Dr. Lesley-Ann Noel

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

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yao Adantor

The thing I love most about doing Revision Path is that I’m able to talk with people doing truly amazing work, and I get to share that conversation with the world. Such is the case with this week’s guest, Yao Adantor. Along with being an avid product researcher, he’s the founder of two companies: a technology service firm called Analog Teams, and Research Bookmark, which has been dubbed “the Google for UX researchers.” And that’s not all!

We talked about how 2022 has unfolded for him so far, including his UX research work at Bolt and how he balances his time between work, his companies, and his growing family. Yao also spoke on how companies are feeling the need for UX researchers, and from there he shared his story about growing up in Togo before coming to the U.S. and being a record-holding track and field athlete. We also spoke about his work as a professor at MICA, and how he’s working on achieving work/life harmony with everything he has going on right now. If you’re looking for inspiration to begin your next project, then this episode is definitely for you!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Yao Adantor:
My name is Yao Adantor. I am a product researcher. I’m a founder. I basically build and help people build products that resonates with people with the way to use that product in their own lives and how it improves their quality of life. That’s what I do.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far? I know you told me before we started recording, you just came back from a couple of trips.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. 2022 has been… It’s a long year, but in a very short amount of time. This always happens to me where the year starts off and I’m like, “Oh, it’s January. There’s time.” And then all of a sudden, we’re in the middle of the year, and it’s another one of those years again. So far, it’s been really fruitful. I have two baby daughters and they’re both under two, so we’re seeing that growth into this new year, as well as just this whole post-pandemic. And I’m saying post because hopefully we’re over everything, being able to see people in person again and the changes and the growth that have been happening in our lives. So overall, it’s very blessed year so far. Can’t complain.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. And you also started a new job this year. You were UX researcher at Bolt. How’s that been going so far?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, absolutely. I actually started Bolt on Valentine’s Day, so there’s a love story there. There’s something interesting that always happens. When I go back out in the market and I’m like, “Oh, I’m looking for a new work,” it seems like the first thing I apply to, no matter how many interviews I get and offers when I get back, the first thing I applied to is always what gets back to me. And it was actually a conversation with one of my colleagues there now, Corianne, and out of her, conversation with her, her energy just seems so cool, calm, and positive, and I’m like, “Maybe I want to work with this person.” So it’s been really good there. It’s been interesting because Bolt is a startup and a unicorn and all of this, whatever title they associate with it. We’ve been going through our ups and downs as well there, but overall, it’s been really good. I really appreciate working with the team, which is really refreshing for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me more about the work that you’re doing there.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. I’m a product researcher at Bolt. We build checkout technology. So one click checkout, making sure people can fulfill their checkout experiences or buying stuff without any pain points. What I do on my day-to-day is help our product teams, our project managers, even our developers understand and get direction on how to build for our users.

Yao Adantor:
Again, building product is a interesting thing. Usually, companies will hire, and same thing with Bolt and that’s really no dig at them, will hire researchers later on after they grow, after teams have been established, and so forth. And which then we’re playing a backend game. We’re trying to catch up and get in front of the roadmap. So what I do oftentimes has to do with clearing and bringing light to some gray area, some dark area’s path that we haven’t built in before when it comes to user understanding. How are users going to take to this? How have they taken to it before in the marketplace? Can we build something that truly satisfies their need? And do we understand how to do that? A lot of what I do is talking to users, establishing the right questions with the PM, setting objectives, and going to get answers that can actually help the company grow and build products that impact the market.

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

Yao Adantor:
Oh man, I wake up early. I try going to sleep early as well. But I wake up early, probably around 6:00, 6:30. My oldest daughter wakes up pretty early, so that gets me up. I’m off to giving them a bath, changing, and making sure that we have some good breakfast before they head to daycare. So the first part of my day is actually just with my family. I try not to look at my phone because I know by the time I wake up, there are messages and all types of stuff in my mind. That’s the first part of my day.

Yao Adantor:
From there, taking them to daycare and then I’m heading to training. Usually, I can get a good training session and work out or run before a lot of people wake up. And this is really my saving grace because it helps me get through the day, even kill. That’s the first half of my day.

Yao Adantor:
The teams I work with are usually on the West Coast, so by noon, everyone is getting up and working. I’m already probably working with some of my colleagues that are on the East Coast, and it’s ramping on. Now, you’re talking to people. We’re figuring out questions. “Hey, we’re running this research. Are we doing this?” “Hey, how many users are we talking to?” “Hey, what’s the hang up on this?” “Oh, can we find out something about this?” So my whole day really, essentially, the daytime is a web of communication. It is trying to relay information, understand what people need, understand what I need, and move it on like that. That’s a 9:00 to 5:00. And I’m executing, trying to deliver on stuff. And in between that, at lunchtime, I may have a meeting for Research Bookmark or something or Analog on my lunchtime.

Yao Adantor:
And then we get to the afternoon where my day, it’s really fast. I got to go pick up the kids, get them back, spend enough time and some good quality time with the family, and get back to work probably until midnight or 1:00 sometimes, depending on the time of the year. And then I’m off to some reading, some praying, and sleeping. That’s usually what my days are like.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a full day.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You said earlier you go to bed early, and then you turn around and say your work until midnight. Come on.

Yao Adantor:
That’s early sometimes because there is so much to do. In my ideal, in the dream world, I would like to go to sleep at 9:30 or 10:00. I’m an old man. I just have old man style. I like to go to sleep very early, so I’m working towards that. But most of the time, completely honest, it gets to midnight. These are the busy times of the year. Not busy times of the year, I can probably make 10:30, 10:30-11:00, when I’m not too crazy busy.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, all right. When new work comes in, because you say you’re doing all this communication, it sounds like you’re active almost at every step of the project. Is that right?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, I try to be. When new work comes in, it usually comes through probably project management, product management. And we are building a mature practice where we have intake forms, and we try to get people to get in line, but not in a bad way. Just so we can organize ourself. So work comes in, we take it from there, look at our backlog, and see what is the most important work, especially when we’ve been reshuffling and looking at how we reorganized to really help the company. And from there, I take it into, “All right, let’s start breaking out what we really want to find out.”

Yao Adantor:
And this is really, from a research perspective, this is one of the most important parts of the project for me, is what do we actually want to know? Because if you don’t let me know that, we can go on a whole run, a couple months, weeks, and come back with the wrong data because we didn’t get to explore our true objectives. So from that perspective, I’m owned to the project. I’m very much hands on throughout the process, all the way to deliver, the recommendations, and the findings of the research.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is probably the most challenging part about what you do, as well as what’s the most rewarding part?

Yao Adantor:
Ooh, the most challenging part is, as simple as this sound, is just communication and understanding, so reaching across to our cross-functional partners and going, “Hey, I may need this information,” or, “What do we know about this?” And especially in a remote work where we’re not in the office and you can’t just get to the person, now it’s Slack messages, it’s emails, it’s this and that, so there’s a lot that get lost in translation. That’s probably the most difficult part. I wouldn’t even say convincing people. It’s just communication.

Yao Adantor:
We did a webinar. Research Bookmark did a webinar earlier this year where Mike from Klaviyo was telling us about hard power and soft power, and researchers are in a position where we usually have soft power, convincing people, allowing them to understand, therefore, helping them come on our side. We have really no hard power at work, so I’m constantly trying to exercise that. And that’s probably some of the most challenging part.

Yao Adantor:
And there’s also the rewarding part when you can get understanding or consensus from different types of people in a room agreeing on a project or even challenging the project to be better. So when we come to that reward question, what a real rewarding part is sometimes you go and you hear something in an interview or conducting research with a user and it just blows your mind. You’re like, “Whoa, we didn’t even think about that perspective.” That’s rewarding. Another rewarding part is when research pushes into this streams of building technology, and you can see the user in the minds of everyone sitting around. And the user is top of mind. Their satisfaction is at the top of mind. And their quality of life, which is a KPI that no one really measures, which I measure a lot when in anything I do is, how does I end up improving the person’s quality of life?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting that you mentioned that about research, because I know a lot of startups probably, they’ll have product designers, UX designers, they’ll have PMs, et cetera. But it seems like organizations have to reach a certain level of maturity before they really start implementing research, at least in a UX researcher position. Even as I looked back through my interviews, because I was like, “I know I’ve interviewed a UX researcher before.” And I felt like I had done it sooner, sometime this year or something. It was 2020 the last time I interviewed a UX researcher. It was someone from Facebook, which is not to say that a company like Facebook is only one that will have UX researchers. But I don’t know. It seems like companies have to reach that certain level to really start taking research seriously as it relates to product development or user features or things like that.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s something that somehow, that narrative is so strange. Because if you think about it, wouldn’t you want to make the best decision at the very beginning of all of this? What happens is successful companies and products solve a massive problem. You don’t need research to solve a really massive problem. You’re just going to solve it, and that’s true. There’s no bridge. I build a bridge. Great. But then, you’re trying to build many other bridges across other cities, then you need to learn about that. This is where, for me, the narrative is so strange, that research is the last thing that comes on after decisions have been made on a product on a roadmap. And it’s scary because at that point, you’re in a back. You’re working on features. You’re not helping people with hard power. Stakeholders that are important plant seeds on our mind about decision that they should make.

Yao Adantor:
We don’t necessarily sit at a point where we change business perspectives. That’s not the goal. The goal is just to lay out what the user may expect from this product and everything that comes along with that. It is very interesting because we’re seeing its ramification in the market right now with layoffs at different companies. And this is probably because there are a lot of stuff being worked on that may not the best or something of that sort. Would I hire your researchers at the same time you hire your first engineer? I guarantee your company is going to survive much longer. It may change direction a lot. You may not agree, but you have someone that’s sitting there essentially representing the user truly in your company. So it’s a narrative that hopefully it will just auto change itself where researchers are coming at the front of that as we move forward.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, earlier, you alluded to two other companies. These are companies you mentioned. On your lunch break, you might do some things with them. But you co-founded two companies, one called Analog Teams, which is a technology service company. And another one called Research Bookmark, which has been dubbed the Google for UX researchers. I want to start off with Analog Teams. How did that come about?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. Analog Teams is a pretty crazy story, man. Well, but it starts like a lot of small companies will start. My good friend and co-founder, Teyibo Oladosu, which is someone you probably need to talk to at some point as well because he has an incredible story. We ran track together. We were part of the same track team at UMBC. So kept up over the years. I know he’s in product. I’m in product. And we always talked about either the Black struggle… And we are both African. He’s Nigerian. I’m Togolese. And we both have this huge affinity to Africa and the future and all of that. So we discussed many different things, and he would come over. This is when I was at probably KPMG or even earlier than that. He would come over every once in a while. We’ll work and we’ll talk about what can we do for Africa? And how can we build? And look at all these young people. Africa is super young. Just perspective, most of the population is under 18, and it’s crazy because it’s also the biggest continent out there. And there’s a lot that can be done.

Yao Adantor:
So we’ll have these discussions and we’re, “What can we do?” And we’re both in product. And we’re like, “Okay, we’re going to start a software development company.” And we went on that route and he brought in our third co-founder, Myesha Luster, an amazing lady out of Dallas that also became one of my really, really good friend. Us three, we started to try to see what we can do for the continent. We call ourselves bridge builders, building bridges from African Americans in the United States to Africans in Africa through technology.

Yao Adantor:
And this took us into a lot of failures, a lot of wins, a lot of improvement of quality of life for our employees. Just to put things straight, we haven’t made really a dollar in Analog Teams. Even to this day, even being cash positive, almost all of it goes towards paying people, payroll. And it’s that journey itself, Analog Teams, it came about through just trying to, Myesha will say, “Cultivate and advance people,” and all of this stuff. And we found technology was a way to do it. So we tried our hand at software development, and we tried and failed and did different things.

Yao Adantor:
And then we found our hand a little bit in helping other people hire engineers. And we became this tech global sourcing company. And we sourced the best engineers for some of the greatest company, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but that’s the kind of work we do now. And that came about through just a person knowing a person communing on some goal. We have all these recordings of four or five years ago of us just talking crazy about stuff. And here we are doing something about it. That’s how it came about. There’s so many things going through my mind as you’re asking this question. So that’s Analog Teams.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s, in a way, the quintessential American tech story. Two people in college get together with an idea, they build it with another friend, and then it becomes something major. It sounds like you all have great connections then to be able to staff, it sounds like internationally.

Yao Adantor:
We staff only in US companies now, but we have staff engineers from Africa into the West and back and forth. And it’s such an interesting business to be in because you rely a lot on the ingenuity of people and their humanness to connect with other people to be able to even get them to talk to a recruiter or whatever. We sit on the back of a lot of companies. We’re now just rolling out our own and being the face of I think they call it top funnel sourcing.

Yao Adantor:
And what is interesting about that, this happened post-college. Teyibo and I were in college 2014, and we started this in 2017. And my first tech job ever was actually being a sourcer at a company called Eliassen, which is, I think they’re called something else now. And I was a sourcer, and I remember just seeing all these recs call these people with no degrees, making so much money. And I’m like, “Oh my God, what’s going on? Is this tech?” And I’m like, “Wait, do we have to do a traditional way of thinking?” Actually, that was my first ever knowledge of being in tech, is just seeing all these recs and all these positions that I didn’t know anything about. And turns out years later, somehow some way we end up as a sourcing company, which I’m the prime sourcer somehow. And it changed so much from what I used to do in that internship, but it’s still amazing to think about.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s great, especially to have that relationship also with these companies that they would come to you, like you say, for that top funnel sourcing. In a way, it reminds me of the interesting thing for having done this show this long is I get to talk to people at so many different companies. And so a lot of companies will reach out to me, which is actually why we started our Job Board a couple of years ago. Because so many companies would reach out to us and be like, “We’re trying to find Black designers. We’re trying to find Black tech people. Where are they? You know where they are.” I’m like, “Okay. I’m just interviewing one a week, but sure. I could try to help out.” That’s great though. It sounds like it’s really taken off.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s tough. It’s taking off. We’re trying to break out of just being breaking even and actually offering more to the people that work for us. Of course, we are 100% African American and Black firm, African firm in the US. And there are so many challenges that we have to go through, to work across borders, everything from paying people without paying a bunch of fees, because somehow, no one has built a true way of paying people in Africa or engineers, really smart people. And it’s really hard. And we had to figure out things that no company had to figure out, and we’re getting better. And then we’re hoping to cross that barrier where people start seeing the quality that we bring to top-level sourcing as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, this other company, Research Bookmark, tell me about that. Did that grow out of the work you do through Analog Teams, or is that from somewhere else?

Yao Adantor:
Okay. Research Bookmark is, like many things that I do, an idea that hits me usually at night or randomly, and I start working on it right away. It just how it goes. This is how Research Bookmark came up. A couple years ago, I came across Notion, and I-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I love Notion. I love Notion. Sorry, go ahead.

Yao Adantor:
[inaudible 00:24:56]. Notion changed a game somehow. There are a lot of note-taking tools out there, but there was something about Notion. And at the time, I was also mentoring through a UXP program. I think I’d done once or twice, and I was in a third round or something. And my mentees, people ask about sources and I’m like, “I’m going to my bookmark and I drop it down, and it’s just random stuff. It’s a bunch of stuff. I’m sure they’re important, but I can’t make it out again.”

Yao Adantor:
Notion came round at that time, and I just thought, “What if I can just drop all of this somewhere and I can share it with the world. Is this really possible?” It blew my mind, something very simple. You could have done the same thing with a worksheet or Google sheet. But for some reason, Notion was well-designed and everything, and I really wanted to use it. So Research Bookmark was actually born right there. And it seemed like a crazy idea. I remember texting my friends like, “Guys, I’m going to put…” People are like, “Yeah, that’s cool. It sounds useful.” It sounds useful, that’s what I got at the time. From there, I think I tried many names before Research Bookmark, like call it Research Nuggets or something. It was like, “Yeah, I love this naming stuff when you start building something,” whatever.

Yao Adantor:
And we got to the point where the first person to work on Research Bookmark with me was actually one of the mentees. But she didn’t really last long. I know she was looking for work and stuff. But Analog Team… So here’s what happened, very strange. Teyibo, my co-founder, had lived in Kenya prior to that year. He lived in Kenya for a year or something of the sort. And he met a lot of people. We were trying to build software again, like I was telling you. And when we came back, this was one of our first hire. We hired a girl out of a town called Nyeri in Kenya. And her name is Cavendish Mwangi, and she’s actually the lead PM on Research Bookmark now.

Yao Adantor:
And the way I was to train her was through Research Bookmark. So she would do work for Analog. I don’t know what we were doing at that time. She was helping us with projects, whatever, and then I would have her spend time on Research Bookmark. “Okay, how do we categorize this? What do we do?” And it was just back and forth. She’s remote. I never met her. I actually just met her on this trip couple days ago. Crazy. So we’re going back and forth building Research Bookmark, and this is our training ground. This is also me just saying, “Wow, this is maybe how you build a product.”

Yao Adantor:
We get to the end of, I don’t know, 2019 for a couple months. We had maybe funneled our sources in there, organized in all weird ways. And I go, “Wow. Maybe if I get 500 to 1,000 people to touch this page over a year, that would be amazing.” Turned this thing on, two weeks later, there was over 1,200 people go, “Okay.” And at that time, we started talking to researchers. We’re rushing talking to researchers. “What do you need? How can we make it better?” Advisors, and my people that I look up to and stuff, and we just we’re talking and trying to improve it and make it better. And it took a life on its own, is really what happened. But it all started from coming across Notion, coming across the right person, being in the Analog, having Analog deliver a person that can work on it at the same time. This really impossible combination of stuff is what helped build Research Bookmark.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been received by UX researchers? Have you gotten a lot of great feedback from people?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. It’s been received well because essentially, product research is going through this maturity. A lot of PhDs in the social sciences are crossing over into industry, and this is the way to get in. It may not be where to stay, but this is the way to get in and this is what’s really interesting and fits their degrees, people coming out of college, us that were trained as product designers at the very beginning. My background is in psychology. I became a product designer first, but I always knew I was going to go into research or strategy or something of that sort. All of these people are now gearing towards research, product research. Companies are feeling the need a little too late, but they are feeling the need. You see programs at Google and Amazon starting to mentor more and more UX researchers. So us being the Google of UX research just helps everyone discover information, sources, meet each other.

Yao Adantor:
The platform itself is great, but the community that we’re building around the platform is really what’s going to help us stand strong. And that community is through LinkedIn. The people we meet, the research we run on researchers is been very well received. We always have been taking feedback, and our mission now is to make the day-to-day of researchers just more fruitful. If you wake up, you’re looking for something, improve your craft, go on Research Bookmark, use our search because that’s what it’s built for. We want it to become every researcher’s homepage one day.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s such a great way to just give back to the community too, with such a great resource like that. We’ve talked a lot about your work. You’ve alluded to this a little bit earlier about your background being from Togo. So let’s jump into your origin story. Tell me about growing up in Togo.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, man. I grew up in a small country on the west coast of Africa called Togo. We’re Togolese people. I’m both Togolese and American. My parents moved here when I was pretty young, I think 9 or 10. And I grew up in Kamos. African kids grew up in big communities. My grandmothers are around, my uncles. Everyone, we lived in the same, I would say it was a neighborhood. And there’s a beach town. I lived maybe 10, 15 minutes away from the beach my whole life until I moved. I moved here. My first language is French, so we studied. I’ve started school pretty early, I think at two and a half or something. I was in the diapers, my mom said.

Yao Adantor:
One thing that I really remember about being in Togo is the group of friends that I live with in our neighborhood that I played with. Every day we play soccer and stuff like that. The house across were Jessica and Gail, and behind them were Sade. And just Steven behind me. And now that I think about it, we were pretty nutty kids because all come up with all these games. We tried making up our own language at one point and we lost that book. That would probably be very useful right now. All of these things that really mark my childhood, and being raised in a house or neighborhood where everyone is raising. It’s hard to do something wrong, growing up in the African community.

Yao Adantor:
But Togo was a blessing to live in. And I mean, I was young and I would go back home often to visit, and it’s always a pleasure. We’re pretty peaceful people for the most part, and the weather is nice and life is pretty good. It’s pretty good. Aside from the usual challenges of being an African country, a lot of unemployment, a lot of what do we do after I graduate, a lot of lack of just operational organization around the country. That’s just the challenges we deal with as Africans. But it’s really good. It’s really good growing up there.

Maurice Cherry:
And you say it was a beach town. Was this Lomé?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, Lomé. I grew up in a town called Baguida, City de Baguida, so which is the City of Baguida, which is just a neighborhood right across the road from… You cross the big road, the highway, and you’re walking right on the beach.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. The startup that I work at is a French startup, and so we have a lot of people from Benin, which I know is the neighboring country. And I think we have one or two people from Ghana. But I know about Togo. One because, I don’t want to say I speak French, I studied French. I don’t know. I feel like I have to be put in an immersive situation to know whether or not I speak it, but I studied it from second grade all the way through college. So I can read it. I can recognize it. I think I’m okay with speaking it. But if I speak to a native French speaker, I’ll be like, “Yeah, oui.”

Maurice Cherry:
But I did a one of those, I think it was 23andMe or Ancestry, one of those. I think my ancestry was traced back to Togo. I don’t know where specifically in the country. I feel like I’d have to do African ancestry or something to figure that out, but that’s where I first had learned about Togo. I knew about it being a French-speaking country. And you say you moved here you were about 9 or 10 years old?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, yep. We moved to Maryland. I remember Silver Spring. I went to an elementary called Viers Mill Elementary School, I remember.

Maurice Cherry:
How was that shift?

Yao Adantor:
It was good. We were younger. I knew it was tougher on my parents. I was younger. I was a kid, so it’s like, “Oh my God, new things. Oh, new school, new things.” And the language wasn’t hard. I had a English tutor before I got here. That didn’t help so much because American English is so different from what it is in person. We’re bit British English and stuff like that. But I would say all around smooth from us, for me, aside from leaving your friends back home. And they’re all over the world now, Switzerland and Europe and all of this stuff. So we’re all over the place, but it was a pretty smooth transition for me, I’ll say. I actually went to Morgan State first. I went to three colleges in three years.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Yao Adantor:
So when I graduated high school, I had a full scholarship to compete in track and field through shot put, and I still throw shot put for Togo as a pro. But then, when I graduated, I went to Morgan State. For me at that age, it was I wanted to find the best coach and wanted have connected with more because I wanted to throw as far as I can. And that didn’t happen that first year. And I thought maybe I need a switch. Then I went to University of Maryland. And Maryland in 2012, they cut the teams. There were budget stuff, and they cut the teams. They cut men track and field specifically among with some other sports.

Yao Adantor:
So I ended up going again to a school that I looked at when I was graduating. I actually visited UMBC and met Coach Bob when I graduated high school. I came back and there was a coach there, Coach Panayiotis Yiannakis, Greek man. So he became my coach, and I finished at UMBC. That’s how my story went. I started at a Black university, a historical Black university, which was a great experience, to Maryland, and then UMBC where I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So how was your time there? How was your time? You were an athlete, but also you studied industrial psychology. How was your time there?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, it was a great time. A lot of the stuff, a lot of the friendships, a lot of the connections. I live actually right behind UMBC now where my wife and I live now, so I stayed pretty close. It was a great time, I would say. College is a blur in a lot of ways because as athletes, we don’t have the same exact experience as everyone else. Our time is booked, so trying to do a lot of stuff. I remember I had a job even with athletics. I used to do security overnight for a company called Security Task. I would drive all the way to DC to do security at the GEICO building, going back and other weekends, I would do Marshall as a whatever. What do they call them? Something Marshalls. We were like cops on campus and did that work.

Yao Adantor:
But most of the stuff that UMBC gave me is just being resourceful. It wasn’t the easiest school to navigate. Most schools are. It was a pretty young university, and the technology was okay. So if you wanted to get something done, you had to go to the source. Actually, my last couple years, I was in SAAC, Student Athlete Advisory Committee. Okay, I got it right. And I was a president of SAAC my last year. We try to do a lot of stuff for the athletes and all of that stuff. That just got me around to meeting people trying to get stuff done. “Is this how people really get stuff done in real life?” I was asking myself, because it’s impossible. Everyone give you the run around even if they didn’t want to. So, “That person has it. This person has it.”

Yao Adantor:
So my experience there was pretty… Those were really formative years. And studying industrial psych, I actually started studying industrial psych in high school because I was in a part of some AP program and you had to choose something. I knew I wanted to do psychology. My father was like, “I’m not sure about psych, man. You may become a secretary or something.” This was a running joke in the house. And I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I wanted to become a counselor psychiatrist specifically, but if I was going to become, I was going to be a cool one.”

Yao Adantor:
But I also wanted to do something around business. And what I found through Google search was this thing called industrial psychology. It was fascinating that you can apply psychology without being a counselor or something like this. So I started, I got into this AP program, and you can study whatever you wanted. I had an internship at Raytheon Solipsys. It was some government contractor and I was an HR and learned what is… She wasn’t an industrial psychologist, I think. My mentor wasn’t. But this is the something would do. That took me to college where I wanted to study, and UMBC just happens to be one of the schools to have an industrial psych minor or certificate. So along with behavioral or native psychology, I did this certificate in industrial psychology.

Maurice Cherry:
So it all worked out then? That’s good.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. All worked out.

Maurice Cherry:
Once you graduated, what did your early career look like? Did you find a lot of UX research positions out there? I’m asking alluding to what you said before about companies are just now starting to come around to UX research. I’m guessing you probably graduated in the mid to late 2010s. So I’m guessing, I don’t know. Were companies looking for UX researchers back then?

Yao Adantor:
Oh, no. First, I wouldn’t have known to look. Interesting point there is when we were in high school, they would always tell us… I went to Reservoir High School in Fulton, Maryland, and there’s two strange thing about their schools. One, they would bring this guy to talk to us how we were the best schools in the country. It was weird. It was a rally thing. And we actually believed it for a long time. Then, the other thing was they’ll tell us that the jobs that we are going to have are not yet created, and it’s really hard for a high school student to comprehend that. It affects me now in a lot of ways where I think about what are my daughters going to do, what I will be doing 10 years. Maybe it’s not there yet.

Yao Adantor:
And UX research definitely wasn’t there when I graduated high school, and definitely not there when I graduated college. I was looking for industrial psychology jobs, which were impossible to find as well. Who was hiring this industrial psychology to make the workplace better? Haha. No one was doing that then, but I bet now they’re just doing very different forms. But no, I was looking at. And I connected with HR so I look at a lot of HR jobs and stuff like that. But no, I knew nothing about user experience, which is a whole another story how I got into that or user experience research for that matter.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Just that part you mentioned about the person coming to your school and saying that the jobs that you’ll have, they don’t exist yet, that flashes me back to high school. I went to high school in the nineties, and I was in high school right when the internet started to take off like, right when the advent of the worldwide web, I should say, that started to take off, so mid to early-ish nineties. We had a computer lab. We had computers in the school and stuff, and I was learning HTML and teaching myself HTML and not even knowing what I would do with it because it was a skill that you learned. And granted I was studying, I don’t know what I was on track to be in high school. I was just studying.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually that’s not true. I was on track to be a musician in high school. And I was doing a lot of math and stuff on the side because I was just good at it, but not really thinking, “Oh, what am I going to go to college for?” I initially wanted to go to college to major in English and be a writer because I was also writing. And my mom is like, “No, you’re not going to make any money doing that. You need to focus on something that’s going to make money. What about them computers? You’re always at school which you’re facing them computers. Why don’t you study that?” But back then, this is 1999. This is also the year where we thought Y2K was going to wipe out everything. So it’s the whole thing of, “I’m going to major into computers if Armageddon doesn’t happen.” And I would be sitting in my computer program in classes in the fall of ’99 like, “Why am I even studying this? What if Y2K comes and all of this is just obsolete?” We really didn’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
But to that point of you’re studying for something or the job that you end up doing is something that does not exist yet, which is so wild to think about when you see just the path of how technology grows. It’s crazy. I had no idea when I was in college that I would end up doing web design as a profession, because it was always a hobby back then. And I didn’t know anyone who did it. This was 1999, 2000. I was reverse engineering webpages in Notepad and just trying to figure it out, because I didn’t see anyone that did this. There were no schools that taught it. I didn’t know anyone that… If I knew people that did the web, they were a web master. So it was always this weird even back then. The terminology is not what it is now. There’s all kinds of different stuff. But yeah, man. Whoa, that took me back, just saying that part.

Yao Adantor:
That’s another thing right there, just the terminology or how things change. When we’re sitting here having this conversation and the jobs will be in the future, we can even fathom what that’s going to be like, who is going to be, and who’s going to be doing it, how it’s going to come about. It’s an incredible thing to think about, really.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, I’ve seen job titles change since I started this show. I remember when I first started this show, I was not talking to UX designers. I was not. I think that maybe started about, I don’t know, maybe about four or five years in, started getting a bunch of UX researchers, UX designers on the show. I’m like, “What is this UX? Is that graphic design? What is that?” Just trying to figure it out because actually, I think, back then they just called it like UI/UX designer. So it was you do both.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, a bunch of things, information architect. And even in this show, I just use product researcher multiple times, but that just means UX researcher. But UX designers are not calling themself product designer so I’m like, “Well, I’m a product researcher then,” right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Yao Adantor:
So it changes so fast.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. So going back and looking at your career, you were at KPMG for two years, then you were at Softrams for two years after that. When you look back during that time, what do you take away from that?

Yao Adantor:
Oh, man. KPMG was a fantastic experience. Actually, the way I got to KPMG was I was in the MICA MPS program, Master’s of Professional Studies, in UX design. Check this out. I moved to Germany after graduating, we didn’t talk about that, to go study sports management, because I believed in sports so much. I did, but it didn’t work out. So I went there to train. I trained with my coach a lot. I lived in Monheim. And before I left, I met the word UX design. That’s I found the word UX design on Google through a conversation, and that planted a seed. So I came back, started looking for schools, Arizona. I’m like, “Maybe I have to move to the West Coast.” I didn’t know what really I wanted to do. I felt down around those times. I was reading a lot of Rumi poetry to get myself back up. That’s how I was man. I was depressed. I was reading a lot of like Sufi poetry and stuff.

Yao Adantor:
And through that whole thing, I found this program that was starting at MICA, and I applied. I don’t know what the ad was or whatever. I applied. And I went to meet this lady called Crystal Shamble, and she’s just one of the great pushers in my life altogether. But I went to meet her to talk about that I didn’t want to do something theoretical. “I see this ad. I see you guys are doing UX design. I want to do it, but I don’t want to do anything theoretical. I don’t want to write any papers. I don’t have any time for that.” And at the time, I was a substitute teacher in high school. Actually, I wasn’t being a sub anymore. I was teaching special ed, helping teachers teach kids with behavior stuff. And I was the first student to apply to that program and the first student to be admitted. Very weird story. I only learned this about a year ago. And there was 10 of us and only 5 of us or 6 of us graduated the program.

Yao Adantor:
So through that program, towards the end, a letter came through, an email came through, and Crystal forwarded to us about people. They’re looking for people in UX design at KPMG. Oh wow, I know KPMG. I didn’t know KPMG then, but you look them up and you see they’re part of the big four. “Hey, you’re going to school. This may be a great thing.” I sent back my stuff. I don’t know if anybody did. I got an interview. I went there and met two gentlemen, Mike and Mark, and they interviewed me. And then I got an internship. It was an internship into a job kind of thing. So I got to KPMG through that way, right through basically this. They were looking for people. They had a relationship with MICA somehow, and I got to start working there.

Yao Adantor:
First thing I noticed is that this whole UX design thing is not very straightforward. There is a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of people and a lot of ideas in limbo, just, “So okay, what do we do here? Or what is that for? What is design? How do you come up with product ideas? And how do you iterate and stuff like that?” Because I was moving into product design. I learned as much as I could. Traveled a bunch. They give me opportunity to just be on different projects with a bunch of Fortune 100 companies. So I’ve seen a lot.

Yao Adantor:
I wouldn’t say I got any craft skills, but I got two things. I got the idea of what good design is and what good design is not, and also about what cultures I wanted to be in and the cultures and the people that I wanted to work with. One of the greatest gifts I got from KPMG is one of my mentors, John Winawiki, who taught me actually how to design product and how to look at designing and when to break the rules or how to break the rules and where there’s no rules, what you do and so forth. That was my biggest takeaway from that company. I met a lot of people. There’s some pretty cool things, but having just someone on my first ever project just being like, “I like that kid. I’m going to help them out,” was life changing.

Yao Adantor:
Among the learning, being in the corporate and all of this stuff was also cool. I’m sure it influenced the way I look at business and stuff now. But that was the biggest thing I learned there. And from that experience, I went to the other extreme to work in government. I worked at CMS through Softrams during COVID. I got to Softrams, we on a CMS contract, and then COVID happened. It was madness. It was, “Wow. Now, things are really… Let’s improve the systems,” and stuff like that. And being at Softrams taught me another thing, working through a contractor in a federal space, which honestly wouldn’t want to do again. Not because it was a bad experience, but I think the system in which they work with other people probably needs to be improved in a lot of ways.

Yao Adantor:
But I worked with some pretty fantastic people on some impossible, impossible problems. Because if you know anything about government UX, building government products is not as straightforward. It’s not private industry. You don’t just go get things done. There are processes. There are people, in a way. There are steps to everything. And being able to improve all of that and the platform that you’re actually supposed to build was a positive challenge. It really gave me some strength in being in a senior leap part of my career. So I took a bunch of things from those two experiences, both functionally, all over, growth, cultures you wanted to work and people you wanted to work with, and so forth. So it was really amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now, you’re running two businesses. You’re working full-time. And on top of that, you’re also a professor at MICA where you got your master’s degree. You just alluded to that earlier. Talk to me about what you’re teaching.

Yao Adantor:
For the last few years, I was teaching prototyping. And that was really a passion of mine because prototyping is like movie making. And I used to make all these hack movies from training over the summer when I was in college and mix tapes and stuff like that. So prototyping for me is a lot like making a movie and making it correctly. For a few years, I did that. Now, I’m teaching UX research, which is closer to home, and because the need is there, and it’s also the perfect time. The world needs more UX researchers, and I want to be there helping people cross over, building that bridge again and helping people cross over into that field.

Yao Adantor:
You mentioned a lot of stuff. Most importantly, I’m a husband and I’m a father. And that takes most amount of my energy and that’s rightfully so. And whatever I have left, and I don’t want the company I work for or the business I do to feel less than, but whatever I have left is what I dedicated that. And I do it dutifully and I try to do as perfectly as I can. So all of those things are, they’re essentially part of how I think and how I work. I’m always in all this businesses and stuff. And building a business and stuff like that, I also shy away from the word entrepreneur and all of that stuff. It’s weird. First, I haven’t made that much money or any money. So what money that you become entrepreneur?

Yao Adantor:
But the second part is it also falls into everyone thinks you’re hustling, but that’s really not it. It’s part of my personality to create, and I’m a compulsive creator. And I say that I’m addicted to creation and I’m a compulsive creator. I’m always trying to make something. I think I built four or five products last year. Some are dormant. Some are not there. But I’m always trying to do this. And some of them have stuck, Analog Teams and Research Bookmark and so forth. And some of them have not. So I see it as part of myself, and that’s why I actually don’t use the work-life balance. I use work-life harmony because we take so much of our energy, of our life to working that is almost a spiritual journey as well, to building these things, meeting these people, being into it, failing, getting back up. It’s a big journey. So all of that for me rolls up into me essentially in a lot of ways.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you achieve that harmony? Like you say, you have all this energy and then you also expend it at work too. Teach us. How do you do this? How do you balance it all and get that harmony?

Yao Adantor:
I don’t. Honestly, I don’t know if there’s a purposeful way to say, “Hey, I do this, I do that.” I know that I do, which a lot of people shy away from, I do pray or meditate a lot on what I need to do next and get answers from there, which is vague to say, because it’s not operational. I’m not going to give you a five-second rule book or whatever. I’m always trying to achieve this the right thing to do stuff. And I think that helps my steps forward, and it helps me achieve a lot of what all of those things put together in a time that you need to do them.

Yao Adantor:
Plus let’s not discount and let’s actually put forward all the people in my environment that helped me do this, my wife, my kids, my co-founders and everywhere. I’ve never built anything by myself on my own just on my own. I may have gotten an idea on my own and kick started it, but never on my own. These are the people that are actually making this work-life harmony work. I actually haven’t thought about that before too much, but they are the people actually holding the whole thing up. Because if some of that goes away, you can’t get anything done, from my coworkers at work to people helping you build companies and update stuff. It’s both that. It’s both praying and meditating on what I need to do next and what is the right thing to do, but also holding up the people that are in combination holding everything up around me. I would say that’s that’s the best sense that comes to me right now, actually.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I think that it is funny. You said it’s not an operational thing. It’s really just taking time and stopping and meditating and praying. I think if it’s one thing I’ve learned throughout the years is that the work will always be there, and I don’t want to say it doesn’t do you any better, but it certainly does a disservice to the work if you rush to try to get things done. There’s that whole saying about haste makes waste.

Yao Adantor:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
The work will always be there, so if you can just take time out, work smarter, not harder, all those sorts of things. I’m glad that you said that it’s not some life hack or whatever, that one, it takes a team, it takes a family, it takes a village to help you out, but also just stopping and taking stock to think about what your next move should be. That’s really important.

Yao Adantor:
I’ve read all those books, man, how to make friends and winning people over. In my late, late teens, I’m a big Audible fan, and I’ve read so many self-help books without knowing. It wasn’t conscious at the time. It was just what my brain wanted to eat. And then now, I don’t do that so much anymore because I know even taking that in is different. The way you apply those stuffs are very different. And out of all this, I think you mentioned this a bit. I get tired. You get tired. So I need to rest. I need to sleep and I need not to think about work or anything of that sort. And that gives you more life into coming back and doing more.

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

Yao Adantor:
Oh man, that’s a wild question. Well, I think I mentioned before. I wanted to do sports management because I was really into the idea that I should have. I haven’t visited the idea in a while, that sports can help change a world, and it does in a lot of ways when you see these big events and stuff. So maybe I would’ve gone into sports management deeper. I always thought that if I didn’t do industrial psychology, I could have been a counselor or psychologist or something with a PlayStation in my room. So I would do teens who would have fun instead of putting a lot of pressure on them, a lot of that stuff.

Yao Adantor:
But I really couldn’t tell you for sure, because the perspective on life is this tunnel thing. I’m looking at it now and I’m like, “Maybe I could have done this, or that, or that,” but it takes one moment, one conversation, just like how I got into UX design or research, to change everything. So yeah, I don’t know. It could have been many. I was always interested in people, in talking, in psychology and talking to people and spiritual things and so forth. So I may have done something along those lines, whatever that is.

Maurice Cherry:
Would you have still possibly competed? You did it in college. And I know you mentioned that you say you do it for the nation of Togo as well. So you’re a record holder.

Yao Adantor:
Yeah. I’m our nation’s record holder. Who knew? Who would’ve thought that’s even possible? Yeah, but I-

Maurice Cherry:
In two events?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, in two events. One of them, some young kids should definitely come and break down that. So please some young kid, come break this record. I got into college and stuff doing track and pay for a little bit of school. And then, I think when I was a junior, I found out that I can make, or sophomore, found out that I can make my national team. I emailed the head of the national committee, General Nabide, and I hope that man is still that when you called. He responded so into it with so much energy that I was like, “Whoa, maybe this is possible. I can compete for my country.” And then the next year, I was on a plane to Morocco competing for the first time at the African championships. And I set a record then, and then the years coming after, I did it again. I need to do it again soon. I’m training hard again. So I still compete as pro somewhat. That’s also there as part of, I guess, my story and stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Would you ever do an Olympics?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah, I kept trying, man. My wife is actually a two-time Olympian, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Really?

Yao Adantor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
In what sports?

Yao Adantor:
In this case, she throws this disc for… She was born here. She’s a dual citizen. So she throws discs for Nigeria.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Yao Adantor:
She made 2012. I don’t know if they got to go, but she went to Rio and had a great meet there as well. So she’s a better athlete than I’ll ever be. And I keep trying to make it, so I’m going to try. I’m going to try Paris. I feel good. I feel really healthy right now. And I’ll see if I make it, but this time it’s still pretty far. It takes one of those moments for you to do it, so I’m looking for that as well at some point.

Maurice Cherry:
So your family is like the Fantastic Four?

Yao Adantor:
You know what? If my two kids, my two… They’re pretty strong, man. They’re pretty active so they may grow up to do track and field as well. There’s no money in track. I’d rather them play tennis like Serena or Venus Williams or something. But if they grow up to want to play sports, we’re ready. We have a lot of knowledge.

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

Yao Adantor:
Oh, man. I think in the next five years, maybe I’ll still be at Bolt. At one time where I know we were talking to my… I have a really great manager, Andrew. We were talking about something. He was like, “10 years. You just at least stay here for 10 years.” I’m like, “Yeah, man. Why not?” So here’s something. I’ve never felt like I work. I work for people. I never felt the unbalance of relationship when I work for a company. I know a lot of entrepreneurs or people that like to create feel that, that heat. And they want to just be really into their thing. I’m a contributor in a lot of ways. So maybe I’ll still be at Bolt if the company keeps going and they keep doing great things. Especially for me, if the team is still awesome, I’ll be there.

Yao Adantor:
Research Bookmark would have taken over the world, would had millions of users, would be on every researchers and designers’ homepage at work, maybe even get a bunch of funding to build search all over the world and such. And my family and this whole support system would’ve gone through a stratosphere, being great people themself as well. Me, myself, if I give you a straight answer where I really want to be, I can’t tell you. I’ll be guided by whatever guides me usually. There’ll be God and just the great energy in this whole universe. But I’ll be doing something worthwhile is really what I’m hoping for.

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

Yao Adantor:
LinkedIn is probably the easiest way people connect these days when it comes to business and such. Research Bookmark is on there. If you are an aspiring UX researcher, UX designer, project manager, and so forth, and you guys are getting into research and users, use Research Bookmark. Learn, come into the best place to just draw. And our new update is incredible. We’ve gone from taking sources, almost like taking buckets and pulling it into the pool. And now we build our own search and you can search anything UX research on the web in the world. So come use it.

Yao Adantor:
Analog Teams. If you are a business out there, you are one of these unicorn tech companies, a big company, you need tech developmental talent from the US, from Europe, from Africa, we can find those people. We can qualify them, and we can save you so much time and money in finding great people to help you scale as well.

Yao Adantor:
I’m on LinkedIn, mostly. I don’t have any social medias. I do turn my Twitter every once in a while, but I turn it back off. So you can find me pretty open. I respond to everyone on LinkedIn and so forth. My team is there. Yeah, that’s the place you can find me. And obviously, through your podcast as well.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Yao Adantor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think your whole story is just super inspirational, not just with the journey that you’ve taken from being an athlete and learning about industrial psychology and UX research, but also with how you’re giving back through your projects that you’re doing. I feel like you’re such a great example out there of what people can do if they really put their mind to it when it comes to building and creating things in tech. And I’m excited to see where you go in the future, man. I really am.

Yao Adantor:
Absolutely. I learned today we’re distant relatives because you’re from Togo. I’m from Togo and all these things. It was really a pleasure talking to you and meeting you as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s what’s up, man. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Yao Adantor:
All right, man. Merci, and good things in the future as well.

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Treavor Wagoner

Summer is here, and with the start of a new month, I’m bringing you my conversation with Treavor Wagoner, senior product designer, author, and quite the avid traveler! We spoke just as Treavor wrapped up his latest trip and right before the launch of the ebook version of his latest book, “So Much Trouble”.

Treavor talked about what drew him to working at Redfin, and from there he spoke about life growing up in a small Texas town. Treavor also went into his college days at University of North Texas, and shared how his love of writing drew him to teaching himself HTML and CSS. We also touched on a number of different topics after that, including how he’s unlearning harmful habits and how his non-linear career path has allowed him to indulge in a lot of his personal passions. According to Treavor, being Black and queer in tech is hard, but navigating it is possible — keep going!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Hi, my name is Treavor Wagoner. My pronouns are he/him, and I am a system designer by day, and then a seeker, traveler by the rest of my life.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Treavor Wagoner:
I would say it’s been going pretty well. I moved back to Austin to kind of start going after my dreams. It’s been going well so far. Well, it’s been kind of going well so far. I just adopted a dog and so it’s a little bit of a harrowing experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. What kind of dog?

Treavor Wagoner:
So he’s a mutt, but we just got back his DNA results and he is German shepherd, Australian cattle dog, Shih Tzu, and a small poodle mix.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a mix.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, a lot of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine. Yeah. Aside from the new dog, do you have any kind of plans for the summer I saw on Twitter, you mentioned that you’re touring US national parks. Is that still going on?

Treavor Wagoner:
No, actually, I did that last year, so that kind of ties into what I’m back in Austin for. But last year I did a seven month road trip around the west and where I was seeing national parks, as well as seeing friends who hadn’t seen in years because of the pandemic. And then also kind of keeping an eye out for land to buy or a house to buy or whatnot because Texas prices have gone up so wildly, so it’s been kind of difficult to find places to live. But I moved back to Austin to kind of reassess, save money, just prepare for the next five years of my life. But as far as this summer, no big plans. I think it’s just beat out the heat here in Texas, train my dog, take care of my dog and hang out with my friends who live here while I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now you were there for South By this year. This was sort of the first year back, I think, after two years, roughly of sort of remote South by Southwest. Did you notice like a big change in the city with South By coming back?

Treavor Wagoner:
Typically, before or BC, before COVID, South By would shut down the whole city and all the local residents would leave or just stay in the house until South by went away. But this year, it was very quiet. It was a slow ease back into city shutdown. Typically, when South By is going on, you can’t go downtown, can’t find a parking space to save your life. But I went down to downtown once or twice and it was like any other day, to be honest. No streets were shut down as far as I saw. So yeah. I mean, I didn’t really participate in South By, but just because I didn’t want to deal with crowds and COVID and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And you live there, so what’s the draw?

Treavor Wagoner:
Exactly. But the thing about South By which a lot of people don’t really realize is that you have South By film, music and all the other treks associated with South By, but there’s also a lot of free shows or peripheral shows that are happening that you can go to, parties and things like that. Restaurants and local vendors are doing cool things for all the traffic, all the South By people coming into town. So yeah, I mean, that stuff is fun, but like I said, dealing with traffic and parking, all that stuff kind of is a drain sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
So currently I see you’re working as a senior product designer at Redfin. Tell me about that. What drew you to the company?

Treavor Wagoner:
Actually, I didn’t see it for Redfin initially. So I was the former head of design. Colin Gregson reached out to me on LinkedIn and he was like, “We’re trying to start up the design system at Redfin and we need someone like you.” I guess he had heard about what I did with Indeed. And he wanted to kind of do the same with Redfin, but at the time I wasn’t really looking for a job. I wasn’t working at the time. I was actually taking a break. I was on another sabbatical. I had just left a company where I had experienced racial discrimination and was taking some time to heal from all of that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I let him know. I was like, “Hey, I’m not feeling it right now. I’m not feeling it right now. I’m healing from that. I’m dealing with COVID.” I mean, I didn’t catch COVID, but the pandemic was fresh and new. This was like March 2020.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So I was like, “Uh-uh (negative), I’m not.” It was at a time where I was once again, wondering if I wanted to stick with the tech industry or just, I don’t know, do something else, but I’m a completist and obviously I decided to stick with it and he kept reaching out a couple of times to see how I was doing, where I was at. I think that the next time that he reached out was around June 2020, and of course around that time, it was not a good time at all because of protests and police murders and things like that. Which again, just kind of reopened the bullshit that I had experienced. And I was just very frustrated and angry and jaded and bitter and old.

Treavor Wagoner:
I think it was around December is when I told him, “Hey, I feel that I can jump back in and actually provide or do what I’m here to do when it comes to systems design and really help you out.” So we began interviewing and all that stuff, and it was probably the best interviewing experience that I’ve ever had hands down. They really made me feel comfortable, and in the past, what I’ve experienced with interviewing as a black person is that people don’t really see it for you, or they don’t think that you actually have the expertise that you do have. And with Redfin, I just felt like they allowed me to present my work and the stuff that I consider to be my craft, the things that I study, things that I love to do, which is signing a system and they heard me out, and they loved it. And they were like, “Yeah, you’re the on.” And then they offered me a deal. And I was like, “Yeah.”

Treavor Wagoner:
The story of trauma doesn’t stop there. In Texas, we had the winter storm maybe a week before I was supposed to start.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, with the power grid and all that stuff, right?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It was very bad. I was one of the unlucky few who did not have power or running water the whole time, and we’re talking single digits. Yeah. It was traumatizing. The whole time I was thinking, “Am I going to survive?” I’m checking in with friends and they’re telling me, I’m not going to say it here, but it’s pretty traumatic stuff that they experienced. We’re talking death and things like that. And I, like a crazy person who has experienced a lot of trauma in his life, I was like, “You know what? Sure, I can start a job following all that.” So I started the next week and I did it with a smile on my face, but definitely it was a mental wear down for me eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
You know, I think we’re going to look back in the history books and just see how much repeated trauma and shit black people had to put up with that summer of 2020, because I got laid off right around that time, in May, around Memorial day. And I remember I didn’t really feel like going back and trying to jump into finding another job. I had just been at this place for two and a half years and I sort of wanted to take a break, but I felt extremely guilty about taking a break at a time when people were out protesting in the streets for such a worthy cause. And I’m like, I really need this rest, though. I don’t know what I’m going to have another time in my professional career to actually be okay with staying still for a few months because we got severance and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
And what ended up happening, and I think a lot of black folks, again, during this time will mention this is that now you have this influx of companies that are not only pledging to do better in the face of all of this, but now all of a sudden I got work. I’m getting bombarded with offers and things to do and talking to companies internally about ways that they can change their DEI and all this sort of stuff. But then also being said, this is such a watershed moment, and do you think that this will continue? And I’m like, no, but also it’s not really up to me to do that because you, as the white people in power, it’s on y’all to continue this. It’s not on us. It’s not on the aggrieved to try to fix this. It’s on y’all. And of course now two years later, pretty much all of those promises have gone up in smoke.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I think I would say with Redfin, you asked me about Redfin. I would say that I’ve really seen them try. Not trying to be the spokesperson for Redfin, because I don’t think I could do a good job at it, but I’m really impressed with how they’ve been leaders in the real estate industry of trying to do the right thing for not only black people, but marginalized individuals.

Treavor Wagoner:
They’ve removed crime stats. Because our researchers are amazing, they’ve removed crime stats from house listings or property listings because they found that the areas that see a lot of “crime” are over policed and are predominantly black or brown, it’s kind of skewed data that they’re getting. So why have that on there? It’s not clean data, it’s not representative of the actual neighborhood, so let’s remove that.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think they’ve kind of put the pressure on other real estate companies to do the same as well. So that really impressed me. Not only have you cleaned up house, clean up your own house, but you’re also encouraging other people to clean up their houses too. I thought that was really great.

Maurice Cherry:
And I should mention, this whole conversation is not to bash your employer. So I don’ want them to think that we’re going in on Redfin or anything.

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh, no.

Maurice Cherry:
No, but I think it’s just worth mentioning that during that time in particular, there were so many friends of mine I know that were finally getting more speaking gigs, getting more design gigs, more companies were hitting them up. They were getting more job offers and it’s kind of bittersweet because yeah, it’s great that you see what I’m able to offer, but this is what it had to take for that to happen? And for it to not even be a sustained thing, it’s just sort of this one spike, and then that’s that. It’s crazy.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. It’s interesting because it’s like, finally. For me, someone who’s been in the industry for almost 15+ years, who has been around a lot of designers who get awards and things like that, or whatever or just get a lot of recognition; it felt good to finally be recognized in some way, but it was also bittersweet because I’ve been here, I’ve been doing the dang thing. I’ve been doing a great job at it, and in a sense, it’s like you’re not really recognizing me, the work. You’re recognizing me, the black designer. I’m more than that. I do more than that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Or if anything, they’re kind of trying to maybe wallpaper over some corporate guilt.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, not to dwell too much on work or anything, but I’m curious what’s a typical day like for you at Redfin? What’s your day-to-day look like?

Treavor Wagoner:
So my title is product designer, but our design system team is very small. It’s just mainly me and my co-lead, who is a designer as well. So we don’t have a direct manager. We don’t have a product manager in our “pod.” We work with an engineering team, but they’re a separate team. They’re not actually a part of our team, but we work very closely together all the time. So my day-to-day is looking at roadmaps and kind of filling in for the product manager role. It’s also doing some design tasks as well, so designing components, researching systems, checking in with my co-lead to make sure that we’re on track to meet our goals for our MVP of the design system and things like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
Sometimes we get questions from our design system customers, which are designers and engineers from the company. If I know the answer, which most of the time I don’t, I’ll chime in and kind of help out wherever I can. So doing support, thinking about educating, how we’re going to educate our customers about the new system that we’re working on, checking in with our stakeholders as we’re building the design system, to make sure that we’re in alignment and we’re doing fulfilling business needs as well as our customer needs. And then also making sure our partners we work with to build the system are happy and aligned with us as well. It’s a lot of engagement. It’s a lot of communication, which for me as an introvert can be a little draining sometimes. But I would say that I have a pretty good self care regimen. I could do better, but I try my best.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think especially throughout the pandemic, we’re all just trying to hold on. Especially with all these other things that are happening out in the world that are not pandemic related that are still compounding stress. I don’t want to specifically give name to any tragedies, but for folks that are listening, they know what’s going on right now in this time in the world. It’s heavy, it’s heavy.

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s like a landmine. You’re just walking through this really beautiful field and you come across landmines here and there. Like you mentioned, not to name any tragedies that have happened, but there’s so many, so take your pick. But each one of those, it affects me. It affects me in some way. I’m an empath, so I see people hurting and I want to do something. I want to take the hurt away, but I can’t do anything about it. Yeah. I feel like the closest I can get is donating money, but even that feels like it’s not enough.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here and learn more about you and your origin story. Like you mentioned, you’re in Austin, Texas right now. Is that where you grew up?

Treavor Wagoner:
I did not grow up in Austin. Austin was always this cool city, but I grew up near Waco, Texas. Which, if you’re not familiar with Waco for some reason, it is in the center of Texas, central Texas. I grew up in a very small town, maybe 15-20 minutes north of Waco. Very small town, we’re talking less than 900 people growing up. Yeah. I’m from the country. Right now, you’re probably not hearing my Texas accent, but it’s deep in there somewhere.

Treavor Wagoner:
At a certain point, my mother who at the time was a microbiologist, couldn’t find a job in the Waco area. She was also involved with the military. So we had our house in near Waco, but we also lived up in Arlington, Texas, which is in DFW. So we had a dual-residence type situation where we would live in Arlington throughout the week and then go down to the country on the weekends. So I had a city life and a country life at the same time, which I think hopping up and down I-35, sitting in a car for an hour and a half each way kind of yielded into me being a traveler when I got older, and just wanting to explore more of the world, more of our country.

Treavor Wagoner:
When I was at the age where I needed to start going to school, I started going to Christian private school in Arlington. It was non-denominational, so all walks of life were there. Catholic, baptist, Christian, Asian, black, white, Latino, et cetera. The neighborhood that we eventually settled in in Arlington was predominantly Hispanic, or at least it became predominantly Hispanic. And my babysitter who I went to hang out with after school was Hispanic, she was from south Texas and she taught me Spanish.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I was exposed to a lot of culture at a young age, but I was also from a small town, so I faced a lot of small town mindset, which is not being exposed to a lot of different cultures. So I was always met up with encountering people who did not realize that there’s a world outside of the small town, outside of where Walmart Super Center was the biggest thing, the happy place.

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, it was fun. It was interesting, but I eventually had to get out of there because I’m a queer person and it’s a small Texas town, so you can gather what that means for me. But I had to go find myself. I had to see what kind of life I could lead being a black queer person. And that’s where I ended up in Denton, Texas, going to UNT, or University of North Texas.

Maurice Cherry:
So before that, though, you started off at a community college at McLennan, was that in Waco or nearby Waco?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was in Waco. So I went at the same time. I’ve always been kind of an overachiever. I think it’s because of the private school education that I had. But while I was a, I think junior and senior at West High, which is in West comma Texas. We say West comma Texas because when we say West Texas people think Western Texas, and it’s a town called West. You may have heard of it. Speaking of tragedy, there was a fertilizer explosion that kind of almost demolished the whole town. It was around the time the Boston shooting happened in 2013, ’14.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. Anyway, so I went to high school there, but at the same time I did dual credit, which is when you take government and economics and some other courses, you also get college credit for them. So the local community college that was doing that was McClennan community college. So I didn’t actually do full fall spring semesters. I did summer school, summer classes. And then I eventually went to, I transferred those credits to UNT. So I consider University of North Texas my full on college experience, and McClennan, or MCC was my kind of interim exposure to college.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that a big shift, going from a community college to a four year?

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. It was less of a big shift going from community college to a full on university and more of a big shift going from being very sheltered to just all of a sudden having no rules, no one to watch over me or keep me out of trouble or whatever. No one to keep me from figuring out what queerness is or my identity is. So yeah, it was a unique experience, I would say. It wasn’t something that I wasn’t used to, because I would say going from a private education to a public education was far more of a big shift, and that happened when I was in sixth grade, where all of a sudden you’re enforced to be very prim and proper, no cursing, to being in an environment where people are fighting, kids are fighting all over the place, cursing, having sex. Like, what did I get myself into?

Maurice Cherry:
It was a totally different world, it sounds like.

Treavor Wagoner:
It was a totally different world. No offense to Mormons, but I felt like I was a Mormon kid actually going into the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Was your Rumspringa.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yes. But at 12, 13. Looking back, it’s funny and hilarious, but at the time it was kind of scary. So I would say when I transitioned from graduating from high school and attending some community college courses or doing some community college courses to full on living in a dorm, being on a college campus, meeting people from different parts of the world, I would say that was very exciting for me. I just felt very free.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear that you were dubbed “the guru” while you were there.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, that was a nickname that my manager at the time gave me. That’s funny. I started as a web designer, so I was designing blogs when I was in high school, and online blogs were my saving grace as a black queer person. I didn’t have any friends, really, in high school, so I would just write online and that was my escape. So in escaping to writing blogs, I started designing them and created a service out of that for other bloggers. So I would create their templates, their blog templates. I learned CSS from doing that, and I think a little bit of HTML at the same time, and also got to flex my creative muscle as well and creating color schemes and finding this rinky dink image creation software, editing software, and creating mass heads for blogs and stuff like that.

Treavor Wagoner:
But that led me into wanting to do that as for actually getting paid to do it. And so within a couple of months of being on campus in my freshman year, I found a job flyer for a web designer for the rec center on campus. And I kind of just begged my way into that job. They gave me the job and after about a year or so of doing that, the head of IT for the division that the rec center department was under saw my work, and he was like, “Hey, would you like to do this for the whole division?” And I was like, “What does that entail?” He was like, “That’s like, you get to be the webmaster, web designer for 30 to 40 websites.” And I was like, “Okay, sure.”

Treavor Wagoner:
He was grateful for it because it was cheap labor, but I think that was the first time that I learned how to be… Not learned how to be, but I think that’s where I adopted my skill as in what I call an octopus. Like I mentioned, I had to maintain design, develop 30, 40 sites and they all kind of looked the same, but they had all had to look the same because they reflected the division, not so much their department. So I guess in a sense, it was my first time working with multi-brand design systems, which is crazy, because I didn’t really make that connection until just now. Like oh, I’ve always been working on multi-brand design systems.

Treavor Wagoner:
But because I understood system thinking, even at that age, which was around, I think it was 20, 22, he called me guru. So I understood our process was important. It was almost necessary to maintain that many properties all at once. You have to have some semblance of organization. So he just saw my approach and the fact that I plastered this cubby hole wall that I had. I was working from the storage room because we didn’t have an office or a desk for me to work in. And so while I was in the storage room, I would just plaster all the walls with site maps and diagrams and whatever, just to keep myself organized with all these many different properties that I was maintaining.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was that early post-graduation career like?

Treavor Wagoner:
Because I had already had a lot of experience under my belt already having been paid to do web design, salary wise, I was able to get a high wage for my first job out of college. It was hard because it was at the time where we were having the recession in 2010, so it was very hard to find a job. But once I got a job, I was able to get a high salary. And high salary at that time for me for a, I guess, relatively kind of new designer was $45K in Dallas area. Yeah. I felt like I was going from ravioli eating every night to having a luxury apartment overnight, it felt like. It was interesting. It was a little bit of adjustment, and I don’t think I quite found the balance. Eventually I was let go from that job, and I think that was pretty devastating to experience that. But it led me to creating my own business with my former partner, romantic partner, which was a bad idea.

Maurice Cherry:
Was that business Braver?

Treavor Wagoner:
It was, yeah. It was a combination of our names, but it was also a representative of the kind of work that we wanted to do, which was a traveling philanthropic, but also providing web development solutions to small businesses in the Dallas area. So yeah, and we were able to do that. We actually started our company cash positive, so that’s always been a great accomplishment of my own. It’s not something that people know about, but it’s something that I’m really proud of, that I was able to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re also the co-founder and the executive director of a group called Black UX austin. Tell me about that, and what did you want to sort of get out of that group?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. So going back to talking about leaving a company that I was working for, that I faced some racial discrimination, a researcher that I was working with at the time, Carmen Brunes, she’s also black as well, but she saw what I was going through and she was like, “You need a release. You’re way too talented to be treated this way. And I want to provide an outlet for you to do what you do best.” Two other researchers had started Black UX Austin before I even came along and they just had never been able to get it off the ground, and so she told me that she wanted to actually take it all the way.

Treavor Wagoner:
She wanted to be nationally recognized and be the one stop shop for black people wanting to get into tech, specifically in the Austin area, largely because black people in tech are usually the onlies in the company. That’s the typical experience, whether you’re the only black person on your team, in your organization, in your department. And so you may experience things that if someone like you was around, they would tell you “Girl, you’re going through some shit right now. They’re treating you badly. It’s gaslighting.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So there wasn’t that community there before we came along. I don’t think there was that kind of community in Austin specifically, and if you’ve been to Austin, you know that it’s very white. There’s not that many black people here at all. It’s funny, because one of my best friends asked, I think he was asking someone else and I think one of his other friends had visited Austin and he was like, “Did you see any black people there?” And he was like, “No.” I told him, I was just joking, but I was like, “Yeah, I’m the only one here. I’m right here. You’re talking to the black people or the black community in Austin.” No, just kidding. There’s more than that of course, more than me.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. We started Black UX Austin as a means for black people in tech to have a community, to have a safe space, to not feel like you are being tone policed, to just let your hair down and just be yourself. We started right before the pandemic started and as we were reforming and making it kind of formalized COVID started. And so we were like, “Oh, crap.” So by that point, we had only had one in person event. And then we had to shift everything to be all virtual. And we got so good at it that other black organizations that were in and out of tech were like, “How are you guys doing this?” Because we got really good at it that people on LinkedIn, on maybe Instagram, too, or whatever were seeing what we were doing and were wanting to support.

Treavor Wagoner:
And these are not just black people, but also white people, organizations where they’ve seen or witnessed black people being oppressed or mistreated in some way. They just wanted to support. So there were other black organizations or organizations in general were just asking us, “How are you guys able to grow and thrive online as you’re doing?” Part of it was that I know a lot about creating online community, having been someone who grew up needing community when I was growing up in rural Texas and being the only very sensitive black person in probably a 20-30 mile radius. So I sought online community as much and as often as I could, and so I just learned from that and I think that has warmed its way into or carried its way up to now, which is providing community or safe spaces for other black people.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I’m mentioning all these aside, but as I did my research, I saw that you’re a poet and you’re an author. Tell me about that, particularly about the impetus behind your latest book. Where did the drive come from for that?

Treavor Wagoner:
My gosh. So first of all, I don’t call myself a poet. I do write poetry, but I don’t feel that it fits me well. I call myself a writer. Poetry is not the only writing that I will do. I want to do more memoirs and things like that, but actually I didn’t get my degree in design or web design or anything like that. I got my degree in creative writing. I had started to pursue creative writing and communication design, which if you’re not familiar, communication design, at least at UNT, it encompasses advertising and graphic design. So not web design, but it is design or the visual aspect of design. And at the time, it was the closest thing that I could get to a design degree.

Treavor Wagoner:
And my minor is in computer education and cognitive systems, which translation, that means a couple of courses in installing Linux systems and some Adobe Photoshop courses. So yeah, that was the closest I could get to having a web design degree at that time, which was between 2006 and 2010. But eventually I ran out of financial aid and I just stuck with the English creative writing aspect of my life. So growing up, I’ve always had, I guess, an affinity for writing. I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter, and so I started writing songs at 12, just because I had seen one of my favorite songwriters, Mariah Carey. You may laugh, but she’s a great songwriter. Obviously we know a lot of our songs. I’ve always just written lyrical poems. Yeah. There’s a floppy disk somewhere in my storage somewhere of maybe 500 lyrical poems I had written when I was a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Not a floppy disc. You got to get it off the floppy disk, man.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah, I know. You know what, I think at some point I did translate them to modern digital at some point, so they’re probably somewhere on a hard drive somewhere maybe. But yeah, I don’t know if I want to revisit those, to be honest. They’re probably terrible. But yeah, while I was at UNT, I got my English degree and like I mentioned before, I had started my UX product design career. Product design is kind of like a jealous mistress when it comes to my other abilities, so my writing kind of had to be pushed to the side, but eventually I was approaching 30 and I was like, “What can I do very quickly that I can be proud of my twenties for?” And that was creating or writing a book.

Treavor Wagoner:
And so I self-published my first title, which is called The Remaining Trouble and Other Battles. And then during the pandemic, I kind of remixed it and expanded it and republished it as So Much Trouble. And in terms of writing, it’s probably the project that I’m most proud of, because the way I was able to produce it is how I envisioned it, and the quality is great in terms of design and writing. I was just very proud of it. I think all creatives should have something that they’re just absolutely proud of that they did. I feel like that’s very rare. Even if you do great work that other people admire, this level of self deprecation that designers have, or they don’t fully love the work that they do, even if it’s great. So I think that everybody should have that one project where they’re just like, “I absolutely love the shit out of this thing.”

Treavor Wagoner:
So yeah, the book is about, it’s a book of poetry, a collection of poetry about based on a time in my life where I had experienced relationship trauma. What I aimed to do with the book was to really just tell a story of a black kid who didn’t know how, but just really wanted to be loved and to love. And I feel it’s intense at times, but I love how it came out and anyone who’s read it has told me the same.

Maurice Cherry:
Now when I asked you earlier about what you wanted to discuss, you had told me a few things that I kind of want to unpack a little bit. You said navigating a box-based world as an odd shape. You said unlearning harmful habits, and you said self parenting. Talk to me about it. What’s on your heart?

Treavor Wagoner:
It’s very woo woo, and that’s kind of where I’m at in my mid-thirties right now. This is not the case for everybody, but for a few millennials, we’ve grown up in and seen some shit. We’ve grown up in a time where our parents told us one thing and the world is actually another. So there’s a great deal of, at least when you identify as black and queer or gay, and so those are two communities that have seen a lot of shit go down and who have experienced a lot of things, a lot of terrible things we’re talking. If you’re black, you know what we’ve been through, but in terms of the queer community, AIDS, I grew up during the AIDS epidemic/pandemic and the fallout, the religious fallout of that. People who are religious saying you’re going to hell because you got aids or because you’re gay or whatever.

Treavor Wagoner:
And just living in fear of identifying as gay and over time, I’ve learned to unlearn all of the survival tactics that I’ve had to learn growing up in rural Texas or growing up in Texas in general. Age 35, I’m trying to just radically authentically be myself and love myself and encourage other people to do the same. Not living under any guises, any false pretenses or anything like that. Just be yourself and love in that. I’m finding that it is yielding a great improvement in your health, in your physical health and your mental health as well. It’s really important to just be yourself. So that’s where I’m at.

Treavor Wagoner:
And I think you mentioned self parenting, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a black queer person and he was like, “We need somebody to speak on the unique experience of being a black queer cis male and the relationship with our mothers.” My relationship with my mother has been very rocky. When I came out to her at 19, I wasn’t under her roof. She maybe would have disowned me completely, so I’m glad that I had the wherewithal and the knowledge to just wait until I was out of her house to tell her who I actually am.

Treavor Wagoner:
After that, I think we were even more distant than we were already, because I think moms know, but once you say the words, then they actually know, and there’s no denying it, and so I think that created a bigger rift between you, too. And so because of that, there were things that as a, what we call in the community “baby gay,” or somebody who’s fresh to the gay community, there are some things that I experienced that I really could have benefited from having a parent there or some kind of mentor or something to kind of guide me through all this newness, and I didn’t have that necessarily.

Treavor Wagoner:
So I had to learn how to self parent. I had to learn how to look at the seven year old, who was scared to be himself and say, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” To just learn to love myself. And I think that plays out in every aspect of my life, even my professional career. There are times where I deal with imposter syndrome or just being in spaces where I wasn’t previously, and now I all of a sudden am because of the great shift in thinking in the industry. I’m specifically talking about summer 2020, where all of a sudden the gates that I wasn’t allowed to enter through, all of a sudden I am, but I have no understanding of how this new arena plays out or how to be or anything like that. So I deal with imposter syndrome.

Treavor Wagoner:
And then you know what I do? The kid who just felt very ostracized, very on the outside of everything, on the outside of blackness, on the outside of queerness, just because I didn’t have access to it, that plays out. And so what ends up happening is when that little kid comes out, the 35 year old bubbles up and says, “You’re okay, I got you.” And that is essentially self parenting, basically being your own advocate and standing up for yourself.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you think you’re still trying to find yourself?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think if you’re living, you should be, because we’re always changing. I identify as a seeker. I think it plays out in my travel habit. I’m usually traveling by myself, and I prefer it that way, largely because traveling is not vacation for me most of the time. It’s me thinking and writing in exotic places, in dirty places or whatever, what have you. Just being here, there and everywhere, just trying to learn about myself in different environments.

Treavor Wagoner:
Also, I feel like growth happens when you’re out of your comfort zone, and so that’s why I do that. I want to learn as much as possible about myself. And I find it to be a common thing where people don’t want to do that either it’s from fear or they’re afraid of what they might find or lack of self confidence, which I totally understand. But I don’t want to live in fear in my life, so I put on a brave face and I go into the unknown. So, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there was a lot of subtext in that inhale just then. But black person to black person, I felt that. I felt that. If you knew that you couldn’t fail in your professional life, what would you want to do? What would you want to try to do?

Treavor Wagoner:
Oh my gosh. That’s related to the question of if you weren’t a designer, what would you be? And I would say if I weren’t a designer, I would probably be a professional entertainer, a singer or songwriter or something. Being a designer in the tech world, it can be very technical, very heady stuff. I find I want to flex my emotional muscle more. I try to do that as a system designer. As designers, we’re empathic anyway, or we have a lot of empathy. It’s just a part of the job, but it’s in a technical space most of the time, so you can’t really go too deep with it and understand fully what your empathic abilities are. But with creative careers like music or writing or even acting, you get to explore that more and understand humanity more or better. That’s what I would be.

Treavor Wagoner:
But if I were to stay in this hypothetical situation, if I were to stay within the tech industry, I think I’m close to what I dream of being. This is going to sound very nerdy, but hey, we’re all nerds here. Kind of like a special agent designer in the realm of design systems where I help teams adopt the design system, where I basically do the dirty work for them of taking the existing product and essentially almost creating kind of a new version of that product with the design system and basically going “bippity boppity boo,” over amount of time, taking what was old and crusty and putting some shine on it, making it golden, saving the day in that way. I’m almost there.

Treavor Wagoner:
A part of it is trying to get business to understand what design systems even are, and then also getting them to understand the pain point of a feature team adopting a design system and how hard and strenuous it is. So if there was someone like me or a team that I was a part of to go in and do that hard work for them and essentially save the day, get some happy smiles in there, make the business feel like their employees are happy just because somebody came in and helped them out, then that’s what I would love to do. I’m a person who, I don’t care about promotion. I don’t care about money. It’s more about how I make people feel. I want to help people. And if I can help people with their jobs, their day to day, that makes me feel good. That makes me feel like my job is rewarding. So yeah, that’s me.

Maurice Cherry:
What career advice would you give to somebody, they’re listening to you talk, they’re listening to your story and they see that you’ve had this very, I think non-linear career path, is probably a good way to describe it. What career advice would you give to someone who is walking that same sort of path?

Treavor Wagoner:
There was advice that I’d gotten from design evangelist Steven Anderson, when I was, I guess, fresh out of college and at the height of being really unhappy with my first job out of college. He gave the advice of have fun with your career. And I’m going to expound on that and say, don’t just get a job get a craft, something that you can believe in, something that makes you happy and makes you joyful. It makes you want to wake up in the morning and get to it, jump into it. I’m so glad that design systems has become a thing, because when I wake up in the morning, I’m really excited to just jump in with design system stuff. I really geek out on it to the point where people don’t understand what the heck I’m talking about, because I’m speaking a different language, I’m speaking a systems’ language, and they’re usually speaking a product language.

Treavor Wagoner:
But yeah, that’s what my advice would be is have fun with your career. I think something that we didn’t talk about really was at a certain point, I was a career contractor, so I was kind of like a handyman and that meant I was taking on jobs three months or six months at a time in Austin, Dallas, Seattle, or if I wasn’t anchored to a city, I was traveling full time around the country, doing things. At times, I was working from Costa Rica while I was backpacking and things like that. So yeah, I’ve always wanted to just not do things the typical way, and it has always made it fun. My favorite thing is to tell people things like that and to see their face is like, “Really? What?” Just shock people. So have fun with your career.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Treavor Wagoner:
I’m going to ask a clarifying question. Do you mean professionally or do you mean in my personal life?

Maurice Cherry:
I mean any way that you wish to take it.

Treavor Wagoner:
I was hoping you would say one or the other, because that would make it easier. But I’m in my mid-thirties and I’m thinking a lot about my personal life. I’ve given a lot of attention to my professional life up to this point, and like I mentioned before, product design or my design career has been like a jealous mistress of anything else that I try to focus on. So I had the great ability during my seven month road trip last year to kind of do both. I think about where I want to go from here or from that point, and also foster my design career. And I see myself retiring from design. I haven’t really told anybody that. I don’t think it’s feasible, but I would love to.

Maurice Cherry:
Why don’t you think it’s feasible?

Treavor Wagoner:
I think because I’m thinking very realistically, I’m looking at my finances and I’m thinking, “Okay, you want to do this and this and this and this and this and this. How are you going to pay for that? Oh, right. You have to have a job, Treavor. Come on. Get real.” So I would love to get to a point where design is not my only main means of income. I’ll say it that way, where it’s not my only means of income. Maybe I’m still doing design systems in some way, but it’s not the only thing that I’m doing. I’m finding balance. That’s where I want to be in five years, is maintaining a balance where I’m loving life still, I’m loving doing design systems or helping people with design systems, but I’m also creating a family.

Treavor Wagoner:
I feel like with my career, I haven’t fully been able to do that. I’ve been very much a career girl. So yeah. So to be able to kind of invest more in, like I mentioned before, the emotional side of myself and have family and people. I guess just foster more relationships. It’s kind of a long-winded answer, but that’s where I’m at. I’m kind of thinking on the spot a little bit, but that’s where I want to see myself in five years, is feeling balanced, full of joy, and loving what I do in terms of work. And I’m almost there. I feel like I’m almost there, and it feels really good to be almost there, whereas before it felt like it was a long time away.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. So you can find out more about my writing and my design@treavorwagoner.com. My name is spelled a little weird, I have some extra letters in there, so I’ll spell it for you. It’s T-R-E-A-V-O-R W-A-G-O-N-E-R.com, and you can go to my design page and you won’t have access to my portfolio, but you’ll see all the other nerdy things that I write about there as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @TreavorWagoner. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Treavor Wagoner, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I get the sense that you are someone that is at a crossroads right now. Usually when I give these post scripts, when I’m talking to the guests, I’m saying that you’re doing great work, which is not to say that you’re not doing great work, but I really feel this sense of tension within you, like you’re at a crossroads right now. I would be interested to see if in the next five years you fulfilled that balance that you’re seeking.

Treavor Wagoner:
Yeah. I’ve been seeking, living that persona for years, and as a seeker, you eventually find. And so that’s probably part of the tension, is the realization, I would say, as a seeker is that you realize what you’re looking for, you have already had. And so now that I’ve kind of realized that I’ve always had it, now I get to actually discover it more, what I already have, and enjoy it. That’s where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry:
How profound.

Treavor Wagoner:
I am a writer.

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

Treavor Wagoner:
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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Rebecca Brooker

We’re closing out Pride Month with the second part of my conversation with Rebecca Brooker! (If you missed the first part, check it out here.)

We talked about Rebecca’s relocation to Argentina (after a stint back in Trinidad), and how she’s adjusted and found community in Buenos Aires. Rebecca also went in depth about Queer Design Club, the Queer Design Count, and the upcoming Queer Design Summit taking place on July 7.

Rebecca is proof that building community and staying true to yourself is a surefire way for personal and professional success!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
Now for this week’s interview. This is part two of my conversation with designer, art director and community builder, Rebecca Brooker. Let’s start the show.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. That’s a lot. I mean, from –

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s a long story.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it’s a long story, but I mean, there’s goodness. I mean, having to leave the country like that that quickly because the employer forgot to notify you and now you have to move back home, but then now you might be moving to another country, to Argentina. Oh my God. I guess I’m curious. Once you got to Argentina, what was that like?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, I mean, I’d never been to South America at all before, so this was a completely new experience for me. I had studied a little bit of Spanish in Trinidad, but never used it in practicality. And so I was nervous. I ended up meeting two of my bosses, my would be bosses from that team in New York and they were telling me, “Eh, it’s a cool place. It’s beautiful. It doesn’t snow. You have so much fun. It’s a great nightlife, very young culture. The agency is growing.” So I was like, “All right, this is a totally new opportunity. What else am I going to do with my life?” I felt so beat down having to return to Trinidad and not know should I think about opening my own agency here? Should I think about getting a job at somewhere here?

Rebecca Brooker:
And then this job kind of just fell into my lap and I was like, “All right, we’re going to go on another adventure. We’re going to see what’s in store.” When I moved to Argentina, I was just in shock. I was like in a good way too, in a good way. I was in shock in a way that I was so open to every new experience, Maurice. I really had to put myself in a mindset that I’m moving to this place. I just lost a whole life behind me in the states. All my friends back there, my partners back there, all my coworkers, everybody. But I have to look ahead and I have to be open to whatever comes next, and I think that’s just the mindset that I had to keep going with.

Rebecca Brooker:
And for the first time in my life, it was like I was living in a studio alone. I would go out to eat at a restaurant and I’d sit alone. And I spent just so much time in the beginning of my move by myself, just having not made any friends yet outside of the people that I work with in this office. I think that was a turning point in my life where it was the first time I really had to do that in an environment where, it was different when I moved to St. John’s because I moved into the dorms and I was immediately put into a group of people that I could be friends with. And now I’m 20… God. How old was I? 24, moving to Argentina, by myself, don’t have anybody there. You go to a restaurant, you order for one, you take a book, you read something. And if I heard people speak in English, I would literally turn around and be like, “Did you just speak English?” Like “Where are you from?”

Rebecca Brooker:
And that was really how I started to make my friends. I would just be this like curious, observant person. If I heard people speak in English, I’d be like, “Tell me about you. What are you doing here?” And that was how I started to find my community. I ended up finding an English speaking gym. It’s run by an English guy and he wanted to create a community for English speakers to come together and train. And so I met these people and that put me into a new circle of English speaking people in Buenos Aires that led me to my own network now. In addition to this, the agency I was working at, I had a… I wouldn’t say I had problems at the beginning, but I had anxiety because I was one of the only native English speakers, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
Everybody at the agency could speak English, but we were usually trained to speak English for professional use. So in a meeting example, like we would send our clients communications in English, but everybody in the office would talk to each other in Spanish. So, they would say something and someone would be raising an issue and everyone’s talking in Spanish meetings in Spanish and I was just lost. I could not pick up anything that they would say. And especially also because Argentine Spanish, it has a little different of a dialect than Mexican Spanish or Spain Spanish. So I couldn’t even make out what they were singing. And so many times in my first year, I wouldn’t get the joke. People would be laughing. I’d be like, “I didn’t get it.” And it just made me feel othered. But when I started to learn Spanish and my coworkers, bless them, they made a concerted effort to keep me looped in.

Rebecca Brooker:
We would have a meeting in Spanish and then I had a coworker who would come over and say, “Okay, I’ll stay with you and explain everything we just said in English.” And I’m like, “Thank you, thank you so much.” And it was just a lot of awkward moments like that until I got better and I learned, and now I’d say I’m not fluid, but I could understand a lot. I can respond. So it was definitely a moment of growth in my life, I think. A moment of solitude, a moment of acceptance that sometimes things happen and you just have to go with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I mean, I can’t help, but think now, also in the midst of all of this happening, you also co-founded Queer Design Club, which is also about helping to bring together a community while you were also, like in your own life, trying to find community. Talk to me about Queer Design Club.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think Queer Design Club on introspection is a manifestation of me looking for a lot of things in my life. And you just named it where I felt motivated on one hand to make this community because I was in a real moment of my life of solitude, where I had my online friends. I had people that I could reach out to from New York, but I spent the majority of my nights, I’d go to the office and I’d come home and I’d be by myself. And I was just like, “There must be something I could be doing with my time right now, right. There must be something I could be doing.” And at the same time I was looking to connect with other queer African designers, right. Because I think the other side of my life, not to go back too far to the Trinidad thing, but not having that community in Trinidad, not necessarily having that community at St. John’s either, it kind of left me wondering, where are my queer friends?

Rebecca Brooker:
I don’t have enough queer friends. And I actually want to meet queer friends that I have something in common with. So maybe queer designers. And I started to Google and I started to look for spaces online for queer designers. Was there a community? Was there a place? And there was nothing I could find. I found Out In Tech, I found Lesbians Who Tech, but when I joined those communities, they felt huge, right. They felt like there were tens of thousands of people in there. And I don’t know who would be my friend. So that was really what drove me to have this initial idea of like, “Why don’t I start a queer community online?” And I’d started putting together some ideas, just very loosely. And one day I went on Twitter and I saw a different person had created a handle for LGBTQ People in Design, or something. And I was like, “What? That’s my idea.”

Rebecca Brooker:
I wasn’t really like that. I was like, “This is cool. Someone else is also thinking about this. I’m going to message them and let them know that I have the same idea.” And that’s how I met John, John Voss. And we began chatting. I shared my deck of ideas with him. He shared his idea with me and we came together to form QDC. And at the time John and I were not friends, we were just two strangers that met on Twitter. We began co-working. He’s in San Francisco, I’m in VA and working towards let’s make a Slack, let’s make a directory. And let’s see if other queer people will join. And we didn’t know who would join.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had a handful of friends that I knew were LGBTQ. He had a handful of friends. We knew some people on Twitter, but everybody felt really disparate and disconnected. So when we formed the community, it was really just a place for us to have a clubhouse to hang out in and talk about the experience of like, “Oh, I’m the only queer person on my team and I don’t know how to bring my partner to the work event,” or “I don’t identify as CIS and my boss keeps misgendering me.” We saw people having these experiences and we wanted to bring them together to talk about them some more. So that’s kind of how we founded QDC. And I think over the years, one of the things that I’ve really ,really noticed about the community is just that, this was not something that just John and I were looking for.

Rebecca Brooker:
This is something that many, many people needed maybe much more than I did. And the growth that we’ve had over the years, the constant commitment from our members to keeping the space fresh, giving each other advice, helping each other, just general resource sharing and like this communal online living, I think has really just changed my perception of what QDC is or what it should be. What started as just a side hobby for John and I has turned into a lifeline for some people. And I think that was when it was a turning point for me that I was like, “Oh shit, we did something. We got to do right by our people. Now that we’ve gathered them all here in this community, there’s thousands of them. They’re looking at us and I’m like, what are we going to do?”

Rebecca Brooker:
So I think that was the real question that we had is like, “Okay, now that we formed this community, what value are we going to bring to their lives?” And one of the early questions, well, we were like, “Okay, there’s all these people in our Slack.” We actually don’t know anything about them because when we let people join the Slack, we just ask them their name and their email. We don’t know anything about where they are, who they are, what titles do they have, how much money do they make? Who is our community, really? We know the people exist. We know that. We have proof of concept, but who are they in their identity? Right. And if we’re going to position ourselves to serve a community of people, we have to first find out who these people are and what are their needs. So that was the things that John and I were mulling over and so we decided to formulate the Queer Design Count.

Rebecca Brooker:
So the Queer Design Count is the only survey in the design industry that is specifically for LGBTQ people in design. And the reason we did that was because when we were looking for data about our own people, we couldn’t find any. There was no data out there about the community. The AIGA Design Census asked one question and it’s, “Are you LGBTQ?” And from that data, you can make a few inferences with the percentages, but there just wasn’t anything deeper than that one question, that one check box. So we decided to formulate our own survey. And in the first year at 2019, which was also our first year as a community, we ended up with close to 1,500 responses. And John and his loving partner, Lori, who is a data analyst, thank God, lovingly went through these thousands of responses and wrote the first iteration of the Queer Design Count, where we made a lot of interesting insights about the community.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think one of the things, the differences about our survey was while… It was both qualitative and quantitative. We got some hard facts, we got some data, but we also had opportunities for people to write in their own responses about why they felt certain things or why they chose a certain answer. And some of the written testimonials are just so powerful. I think that that was one of the things that really showed us the need for this space within the community and how we had a lot of work to do if we were going to plan to change anything in the design industry, it was not a singular problem. It was not any one person’s problem. It was a structural problem that LGBTQ persons were making less than non-LGBTQ people. They were leaving the industry much faster and much younger. So they were not making it to seniority levels.

Rebecca Brooker:
And they were experiencing more bias on a daily basis than other groups out there, especially when it comes to having an intersectional identity, right? So Black queer trans people were most likely to be discriminated against, left out and having to point out design decisions that went against their existence. A really great example of this is like when you are a product designer and your team may be designing some forms and they put options on a form for male female, there’s no inclusive lens. There’s no inclusive perspective to this that would include a trans person. Now a queer person working on that team has to point out and say, “Hey, this is not inclusive towards people who identify as LGBTQ. We need to change this form.” And I think there are a lot of instances of that nature that happen prevalently on a daily basis throughout the design industry, where people get misgendered, people get mislabeled and we can preach about it as much as we want.

Rebecca Brooker:
It all ladders back up to like, we need more diverse teams to bring lived experiences and unique perspectives to the work. And that is part of why we believe LGBTQ designers have a great opportunity to become champions in the workplace and they’re not currently given that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry:
That is fantastic. I mean, I think even just the fact that this Design Count that you’re doing is, in one way building, I don’t want to say it’s building on research that others have done, but it’s like you saw what AIGA was doing in terms of their sense of saying, you’re like, “Yeah, this isn’t enough. We need to do something that’s more for our community that we’re building here.” And so you did this Queer Design Count, and I guess what are some of the lessons you learned while building this?I mean, I know you mentioned that this community came about because you discovered that other folks wanted this community too. But even in building the Count and looking at the results from it, what are some of the findings or some of the things that you just learned throughout this process?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that one of the major things that I learned is that even within the queer community there’s discrimination. White gay men still make more money than people who identify as lesbian, right? So even within the queer community, we still have hierarchies of the patriarchy and gender wage gap and things that are prevalent outside of the LGBTQ community. They’re also happening within the LGBTQ community. So that was something that was a little bit surprising to us. But probably shouldn’t be because it exists on all levels, regardless of your identity. I think one of the other things that we found was just that people were so eager to participate in this Count because there was no other place that they could share this information. So I think this was especially true in 2021 when we did the second iteration of the Count in a pandemic world when we released it and we actually added a special section of the Count that year for COVID because we wanted to understand what the pandemic has changed about our data, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
So a great example of this is, we found that in 2021, 41% of transgender designers lost employment due to COVID-19, in comparison to 29% of CIS designers. So this is a huge gap, right? 41 versus 29. And on first glance, we didn’t know what that stat is really telling us, right. On one hand, is it telling us that trans designers got fired more than CIS designers because that could be one way to read it. The other way to read it could be, did trans designers due to the pandemic gain more autonomy in being able to work for themselves? Did they participate in quote unquote “the great resignation” and walk into this power of being able to work for themselves and make their own decisions? Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But this was where now we would look at some of the responses and testimonials that we got as an answer to that question to try to make a better analysis, right.

Rebecca Brooker:
And one of the things that we found is that when we look at these testimonials, people are pouring their heart out to us. It was the first time that people wrote paragraphs of what they were going through. And I think for a lot of queer people, this survey was relieving and like an outlet, almost like therapy, because they didn’t have another place to talk about getting fired from their job. They didn’t have another place to talk about losing all of their clients and having to move back in with their homophobic parents. This was kind of a space. And I think this is important and why we do this work is because we want to create a space for queer people to feel seen and heard and understood. And we want to be able to take those findings and use that as a benchmark in the industry to say, “Hey, every single year you all corporate companies are talking about supporting LGBTQ people, right?

Rebecca Brooker:
You put up all these Pride parades, you put up all these Pride flags, rainbow your logos and when we survey the people that you say you’re impacting, the stats aren’t changing, LGBTQ designers are still making less than non-LGBTQ designers. We want to be able to use this survey as a biannual post check on the industry to really understand if we’re meeting our goals of improving and bettering ourselves as a space. And like I said, I don’t think it’s anybody’s one problem to fix. But as a design industry, we have to come together to hold hands, not just with Queer Design Club, but with all these different communities and movements that are advocating for their own rights, right? Where are the Black designers, [inaudible 00:24:19] design.

Rebecca Brooker:
All of these different, if you want to call them, affinity groups, are all going after the same thing. And it’s changing the industry to be better for those who have been constantly seen as other. And we want to flip that narrative together, not just for LGBTQ people, but for people who really live at these intersections because our data and our research has showed us that people who have multiple marginalized identities are the most likely to be left out and left behind. So how can we gather together and all do this work together of changing the design industry for something that is substantial and not feel like we all have to target it in our silos. So that’s something that we recognize we need to do. We’re here to research and champion LGBTQ rights, but that is one part of someone’s identity, not everything. So we have to find ways to be intersectional. We have to find ways to continue to work together and elevate people who don’t have that voice right now, or are given that space to use their voice.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, I think it’s also worth just putting this in a greater context, like you’re also pulling this information together at a time where at least here in the United States, the rights of LGBTQ people are being stripped away through legislation, et cetera. So to really have this quantitative information, that’s not just… Because I think sometimes what can happen, and this certainly is the case, I think, with what I’ve done with Revision Path and talk with Black designers is that, a lot of the anecdotal evidence just gets swept under the rug as like individual experiences. And it can be hard to really put, I don’t know, I guess confirmation to what’s happening without numbers, without some concrete statistics to say, “This is happening. Here’s the study that shows that.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly, exactly. And I mean, one of our goals, I think now in 2023, we’ll be going into our third year of the Queer Design Count, one of our goals is to make this an industry benchmark, like I said, biannually. So we want to do exactly what you said is align ourselves as the knowledge resource of that information and for people to know that we are here to understand research and advocate for the rights of LGBTQ people in design, because like you said, our rights are under attack federally on a high level, but also it trickles down into your every day, right? When you can’t be yourself outside in the world, how can you be yourself at work? How can you bring your best self to your job every day when your life is under attack? That’s not even just a queer thing.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true. And now this year, actually next month, since this’ll be airing in June, you’re going to be continuing this with hosting the Inaugural Queer Design Summit. This is happening on July 7th.

Rebecca Brooker:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Well, like I said, so this is our second year doing the Count and the first year we had a great response. The second year we wanted to go a little bit bigger. So we were really thinking about, how can we get this information on a larger stage? How can we have this information reach the people who may have the ability to change it? And in my opinion, that’s recruiters, corporations, people who do the hiring, people who do the firing, all of the people who have the power to be able to change the experiences that queer people have in design. Even queer people, because you’ll be surprised that when you’re dealing with your own shit, when you’re an executive leader and you’re not out, and you’re struggling to come to terms with your own identity, that trickles down to the rest of the queer people in your company who don’t feel like they have a safe working environment.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s all of these things that we want to be able to reach. And we decided to do the summit as a way to bring this data to a bigger stage. And we wanted to, for the first time, really hear from other LGBTQ voices, other LGBTQ designers, and have them discuss some of the statistics that we found in the report and shed their own experiences on that. So we’re going to have a few panels that are based on sections from the report. So one of the panels that we’re going to have is about trans perspective in design. We basically found that trans respondents were consistently overrepresented in facing discrimination in the workplace. So we want to be able to talk through what are some solutions we can put forward to change this in the future? So the goal of all the panels is to really talk about some of the statistics, but also just share your experience as an LGBTQ person and have that feel, seen and heard.

Rebecca Brooker:
So we’re really excited about the speakers. I’m not going to drop some names yet, although they’re probably going to be out by the time this is confirmed this goes live, but I’m super excited. And I think it’s really the first time that we’re putting on an event for the community where they can see all of themselves reflected because all of our community participated in the survey and even people that were outside of the Queer Design Club community, people who aren’t members, per se. So we’re excited to bring it to a wider audience. We’re excited to bring it to a wider stage. And part of my secondary goal of the summit is to really align the organization as a research focused and mission based organization that is doing this work, not just today, not just tomorrow, but we’re going to be doing this work for our people for a while.

Rebecca Brooker:
And we want to be able to find a like-minded organization that will help us do that work. So we’re not professional researchers. I do this because I’m passionate about our community. I’m passionate about finding out who they are. I’m passionate about making sure that we have these data points to leverage when people talk about improving conditions for LGBTQ people, but I’m not a researcher. So maybe there’s a better way we could be doing this. Maybe there is a smarter way we could be doing this. So I think as we grow the study, we want to be able to align ourselves with a research based organization that can also help us and guide us to making this study even more sound than it is right now. And I think that would be our ultimate goal is to have this study be something that’s continued, something that is super serious and ask the right questions, a lot of questions, and helps people really understand the problems that we have in the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know that we have a lot of companies and a lot of people that work at big companies that listen to this. So my hope is that once this interview comes out, people get a chance to hear it, that you’ll start to get some interest around that because I think what you’re doing is super important from a research perspective, but also just from a general community and society perspective, not just even the design community, LGBT community as well, to be able to not only put the statistics behind the incidents and things that are happening, but to really quantify it and then keep the work going to sustain the work. So people know that this is something that is like an industry benchmark to understand what the queer experience and design is and how, I guess people in general can bring more visibility and representation is super important. So I’m excited for the summit. I’m excited to see where Queer Design Club goes in the future. I feel like you’ve really tapped into something here.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you. Thank you, Maurice. I just want to say thank you to you. I know you’ve been a sounding board for us over the past couple years as well, just like in running a community and this being my first time being a community leader. It takes a village, it really takes a village.

Maurice Cherry:
It really does. Yeah. Now, even aside from all this, you’re working at Ghost Note, you’re doing the Queer Design Club with the Queen Design Count, with the Queer Design Summit. You also have your own freelance practice called Planthouse Studio. Tell me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. As if I wasn’t already doing too much. No. I think one of my goals for myself just personally has always been to run my own design studio and I just feel like there’s a level of freedom that I get to have when people want to work with me. I am my own boss. I love to take the projects that I want to work on. Say ‘no’ to the projects that I don’t want to work on. And just generally be able to design things with no constraints of, what do other people think? So I was always a freelancer on the side of any full-time job. It started really after college because I was working at BAM and it was a nonprofit. So I was making some money, but I thought, “Okay, I could make a couple logos on the side and make a couple hundred bucks more.”

Rebecca Brooker:
And it started just doing that for some extra cash. And over the past five years, it’s really grown into just a consistent stream of people mentioning me, sharing my name, sharing my portfolio and getting people wanting to work with me. So it wasn’t until about three or four years ago now that my partner, LG and I had come together and decided we kind of wanted to formalize this business. And my partner at the time, LG was figuring out how they would plug into the business. I was doing all the design and they were handling all of the client management and it’s just grown over the years. So at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw an uptick in people wanting to work with us. And we had a really janky website at the time and nothing was super professional, but we saw this uptake in work.

Rebecca Brooker:
A friend of mine, who I was working at the agency was leaving at the time. And he said, “If you want a freelancer I’ll work with your studio.” And I said, “All right, sure.” So now we have another person working with us and I was able to give him some direction and do less more creative direct and he was producing the work. LG was managing the clients. So we started there and then more requests came and another friend of mine was like, “I’m looking for a job.” I was like, “Do you want to freelance with our studio?” She was like, “Yeah.” So then we had two designers working with us and now it’s become a full-time gig for everybody, right? So LG’s running it full-time. Our two designers are still working with us full-time and my goal has shifted to learning how to run a business and then wanting to do it for Planthouse on my own.

Rebecca Brooker:
So my short term goal is, like I said in the beginning, this is a hustle year for me, where I’m working at Ghost Note, one, to work on some of the awesome projects and the clients that they have. But two is to really also understand how to run a business. And that’s one of the things that I feel really grateful to Ghost Note for is like from the time I joined, I was very upfront about like, “Listen in five years, I’m going to be running my own agency. So I’m here to learn the business facts of what you all are doing. I admire your work. You all are about six years ahead of where I feel like I am. How can I absorb my time at this agency to really learn how to run an agency?” And at the same time, LG and our other two designers are working on client stuff in the background and I’m moonlighting and taking the knowledge I learn at Ghost Note, bringing it home and saying, “We have this process that we implemented at work. I think we should try it in the studio. It could really help.”

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I felt like I had to put in the time and learning how to run a business before jumping into running a business for the first time, right, because like, and I think that’s a thing that at times it’s tiring, at times it’s rough. But I feel like if I stay on track, hopefully in 2023, I can leave my full-time job and just pursue Planthouse if the clients keep coming and going the way they’ve been. We feel very grateful and lucky that people want to work with us. And I feel really grateful and lucky that people want to keep giving us great opportunities to grow. I think we’ve had a few contracts this year where they were bigger shoes than we were prepared to fill, but we stepped into them and I think we’ve grown into them a lot.

Rebecca Brooker:
So it’s given me a lot of confidence to say, “Okay, I’m doing Planthouse part-time right now and it’s doing really well. If I do this full-time we could be doing excellently. I just need to harness the knowledge of how to run this business full-time, because it’s not just full time by myself, right? It’s full-time with three other people as well that we’re sustaining. So I’m in my hustle year. I’m doing three jobs. However, I do feel like it’s really important right now for me to be a sponge and really learn how to do it right so that when I step into it, I can make, hopefully, a little bit less of the mistakes and go into it with some kind of knowledge.

Rebecca Brooker:
So that’s part of one of the things I love about Ghost Note is they’re very supportive of my own hustle. They’re very open and transparent about the workings of the company and how to write an extra W, how to make sure things stay on track. And I feel like I’m really learning the business angle of it alongside the art director part of it and making the fun stuff. I’m doing both things. So I’m excited for that.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. I mean, I think it’s good that Ghost Note is transparent in that way to let you all know this is how the business is. This is how it works. So it’s not just of course showing up and doing your job, but also you’re kind of gaining this almost secondary education in a way.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. And that’s something that I think doesn’t really exist in our design industry right now is like, there’s no course to go learn how to run your own studio. There’s no course to say, how to found your own agency. It’s all about you got to fumble your way into figuring it out. And that’s what Ghost Note told me as well. They were like, “We’ve been doing this for eight years and we’re just now figuring it out.” And I’m like, “Okay, so what can I learn that you can impart that knowledge on me and I can maybe not take years to figure it out?” And I really love that about just a community culture is that resource sharing is so important because I would love to help any other person who’s thinking about founding their own business, their own agency. We don’t have the resources out there. So we need to be in community with each other more and figure that out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now it takes a village to do all this, as you said. Who’s your village? Who have been the mentors and the peers who have really helped you get to where you are now?

Rebecca Brooker:
I have a list of them. One, I would say is one of the first people that I met in the design industry was a designer working at [inaudible 00:39:35] at the time. Their name is Kyle Richardson and they are an incredible designer and a friend of mine still and just someone who brought their authentic self to work. And me being a young, bright eyed, bushy-tailed intern, I was like, “Oh, you’re my role model. I like what you’re doing. All of your work is fire. Your personality is so dope. I want to be like you.” And it was really the first person who showed me that I could show up to work and be myself, be a little crazy, be a little funky, be funny with your coworkers. And Kyle always just gave me a sense of ease and the ability to just be you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of my mentors, I would say is someone that has always helped me open doors. And this is a person named Liz, Liz Oh who used to be the head of design at Compass is now the head of design of Grammarly and Liz has always been someone who will give me an opportunity that I can grow into. And I think it’s really people like that who are in positions of power, who can see potential in you and open a door that will change your life. And Liz has done that for me a few different times. And I think that’s important to acknowledge people who are willing to take a chance on you.

Rebecca Brooker:
Another one of mine, a close friend of mine, Amélie Lamont. I love Amélie. She’s someone that has helped me navigate just the space of being a community leader and running a community and like navigating the world out there. And with someone who I really met online and we connected in real life for the first time at XO XO conference, where they invited me to be part of the POC House and I was just honored to be included in a space that like, there were so many amazing creatives and thinkers and people who were just so themselves. And I think that’s something that I’m really drawn to. I’m really drawn to people who can be unapologetically themselves, recognize that, and use that as their superpower and use that as the thing that can open doors for other people. So those are my three mentors.

Rebecca Brooker:
I can probably name a million more, but I can’t remember at the moment. But I guess something that I try to do is I try to learn a little bit from everybody. It may not be in a technical way of like, “This person taught me design,” or “this person taught me this,” but it’s more in a, what is it about you that makes you you? Is it your ability to show up and be yourself? Is it your ability to stand up for what you believe in? Is it your ability to take no shit and let people know that? I try to really learn some of these qualities from all of the people that I think are doing it right. And like I said earlier, I just want to be a sponge and learn about what I should be doing in my future what I think is right. So that’s how I approach the people that I look up to.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We had probably on the show… Oh, that was a while ago. I think she was episode 148 or 149, something like that. It was in the 140s. I remember that. You mentioned XOXO. Was that in 2018?

Rebecca Brooker:
It must have been 2019, the year before the pandemic. 2019. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Year before. Okay.

Rebecca Brooker:
In 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
I went to XO XO in 2018 and I remember, Amélie and Kat doing the POCs [inaudible 00:43:05].

Rebecca Brooker:
Yes. Also another person that I love and is an icon and a role model for me. Kat’s a person who champions game developers of color and has been running that conference in that community for a long time. Just amazing people, amazing people that are out there, like showing up as themselves and making dope shit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. She’s great. I love Kat. We kind of just talk over email, I guess maybe about a couple of weeks ago or something, because she’s about to make a big move. I’m sure it’ll probably be announced by the time this interview comes out, but she’s making big moves now because she just left Asana and is about to announce where she’s going next. So I’m excited to see.

Rebecca Brooker:
I could believe that.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
I think success looks like being able to feel confident in the things I want to pursue. I feel like I always have this yearning to be super secure before I make a big move, which is probably why I’m still at Ghost Note and not doing my full-time thing yet. But I think success looks like having the confidence to do that, make those decisions and live the life that I want to live, find balance between my work and my personal life and my free time and feel satisfied and nourished by the work that I am doing at work. So I think that is what success looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know you’ve given some sort of benchmarks for where you want Queer Design Club to go and I guess even with where you want Planthouse to go. But if you could forecast five years from now, it’s 2027, what’s Rebecca Brooker doing?

Rebecca Brooker:
Well, hopefully Rebecca Brooker is no longer the only person running Queer Design Club because then that wouldn’t be nice. But I think Rebecca Brooker will still be a fierce advocate and speaker or someone who is called upon to help champion LGBTQ rights. I want to be known for helping people show up as themselves, even helping myself show up as myself and I want to still be in the creative seat making amazing things that have impacts and that have the ability to change lives and change perceptions and make the world a tiny bit of a better place. So I hope in five years from now I’m doing that.

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

Rebecca Brooker:
So you can find me at rebeccabrooker.com. You can also find me on Twitter @Becky Brooker or on Instagram @Becca Brooker. And you can find Queer Design Club at Queer Design Club on all channels. And I’m an open book. So anybody who ever wants to reach out, feel free to email me. I would be happy to connect with anyone who wants to talk.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Rebecca Brooker, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I had a feeling that we were going to have a really deep, wide ranging conversation. I’m so glad that we were able to touch on. I mean, just so many different things, talking about representation, entrepreneurship, building community. I feel like you’ve done so much already. You’ve already had this very prolific career and I just want to see where you go from here. I hope that people are listening really support the work that you’re doing and really can help put some real velocity behind the plans that you have, because I feel like we’re going to be talking about the work that you’re doing years and years from now. And I’m just so glad to have had you on the show to really just explain like this is who I am. This is where I came from and this is the work that I’m trying to do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Rebecca Brooker:
Thank you for having me, Maurice. It’s been an amazing conversation. It’s been an amazing time. Thank you for creating this space so that we could continue to have these conversations with myself and other people who are doing good work.

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Rebecca Brooker

Sometimes, the conversation is so good and so wide-ranging that I can’t contain it in just one episode. For the first time in over five years, we have a two-part episode on Revision Path, and it’s with the one and only Rebecca Brooker. She is perhaps most well known as the co-founder of Queer Design Club, but Rebecca is also an art director at Ghost Note Agency and founder of her own freelance practice Planthouse Studio.

In the first part of this interview, Rebecca talked about her “year of hustle”, including her work at Ghost Note Agency and the rewards and challenges that come with that. She also talked about growing up in Trinidad, LGBT representation in the Caribbean, and moving to NYC to attend college and study design.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of our conversation!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Rebecca Brooker:
Hi, Maurice, I’m Rebecca. I am a queer graphic designer and art director from Trinidad and Tobago, and I’m currently living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Maurice Cherry:
I have been trying to get someone in South America on the show for years. You are the first Black designer in South America that I’ve had on the show, so I’m really excited about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. Thank you. I’m excited. It’s actually kind of funny, because I feel like you don’t see that many Black designers in South America, in Argentina, at least. Maybe in some of the more Northern territories, maybe, but in Argentina, I feel like you rarely get to meet other Black designers. I’m not even from here, so even doubly so.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s been going well for me. It’s definitely been a year of hustle. I have been grinding, working towards a few dreams, and really, just trying to figure out where I want to set myself up for the next couple years. I have a few really good gigs going on and trying to figure out, is this a hustle year and heads down and just do some work, and then next year can be a relaxing year? But 2022 has been very positive so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you seeing any big changes this year from last year?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I think one of the biggest changes is just my personal confidence and value, really. I feel like for the past few years and throughout the pandemic, I was really trying to figure out where I wanted to spend my time, spend my energy. Is it in my organization? Is it in my job? Is it in something else? So, I would say that the biggest shift has just been in that decision-making of what I want to do and how I’m going to move forward with the things on my plate.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I definitely want to talk about Queer Design Club, which I think most people that are listening to this know you from, but before that, I want to ask you about your current gig. Right now, you’re the art director at Ghost Note Agency. Can you tell me about that?

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, Ghost Note is a Black-owned agency based in Washington, DC. I met them about a year ago because their creative director, Veronica Corzo-Duchardt, is actually in Queer Design Club. So, at the time I was working at a different agency, and Veronica had posted in our job postings channel and had said, “Oh, this amazing, Black-owned agency that I’m running the creative team at is looking for a senior designer to join the team.” I thought to myself, “Oh damn, that sounds like a cool opportunity.” I looked at their work and I was like, Oh, this is sick.” And so, I messaged Veronica being like, “Hey.” Veronica and I had probably had a digital coffee once before and we were acquaintances, but I messaged them just being like, “Hey, would love to learn more about Ghost Note,” and they were like, “Let’s hop in on informational with some of the team.” When I went into that first interview with them, it was just amazing, the energy in the room, the vibe, just it felt different to any of the other agencies I was working at.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had been, at the time, working at Media.Monks, which is a huge agency that was just a very different culture. So, it wasn’t until I had that first interview at Ghost Note that the potential of going to a different agency entered my mind, and I was like, “Oh wow. This is a really different vibe, it’s a lot cozier. They seem to be growing rapidly. For the first time, it’s a place that I feel like, really, you could bring your culture to.” The reason I said what I said in the beginning about Black designers being in Argentina is because when I moved to Argentina, I felt like the work environment that I was in was very homogenous. The majority of people in Argentina are white, and I wasn’t working with other… Probably just a handful of other people of color in an agency of 100s. So, I was finding it really hard to find diversity and find any semblance of culture, and along comes Ghost Note, which was just the complete opposite. They were all about the culture, which I thought was great.

Rebecca Brooker:
I did an in an initial interview with them for that role, the senior designer. Veronica said to me privately after, they said, “I think you were great, but you should be applying for an art director role. We’re going to open one up, if you’re interested.” I said, “What? I didn’t even start working and y’all going to give me a raise? Damn, okay.” So, I had a second interview and I met more of the team, I met the partners, I met the people who working there at the time, and everyone was just very chill. The day after the interview, Veronica phoned me and said, “I just want to let you know you got the job.” I was just like… This happened over three days, Maurice, it was so fast.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
My jaw was on the floor, because I wasn’t even really thinking about leaving my job, but now I was really thinking about it, because I was like, “Oh, the opportunity is in front of me. Okay, okay.” So, that was how Ghost Note came around, and I’ve been there for the past year. They’ve gone through incredible growth themselves. The partners are three Black friends that they have been friends since childhood, they have baby pictures together.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, they grew up together in DC and all went on to three different life paths, and then later in life reunited to start this agency. They’ve been around for almost 10 years now doing this work. So, it feels really great for the agency to be in a spot where they can really see their growth, we’re getting a lot of bigger clients. Most recently, they actually announced a strategic partnership with Godfrey Dadich Partners, which is… I don’t know if you know that agency, but they have aligned with that and entered the kyu Collective of companies, which I think really turned a new chapter for the agency, as well, just in the potential that we have to create outstanding work. So, it’s been really great to work with people that are like me and people that… Our entire creative team is queer-led, which I think is amazing, we’re majority people of color on staff. It’s just been a total 180 of what I was used to, so I’ve been really enjoying my experience there.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that you refer to it as cozy. You often don’t hear that word when people talk about their work experience.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I always stray away from using the term like, “Oh my coworkers are my family,” because I don’t like to think that way, but this is one of the first jobs that I would say where I feel really close and a real bond of friendship, more than any other place that I’ve worked, with the team that we have now. I think it’s because we all are striving towards this goal of… We want to work at Ghost Note because we believe we have a unique voice and a voice that not a lot of agencies get to have. So, I feel like we all are bonding by this experience of like, “What is the Ghost Note lens? What is the Ghost Note angle?” They’re hiring Ghost Note because we have a different perspective and we can talk about topics and things that other people can’t.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that just brings a level of genuineness and authenticity to the people that work there. I feel like we’re trying to build a culture that’s really rooted in our humanity and not necessarily just in, can we make cool stuff? Can we get the biggest clients? We want to do that stuff, too, but it’s really more about bringing our humanness to the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s a superpower, really, to be able to bring that perspective to the work.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. I definitely see it. I think that we’re smart in the way that they don’t necessarily bill themselves as a social justice agency. It’s not about that at all, but it’s really about using our collective voice and this unique voice that we’ve crafted to be able to create impactful work that benefits other people. For example, one of the recent projects, actually, my first project at Ghost Note, was actually rebranding the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Washington, DC. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but ACM is actually the United States’ first community museum. It was the first one that was ever established, and it’s one of the only museums I think, if not the only, to be founded in a historically Black neighborhood of Anacostia, Washington, DC.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, when I was first put on this project, I had never heard of ACM. You hear about all the other museums in the Smithsonian’s collection, but never ACM. It was a really unique challenge, because it’s not in Washington, DC itself. It’s not on Capitol Hill on the museum route with the rest of the Smithsonian museums. It’s out of the way, and it’s a different type of work that they’re showing, they’re always showing community-based work. So, a lot of the pieces that we got to interact with were actual historical documents from the community of Anacostia. So, the first baseball that was thrown on their community pitch, photos from families that lived there. ACM has been around and was founded by John Kinard, who had a very unique vision for the town of Anacostia. It was just such a unique project to be able to really meld all of that history and all of that deeply rooted culture of Black history, too, and work on that with a Black team.

Rebecca Brooker:
The strategist that I worked with, Georgie Arimah, who also works at Ghost Note, both of us really had to put heads down and say, “How can we really bring the story and the history and all of these years of deep-rooted community value into the work? How do we turn that into brand equity for ACM?” That felt like a really unique project that I don’t know if I would be able to do with everybody, so I really appreciated just having people who understood. Georgie, actually, at the same time, was moving to Anacostia, so it felt really personal for her. I think that it was just that Ghost Note gets unique opportunities like that because we have that unique skill, superpower, as you put it, to create impact where not every agency could.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I think it’s also about the fact that the culture really makes the work personal to the people that are working on it in a way that it probably wouldn’t with any other type of agency, so that’s amazing. I did hear about the investment recently from Godfrey Dadich, I’ve heard about them. So, I have a, I guess it’s a funny story, I don’t know. I ran across them… How many years ago was this? This was back when I was working at Glitch, so this was back in 2019. Yeah, this was 2019. We were looking at studios because we were building this lifestyle vertical website or whatever, and I remember I had reached out to them. I reached out to a few places, like them, Pentagram, Ali, a couple of others, just to get quotes and just see what might be available. I remember they had hit me back because they were like, “Oh my God, Jabari’s chair, we’ve heard of you from Revision Path.”

Maurice Cherry:
I was like, “Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great.” But I’m really interested in like this quote, and they mentioned that they had recently done, I think, creative work for Abstract, which is the series on Netflix where they do-

Rebecca Brooker:
Design.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s documentary episodes of designers. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was so funny, because this was before the second season came out, and the person there was like, “We’re about to have the second season come out,” and she was like, “And you’ll be surprised about this, we’re featuring two Black designers this season.” I’m like-

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Wow. That’s amazing.” Telling me? I don’t know, I thought that was a weird thing to relate to me, like I would be impressed by that. But I’m like, “Wow. You talked to two Black designers, really? That’s great.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I also hadn’t really known a ton about Godfrey Dadich before the investment. I had heard their name in passing, maybe seen a few things that they produced here or there. I think Abstract is one of the more notable things that they are produced for. But that’s such a wild thing to say, I can’t believe that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, with the agency joining the kyu Collective, has that impacted your day-to-day work in any sort of way?

Rebecca Brooker:
Not yet, I think that it’s still… So, they only made the announcement of the investment and the joining a couple months ago, I think in April, early April. So, it hasn’t affected my day-to-day yet. We actually are still, I think, figuring out how best we integrate. But Q recently, actually this week, held this internal collective conference that brought all of their agencies together, so I attended a couple sessions and got to meet a couple people from other agencies, SYPartners, ATÖLYE. It was an interesting experience. In one of the main sessions that I went to, they had over 300 people joining, so it was definitely a big work group. I think we’re still new to the Collective and trying to figure out what are some of the best ways that we could work collaboratively or side-by-side, or really partner with some of the other minds in the kyu Collective. I think that there’s a lot of great companies and probably a lot of really smart people working at those companies. So, I’m excited to see what happens, it’s definitely an unknown path right now, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So, what does a regular day look like for you when work comes in? You come in on projects as the art director? Talk to me about that.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like this is really beneficial information because before I started as an art director, I thought I knew what an art director did, but I feel like we don’t have enough resources out there to tell people exactly what the job is about, so I think this is a great convo. But basically, my day-to-day really looks like, I’m probably on about two to three projects at the same time, it depends on how heavy those projects are. My role right now is half executional and half managerial, so I’m usually talking to clients, making decisions, but also working with the designers, our senior designers and our mid-level designers, to produce work for our campaigns. So, for example, we are, right now, working on a couple campaigns for Nike Chicago, and I am leading the art direction, so I will put together the look, the feel, talk with the client and understand, from the brief, what they’re trying to convey, what assets do we have to work with? Is it a new design system that we need to make? Is it something that we’re picking up from?

Rebecca Brooker:
I, basically, get the work to a place where it is ready and executional for some of the other designers to take it into production. So, a really great example of this is on this Nike project that we’re working on, we’re going to be producing some reels and stuff for the Nike social handle on Instagram. Part of what I’m proposing to Nike is that we’re going to create a GIPHY sticker pack on Instagram, so people can go search Nike Chicago, and they get the stickers on GIPHY and they put them on their stories or whatever. I will probably put together a deck, along with some of my other ideas, pull some references of what those stickers will look like. My job is to really sell that idea to the client before it gets produced, so that the client buys into it. I prep it for the team, we’ll probably have a kickoff and say, “Okay. The client loves this idea of the stickers. Let’s put these into production.”

Rebecca Brooker:
Maybe our senior designer, who is also an amazing illustrator, he’ll help us draw out some shapes, he’ll help us draw out some stuff, maybe we pass it to a different designer who’s going to add some typography to it. It really depends on the project, but my role is usually a little bit higher level, a hybrid of client management and coming up with the overall look and feel of the work before handing it off to some of our other team members to bring it to life.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is probably the most challenging part about what you do?

Rebecca Brooker:
That’s a great question. I think one of the most challenging parts is really finding new inspiration all the time. I feel like sometimes when I’m working on multiple projects at the same time, sometimes my ideas tend to blend together, so all three of those projects may end up looking similar. So, I feel like finding inspiration and ways to keep things really distinct and unique in their look and feel of each campaign or each identity is a challenge, because you constantly have to be looking at inspiration, not just on the internet, but, really, all around you and in your world, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
I’m constantly thinking about how can I take some of the things I see in my everyday, whether it’s some graffiti on the street, whether it’s an old street sign, how can I take things that I see in real life and bring them into my project, so I’m not just lost in this world of Pinterest and Arena and Behance and looking at what’s already out there. I think trying to keep your work original when you’re working at speed and scale is really difficult, sometimes. It’s easy to lean on the internet to just see what else is out there, but I feel sometimes, it could make the work all feel really homogenous.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, staying inspired, it’s always a challenge.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s so interesting you mentioned that, I was just talking about that a little bit with… At where I work now, we have a creative director, and one of the projects that we have worked on for the past few months is creating a print magazine. So, we’re creating a print magazine from scratch for the company, coming up with the name, the brand, talking to printers. I joked, “I feel like Khadijah James in the first season of Living Single trying to put flavor together,” wrangling contributors and stuff like that. It’s a quarterly magazine, so we have a little bit of breathing room in terms of going from issue to issue. But right now, our first issue came out a couple of months ago, we’re currently in design on the second issue, and we’re starting planning on the third issue.

Rebecca Brooker:
Third issue, that’s great.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve already mapped out themes for the next six issues. So, up until issue 6, I’ve mapped out themes for that. Even looking at that, we’re looking at these covers and thinking, “Well, do we want this to tell a story?” Because even as we look at the themes itself, so far, the themes are usually around propulsion. The first cover has a jet on it, the second cover, when people see it, it has a city rising up through the clouds. So, everything that we’re doing here is not only about propulsion in some way, but also could tie into a theme of discovery or exploration, which ties into the theme of what we’re trying to do with the tool. Even as we look at that, because the company is named Orbit, so there’s a lot of space imagery and terminology and things that we can pull from, this next issue that we’re doing is all about Web3, which is a bit of a departure, just in terms of it’s a very new topic. Well, I’d say it’s a very buzzy topic.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know if it’s necessarily super new, but it’s a pretty buzzy topic, because it’s all wrapped up in the metaverse and Dows and cryptocurrency and blockchain and all that stuff. It can be confusing to just think, “Well, how do we depict something like that?” It’s funny you say looking at inspiration, because we just did a working session recently and we’re looking at creative inspiration and we’re like, “We see this octahedron symbol everywhere, and I want to use that in some kind of way.” I’m like, “Eh, I don’t know. I don’t think we should use that because it’s used everywhere.” It turns out that it’s actually the logo for Ethereum, which is why it’s used so many places, because the person who came up with Web3 is also the founder of Ethereum, so it’s a branding thing, for them, at least.

Maurice Cherry:
But the theme that I think we’re going to settle on, we may change this by the time it actually goes to print, is actually going to be a retrospective from the 1920s to the 2020s in the theme of the movie Metropolis. It’s going to be about the… I forget what the name of the Android is in Metropolis, it’s the Metalnmensch or something like that.

Rebecca Brooker:
Oh, I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
So, it’s going to be like a human, but we’re going to have… Well, we’re taking inspiration from that and we’re also taking inspiration from RoboCop, so-

Rebecca Brooker:
Wow. Very different.

Maurice Cherry:
… so it’s going to have a helmet that’s a Oculus helmet, it’s going to have a shoulder plate that’s blockchain, it’s going to have another shoulder plate that’s… So, we’re thinking the person is whomever is on the internet, because Web3 is also very user-centered, and so we’re thinking of all these different aspects of what make up Web3 coming onto a person as an Android thing. It’s interesting, because when we were trying to think of inspiration, a lot of what we saw just all looked the same like, “Oh everything’s purple and blue and there’s the Ethereum logo.” We want to do something different from that, that stands out a bit. Trying to find an inspiration is tough.

Rebecca Brooker:
It’s tough. The thing I’ve been struggling with lately is when you work at an agency sometimes, and this is maybe what I miss about working in-house sometimes, but when you work at an agency, I feel like the speed at which you have to produce ideas, sometimes it’s exhausting. Every month is a different campaign, maybe two campaigns, and you’re constantly churning out ideas. And then what happens when you can’t be creative on demand? What happens in that moment when everyone’s like, “This is your sixth campaign this year, and sorry, but this idea sucks”? You’re like, “Yeah, I’m tired and burnt out.” So, I think that’s something that we’re also just trying to, as an agency, as a world, I guess, I don’t know if this is in other agencies, as well, but I think we’re just trying to find balance sometimes, where we have some downtime to rest and recuperate and generate some new creative ideas. And then other times, we’re working really hard and producing at volume. I think it’s a balance of both things, and part of why I feel like we’re in this moment of the Great Burnout where every…

Rebecca Brooker:
Burnout is a buzzword, and everyone is burning out, everyone is over Zoom, over being on the computer eight hours a day. I think people are right now just looking for some sense of balance in their life, and I think for designers, that can be draining when you have to wake up and produce a new idea every day. So, that’s something I’ve been noodling on for the past couple of months, is just how do we continue to have jobs that require us to exert creative energy, while still being able to find a refill and recuperation for that same creative energy? Is there answer, is there a solution? I don’t know. I feel like we’re all equal [inaudible 00:28:37] capitalism.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look, it’s hard to pour from an empty cup, especially with everything else that’s going on in the world, political issues, we’ve had an ongoing global health crisis for the past two, almost three years. So many things have taken a toll just on people’s psyche that it’s tough to always try to come up with stuff, whether you’re in a highly creative role, I think, or not. But certainly with what you’re saying, as an art director, it probably is super tough to always have to pour from the well of imagination when the well is running dry.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah, yeah. I think that’s not just art directors. I feel like, even as a creative strategist yourself, you probably could relate to that at some level, where just idea generators, I guess, have to constantly be figuring out a way to continue generating ideas or having thoughts about these things. I think it touches everyone on some level. I don’t think it makes my job any different from a creative director’s job or a creative strategist’s job. But I think, generally, it’s a tough world out there to be creative right now, in the midst of everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Absolutely. Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and talk more about your origin story. I know you were born in Trinidad and Tobago, tell me what it was like growing up there.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, I was born in Trinidad, in San Fernando, to be exact. I lived in Trinidad until I was about 18, before I went to college at St. John’s University in New York. I love Trinidad, I love my home. It’s my people, I will always care for them and always support my people. But I think really early on, when I began exploring my sexuality and just my awakening reality that maybe I’m not like my friends, maybe I’m not straight and I don’t know what that means. I think something that still hurts me to this day is just that there is not a lot of LGBTQ representation in the Caribbean. There’s a culture of homophobia, and there’s a culture of very religious-based homophobia, as well, that I think really scarred me. I came out when I was 16 to my parents, and my parents sent me to talk with a nun.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
At the time, I didn’t have the words to describe that. I guess, in 2022, we would probably describe that as conversion therapy, to some extent. But I remember having this conversation with this nun and going for a couple sessions. One of the things this nun said to me was, “You are feeling this way,” this way being gay, “Because you’re a child of divorce.” That stuck with me all my life, and it always made me feel like as much as you are Trini, this place is maybe not for you. So, it wasn’t until I left Trinidad and went to New York that I felt this ability to own that part of my identity, really, in a culture and a way that didn’t feel harmful, it didn’t feel unsafe. So, growing up in Trinidad as a queer teen was tough for me. I felt like I had to fit in a lot. I felt like I had to wear dresses and wear heels and flat iron my hair and do my nails and my makeup. It all felt like I was just doing this to be friends with my friends.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think now, years later, I don’t feel like any relationship to that part of my identity anymore, this part of myself that needs to present in a more feminine way or be more ladylike to be loved by my people. I think it’s taken me living outside of Trinidad for 10 years to really come to terms with that acceptance that this is a place that made me feel a little bit small in who I could be. So, that is always something that has stuck with me. I would love to return home one day and really find a way or find resources to change that mentality. I have a lot of friends in Trinidad who are doing work to create a space for LGBTQ people, and I want to be able to contribute to that work in the future, because I do think it’s important for people to feel safe when they’re growing up and feel like they can explore who they are and be themselves and not feel like, whether they’re religious or not, that they’re going to get judged. So, that was one of the major reasons that I wanted to leave home.

Maurice Cherry:
I think it’s really important, this point you mentioned about you had to leave in order to see the rest of the world and experience who you are outside of the confines of being in, not just, I would say, a small town, but also just a very closed-minded environment, overall.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. It’s not just a Trinidad problem either, it’s really a Caribbean culture problem, I would say. I know other Caribbean countries also have large percentage of homophobia, Jamaica is rampant with homophobia. You hear it in dance hall, you hear it in the music, you hear it in all different places. It’s almost casual to be homophobic, people joke about it, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I think that it’s a huge culture shift that we have to make as a society and as a people to be more accepting. It’s funny, because there are a lot of cultural ties to Trinidad that are inherently queer, it’s so funny how we’re selective in the way that we see it. I feel like there are just a lot of different spaces where it’s more okay, then it’s not okay, and then it’s okay in the way that we want you to be. So, it just feels like a culture that is accepting when it’s entertainment, but not when it’s your real life. You could go up on that stage and you could cross dress, you could sing about, you could do what you want, we’ll laugh, we’ll dance. Okay, great. You’re a great performer. But if you went on that stage and actually brought your partner, no.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s very much a culture of where you have to present a certain way, you have to act a certain way, you keep your business private. That’s how you survive, and that’s tough. I don’t think any LGBTQ identifying people, anybody who feels like they can’t be who they are, should not have to live that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So much of that, as you mentioned, just reminds me of… I grew up in a small town, I grew up in Selma, Alabama. To that point that you mentioned about how queer people are celebrated when there’s a certain presentational aspect to it, in a way. I remember, in high school, we had gay men in high school and one of them was our head majorette, ironically. One was, he was, I think, in the class above me, he and his sister… Well, sorry, me and his sister were in the same class and he was a class above me, but he also wore a lot of women’s clothes to school. I can’t presume to know what their individual experiences might have been like outside of school, but I know when they were at school, they were always celebrated because of that. It almost in a way felt mocking, I don’t know, but-

Rebecca Brooker:
Mm-hmm. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, the guy who was the head majorette had his own suit made and everything that was just like the suit that the girls had. At least from what I could tell, nobody said anything, but then I wasn’t close to that person, so I don’t know what other sorts of discrimination or things they might have received. But to be in that small town and to try to express yourself in that way, I can’t imagine how just stifling and confining that can be, and you have to break out, eventually

Rebecca Brooker:
You have to, you have to. I think that was one of, like I said, one of the things that I’m so grateful for is the opportunity to break out. I have so many friends in Trinidad who do identify as LGBTQ, but don’t have, one, the privilege or, two, the resources to get out of that situation, too. I think that’s an important thing to acknowledge here, is that I feel like I got to embrace and explore that part of my identity because I was given this opportunity to leave the country, and travel the world, and find myself, and not feel unsafe with presenting the way I want to present. But there’s so many people in Trinidad who don’t have that same opportunity. I have a really dear friend of mine who I grew up with, know their family, they are super religious. For years, this person has been telling me, secretly, “I’m queer, I’m actually trans, and I want to identify this way, but I live at home and I can’t do that. I can’t dress the way I want to. When my parents go out, I try on different clothes.”

Rebecca Brooker:
It just reinforces this culture that not everybody has that opportunity, so that is part of why I feel really moved to find ways that I can contribute or ways that I can change the narrative about what queer Caribbean culture is, because it’s important that we redefine the context of what queer Caribbean culture is. It’s always been so tied to God and like, “You’re going down the wrong path and God doesn’t like that. Why do you want to change your body when God gave you this beautiful hair and this beautiful, feminine body? Why do you want to identify as a man?” It’s never come from a perspective of this is not a choice that I’m making. My identity is not a choice. I’m not choosing to wake up today and say, “I’ve decided I like girls,” or, “I’ve decided I like boys.” It’s something that you come to that discovery, it really is. It’s there all along, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, it’s who we are, it’s something that we’re born with.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel that in the Caribbean, there’s always been a sense of homophobia is equivalent with the devil is equivalent with breaking the law of God. It’s never been looked at from a perspective of this is a biological thing that is present in all living beings, to some extent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, I feel like it’s just a huge culture shift that we still have to make. Like I said, I think that’s something that we have to accept and work on as a community, not just the queer people, but we need allies and we need people coming together to be able to advocate for those rights.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about St. John’s University. You mentioned moving away from Trinidad, going to St. John’s in New York City, and you studied graphic design there. Tell me what your time was like there, because I would imagine from the environment that you just described, going to New York City was a complete culture shock.

Rebecca Brooker:
Exactly. Yeah, it was. So, context. People are probably like, “If she’s so against religion, why did she go to a Catholic university?” Well, I can tell you a couple things about that. So, I went to Catholic school all my life, actually, from primary school to secondary school. When I was applying to universities, I had actually, coincidentally, visited St. John’s a couple years before at a conference that I was attending in the States. This wasn’t my first time in New York, either, my grandmother at the time was living in New York, so I was always traveling between Trinidad and New York to visit and was fairly familiar with the city. But when I was applying to universities, I applied to St. John’s just because it was one of the only US college campuses that I’d ever visited. I was like, “All right. I kind of know that place, let me just apply and see what happens.”

Rebecca Brooker:
The other schools I applied to were SCAD and other design schools, because I was like, “I need to go study design and I want to go do it at SCAD. I don’t know what St John’s program is about. They have a graphic design program, but whatever, that’s a throwaway option.” St John’s, coincidentally, came back with almost a full tuition scholarship. On top of that, they were like, “Oh, you’re a Catholic? We’re going to give you an extra scholarship for being Catholic.” I was like, “Damn. For the first time, it came in handy,” I was like, “Okay.” So, that was how I ended up making the decision, because while I did get into SCAD, it was four times the price, my parents were paying this out of pocket. Just the opportunity to go to St. John’s almost for free versus pay money that we definitely didn’t have to go to SCAD and possibly take out loans, it didn’t make sense in that way. So, reluctantly, I chose St. John’s, not knowing.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have to put my best foot forward, because I don’t know what type of design program they have.” I’ve never heard anybody say, “I got a graphic design degree at St. John’s.” They’re known for law, they’re known for all different other things. So, I was a little bit skeptical, but like I said, it was a new opportunity. In Trinidad, we didn’t have a ton of tertiary education to pursue design. We had a field of art that you could study, but there wasn’t a huge design industry, and there still isn’t a huge design industry in Trinidad to have made it worth staying there. So, I knew that if I wanted to study design, I had to leave. This is sexuality aside, I was just thinking about career-wise, how was I going to pursue design? I had really even gotten into design in high school because I had a cracked version of Photoshop on my computer, and just started making posters. In high school, they asked me, “Oh, do you want to make our school yearbook?” I was like, “Yeah.” Maurice, I designed an entire yearbook in Photoshop.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
They sent it to the printer and the printer was like, “We cannot print this file. You need to use InDesign,” and I was like, “I don’t know what that is. I’m a graphic designer, I use Photoshop.” The school ended up having to pay the printer to redesign the thing I had designed in a principle way. But I was so convinced, I was like, “This is amazing, I’m a designer. I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.” That was really where my inspiration started, just playing on Photoshop making posters, doing design tutorials from the internet, and teaching myself how to design. So, fast forward, I get into St John’s, start there. I’m honestly really surprised by the design program, I had no expectations. It was a small program, there was no more than 20 of us in my classes, but some of the professors changed just what I thought I knew about graphic design. I knew nothing about graphic design.

Rebecca Brooker:
Here I was, making my yearbook in Photoshop, and you get into your first graphic design class, and I realized, I was like, “Oh wow, I am starting from scratch. I know nothing.” That was an amazing feeling, to be able to go to school and have just the time and the ability to just play and do what you want and learn so much, different techniques, learned from other people in class who were making cool stuff. It was just an eye-opening experience for me. I feel like that was when I really fell in love with design, was when I started really learning it and learning the concepts, learning how to not just make something, but how to really bring an idea to life. To think about a concept and to then bring that to life through design blew my mind, it blew my mind in 2015 when I started school. That was my experience, St John’s was four years, and I came out of it with a ton of connections.

Rebecca Brooker:
My professors were working in the design industry in New York. We were always going to visit different studios and museums and galleries in the city. So, I felt like being in New York really helped me to make the industry connections and the network that I didn’t know I was going to have.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. You were there at the right time. In college, not just being a fish out of water coming from another country to the States, but then also relearning what you knew about design, what you thought you knew about design in this program. College is always touted as a time where it’s really transformative, but for you, it really sounds like it was a good starting point for you to build the career that you have now.

Rebecca Brooker:
Definitely, definitely. I think that was part of… Something that always drove me in college, was I think I knew that I didn’t have another option. My backup plan was going back to Trinidad and really figuring out how would I be a designer in Trinidad when I don’t know anything about design, I don’t have any industry contacts, I don’t even know where to begin to do my own design thing, even as a freelancer? So, I feel like it was really a transformational moment for me, where I had to push myself to be some level of successful so that I could stand on my own two feet and I could make this career that I doubted myself, I didn’t even know if I could do. I think that determination, that drive, really, is what gave me the confidence, Maurice, to just ask people anything.

Rebecca Brooker:
I feel like it comes across as outgoing, but I was always just so curious to, “Why did you do that? Why did you make that decision? How did you meet that person? How can I meet that person? What do they do? How do you know them? Is there an idea here?” So, I was just constantly hungry, and I think that hunger is really what led me to getting my first job at BAM as an intern.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I see that after you graduated, you worked as a curatorial assistant at a couple of art galleries and such.

Rebecca Brooker:
Yeah. So, at the time, I had an on campus job at St. John’s in the student art gallery. I took that job because it was a unique opportunity, not just to learn about the art, but one of the early assignments that I would do was design some of the vinyl and design some of the material for an exhibition. So, that was a lot of like, “Okay, we’re going to do an exhibition, let me design the wall text, let me design the logo, let me put together the postcards, the flyers, put these around the campus.” So, I took that job because I wanted some hands-on practice of making stuff that wasn’t just for my classes. I started at the art gallery at St. John’s and I met a contact there, someone who came in once, and this guy was a friend of the curator at the time. He said, “Oh, I have an art gallery in Bushwick,” and I said, “Wow, do you need an intern?” He said, “Yeah, why not?” So, I got this internship at Outlet Gallery in Bushwick and, really, I became the curatorial assistant.

Rebecca Brooker:
It started just like, “Watch the gallery, talk about the work if someone comes in. We have a new show coming up, can you design the poster? Can you design the catalog?” So, I was getting a little bit of design experience, but I was also really, at this time, really into the art, and just learning a lot about art. I felt like there was a lot of similarities between the art world and the design world, just in the way that you present ideas on a page. So, I spent a lot of time in my senior year of college really going to a lot of galleries and really immersing myself and learning a lot about the art world. At one point, had another doubting moment where I was like, “Damn, do I want to become a curator? I don’t know,” and thought about that for a little bit. But art has always had a special place in my heart. I get a lot of inspiration looking at art and finding ways to translate that into design.

Rebecca Brooker:
I think that the two have a lot of overlap and it was something that I just really enjoyed looking at, generally. So, I did the curatorial assistant gig for a couple years, both at the St John’s gallery and the internship in Bushwick, and then I got this internship at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which was the perfect melting of the two worlds. Now, I was working at BAM and I was actually designing the programming for some of the opera shows, some of the festivals, and the programming that they would have at their venues. That was definitely the first job that I was working on a team with, and I was starting to learn the dynamic of being a designer in the design world, and working with a creative director, working with other designers on the team. I was the intern and just learning even the process of working in a studio, they’re like, “Oh, we have all these softwares, and I’m going to assign you a ticket, and we’re going to change the status.”

Rebecca Brooker:
For the first time, I was like, “Oh my God, you don’t just want to email me the file that you need? Damn, okay.” So, that was really my first experience, as well, with formalized design in a professional sense, outside of the classroom. That was an incredible learning experience for me, just being able to work with some of the best creatives. I think BAM was a great exercise in finding ways to be creative in a design system. They have a very tight design system that they use, and it was the first time I had to learn a design system, it was the first time I had to understand how to be creative within these constraints of the same logo, the same type base, the same everything. I felt like that just unlocked a whole new world for me. So, I worked there. Unfortunately, at this time, I was starting to think about my post-student visa status, and I had to get a job that would sponsor me a work visa.

Rebecca Brooker:
So, after talking to my boss at BAM, he said, “We’re a nonprofit, I don’t think we’re going to be able to sponsor your work visa. I have a friend who runs a team at this company called Compass, and they’re hiring a lot of designers. They’re growing really fast. Why don’t I send your portfolio?” So, I said, “Sounds good, do it,” and he sent it over. The guy from Compass called me and he said, “I’d love to bring you in for an interview.” I met with them, the recruiter that I met there was actually Trini, and she was like, “Oh no, this is a great place to work.” I was like, “Okay, okay, okay. I’m going to work there.” Surprisingly, they gave me an offer. So, I worked at Compass and things were going really well. That was a huge switch, because I was at a nonprofit where budgets were tight, and then I went into this new startup tech company, beautiful building on 5th Avenue, overlooking the city. It was just a different world. I was, again, a fish out of water.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was just not sure what to do and going along with it, but it was a great paying job, it was a bunch of new contacts, and the design work was pretty cool. So, I worked at Compass for a year and they agreed to do my work visa, we got that in place and started moving. In about July of 2018, I hadn’t heard back about my work visa status. A friend of mine at Compass, actually, who we applied at the same time, she had come over to my desk and was like, “Oh, I got my acceptance of my H-1B, did you get yours?” I was like, “No, didn’t get mine at all yet.” She said, “Oh, I’m sure it’s going to come. I’m sure it’s going to come.” So, I emailed my manager, I emailed the lawyers that are handling the case, and I don’t hear back for about two weeks. They come back and they say, “Unfortunately, your application wasn’t picked in the H-1B lottery, and you have three weeks to leave the country.”

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa.

Rebecca Brooker:
I said, “Wait a minute, but usually when you get the denial, you have 60 days to leave the country. Why is it three weeks?” They said, “Oh, I’m sorry. We forgot to inform you earlier-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh God.

Rebecca Brooker:
… that your application had been denied.” So, there was all this time that was just lost between the time of the notice and the time I was notified that I could have been preparing to leave the country. By the time I got the news, they were like, “You basically have three weeks left. You have to leave by the end of August.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Rebecca Brooker:
I was like, “Oh my God.” That was my whole life turned upside down, Maurice. The next day, Compass was like, “You’re no longer employed here because now that we found out your H-1B is denied, you have to stop working.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Rebecca Brooker:
I had just signed a new lease a couple months ago with my partner and another roommate, so I was like, “I’m on the hook for at least another eight months on this lease,” just a lot of big life changes. I was like, “Okay. So, I have to go back to Trinidad. What am I going to do? I have $4,000, $5,000 saved in total. I don’t know what that’s going to get me in this next life, but we’re going to find out.” So, I left the States, I went back home to Trinidad. My parents at the time were actually on vacation in Europe. It must have been two or three weeks, maybe a month after I got back to Trinidad, my old boss at Compass called me and he said, “Hey, I want to let you know, we’re about to sign a deal with this agency in Buenos Aires. They need a designer who knows our brand to go down there and help them build a team of 15 production designers.” I was like, “Okay. So, you’re saying I should go do the job?”

Rebecca Brooker:
They were like, “Yeah. We put your name in to go do that, and they’re going to call you.” I was like, “All right.” [inaudible 00:55:14] are done, just a really lucky break and a real opportunity, where my boss from Compass, shout out Jeff Lai, he threw my name in the hat. I was still just one year working there, there were people working at the company years who could have probably done that job, but he took a chance on me, proposing me for that gig, and I ended up getting the job. So, that was the thing that moved me to Argentina at the end of 2018, was this new opportunity with Media.Monks to help them build a team of designers for Compass in Buenos Aires, and help lead that team to understand the brand.

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