t really tempted to follow the model of what an agency is, I’ve actually started to press into who I am uniquely as an agency leader and how I can help influence designers and creatives in a powerful way.

John B. Johnson:
It’s been few and far between, honestly, Maurice. And that’s actually a big part of why I found you and how I found you, how I found your work and the work that you’re doing. Also, it’s been a big motivator for me this year to make sure that I’m getting out there to not only find others that are just like me, that have gone through similar things, but also to make sure that others know that I exist, and that it is possible to build a million dollar agency to succeed in Seattle if you’re the only one there, to be the only one in your graduating class. Only this has been a common denominator throughout my life and I want to say it’s for a reason. I know that it’s still being fleshed out.

Maurice Cherry:
Given where you are now in your career with the challenges that you face, with the goals that you’ve accomplished, et cetera, how do you navigate expectations that others might have about you?

John B. Johnson:
The only expectations that I make myself navigate are God’s expectations that I hear as I continue to build my relationship with God, my wife’s expectations, and I want to say my brother’s. Outside of that, I think our expectations of others is something that’s really hard to navigate, period, for anyone. I’ve learned that over the years as I shared my story with you. I’m doing my best not to have expectations of others but to only have expectations of myself and I do my best to share that with other people that perspective. I’d say that as I’ve grown, I’m 33 this year, as I’ve grown as a man, as a leader, as a husband, as a brother, as a son, all of those things, I’ve started to, I want to say, release those expectations from myself, and release not even, I want to say, as Jay Z’s like, “I’m just dusting my shoulders off.” I’m not going to carry those expectations because those expectations create that pressure.

John B. Johnson:
Now, that I’m moving back to Cleveland, we touched on this in this interview, I’m moving back to Cleveland with that lightness that I don’t think I had when I left in the first place because I’ve released myself of those expectations. Not only were on me from my mom, my sisters, my brother, my wife’s family, my friends. And I’m going back there with one intention and that’s for me to have an incredible relationship with God, be a husband to my wife, and to be a citizen that cares for the city. But those expectations have come from something that are not from just people, those expectations have come from within myself as I’ve done a lot of reflection, a lot of growth.

Maurice Cherry:
When are you expecting to move back to Cleveland?

John B. Johnson:
May. Right after my birthday, May 5th.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So not that far away. Given that and we’re kind of wrapping up the interview here, but where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, besides in Cleveland, where do you see yourself? Or what kind of work would you like to be doing?

John B. Johnson:
Identity architecture is something that I feel is my calling, is the way that I live life on purpose. Actually, I see myself sharing this methodology and this philosophy with the world. In the next five years, I hope to actually be building a creative community of impact-driven designers, that specifically use identity architecture, and use this methodology in a way of being more authentic with the way that they design. Just like IDEO really coined the term design thinking, I really want to move identity architecture to the next level to be a tool that people can use to authentically represent themselves out in the world, but also I authentically represent others and serve others. In five years, A Small Studio will be thriving. I feel like we can be a community of 20,000, maybe even 50,000 creatives who focus on impact-driven design and want to use their gifts to bring peace to people’s lives.

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?

John B. Johnson:
Our website is asmallstudio.com. I have been very, very intentional on Instagram @johnbcreating. So you can check me out there, listen, follow along with the things that I’m doing, engage with me there. That’s really the best ways of finding me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, John B. Johnson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, your story, I think, is one that hopefully will inspire a lot of people not just in terms of the adversity that you’ve had to go through, but the lessons that you’ve been able to pull from those situations, and how you’ve been able to turn that into really doing something for the greater community. I mean, even as we were talking, I’m noticing these parallels to myself in a lot of ways. So I know that identity is something that is super important to you, and I really get the sense that like this is a calling for you. It’s not just, “I just stumbled into it and I’m good at it.” This is what you kind of were put here to do. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you in the next few years. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

John B. Johnson:
Thank you, Maurice. It’s a pleasure and an honor, brother.

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