Jonathan Robinson

photo by Terrell Neasley

December is a good time to reflect and take stock of the year, and that’s the basis of my conversation with this week’s guest Jonathan Robinson. Jonathan is a creative powerhouse — a writer, a filmmaker, and a director, just to start — who’s currently on a personal journey of self-discovery.

We started off doing a bit of a recap of the past year, and Jonathan shed some light on what creative and experiential producers do and how he came into those titles through his work in the advertising industry. He also talked about working with AI and VR, and spoke about how his time spent at Facebook and Twitter helped shape him into his current calling as a storyteller.

For Jonathan, chasing his passions and connecting with other people are what drives him. When you look back at this year, what’s been your driving force?

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Jonathan Robinson:

My name is Jonathan Robinson, and I am a creative producer, director, and writer, supporting all kinds of interactive experiences, products, and bringing stories to life.

Maurice Cherry:

When you look back at this year, at 2023, how would you describe it? Like, how’s it been for you?

Jonathan Robinson:

It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster, I think. I kind of liken it to making a loop around a racetrack. Things feel very familiar. But also, the urgency of how I’m trying to sort of move up in the race is starting to set in. I started the year still very much in a sort of personal sabbatical, working on a few writing projects and a VR concept which was really fulfilling, but also because these projects were very personal and tied to my personal experiences, my family history. I was doing a lot of digging up sort of latent emotional baggage and opening up wounds that I didn’t know were there. Add to that sort of the reality of living in capitalism and needing to pay your bills, trying to balance how to leverage the skills and the experience that I’ve had over the last close to 15 years working as a producer to generate some income without necessarily going back to the kind of soul crushing work that it felt like I left quite intentionally. I’ve done a little bit of contract work to pay the bills, but in doing so have been reminded why I left in the first place.

I think if anything, I feel like I went on a sort of condensed loop of what the past four or five years of my journey has been just in this one year. I think that’s given me a renewed clarity and motivation to continue in this sort of uncomfortable, unfamiliar path towards what I think I know I want.

Maurice Cherry:

That’s a very diplomatic answer.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s me. I’m a producer by trade and also a little bit by personality. So always trying to find the middle ground that moves us closer to an objective.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. How are you making time for joy these days?

Jonathan Robinson:

One of those things is really starting to take some of these more administrative skills that I’ve used in my professional life and trying to apply them to the emotional maturity, work and growth that I’ve experienced over the last couple of years. I had a moment of I mean, as most of us did during the pandemic of real clarity and understanding that I was not investing nearly enough time and energy into my relationships as I was into my career. And so, from there I started to just try to apply some of that structure that existed in my career that created that focus and apply that to relationships. It sounds, like, very academic or clinical, but I have a standing call with my best friend every Friday or excuse me, every other Friday when we talk for about two or three hours on the phone. I have standing dates with a couple of other friends either on a weekly or monthly basis just to make sure that we have a touch point. And it’s not like we’re only ever talking during these times. But I’ve found that when you have that consistency, it makes it so much easier to seek out these connections in between. And I think for myself, I’m kind of a self-isolating personality when I don’t have the sort of structure and pressure to show up if someone is not directly in my vicinity.

Living here in Oakland, I actually don’t have most of my closest friends in the area. They’re either in New York or in Southern California or in Europe. And so, it does take a little bit more effort on my part to make sure that those relationships are solid and are being fed. But I’ve really enjoyed seeing that growth and the ways in which it’s made me less in my head about reaching out and connecting with people. Even if it’s just something as silly as sending a meme or a photo of something ridiculous that I just saw while I was crossing the street. Yeah, I mean, add to like trying to make sure that I get out of the house and have in-person community. I’ve been attending this writing group here in Oakland, at Wolfpack Studios, a little studio in downtown Oakland. And it’s just maybe about anywhere between six to twelve of us once a month.

And we get together for about two hours, two to three hours, to go through a couple of prompts. We start with haikus and some short story prompts. Folks are reading their poetry and rapping or they’re not writers at all and they just wanted to show up and have a good time. But I’ve found some really cool people who just being able to express yourself in a room of other people who are willing to express themselves and open up in that way, I think, has been really refreshing and really rewarding for my own personal work. So that’s kind of the variety.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s really good to still try to keep those lines of communication open. I know when the pandemic first started, that was kind of a thing a lot of people tried to do, at least through Zoom or through other types of telecommunications type software. Just like check in, see how things are going, et cetera. But now I don’t want to say we’re a few years out from the Pandemic, but certainly the world has gotten back to its normal state. Well, I don’t want to say normal. You know what I mean. We’ve started.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ve pushed past that restrictive period, and I think some people have moved past it, some people haven’t. I still feel like it’s a very sort of OD and touchy time in terms of communication. So, I like that you’re making those efforts to actually keep in touch and keep those lines of communication open because it can be so easy, especially if they don’t live in the same city as you. It’s so easy for those to just die on the vine.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

2024 is right around the corner. Have you thought about what you want to accomplish next year?

Jonathan Robinson:

I have, and as I said before, it is uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I’m excited. I am going to be taking a renewed focus on these creative projects that I started about a year and a half ago. I’m working on a sci-fi script and a couple of short stories that I want to shoot and preparing for a push to either potentially go to a film school later in the year and figure out how to kick start a filmmaking career. So that’s like one track. But on the other end of the spectrum is exploring what I describe as more experiential work, things that involve newer technologies like artificial intelligence and VR. There are a couple of artists that are really interesting in this space, one of which is a good friend who I used to work with in New York. Their name is Sougwen Chung, and they do essentially a lot of collaborative performances where they are generating art along with their artificial intelligence and robotics companions that they have built and programmed over the last, I think, twelve years now. And so, I’m very excited to find ways to replicate that same kind of work, as well as find ways to collaborate with folks in that space, including Sougwen themselves.

But in terms of what all of that looks know, I can’t really tell, really. I grew up in the church, so it’s really easy for this phrase to come to mind, but I am literally walking by faith and not by sight. I am just putting 1ft in front of the other and juggling the variables and catching the consequences, which I mean, I guess is what it means to be a producer. So, I’ve had a lot of practice in that space dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. But it’s a lot easier to do that when you have conviction, which I think has been the theme that is coalescing towards the end of this year in terms of how I want to approach 2024. It’s with conviction. I don’t need to know everything. I don’t need to have everything absolutely planned out; I don’t need to know how everything is going to work out.

But I do have to walk with a sort of full body yes and a confidence that is grounded in purpose. And that really is what conviction is. So that’s what my 2024 looks like. Walking into the unknown, sure footed.

Maurice Cherry:

I like that. I like that a lot. That’s funny that you also kind of tied that back into the work in a way about like, this is what it means to be a producer, which I want to unpack a little bit later now when I do my research and everything to try to find out more about the guest. And you alluded to this a bit earlier, kind of being on this personal journey. What brought that on?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think when I look back at it, and in hindsight, it started at the end of 2017-ish, basically when I started at Facebook. Up until this point, I had been working in New York in the advertising field. I’d bounced around between a couple of different agencies, but at that point I was around three years into my second stint at a production company called The Mill, and essentially being like one of two senior producers in their experiential and interactive division, which they had just started to build back up. I got this opportunity to work at Facebook, and the job was in London. So, I’d be leaving the country to live outside of the country for the first time since I was like three years old when I was in Costa Rica. And so, I was really excited about that opportunity. This is also 2017, so if we think back to where the world was sort of socio-politically, an opportunity to work at a place like Facebook is a sort of double-edged sword. High impact, massive reach, and you’re working on a product that touches almost half of the people on the planet in one way or another.

But at the time, we were also starting to discover, more concretely anyway, that some of the ways in which that impact was landing in people’s lives was actually quite harmful, and that maybe something actually could have been done about that, but simply wasn’t. So, I threw myself into that opportunity with optimism and a lot of youthful vigor. But I think the combination of one understanding the relative impact of one or even a couple hundred individuals in a corporation that has 70,000 employees and a global reach, it makes for a quite Sisyphean task, I think, is the word. Pushing that boulder up the hill every day, and also living in London, moving there without any friends and family. And all of these things sort of coincided and combined with the point in my life that I was at, and I fell into a pretty deep depression. And then I learned the first rule of working in tech, and that is that every six to eight months there’ll be a reorg. And I was reorged out of my role and needed to find a new one. And I had one of two options: stay in London and find a team within the Facebook ecosystem that could use my skills so that I could stay in London or move to the bay area for this particular team that had headcount.

And they were like, we’ll take you on, we want to have you, but it means you got to move back to the states. And with option two, came back to the states, and just in time for about a year’s worth of soaking up the benefits of this northern California climate and nature and all of the amazing culture of Oakland right before the pandemic, and sort of back in isolation. That isolation again just sort of brought to the forefront the struggle I was having between the kind of impact I wanted to have in a company like Facebook and the kind of impact that I was actually having and whether or not that was commiserate or whether or not I could square that with the negative impact that the company was having, at least from my perspective. And so you’re sitting in a studio by yourself all day for months on end, as a lot of us know, and it leads to a lot of introspection. I was spending a lot of time in therapy, actually. I had just started therapy right before the pandemic started, which was amazing timing, but was also spending a lot of time actually talking to my mother about her own sort of personal journey and the spiritual journey that she was on at the time. We started talking about different belief systems. And she really surprised me by bringing up IFA and this sort of African indigenous spiritual frameworks of West Africa, specifically the Yoruba.

And I started to dig into some of these things and do a little bit of research on my own. And she invited me to a weekly class, weekly zoom with someone who was going to sort of run through a curriculum to explain the basics of the framework. And without getting into the details of the spiritual beliefs themselves, I think what was most impactful about that was this underlying system that was about understanding your place within this particular life, this place and time that we exist. And how it connects to our ancestors, the people who came before us, the people around us, and the unseen forces that are at play, whether that be natural forces, societal forces, technological forces. And it really started to give me almost like a narrative framework to be able to investigate my life and see what was working and what wasn’t, what did I want to change. And that’s kind of how I got to this place of I don’t think working in tech is the thing for me. I’m not knocking it for anybody who does want to. I do think the work is incredibly important for all of the reasons that I left.

But it became very clear that my path, my purpose is in storytelling and finding ways to weave narratives that can help us investigate the relationship between what we see in front of us and what we feel like we experience as reality and those unseen forces, the parts of reality that are just outside of our perception and how to sort of marry the two, make them compatible and then create a better reality. Because I do think that that is what we are here for, to leave the world a better place than we found it. And we can’t really do that if we’re not honest about who we are and the world that we live in and what kind of world that we want. So, yeah, long winded answer to say, that’s how I got here.

Maurice Cherry:

I was going to say some of those things that you mentioned. I mean, 100% mirror, I think, what a lot of people might be feeling about working in tech, I think just in general, a couple of months ago, we had Maya Gold Robinson on the show. And I’ve known Maya for a long time. I knew her since she was a product designer in Chicago, and since then she has…actually she’s also worked at Facebook. She also worked at Twitter. She created…

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah, I love Maya. She’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:

You did? Okay, cool. Yeah. But she was talking about how right now she’s also sort of taking this break and being like, I’m kind of done with tech right now. I’m going to take a year; I’m going to spend it with my family and just sort of figure out what these next steps are. I think what we’re seeing with tech, and I want to talk a little bit more about this kind of creative journey because I feel like part of this personal journey you went, underwent deals also with you as a creative because you said you emerged talking about storytelling. But I feel like we’re starting to see that tech is not all it’s cracked up to mean. Well, yeah, surprise, right? But I think the way and I mentioned this in the interview with Maya, I was like it kind of felt like in some way we were kind of sold like a false bill of goods about tech, about how it is going to offer you this economic prosperity and these opportunities to be on these projects that can change the world. Especially for large tech companies. But then you get in there and you’re subject to so many other isms and like you said, professional reorgs and things like that.

And it can be easy to feel like a cog in the machine and that your work doesn’t really have the impact that maybe you were told it does.

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely. And it’s not necessarily that any of those things were completely untrue. You absolutely can work on these projects that have massive impact and change the world and be financially lucrative, even for yourself as an individual, as much as it is often understood that most of that financial impact is going to go to somebody else sitting in a bigger office. But that doesn’t actually always balance out with all of those other things you mentioned. The reorgs, the isms, the sort of cog in the machine feeling that you get when you work on something diligently and over long extended hours with a massive team and you spent two to six months on something and then all of a sudden somebody decides that no one will ever see it, period. Yeah, that gets old actually rather quickly.

Maurice Cherry:

Very quickly. Absolutely very quickly. I’m thinking of my own journey. The last place that I worked at was this tech startup based out of San Francisco, and I came on under the title Creative Strategist. Creative Strategist was like a title. It’s funny you mentioned the Pandemic, because during the Pandemic, I was also thinking of, like well, what do I really call myself? Because prior to getting I don’t want to say prior to getting into tech, but prior to working for the startup that I worked at at the time, I had my own business, still have the business, but back then I had a staff of nine people. They were designers, developers. I was kind of doing creative work with Mailchimp and WordPress and all this kind of stuff.

But then you get into a startup in these companies and the startup I was at at the time, I changed titles maybe about six different times as the company grew. And so, each time that title changed, I don’t know if it really reflected what it is that I really do. It sort of just puts you in a bit of a box in a way. Like I went from being a content marketer to a design communications lead, to marketing lead, to head of media. And I think the last title I had was like senior Creative strategist because it felt right. It was like, yes, I know the creative part, but I also know the business part and I can sort of bring these two things together in a way.

Jonathan Robinson:

Right?

Maurice Cherry:

But what I basically was doing, and this kind of alludes, I think, a bit to your story is like, I basically was taking creative projects that the company wanted to do and making them happen, which is a producer type of thing, which back then, I didn’t really think that that’s what I did. Or at least that I didn’t associate that with what I did. But the last place I worked; we made a print magazine. We made a print and an online magazine. And I mean, I threw everything into it because I’ve always wanted to do a magazine. I grew up on magazines and we got two issues out the door, really. We only got one issue out the door.

The second one came after they laid off the entire team. But it was a quarterly magazine. I put so much into it, the structure. I’d sent out this weekly hot sheet to let people know when assignments were due. And these are the artists that are working on certain visuals and all this sort of stuff and had a plan for at least a six-issue run. And these are the themes that we’re going to talk about. And these are the writers that I want to bring in. And we did the first one with great success, and we were leading up to the second one.

The second issue was at the printer. Like it was set to go out a week from then. And then they laid us all off because they invited us to like a slack group called Goodbye and we’re like, Wait a minute, what? Wow. Invited us to a slack group called #goodbye. And I think I started my workday at eight and by noon I was unemployed. It was just like that, and I was so pissed off because it didn’t give me enough time to really pull together all my stuff. But it’s like, yeah, you spend so much time putting something together, and then it never sees the light of day. We were going to do this issue on Web3, and I found a Black Web3 ethicist.

Jonathan Robinson:

Wow.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay? Brought them on as, like, a guest editor-in-chief, and we curated the entire magazine for the point of view we wanted to have. It will never see the light of day.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s crazy. This is unsustainable. Absolutely unsustainable. Yeah. I think we can only get, like, one or two of those experiences before we’re like, what are we doing this for?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I’ve had three of them since the pandemic started. I had one in 2020. in 2021, and one last year. And yeah, it wears on you in such an insidious way where you know that you can do great work because you know that what you’re capable of, but then it’s like, does it have value in this, I don’t know, tech system that I’m a part of? It’s so weird.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I really appreciate that particular phrasing. Does it have value in this ecosystem that I exist in? I think that was the turning point in at least my therapy practice that helped me decide, okay, I need to leave. Or at the very least, I need to change how I approach this space and show up in this space, because I don’t have the same value system as these people do. I’m being evaluated on a completely different criteria than I evaluate myself. I’m disappointed and feeling upset because I keep trying to make their value system mesh with mine. They don’t need to. They don’t need to.

I step into this space. I understand that these are the criteria, these are the objectives, these are the responsibilities that I have. So, I’ll do those things. But I think I may be misremembering this secondhand quote, but I believe it was Toni Morrison talking about her first job and how her father told her, listen, you work over there. Those people are not your family. You go there, you get your money, and then you come home. And that is how she approached every job that wasn’t her personal projects. And that’s kind of the mindset I had to switch into that helped me get to the place of actually, I don’t think I want to keep showing up here at all.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s tough, because with these tech companies, we might as well just keep talking about it, but we’re talking about these tech companies, and the first thing that they really try to sell you on is like, we’re like a family. This is like a family thing. And even that can be super loaded, especially if you don’t come from a great family environment that could turn you off if they’re like, Wait a minute. I actually don’t fuck my family like that. So, I don’t know. This is like a thing that I want, but it sort of builds this in this sort of period of introspection, you start to wonder if the work you do is even valued by this industry. So maybe what I do is better suited for media than for tech or maybe it’s better suited for nonprofits than for tech. Like something where that’s right, the abilities that I have can be used towards a greater good that’s not about KPIs and personal performance plans and stuff like that.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s exactly right. I think that language that they sort of I mean, it’s not just language, it’s a whole sideshow experience that they sort of bombard you with as you step into these environments where they tell you, yes, we’re all family. This company is yours; no problem is someone else’s problem. You can have all the impact that you can possibly dream of if you just put together an idea and work hard to make it happen. All of those things. And they talk about the values that they have of showing up as your authentic self, whatever that means, and radical honesty and being collaborative and caring about the humans that we serve, our customers, our users, or whatever a new term they decide to use to clean up the fact that actually they’re talking about the people they make money off of. All of that sort of sets this context where you can very quickly forget that you’re in a corporation. Like you’re working at a place that is an equivalent size and scale of an ExxonMobil.

And maybe if you were working at AT&T, you wouldn’t necessarily think too much about the coffee and the cereal and the food courts and all of the amenities and how it does actually feel very comfortable and like a family. And so, it’s easier to remember that you work for a corporation. I think because of the way that some of these tech companies decorate their culture, the aesthetics of their culture obscure that reality. That it is very much a corporate culture where capital and profit reign supreme. And as much as they might say that they want to prioritize the betterment of humanity, they will always make sure that they run that language by legal so that they can always prioritize their dollars in that final hour. Yeah. And just sort of unpacking all of that takes some time and it takes some introspection. You really do have to ask yourself, is this company mine? Do my values actually align with the stated values of the company? And then are those values being practiced in the day to day see those values in the impact that we mean? I think that’s difficult enough to ask of yourself, but it is a necessary first step so that you can ask it of the companies that you work for.

Maurice Cherry:

Right at this point I’m like Marshawn Lynch. I’m just showing. Up so I don’t get fined.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s it. That’s it. That is it. I’m just here so I don’t get fined. Okay.

Maurice Cherry:

I worked for AT&T. I worked for AT&T for almost two and a half years. This was back in two thousand…from 2006 to 2008, I worked there. And at the time their internal sort of slogan was “Shaping Human Capital,” which is like, okay, like, you walk into the building, and you have this big, huge banner – shaping human capital. And I mean, the two and a half years I worked there were grueling not so much in an emotional way, but it’s like it wore on me in such a way that it was affecting me physically and I had to leave.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

And that’s when I left and started my own business. And I feel like that’s really when I started to find myself and my career and my purpose is when I left. And the only reason I sort of got back in, nine years later, honestly, was because the market had changed and the kind of work that I was doing with my studio just wasn’t as profitable as it was before. And I wanted more stability because working for yourself is great, but working for yourself can be a real roller coaster, especially because we started in the middle of a recession and it’s not very easy to try to make the money that you need to pay your bills and just sort of exist in this capitalist society.

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

And I think things are different now, but not necessarily better because what’s happened is a lot of these tech startups are picking the worst parts of corporate America and wrapping them in this sort of aesthetic, as you mentioned, to make it seem like, oh, it’s going to be fun and foosball tables and beer on Fridays and stuff like that. Kristy Tillman, who I’ve had on the show before, she’s a friend of mine and I know she once talked about filters. No, what’d she say? Perks as filters. So, like, a lot of companies will list all these different perks, and the perks are fairly similar among companies of a certain size that have reached a certain level of funding. It’s like unlimited PTO. And this sounds great if you’re coming from a place where you had to fight and claw for every day off that you had to get – unlimited PTO sounds great.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

But then that can also be a filter for the fact that the internal culture will overwork you so much that you will feel guilty for utilizing those days and often get penalized for using those days even if they’re not in an egregious manner. I mean, this especially happened during the pandemic with remote stuff. Like it’s remote, you can work from anywhere. And some people took advantage of that. Actually, at the last place that I worked, I’m not going to name where, but people can search and find there were some people that basically traveled every month, and it was remote and so they could work from anywhere. And they’re like, oh, well, if I can work from anywhere, I’m just going to backpack through Europe. That sounds nice, but then what happens is that builds enmity with the people that don’t backpack through Europe or can’t just pick up and leave and go workplaces. And so even though the company had that as a perk of working there, they ended up penalizing this person for it.

And they were just sort of like, “I don’t understand. I’m still getting my work done. I’m going between times, nothing is happening, and I’m getting penalized for what I do outside of work in this way.”

Jonathan Robinson:

Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Divesting from all of this is, I feel, like the smartest move to try to make, especially with what we’ve seen in the past couple of years with tech layoffs, unionization efforts and really the rise of AI and these new technology things. I mean, we’re talking now just fresh off of the writers…not the writer’s strike, the actor’s strike, just ended. But what we’ve seen this year, if we look back through the whole year, we’ve seen three major unions have strikes and win: the writers, the auto workers, and now the actors. And so, what does that mean now for the future of work in this country? Especially now that we see that these efforts can work? We can lobby together and have better, more holistic workplaces and things like that. I don’t know. I worked at a place where we unionized in 2020 and they laid us off three months later. So, I don’t know if this means now there’s more power that exists.

I feel like I’m rambling a little bit, but no, a lot of things are changing in a lot of different ways right now. And I think if you’re a creative person, it can be tough to kind of find your anchor amidst all this.

Jonathan Robinson:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. And you touched on a lot of different ways in which the currents of society, or at least the trends that society is experiencing, all of the different ways that they sort of knock us around as creatives trying to find our footing. But I do think at the same time, those currents, those trends, those forces, they can help us understand some of the different forces at play on the inside of us so that we can find what movements to attach ourselves to or to move in parallel with that can help us figure out what’s going to be right for ourselves as much as all of this promise of tech was a great way for a lot of us to move up the sort of economic ladder in ways that other folks in our families or previous generations were unable to or barred from. At the same time, we also see that just because you get higher up the ladder doesn’t mean the guy at the top of the pyramid isn’t going to kick this ladder off in order to save a couple of dollars. You can make all of the cool stuff in the world, but if this company needs to ensure that its profit margins look a certain way so that their shareholders are going to be happy, then you’ll find out exactly how they feel about family, so to speak, and you’ll be gone.

And these technologies that we created together out of an enthusiasm in a more optimistic sense for the possibilities and all of the different solutions that we could find within these technologies. They are at the same time because they are owned by people at the top who don’t necessarily have our best interest in mind and are specifically incentivized to care more about how much money shareholders are making than how well our lives are impacted. We see those technologies being turned against us and at the same time to the point of these different unions recently being victorious over some of those forces. We can see that when we look to each other’s humanity and find the common cause and stand in solidarity with the prioritization of the human aspect of our work that we are not capital, we are humans and stand firm in those convictions. We can quite literally face giants and move mountains. But it is still difficult for every actor’s union or writers’ union or the auto workers union. We have, to your point, examples of unionizing and immediately finding yourself out of work or all of the different ways that unions have been combated in the tech industry or in the visual effects industry and the advertising industry, all of which I’ve had some experience working in. And I see how much the struggles of these writers, these actors, mirror exactly what so many of us have experienced both in tech, in advertising, in visual effects and production.

We just haven’t been able to make some of those en masse movements last long enough to make that impact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

Maurice Cherry:

No, we definitely should keep trying and I think because we’re seeing how it’s worked on, again, this very large level like in the entertainment industry or in the auto industry, I think it’s given people more visibility into it and honestly, it’s giving people more knowledge. It’s amazing when we were back, when we were trying to unionize at Glitch, it was amazing how many people had no experience about unions and what they were except like negative talking points. And it’s like you do realize that some of the perks that you have are the direct results of unionization in the past. Like the eight-hour workday.

Jonathan Robinson:

These things.

Maurice Cherry:

Came because people unionized in the past. So, you wouldn’t have to work 12,13, 14 hours a day or whatever. But yeah, we’re starting to see, I think the tide shifted a little bit. I’m curious though, for you where did this, and if I can call it this, this love for creating and producing and storytelling. Where did this come from? Did this come from you growing up, or…tell me about that.

Jonathan Robinson:

Yeah. I’ve always been fascinated with stories from a sort of consumption perspective. My mom was trained as a teacher and sort of raised me with a strong emphasis on traditional education. So, I was always reading something. I mean, I had to do book reports over summer break. When I would finish my homework too fast, she would create more curriculum for me to do. I was getting in trouble for talking too much in class, and the teacher said, well, he finishes his work, and then he starts talking to the other students, and that’s disruptive. So, she made an agreement with the teacher to create an entire curriculum that she would grade that would be included as part of my grade.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow. Mama didn’t play!

Jonathan Robinson:

No, not at all. So, I was constantly reading and consuming stories, and I’ve always been a deeply curious individual. I don’t want to just know what happened or even how it happened. I also want to understand why it happened. And I think all of that extra emphasis on critical thinking, on reading analysis, and on doing your own research and citing your sources sort of built this almost like programming in my brain to understand stories, both from a surface level as an entertainment experience, but also on a deeper level as a tool for communicating information and actually being able to sort of transcribe experiences from one person to another without having to directly live through them. The thing that was included in the story. So, I’ve always sort of had that perspective on storytelling to a certain point. I graduated high school and was like, I want to be a comic book artist.

The dream was to work at Marvel, maybe work on an X-Men or Spider-Man comic. And after some experience in an art school, the now defunct Art Institute of Las Vegas very quickly understood that I wasn’t going to get the kind of education that I needed from that particular place and moved to New. York, just because I felt like that was my Mecca, the place that had been calling to me, where I was going to figure it all out, and quite literally stumbled into a career in advertising as a producer. I was on my girlfriend’s couch trying to figure out how I was going to pay rent the next month, found a Craigslist ad for a project manager intern, and my only question in the interview was, what’s a project manager? And how can you be a manager and an intern at the same time? That experience really opened up an entire world of possibilities. I didn’t realize that there were so many creative individuals with stable, well-paying jobs. Even if you are working 12 hours a day, and maybe more than that, sometimes you could make websites and flash banners and mobile apps, and one job leads to another. And I think the place that really blew the doors open on the possibilities was The Mill. Working there was quite a privilege in both stints that I was there.

The first time they were starting what they called their Mill digital team. And the whole idea was around. The mill is traditionally a VFX studio. They do all of the…their whole little tagline is like, “if you watch the Super Bowl, at least two out of every three commercials that you saw, The Mill touched in one way or another.” But they were trying to move into this more digital, out of home experiential field that was starting to pop up at the time. And I got to work with a really incredible dream team of creative and technically excellent individuals who sort of took me under their wing as this young 22-year-old little idiot who didn’t know anything but would follow instructions and ask as many questions as came to mind. And they exposed me to the possibilities of what you can do with a serviceable, knowledge of available technology and a strong creative vision. Add to that the third leg of the stool, some business sense and tact to be able to convince folks to pay for those things, and you got yourself a pretty promising path for making some cool things and getting paid to do that.

But working there meant being able to, on the one hand, work with animators who typically did 3D animation for visual effects in like a Gillette commercial and trying to explain to them how you’re going to turn a couple of data sets into a particle visualization that replicates the visuals of the sort of mackerels and tuna form of something like a school. Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:

Fish or something like that. Yeah, that’s it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Trying to convince these folks to do things with their expertise and their most familiar tools that they had never been asked to do. And then also trying to tell stories with these data points, because, again, we’re in the advertising and marketing field, so everybody’s got a narrative. And so that experience really helped to shape the possibilities of how I could connect my love of stories and the depths of what stories mean. Not just the what or the how, but the why with these new emerging technologies and the deep institutional knowledge of more traditional media that could influence the way that you combine these new technologies to create experiences that really allow us to experience stories in ways that we hadn’t been able to before. Yeah, it really does feel like a serendipitous journey where I sort of stumbled into all of the places and things that I needed in order to be the person that I am today to do the things that I want to do. But I like to believe that that’s how life is supposed to work. You put one foot in front of the other, and then you end up where…

Maurice Cherry:

…you’re supposed to be stepping out on faith, right?

Jonathan Robinson:

That’s right.

Maurice Cherry:

You mentioned your mom, you mentioned this girlfriend you had at the time who were some of the other people that really helped support you during this journey.

Jonathan Robinson:

I think I’m going to name off some of the folks that really stood me up at The Mill that first time. My first mentor, Kay Gowda, was the senior producer for that Mill digital team. And when I say he stepped in as a big brother and really looked out for me both from and in the office process perspective, but also from outside life, like, what are you trying to do in this space? And here are some of the possibilities. He really set me up with a lot of the tools that I still use to this day to help navigate ambiguity and figure out what it is that I want. He just sort of built in these habits of constantly seeking new information on a daily basis. I used to start my day by combing through like a folder of ten to twelve websites and blogs that would post about new marketing and technology experiences and news, and then I sort of put that together into an email to send out once a week for the team. I was already a curious individual, but being able to focus that curiosity in a way that tied to whatever productive endeavor that I was trying to achieve at the time, I think was a really formative bit of knowledge. You also helped me just sort of find the calm in the storm of being a producer in a high paced environment with lots of conflicting objectives and demands, just really being able to settle in and say, like, I’m not going to solve everything, but if I can solve one thing, what is that? And let me do that first.

It really sort of grounded me and allowed me to gracefully navigate some of the more tumultuous projects and moments in my career. So, Kay Gowda is a huge influence. The executive producer of that team, Bridget Shields, really looked out for me both in sort of setting me up for success in some of the smaller pitch projects that came in the door during that year that I worked there the first time. I mean, I did my first pitch to Nike and landed the job under her guidance. And she trusted me to do this, having not seen any real evidence that I could. She just trusted me and gave me the support to make decisions and was always available to talk through any questions that I had. But more than that, she looked out for me. When we all got fired, I was on that team for about eight months before, similar to your Slack, your #goodbye Slack channel, we were all individually called downstairs into the conference room one after another, and every time somebody came back up.

They came back up silent, closed their laptop, grabbed their things and walked out of the room. Yeah. Eventually I understood what was happening, started saving some files, but yeah, we were all sort of let go unceremoniously without notice. On a Friday and the following Monday morning, Bridget had an email in my inbox of three different places that she had already called to let them know that I was available for work.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow.

Jonathan Robinson:

She told me exactly what salary to say that I was being paid, which was not the salary that I was being paid, but it was definitely going to be a healthy increase. She told me exactly what projects to reference and how to represent my impact and what title I need to speak to. Interactive producer or creative producer. And that’s sort of where that naming convention was first introduced. For me, those connections, those calls that she made really paved the way for every job I’ve had since then. I really appreciate the way that she looks out for her team because I got to admit that wasn’t even something that was super special for me. She does that for everyone she works with. So, I really appreciate those individuals.

I think more recently, I got to give credit to that second Mill crew, the second stint, particularly on our Executive Briefing Center experiential multiyear project. These folks really helped me sort of figure out that I was more than just a good producer, that I could be a good creative leader as well. Kinda. Akash is top of the list. She’s my partner now. I met her there at The Mill. Our creative collaboration really expanded the ways that I felt comfortable showing up in executive meetings and representing creative work, not, you know, the X’s and O’s of a schedule or a budget. Collaborators like Will Arnold, whose endless curiosity really inspired me to continue to explore the visual concepts that I wanted to introduce into some of the work that I was exploring at the time.

And he actually came through and provided a lot of the projection visuals in the music video that I ended up directing a couple of years ago. Eric Chang, who’s a creative strategist and writer, and his wild imagination and reserved intellect…just a really grounding force that helps me cut the noise out and really focus on what matters while also finding joy in really small things. Yeah, I mean, I could probably go on and on and on. There’s so many people who have made it possible for me to be where I am today, and if I keep going, I’m going to go forever.

Maurice Cherry:

What advice would you give to somebody that they’re listening to this episode, they’re hearing your story and everything and they want to sort of, I don’t know, maybe just try to figure out where they are right now. Like, maybe this has been a tough year for them and they’re feeling a bit unmoored and trying to kind of find their way in this current space. What advice would you give them?

Jonathan Robinson:

I think first I’d say slow down and listen. Look around, see, take note of where you are and how you feel. I think ultimately one of the things that has been most emphasized over the last couple of years for me has been that you’re always exactly where you’re supposed to be. Where you go next is entirely up to you. We can only actually live in the present, but when we are able to be our most present, we actually get to expand the idea of what present is in order to reshape the past and what it means for us and to be able to sort of look further into the future as to where we want to go and what our next step should be for us anyway. Because ultimately, the only person who can tell you what to do next and where to go is you. Because you’re the only one who knows what you want and why you want it. There’s plenty of noise in the world that can sort of interrupt, obscure or even manipulate that knowledge.

I mean, we’ve talked about it over the course of this conversation. The technology, the corporations, the capitalism, the politics, all of it. All of that noise makes it really hard to hear your own voice. But when you seek that voice through stillness, through rest, through reflection, it becomes a lot easier to know that your next step is the right one because it’s your step and that is really all that matters.

Maurice Cherry:

Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, first I want to be on set of major Sci-Fi production, hopefully making my story come to life. Even if that is an optimistic projection. I want to be involved in the conversation around how these new forms of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, don’t have to be at odds with the most precious aspects of our human experience, our genuine humanity. In fact, if we take the time to understand ourselves and the technologies in full context of how either came to be, then we can find parallels that can between those sort of evolutionary journeys and use the relationship between the human interface and the technological interface to better ourselves from a truly human perspective. I don’t mean, like, escaping into fantasy worlds and ignoring deteriorating physical reality that we all live in in this planet or even sort of like replacing aspects of our humanity with technology to make things easier or more convenient. I do mean truly improving the human experience, deepening our connection with each other and with the natural world through experiences that teach us about those relationships as we interact with these technologies that are so complex and so immersive. Those are the kinds of projects that I want to bring to life. From an experiential standpoint, five years from now, I want to be having the conversation of how these experiences that I’ve created for both installation and virtual reality have really tried to hammer home that point and bring that conversation to a larger audience.

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 follow you, follow your journey? Where can they find that online?

Jonathan Robinson:

Well, you guys can follow me on Instagram for my musings and ramblings. That’s at U-A-T-J-O-N-C or keep up with me via my website. Jonrobinson.me. That’s J-O-N-R-O-B-I-N-S-O-N me. Honestly, those are the two best places to keep up with what I’m doing. And a lot of what I’m doing on Instagram is shouting about our current realities. So, brace yourself and bring your thinking cap. I love a discussion.

Always happy to hear from anybody on any of these topics. Don’t be a stranger, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, Jon Robinson, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea how I thought this conversation might go and then once you started talking, I feel like it just sort of went in a completely kind of free form direction, which I think is good. I mean, I think we touched on a lot of different topics that are, I think, on the minds of a lot of creatives right now. Particularly, I think, a lot of creatives that work in the tech industry and such. I really feel like you’re at a place where you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying to figure out what your next move is. And I think you gave such great advice about just slowing down and listening and letting that be what guides you next. And I’m really excited to see what’s going to guide you next once you come sort of at the end of this personal journey. So thank you so much for coming on the show.

I appreciate it.

Jonathan Robinson:

Thanks for having me, Maurice. I enjoyed this conversation. Yeah, I look forward to the new individuals you have on. This has been an amazing platform, and I really appreciated the opportunity.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

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Sam Viotty

We’re exploring the intersections of design, music, and social impact with this week’s guest, Sam Viotty. Not only is Sam an extremely knowledgeable program and experience designer, but she’s also the co-owner of a record label and she’s an adjunct professor at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. And that’s just scratching the surface!

We started off by defining program design and experience design, and from there Sam talked about her label, Rosedale Collective, and her dedication to showcasing BIPOC voices in country music. She also dove into her previous work at The Obama Foundation, and how that opened her world to the importance of design in project management and social innovation (and for starting her own company, Viotty Design Studio). Sam even talked a bit about her current role at Adobe, and shared her plans on what she hopes to accomplish in the near future.

Sam’s career is a lesson in how we can all reshape our perspective on the conventional borders of design — something important to learn in this ever-changing world!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Sam Viotty:

I’m Sam Viotty. I’m a program and experience designer, a creative at heart, and someone who really just loves design all things design.

Maurice Cherry:

Just before we really kind of get into the conversation, I’d love for you to explain just off the top, like, what does experience design and program design mean to you? And the reason I’m asking this is because oftentimes and we’ll, I think, get to this later in our conversation oftentimes when people think of design, they’ll only think UI/UX, visual type of thing. What does experience design and program design mean to you?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I think a lot of the time when I say program design, people are like, you design computer programs? I’m like, no, not that kind of design. Or they’re like interior design. And so program and experience design really to me is thinking about service and experiences for people. It really is people design in how I see it. So when we’re designing the ways that people interact with one another, build relationships, operate in the world professionally, develop themselves, that’s how I see program design. So really designing programs and experiences that people go through and then experience design, I think is a little bit more broad than program design. So it includes program design, but also thinking about events and experiences and things that people kind of experiencing go through. So events, conferences, those types of things, all thinking about not just what people are going experiencing, but seeing, smelling what they’re taking away.

A lot of it is like learning. So overall experience.

Maurice Cherry:

So it’s kind of like an encompassing it’s funny you mentioned event because that’s really sort of something that indulges or can indulge all of your senses. What you see, the swag you pick up, any sort of beverages or drinks or food or anything like all of that kind of can fall into the realm of experience, design, it sounds like.

Sam Viotty:

Correct? Yeah, absolutely right.

Maurice Cherry:

How have things been going for you this year?

Sam Viotty:

It’s been a busy year. I was traveling a lot. I took on just, like, really trying to spend a lot of time thinking about what is my life outside of my professional work. I live in Los Angeles, so I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors. Started hiking this year. Yeah, I just really trying to absorb a lot of the outdoors now that I live in a warm climate. I grew up on the East Coast, and so it’s really nice to spend more time outdoors more times during the year. And I feel like it’s definitely ignited my creativity in a way that it hasn’t before.

So I’m really excited about that. So, yeah, spending lots of time outdoors reading, trying to figure out this has been an exploratory year, and I think next year will be more of the taking action on those exploratory ideas. But I’ve been thinking a lot about I’ve always thought of myself as a designer and a creative and an artist, but recently have more thought about myself as being a curator. So really trying to dive into what that means.

Maurice Cherry:

And also, I should say congratulations are in order. I was doing my research, and I saw you were recently selected to participate in something called the 2023 Keychange US Talent Development Program. So congratulations on that.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you so much. Really excited about it. It kicked off at the beginning of October with a cohort of 25 really incredible human beings. It made my heart really warm to spend, like, three days with all of them started in October and it ends in March. So I’m really at the beginning of the program right now, and so far we’ve only had a few interactions, so one in person and two virtual events together. And I already feel like I’m a part of a community, which is why I applied. I was really excited about being a part of a larger music and artist creative community in Los Angeles. But it’s a Los Angeles, New York and Nashville based program, so we’re also the first US cohort.

So I love being a part of a pilot program. We’ll probably get into this later, but yeah, I’ve been a part of a lot of pilot first time programs, which really is exciting to me to kind of lay the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s been really fun. We’ve spent time working together. We went to Joshua Tree Music Festival together. I’ve never gone to a music festival for work before as fun, so that was amazing. Yeah. Being a professional at a music festival is interesting.

It was really so four of the participants in the program also performed, and it was the first time I got to see them perform. So just seeing the people who are your peers do their thing on stage was just like a proud mom sitting in the audience.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Sam Viotty:

So, yeah, it’s a really beautiful community that they’ve built.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you said it’s the first US based cohort. Is it normally international?

Sam Viotty:

It sounds like yeah, it’s an EU funded program, so they mostly do projects in Europe, and so this is the first time they’re doing a cohort in the United States, which is exciting.

Maurice Cherry:

And now what will you be doing as part of the program? Is this affiliated with some of your other work?

Sam Viotty:

It is. So I applied as an innovator. So it’s twelve innovators and 13 musicians or artists who come together to work just professionally develop. So really thinking about what is your career? I’m the co-founder of a small indie music accelerator and label focused on uplifting the voices of people of color in country, folk and Americana music. We’re expanding to other genres of music. So think like genres that you don’t normally see people of color on the charts. We’re helping amplify those. I applied thinking, how incredible would it be to be a part of a cohort of people who are working towards similar things, trying to achieve equity in the music space, trying to change the music industry.

I’ve been working in the music industry for a few years now, and it’s very interesting. It is unlike any industry that I’ve ever worked in. I used to work in nonprofit, I moved to the private sector. But music feels very different. And living in Los Angeles, on any Wednesday, you’ll go grab lunch and you’re like, Why is it crowded? Because everyone’s having a lunch work meeting within a different culture than I’ve ever experienced. Yeah, it’s very different. I applied thinking, how do I build my music community and work alongside other musicians and innovators to change how the music industry operates. A lot of the label is called Rosedale Collective.

We really often think about how do we change the way that artists are treated and supported and how do they have ownership, in particular, Black and brown people having ownership over the work that they create. So how do we revision no pun intended, actually, how do we revision a way forward for how artists create work and work with labels? And so we’ve designed a residency program that is a year long. We’ve done a few that are shorter. We have not launched our long term, one year long program yet, but we’re working on that. But the long term vision is you support a cohort of artists throughout a year. You pay them a salary and they get to focus on making the art. And then instead of owning the It or the masters to the work that the artists create, we revenue share throughout across all of the different categories that an artist to make money. So through merch and royalties on streaming and touring.

So we split those and instead of just outright owning the work, an artist gets to keep ownership. So we’re really trying to rethink how the industry makes money with artists, and right now they’re making money off of artists. So we’re like, how do we make money with you instead of off of you?

Maurice Cherry:

First off, that is a fascinating model. I mean, I think there’s no shortage of horror stories about musicians getting shafted in some way by the music industry or taken advantage of or something. So I love that you sort of have this revenue share thing and then also the fact that the focus is on a genre of music. I know you said you want to expand it, but you’re focusing right now on country music, which, again, is probably not seen as very super diverse. Like, I can probably count the number of Black country artists. There’s more now than when I was a kid. I’ll say that in terms of visibility, but yeah, that’s such an awesome I mean, I feel like there’s a great story behind even the fact that you co own a record label. That is amazing.

Sam Viotty:

It’s a fun, actually. I met my co-founders at a conference in DC while I was working at the Obama Foundation. We got tickets to A Day of Healing and Restorative Justice. And so I was like, I’d love to not go into the office today. I’d rather be at a conference. And so met these people who are working at the intersection of social impact and entertainment. And I was like, this is such a cool job. You just get to use celebrity money to change the world.

That’s awesome. I was 25 then, so I was still doe-eyed and excited…a little jaded now. So I was very excited about that. And so I kept in contact with the people who were working there, and they reached out to me in 2020 about starting a record label and thinking about designing programs for people of color in the country music space. And so I was like, I don’t know a ton about country music. I know a little Shania Twain, but I do know that it feels pretty racist and so that I can get behind challenging that. And so how do we really think about what music would look like and how it would be different if Black people or people of color kind of were at the forefront? So country music was made by people of color. And so Charley Pride is one of our people that we look up to.

And so, yeah, how do we just reclaim a genre that really was made by Black people? And now the face of country music is not a Black person, not in the United States and not on the top charts. So how do we reclaim that? So we spent a lot of time thinking about narrative change and really redesigning the system of the music industry.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like there’s a lot that has to go behind designing a label. I mean, of course you think of general things like album art and logos and things of that nature, but the design and business of putting something like that together, that seems like such a huge undertaking.

Sam Viotty:

I’m going to be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing. And I think it actually has been really beneficial that I stepped into the music industry not knowing how the music industry works, because I’ve just been doing what I think makes sense, and that doesn’t necessarily align with what actually happens. And so I’m like, yeah, I think artists should own their work. And people are like, well, it doesn’t really work that way because we don’t make a profit. I’m like, well, that doesn’t make sense. We could figure out a way to make money while also letting people own things that they make. So let’s just design that.

I very lucky. My co-founder is an incredible…I don’t think he would consider himself a designer, but he designed our logo, and I think it’s genius. It’s a circle that has lines going through it and it’s the middle of a guitar. It’s a really amazing logo. I’m very proud of the logo. So we put it on everything. I wear a sweatshirt. I have a hat. Stickers.

And so thinking about how do we take symbols of country music and redefine them? Because I think right now people think country music. I think or before this, I used to think cowboy hat, cowboy shoots, cowboy boots. So what are the symbols of country music? And what are the symbols of country music for people of color. The guitar is one of them. We work with some other organizations who really like to uplift Black and brown artists. One of them is Black Opry, and so their logo is also a guitar. So just thinking about the symbols and iconography for black country music has been really exciting because I think it’s a different language. Like, we’re speaking a different language to a different audience.

And so I spent a lot of my time in undergrad thinking about symbols and iconography. And so it was exciting to bring that piece to the label. And thinking about a label, it’s like developing a brand. We developed a brand before we did anything. We came up with colors and a logo and a design and a deck. And so so much of it was like, how do we communicate who we are and what we do before we’ve even done anything? Which lots of conversations, lots of talking to people before we did a single thing, we did a listening and learning tour where we talked to tens of musicians, like 100 music execs and people in the music industry and in the nonprofit space trying to change things, social impact people. So just spend a lot of time talking to people to be like, what are people looking at? What do people feel and how do we communicate what we’re trying to communicate? And who is our audience, actually? So goes into a lot of the design work. When I went to grad school, I went to grad school at Emerson in a pilot program.

It was called Civic Media Art and Practice. And so that’s where I learned about design thinking. And so I’ve brought design thinking into ever since I’ve learned about it, I’ve brought it into every single job. And so I think when I don’t know what to do, I just rely on that process. I’m like, it’ll be good, we’ll just figure out how. It’s like the scientific method. I’m like, I don’t know how to get an answer, but if we just use this process, I can get us to figuring out how we get an answer. We did a lot of that.

And so that first stage of talking and listening to people is very similar to the empathy stage and the design thinking process.

Maurice Cherry:

I say that all the time to people about how design thinking is very much like the scientific method. So I’m glad that we see eye to eye on that.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I explained it like that. I’m like, it’s the same thing. People just yeah, anthropologists looked at it and I guess the design school looked at it and then rebrand it’s all branding. They rebranded it, but it’s the same thing.

Maurice Cherry:

I think what you’re doing with one, shining a light on country music and also promoting and uplifting artists, BIPOC artists, et cetera, in country is great because I grew up as a musician. I grew up as a jazz musician mostly, but there was one thing about like and this might be a bit of a stretch, so if it is, please let me know. But I feel like a lot of could do really well as contemporary country songs. I feel like there’s a thin line between Toni Braxton and that being a country song. I’m thinking love should have like “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” could totally be a country song.

Sam Viotty:

I absolutely could be a country song. We used to jokingly make a criteria checklist for what is a country song. One was like, is it about love or heartbreak? Check. Does it have a Twang check? I think you’re right. The only thing missing from the twang, like, if they all had a twang, they would absolutely be country.

Maurice Cherry:

Yes. A lot of, like, Anita Baker songs could definitely also sound like country songs. She has like, a slight Twang. But I get what you mean though. There is sort of a checklist of like, is it heartbreak? Is it lament in some capacity then it could totally be a country song. Now, we talked about Rosedale, but also you have another job where you work for Adobe. Can you talk a little bit about what you do there?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, that is really exciting. I spend most of my time working at Adobe now. It’s one of those companies that when you’re young and in college and you think about design and education and what’s the coolest job you could have. It is the job I have now. And I think that’s incredible. College me would be very proud. So right now, I lead all of Adobe’s higher education professional development. So training programs for faculty and students in higher education in the United States.

We’re expanding to the United Kingdom and Australia. Starting to think globally about what does it mean and what are the skills that a 21st century college graduate needs in order to operate in the world. Adobe is notorious for being extremely challenging, having a high learning, a very difficult learning curve and being quite know one financially. And also, just like, the tools are complicated and there are a lot of them. Adobe has launched something called Adobe Express, which is the kind of premier product that I work on and work with schools to use. So think of the rival Canva as…Canva was a response to Adobe being really difficult. Adobe Express is a response to that. And so it’s an incredible tool.

I think the thing that’s exciting about Adobe Express is it has the generative AI in it, which is really helpful now and interesting, brings a conversation about ethics and IP and copyright, which Adobe is big on, especially because we’ve been working with artists and illustrators and graphic designers for ages. I spend a lot of my time helping faculty and schools and instructional designers think about what does it need to be a digitally fluent individual? And so how do you redesign your curriculum so that students are getting the skills that they need to be successful beyond college. So instead of maybe writing that ten page paper, what does it look like to help a student create an assignment that is actually a video storytelling project or create a podcast instead of the paper? So what is the alternative to the typical research paper? Because in my personal job, I am not writing research paper long things anymore. I am doing research and then applying it to a project. And so how do we do a little bit more project based learning at the higher ed level? I think a lot of K Twelve and high schools have taken this on, which is incredible. But I think the project based learning often happens either in really vocational or technical student projects. So if you’re in a graphic design class or create this poster or create a project for a client, those things happen. But in the kind of social sciences and English classes that’s not really happening.

It’s still pretty static and it’s like write a paper to respond to this. And I’m like, the world that we live in now doesn’t really do that. So how do we change how we’re thinking about it? And how do we cultivate the skills that people need? Creating presentations, marketing on social media, creating posters, creating graphics like everyone video and short form storytelling. Short form video is the primary way that people communicate now. They cannot scroll on any social media without seeing video. How do we cultivate those skills to make sure that students are signed up for success? So I spent a lot of my time doing that, which is really cool because I was really interested. I started my career in education and then I also just have always had this passion for being creative and working with creatives and just thinking about arts and culture. And so I feel like I get to bring those worlds together in my role at Adobe.

Maurice Cherry:

Now that is fascinating. You’re designing education or you’re designing the way that people are learning about these new tools and these new methods. And I’m curious, does that work and the work you do with Rosedale collectors, does that bleed into each other in any way? It feels like that could be a lot to possibly try to balance it.

Sam Viotty:

Is it’s like, you know, corporate world and also working at a small indie, but I sit in between the education team and the marketing team. And so I’ve learned so much about corporate marketing through working at Adobe, which as an Indie label and accelerator, we have the finances to play small. But I’m like how do we play big? Because that’s how the music industry works. There’s so much like everyone’s a musician, everyone can be right. And so how do you get the people that you want to bubble to the top? And it’s marketing. I was talking about those interviews earlier and we talked to so many artists, and I’d say, what do you need help with? What’s your biggest struggle right now? It is not songwriting. It is not making the music. It is not finding a producer.

It isn’t even touring. It is marketing. They’re like, how do I get someone to hear my music? It’s marketing and distribution. And so I’ve learned a lot about marketing and distribution in this corporate role and seeing how that plays out and being able to say, okay, if that’s true here, how do we apply it to how do we use some of these strategies for our artists and teach them how to do it for themselves? And so I see my role in both of them as I’m professionally developing people. They’re just different. But coincidentally, the artists that I work with are about the same age as the students who faculty are working with. I have a similar audience. Like, how do I prepare these 18 to 25 year olds with 21st century skills to be successful in the world to either market themselves, market the things that they’re working on, and really tell stories?

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I think what you’re doing is just such extremely important work because I think what we’ve definitely seen over the past few years is that our systems are changing. I mean, definitely with the advent of AI and things, we’re seeing how that’s been affecting certain industries. But even like you said, with marketing and getting content out there, it’s even weird to call it old school. But the old school ways, which we knew about how to market things and how to learn things are changing. And a lot of that is due to technology. So I think you being at the forefront of that, particularly with sitting kind of between marketing and education teams, that sounds like a dream. I mean, I’m speaking for myself, but that sounds like a dream job to have.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. Again, I think college undergrad me would be like, if someone asked me what job I wanted, it would be this one. And so I’m excited about that. The other thing that I just so excited about is generative AI. I know that it’s a hot topic, but working at Adobe and seeing just, like, how these tools have allowed people to make things that they wouldn’t have created before, same. Like, I also am an illustrator. Not a great one, but it’s my hobby. It has enabled me to create things that I wouldn’t have been able to create before.

And not in a plagiarism way, but I’m like removing the background from something. Used to take ages in Photoshop. Now in Adobe Express, it’s a like, it has saved me time. Technology is catching up with how quickly and how fast the world is. Like, things happen and then it is online in seconds, and the tools are starting to catch up to that. So I’ve been really excited about how do we leverage those tools to ignite creativity because I’m someone who procrastinates, and I also get really stuck. I think generative AI has helped me get unstuck as a brainstorming. Like, you know, let me just pop it in and see what I can start with.

Whereas before, I kind of just sit and wait and then never do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Just recently we had Andre Foster on the show and he has a motion graphics company in Detroit called First Fight and he talks about how he uses generative AI, kind of in the same way that you mentioned it. He uses it like a I think he likened it to a Pinterest board or a mood board where it’s a good place to sort of just take the idea from your head and start to instantly visualize it, to see where you could possibly go next with it.

Sam Viotty:

Love that. I totally agree with that.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, you talked about growing up on the East Coast, so I would like to kind of shift the conversation towards that and learn more about just sort of how you got to where you are now. So you grew up on the East Coast. Were you kind of always exposed to a lot of art and creativity and such growing up?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah. I grew up in New York City, so every field trip was to a museum. When I was in school. I also had parents who were really excited about the arts. My mother was a dancer, just really excited about performance arts. And with my grandmother and then my dad and my dad’s mother. My dad’s mother was a teacher. I was excited about reading as a kid.

He spent so much time at the library. I used to pick out books, and very often I would pick books based on their covers in contrary to what you’re told. I was like, if it looks cool on the outside, I’m sure it’s cool on the inside. And so I was just really excited about that. I used to draw a lot. Like, the Christmas gifts that I used to get as a kid was like, I don’t know if you remember those. Really big. I hope they still make them.

I haven’t seen them in a while, but it’s like pastel crayons paint.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh, yeah, those 130 piece art kits or whatever.

Sam Viotty:

Yes. And they’d have a bunch of pencils, and I never used to use they had, like, four types of pencils, and I was like, I don’t know what anyone’s doing with this. I like the color, so I used to get those every year. I’d ask for a new one. I didn’t always need a new one, but, yeah, I used to run the cray pods down to the bone, and so I used to play with those all the time. And so I’d, like, draw pictures of our family, draw pictures of the sky, draw pictures of the books that I’d read. Spent a lot of time drawing and. Creating.

I’d like, do cutouts. I used to play with paper dolls all the time, just always thinking about what I can now see in retrospect is design. And my dad, who just was so proud of me, used to, in our basement, created kind of like a little curatorial gallery of my work on a string through the basement. So anytime I came down or people came down, it felt like a gallery show. And so I always loved museums and art. Yeah, my art was all over the house. Like, it was on the fridge, it was on the walls, it was upstairs. And so I was really encouraged to express my creativity.

My dad was a computer nerd, and so he tried to teach me computer programming when I was younger. I think it was called Logo?

Maurice Cherry:

Logo, with the turtle!

Sam Viotty:

Yes, with the turtle! So my dad was…yes, he tried to teach me that. I hated it. I was like, this is so boring. I can’t stand this. He’s like, but you can create art with it.

I was just, I’m not interested. I really regret it. I wish I became a computer scientist, but I just constantly encouraged. I used to use the Paint app on Microsoft and on, you know, all kids, but I was really into just, like, creating, and I was really encouraged to create, which I’m so grateful for now. I think my parents really let me explore, at least when I was a child. This changes a bit when I get older, but while I was a child, in my adolescence, I was very much encouraged to paint, create, make things get messy, do whatever, and explore my creativity, whether it was, like making my own clothes, designing clothes, designing paper, making notebooks, writing stories, like, anything. And I think that I brought a lot of that into how I kind of exist now and explore my creativity now.

Maurice Cherry:

Did that shift happen in high school?

Sam Viotty:

Yang it did. And I think it’s funny that, you know, that I was not encouraged to explore art when I was in high school. I remember I liked our art class, and I did quite well. My dad was excited, so my mom passed away when I was six. So a little hard. My dad had to take on being a single parent and then remarried. My parents were divorced at the time, so it wasn’t like that stark of they’re dating someone else difference. But I was close to the woman who is now my stepmother, who I’m very close with and who helped raise me.

She was a nurse, and so registered nurse. And so just like a very practical human in a way that maybe my dad and I were not. And so she’s like, you need a practical job. Need you to get a practical skills, like, what are we doing? Which I think she’s brought the logic to my creativity, which is wonderful. But once I got to high school, I was not discouraged from taking art classes, but it was like, well, then what are you going to do? I used to use my room as a curatorial space. I’d buy as many magazines as I could, and then my walls were completely covered with images, and I just would always do that. I’d look at font type and ads. I was like, how do I create this? And I wanted to go into advertising and market and communications, but my parents were just like, maybe I don’t know.

My dad was like, Please go into science. I was like, I’m really not good at physics. And my mom was like, Please do something practical. And so I was kind of, like, torn. And all I really wanted to do was change the world. Then I just became privy. I went to a predominantly Asian school in New York City. So 50% of the population was Asian, maybe 20% was white, and then the rest was, like, Black and Latino.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, maybe Southeast Asian. It was a very interesting mix, but just was starting to become more privy to racism, I think. Growing up in New York City, I’d always thought in high school, thought, I’d go to such a diverse school, I’ve gone to diverse schools, everything’s fine, and then realizing the world just doesn’t operate in the ways that it should. Extreme poverty exists. I want to work in that. How do I do that? And my parents were not excited that they were proud of me, but they were not excited about that career path. My mom’s like, you want to go into nonprofit, you’re not going to make any money. And so I ignored them and went to college.

So I went to college at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Small liberal arts college, about 1600 students. So very small campus was like, you could run around it. I couldn’t even really get my laps off when I go for a run because it was only a mile and barely. So it’s a very small campus. And so I was like, I’m just going to major in English. I wanted to go into marketing, communications, but small liberal arts college only had English as a major. I was like, Seems close enough.

I major in English. My parents are like, sounds fine. It seems like a scale. Great. And I start applying to internships, and I’m not getting anything. Like, absolutely nothing. I’m like, I can write things. This seems practical.

What’s going on? But I was applying to things that were a little bit more creative, a little bit more ad comms marketing, and I think they were, like, looking for someone who was in that. My junior year, there’s a new major called Film and New Media Studies, and so it sat within the English department, and so I could take film classes as an English major, and so I did. And the first class I took was race and racism in U.S. cinema. Blew my mind, was excited. I was like, this is all I want to do forever. I need to change my major right now. I know I’m getting ready to graduate, but I have to.

And I also need to study abroad. So how do I make it happen? My professor and advisor at the time. Incredible. Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to switch your major. You’re just going to change it, and you’re going to go to Australia because that’s where they have a mutual program. And you’ll study film and graphic design there. You’ll make up your freshman credit for the major, and then you’ll come back and you’ll finish the credits and you’ll graduate on time.

I was like, great. Sounds lovely. I changed my major to New Media Film and New Media Studies on my resume before even changing it formally on paper. And all of a sudden I’m getting responses back on internships. People are so happy to talk to you. This is ridiculous. And that to me, is the epitome of that’s. The power of branding and marketing.

Yeah, pursued that. I was excited about Film and New Media Studies. I didn’t love actually being behind the camera. I was like a senior in freshman classes in Film Production 101, learning about Aperture. I was like, I don’t want to do this. This is not fun for me. I was like, Can I just tell someone what to do? Isn’t that a thing? And someone’s like, oh, you want to be a director? Yes, exactly. So, yeah, I moved a little bit away from technical film and really loved the theory and things like that.

And so I was able to explore ideas of concepts of social justice and equity and race and representation through that studies and then took that into my hope. I was hoping to take it into my professional career, which I did, which quite different as my first job, which was I was helping first generation college students get into college when I first graduated, which there’s more similarities than I thought. I was really excited about that role, and I wrote a lot. I helped every single student tell their story, writing college essays. I reviewed lots of college essays, lots of supplemental essays. They ended up being more connected than I thought they would be. But yeah, I did not go into a Film and New Media Studies advertising role right after college like I wanted to. But I think supporting students to get into college was really an impactful, one that led me to the career that I have now in education.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I feel like, and I’ve said this on the show also before college is really that time for you to experiment and explore exactly what it is that you want to do. And I think it’s specifically for the reasons that it sounds like your parents didn’t want you to go into some specific field. I mean, K through twelve, we’re kind of booked or we’re sort of subconsciously shaped and molded into a particular trajectory that we may not even want, we may not even want to do. I know for me, when I was growing up, I really wanted to write and I wanted to major in English, and my mom was like, no, you stay on that computer. You’re going to do something with that computer. Like, you’re going to major in something with that. And I liked web design, but I also went to a small liberal arts college, and this was in the oh, my God, I’m dating myself. This is in the they didn’t have web design, so I was like, oh, I’m going to be a computer science major.

And that was not web design back then. I mean, we’re talking 1999, 2000. That was not web design. That curriculum did not exist. You learned it on your own, and you just kind of hoped to make a way for it. It wasn’t something you went to school for. But I say all of that to say college is really that time where you’re able to branch out and see where your interests take you. I mean, there’s very few places outside of that particular type of institution where you’re allowed to explore and play and do different things, and it won’t have a detriment on your status as a human in this capitalist world.

Maurice Cherry:

You know what I mean?

Sam Viotty:

Totally. And I wish I knew it. I guess I felt it then that that’s what it was for. My parents were like, the tuition money four years, so explore all you want within that amount of time. So I felt like there was a ticking time bomb. And I was one of those kids who was like, I literally cannot go back home after college. I can’t live my parents. I am an only child who is just constantly being helicoptered.

I need to live elsewhere for all of us, for everybody. And so I really need a job. I need a job that pays me enough to leave. And so, yeah, I moved to Boston. So my school’s in Massachusetts. I ended up moving to Boston right after college and lived there for quite a bit. But yeah, college was an interesting time, and I loved school. I was one of those kids who loved school.

When I was younger, I looked forward to going to school. I think part of it was being an only child, because I make all these designs and stuff, and the only person looking at them was my dad or friends who came over occasionally. So I was so excited to go to school and get affirmation from teachers.

Maurice Cherry:

I 100% know what that’s like. I mean, I wasn’t the only child. I had an older brother. But yeah, to get that sort of validation that the work that you’re doing means something, it’s actually making an impression on other people. I was very much. Oh, yeah. Especially in college. I was very much like a school kid.

Like, I did not want to go back to Alabama. I’m like, we have to make it out. I don’t know what that looks like, but we got to get out. We can’t go backwards. Now. In 2017, you started working at the Obama Foundation, and you sort of touched on some of your early career things that you did right after Wheaton. How was your time at the Obama Foundation? Like, how did you sort of start there?

Sam Viotty:

That was like I remember getting my offer verbally, and I just was stunned. I was like, I cannot believe I’m about to work for the person who was the first Black president of the United States. It meant so much to me. I think it was after he was in the presidency, so he made a foundation really focused on organizing community work for young people. I worked on the education team at the Obama Foundation, which, again, mixing education with what I was excited to end, like, changing the world. I was like, my goodness, dream job. And it’s so, like, at every stage that I’ve had a job, it’s been like a dream job only. And now I’m in a job that I also think is my dream job.

And I’m like, what will I think years later when I have another job? Anyway, it was incredible. I have made the closest friends I’ve ever made. It was an interesting time. I think a lot of I never worked on a campaign before, but I imagine some of the campaign culture had seeped into our workplace. And so all of us were very close, spent a lot of time together trying to work towards the goal of empowering 18 to 25 year olds to change their worlds and their communities. I loved it. It was incredible. I was hired as an experienced designer, so thinking about our program, so the education team had one program at the time.

I was there for a few years, and so we developed more programs, but the original program was like a one day experience for 150 18 to 25 year olds in Boston, Chicago, and Phoenix, Arizona. And so we went to each city, and we work with community organizations. We’d work with designers and organizers to really fire up these 18 to 25 year olds, get them passionate about the thing that they were excited about. So we’re like, what aren’t you passionate about? What do you care about? And how can we drive you to a plan of action to organize towards that? And so I saw my role as one just understanding our audience. So I spent so much time talking to the 18 to 25 year olds that we worked with. I set up design workshops. I would work with them. So I used a lot of my design thinking stuff from grad school that I learned and would go through that with them.

I taught a lot of our design thinking sessions, so I go from city to city just going through project based learning and talking about, how do we like, well, if this is what you care about, how do we develop a plan for that? How do you understand them? Who is your audience? A lot of 18 to 25 year olds are like, I want to end poverty. And I’m like, yes, where do we start? Like, poverty, poverty where? And so that was really exciting for me, and it was really impactful. I can still remember the day that we brought President Obama to meet all of the students who had been in the program. Not students, community members who had been in the program. And it was just, like, the most joyful I’ve ever seen. People are crying. They’re, like, falling down. He decides to shake every single one of their hands.

He was supposed to be going to a meeting with donors, and we were scheduling him to just take a photo. He was supposed to come and take a photo with the group. We’re very excited about that, that he was going to be able to do that. But he is supposed to be rushing to a donor meeting. He was already late. He was late to come get us for the photo. He finds out that he’s late to the donor meeting and is like, oh, well, and just stands there and shakes 350 hands. And so I’m so happy I got to witness that.

And so that was the power of his brand. I was so lucky to be able to I felt like I could walk into any room and just be listened to because of who we were representing and the power that that had for people in many communities across the united States. It just symbolized change. It symbolized hope. And I’d never been a part of a brand like that. I’d worked at many nonprofits, but obviously nothing like that. And so that experience is yeah, I loved working there. I met so many incredible people, so many smart people who have worked and lived all over, had different experiences, but everyone came together for this one central mission, which was to empower people.

To change the world is absolutely incredible. I think about that experience very often.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, if there’s any brand that could get you probably in the foot of any company, it would be Obama. I mean, God, that has been such an amazing experience to be able to do that kind of work. I think you kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier when you said, like, making I wrote it down. You said something about using celebrity money to change the world. That is awesome.

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, it was so great. And the other thing that I was able to do was, because I was our experience designer and helping to design our program, I got to choose who we put on so or who we got to put on a platform. And I was so excited about that. I was like, this is it. I get to choose the people of color that I want to be on stage or the people who I think are making a difference. I can get to curate that experience. So lucky. I’ve worked with Antionette Carroll and Chris Rudd, who have also been on this show, who were a part of that amazing program that we ran over the course of a few years.

So just really excited to be able to give opportunities to people who really deserve one recognition, the amplification, and just, like, the connection with the community that we really thought they were already doing but wanted to uplift them. So absolutely incredible. Got to work with a ton of designers and creators because I was working in that space, and you send an email with Obama.org attached to it, and people responded, which was, you know, there’s.

Maurice Cherry:

A saying that you can’t be what you don’t see. And I can only imagine, because you had that level of access that it probably opened up for you a lot of possibilities of what you could do personally out in the world. I know while you were at the Obama Foundation, you started your own design studio, via studio. Did that sort of come from that time of seeing what was possible because of the Obama Foundation?

Sam Viotty:

It did. I didn’t know how much money existed in the world until I worked. Mean, like, talking to donors and who you have access to and who responds and what people are willing to do, and how many people of color I’d seen and worked with who started their own companies. So many of the designers that we worked with ran their own design firms. And I was like, oh, I can see how it’s possible. I had never thought of it before. I knew I wanted to start something when I was younger, but I didn’t know what. And so I started doing design consulting, so designing programs and giving design thinking advice and doing design sprints and workshops for other companies and nonprofits at the time.

But, yeah, I was so inspired by all the work that I was doing with other people. I was like, well, if you’re doing it, I think I might be able to do this, which is really exciting. And I had help. I mean, the connections that I made at the Obama Foundation and the people and the designers that I spoke, like, I don’t think people were trying to gatekeep at all, which I thought was really beautiful. People were like, I mean, I work with them. You should totally work with them. Let me just make an intro, which I had not experienced before. I think a lot of nonprofits that I worked with before that were gatekeeping, and I understand why.

It was like, well, if I tell this company or this grant about you. Will we get the money next year, right? So it was a lot of, like, I want to keep things to myself, but it was not like that at all. I was like, this is amazing. So everyone wanted to help each other, and so I was able to make connections and get clients pretty quickly. And a lot of them came from I think all of my first clients are Obama Foundation related.

Maurice Cherry:

Wow, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Now, you were there for a number of years, and then afterwards you left and you went to work for a biotech startup, Curative. When you look back at that time, what do you remember? Because I could imagine it’s probably a lot different from nonprofit work, especially the Obama Foundation.

Sam Viotty:

So it was 2020. So the pandemic had hit, and I used to do programs in person at the Obama Foundation. 2020 happened. We’re doing programs virtually. I just was like, I don’t know that our programs virtually are doing the same thing that they were when they were in person. And so the world is in a really scary space. I want to be on the ground. And so I got recruited by Curative to lead all of their kind of expansion with communities.

So the job actually when I had that interview with Curative, the woman who hired me actually was in political organizing before that. And she was like, it’s actually she’s like, you’re telling me about your job at the Long Foundation, but she’s like, I think it’s really similar. I know it’s biotech, hear me out. But I think what you’re doing is, like, partnering and working with communities. We’re changing health care, and it’s the same thing, only it’s healthcare and not community organizing. And I was like, I think you’re right. So I partnered with community organizations to pop up COVID testing at the time and then vaccinations for communities of color in particular, where they didn’t have testing and vaccinations. And so I thought that I was like, this feels like a need, right? Like, people are dying.

I want to be of service. And so it was a crazy time. I don’t understand how I did not get COVID then. This is like, before, people were wearing masks. I was out helping set up test sites without a mask. And then I was wearing a mask, and I was traveling everyone’s at home, and I am on a plane to New Orleans to set up a test site alone on the plane because obviously no one’s flying. And I was, like, flying all across the country trying to make sure that people were getting tested. I thankfully, in the year and a half I worked there, never got COVID.

I got COVID last year at a conference. Yeah, literally, just like I was completely fine. But it was a really impactful experience. I got to use my design thinking skills. I did lots of marketing and trying to understand our audience. I worked with a bunch of different types of clients and customers. I worked with city governments. I worked with fire stations.

I worked with federal government. I worked with everyone private sector. I worked with schools. So many schools wanted to go back to in person, but they didn’t have a testing plan. So I was like, working with each individual school to workshop what will work best for you. And so I used a lot of what I felt like was my design thinking hat to design programs and processes that made the most sense so that people could return, not return to life, but be able to live lives that felt safe enough to live and still benefit. Yeah, it was a really crazy time.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it feels like it’s a lot of that sort of practical application or continuation. Like the person that hired you said you’re taking that same energy and that same sort of skill of putting programs together, but you’re doing it on really kind of a more tactical level in that way, especially during a time when the pandemic affected. I feel like all of us in different ways, but the one thing we all had to do was sort of figure out how to kind of move through it, navigate through it, move forward, especially with information changing a lot. Like you said, pre masks is a time that now is a bit hard to think of because they were so ubiquitous. And I mean, people are kind of still wearing masks now because we’re kind of still in the pandemic. But in a lot of ways, because of work that people like you have done, we found ways to kind of manage our lives through it, which who knows how long that would have taken if that didn’t exist or if there weren’t people like you that were able to make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks. Yeah, I was able to hire an incredible team. Just could not have done it with a bunch of other people. And it was a wild time, and I learned a lot about healthcare. I used to hate the healthcare system. I still do. But I now understand why there are so many entities designing for healthcare. Now that I’ve worked in it, I’m like, it makes sense.

It needs redesigning. It was my first for private sector job, which I was trying to pivot. Like, the Obama Foundation was great, but I was kind of tired of being a nonprofit. I was tired of not having enough money and working really hard all the time and working to the mission, but not getting paid enough. I was like, I think there’s a way for me to get paid enough and work towards a real goal. Being in the for profit during COVID was very interesting. Healthcare. We’re trying to save the world, but we’re also making money.

So a conversation for another day about the healthcare system. But yeah, it helped me understand a little bit more about the way the world works.

Maurice Cherry:

And now you’re doing Rosedale, you’re doing Adobe. You still have your studio, and you also teach. You are an adjunct lecturer at Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business. How did that come about?

Sam Viotty:

It’s an incredible am again. So I met two people. One was someone who was one of the first community members in the Obama Foundation program that we ran. Just stayed really close to her. She was one of those people that I called her our super user. She just would do exactly what I would imagine someone would do in our program. She’s ideal. I could predict her behavior.

It was amazing. And so we stayed in contact. She started working at the Baumhart Scholars Program at the Cleveland School of Business and asked me if I wanted to guest lecture her class, like, come and just talk. So I did. And then there’s another person who was in the program I did Starting Block, the Starting Block Fellowship a few years ago, probably 2018. More than a few now, but someone else who was a designer also taught another course and was like, hey, could you come to my class too? And so I did. He was getting ready to leave the following year because he got a very cool job at Capital One doing design. And so he left, and they were like, well, we don’t have anyone to teach class.

Do you want to teach it? I said, I’d love to teach this class. So it’s a project management and social innovation class, and it’s taken a bunch of different iterations. This will be the third year that I’m teaching it. It actually starts next week. Time for me to start designing the deck. But the incredible thing about the program in particular so the Bomb Harvest Scholars Program is within the School of Business, but it is for a select group of students who really care about social impact. And so a lot of their courses are focused on it. Obviously, you get an MBA, but a lot of courses that you have to take in addition to the MBA requirements are social impact focused.

So the project management course, I’ve done lots of project management, so I hadn’t thought about it as like, how do I teach it? I was like, It’s just something that I do. I’d gone to trainings for it throughout my career, but had not thought about, how do I teach this and then how do I teach the social impact piece? And so I actually really excited about how this class was taught. I have kind of mapped the class into different sections, and each section is a different aspect of the design thinking process. So it starts with empathy and goes to reflection. I also take the design equity framework. If people aren’t familiar, it’s the kind of typical design thinking process. Empathy empathize. Define ideate, prototype iterate, and do it all.

Over again. But I’ve added kind of equity pauses, which is a term that I learned from another designer, and reflection at every stage. So I talk about doing all of those things within project management because I think that’s really what project management is. It is like working with people. It’s understanding people. It’s trying things and then doing them again, and then trying it and doing it again. And so I’m really excited about it’s. A project based class.

Every single person in the course, it’s usually a small class, but every single person, I encourage them to choose a project that they are working on at work, or they’re all adult professionals who have jobs and do this MBA mostly on the side. And so they choose a project from work. And then I want you to change something at work or a project that you’ve always thought about doing, which you have never actually had the time to do. Like, let’s use this class time because you have to take this class. Let’s do it now. So people have come up with incredible things. Someone came up with a youth program last year, which I was really excited about. Someone revamped their entire board of directors processes, which I was impressed with.

She’s on the board of a nonprofit and was like, we just don’t fundraise right? How do we rethink the fundraising strategy and how do I lead my team through a process? A lot of the work is quite meta, where they’re redesigning experiences that will be redesigned. So they’re coming up with a project plan. So I bring a lot of the design thinking aspect to the course in addition to trying to give people practical skills on how do you manage a project, like what tools are we using, are you using Trello? Are you using Monday? Are you using Asana? How are you assigning roles to people? Are you thinking about equity when you’re deciding roles for people, how do power dynamics come into play? So really intertwining all of those things. And so I’ve learned so much from all of the students because they all work at different places. Some people are working in consulting, some are working in education, some are working at healthcare nonprofits, and so they all are working together. A lot of it is group work, but the end project is individual. So I hope that they’re learning from each other about what each other is working on and challenged with. So I love teaching that class.

It’s also not that long. It takes a few months. And so it’s what I look forward to every end of year. It’s a nice close out to the year.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, it really feels like a perfect way for you to take all of these skills and things that you’ve learned throughout your career and pass that on to the next generation of, I want to say of innovators. You mentioned at the top of the episode that you had applied for this development program as an innovator, and the more that you talk about your career and the experiences you’ve went through, I’m like, I can see it plain as day. Like, you’re really out here changing minds and hearts. It’s so awesome.

Sam Viotty:

It’s nice to hear. I hadn’t thought about yeah. I guess when you talk to someone and hear it back, it definitely feels different. So thank you.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, I think what’s probably most interesting about you and your career and what you do is that you take design. And design is such a broad category. I think even when you tell someone you’re a designer, if you tell five different people, you may get five different definitions of what that even is. I mean, for you, what does design mean? Like, what’s your personal philosophy? When it comes to that?

Sam Viotty:

I believe everyone’s a designer. I also believe it’s people who want to take on that role. Like, if you want to be a designer, you can be. I think the most important thing about being a designer is understanding who you’re designing for. Graphic designer, and I someone who is a programmer, experience designer will have. What we have in common is, who are we designing for? The graphic designer is like, I’m making a poster, or maybe they’re making a poster, and they’re like, okay, well, who’s the poster for? I’m like, I’m designing a program. Well, who’s the program for? So really getting to the meat of how do I understand people? And for program design, I think it’s beautiful because it’s everything or experience design is everything. What I said earlier was, it’s what things smell like, what you’re touching, what you’re seeing, who you interact with, when you interact with them.

When we show you something, all of those things make an impression. So I think about design as design is everything. Yeah, I look at and now that I’ve been in so many different sectors, and I know that design means so many different things, I see design in everything. I can’t open a door without being like, someone made this and thought about how humans will open this door wild. So, yeah, designs and everything. I think it’s a branding. As I always say. It’s a branding, marketing.

Maurice Cherry:

It sounds like you’re really interweaving with design, at least with the way that you’re approaching design. Everything works together. All these processes work together. Nothing is in a vacuum. And I think that’s really a holistic way to look at design, because for years, people always say designers are problem solvers, but the problems they end up solving tend to be UX problems or browser problems or things like that when there are so many other things out there in the world. You mentioned healthcare. Government is another one. Government services.

There are so many huge systems that we encounter every day that could use that design eye and that design thinking. And so I hope that people listen to this conversation and start to think of design in a bigger way. Like, think outside of just what you see on a monitor or on a phone. Like, think of design in a broader sense.

Sam Viotty:

Absolutely. Yeah. I think you’re spot on.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s inspiring you these days?

Sam Viotty:

Thank you for asking that. Color. Color has been inspiring me. I started reading. I went to the library and I started reading Color — I have the book right here: “Colors for Designers: 95 Things You Need to Know when Choosing and Using Colors for Layouts and Illustrations”. And I’ve been having, like, a lull in inspiration, and I never really learned about color theory formally.

And so I’ve just been so excited about color. I’ve been going on hikes recently, and so I’ve been obsessed with the sky. I go on runs, and there’s a beautiful sunset on Monday, and I counted eleven colors in the sky. I was just like, wow, what eleven different colors? And so I’m, like, training my eye to see different colors and hues. So I’ve been really inspired by that. I started reading. I just finished the book “Stay Inspired” by Brandon Stosuy…or Stossai? Finding motivation to your creative work.

And it’s a book of just, like, a bunch of activities to get you motivated and inspired to do creative work. And so much of the book has you tap into childhood experiences. So I haven’t been writing all the activities. I’ve been at least thinking and meditating on them. And so that’s been really fun. So thinking about my childhood as inspiration for things that I create and do now has been really cool. And then, yeah, just thinking about color. Lots of color.

Lots of just trying to find inspiration and creativity. My end of year project right now is trying to create an art book. And so very similar to the fade on kind of like big coffee table books, I want to curate some type of yeah, I’ve never tried. So I’m going to just try and map that out over the holiday and see what I can come up with. Have a little theme. I love material culture, so I think that’s going to be the theme for the art book, is thinking about material culture and how artists use different materials to create meaning. So I’ve been doing lots of research. So that’s been my end of year inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:

At this stage of your career, even just looking back to where you’ve come from and where you’ve worked and the impact that you’ve had, how do you measure success now? What does it look like for you?

Sam Viotty:

So do I feel happy? Do I feel good? Do I feel motivated? Has been whether or not I feel successful or those are my metrics for success. Are things feeling right? Feels a little woo. Woo. I think it’s because I live in La now. I don’t think I’d ever talk like this before, but yeah, a lot of it is. Like, how do things feel? I think I’ve had a lot of moments in life. I have ADHD. I also have quite a bit of anxiety.

And so a lot of my life has been me trying to get around those things. And so my metrics of success now have been, do I not feel anxious? How often have I been feeling anxious? Is it less? That seems great. That feels successful. So, yeah, just kind of just like, monitoring my mental health and feeling good about where I am in life right now and being content, spending a lot of time just being happy with what I have right now. It’s hard because I think, how do you balance that with wanting more and being ambitious? I’m wrestling with that now, but just be happy with what I got.

Maurice Cherry:

Is there anything that you want to do that you haven’t done yet?

Sam Viotty:

Yeah, I really want to curate a show. Like an art show. I say it every year. So now that I’m saying it out loud to you and shared with the public, I think I have to do it. So maybe it’s on the 2024 docket. Yeah, I really want to curate a show. I’ve always said I plan for it, I figure it out. But maybe 2024 is the year that I start actually doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

You’re right there in La. That’s a great place to do it. I know that United talent artists has an artist space, but, I mean, there’s just so much art and design in Los Angeles. I feel like you could definitely make that happen.

Sam Viotty:

Thanks for saying that. I live close to the UTA artist space, and I’ve contacted them before just for other stuff, so yeah, thank you. You know what? Yeah, it’s going to go into the like when I envision boarding for 2024. This is it. Thanks for this.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. What kind of work do you see yourself doing in the next five years? I mean, I feel like you’re someone that, because of the skills and experience you’ve had, you could really almost go anywhere. Because what you do is you help build systems and you help build processes to work through things. So say it’s five years from now, what kind of work would you like to be doing?

Sam Viotty:

The thing that I have not dove into that I would like to do more is or just curation in general. So I think I want to move to a space where I think I’ve spent a lot of this part of my career being like, I want to be the artist, I want to create, I want to work with people and uplift them. I think I can do that in a different way. Whether I’m curating music shows, which I’ve started to do with Rosedale curating an art show, just like doing more curation and leaning into, I don’t have to be the person that’s doing the thing. I can support the people doing the thing. And so I think that’s where I want to go, and I want to do it across I imagine it being across a bunch of different sectors, and maybe it’s not just visual art. Maybe it’s also fashion, and maybe it’s also interior design and objects and vintage and stuff like that. So I want to dive more into my creative self of putting things.

I feel like a lot of the work that I do ends up being behind the scenes or I don’t get to share it very often, or it doesn’t feel like I share it very often on a public platform. So I would like to move into that space a little bit more.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to wrap things up here. Sam, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, your projects? Like, where can they find that information online?

Sam Viotty:

I occasionally post on my personal instagram, which is @samviotty, S-A-M-V-I-O-T-T-Y. But my art stuff is at @theviottystudio on Instagram, so both of those are on Instagram. I occasionally tweet. I’m @samviotty on most things. I think I’m also the only Sam Viotty. So if you google Samantha Viotty or Sam Viotty, I’m pretty sure you’ll find me anywhere that’s mostly I respond to DMs. People can also email me at hi at sviotty dot com. So happy to chat.

I love just talking to other people about what they’re working on.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good. Sam Viotty. I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, when I was doing my research, and I think what really kind of blew me away was, like, this is a program designer that’s like, trying to change country music. It felt like this weird sort of combination. But now that I’ve talked with you and I’ve gotten the sense to kind of see how you work and how you think, you’re the kind of person that I feel like the design industry needs to have more of. Like someone that can really synthesize all of the things that design can do and use them in ways that can help forward, move people forward, move systems forward, move companies forward. I mean, there’s been so much talk about generalist versus specialist, right? And I think what you embody is, like, the true kind of generalist type of designer that I wish more designers were like.

I wish more people were able to take their knowledge and think of it and use it and apply it in ways that can really sort of benefit the world. I mean, we live in a very crazy time right now, and a lot of the systems and practices and things we have are designed and can be and should be redesigned. And it’s just so empowering for me to see someone like you that’s doing this work out in the world, and I’m glad to share that with the audience here. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Sam Viotty:

Thank you. I’m so happy that you have this platform. It’s incredible. Everyone I’ve listened to a few episodes and people are really inspiring. So I’m honored to be on the show. So thank you so much.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Phillip J. Clayton

We’re ending out the month of November with the second part of my conversation with the one and only Phillip J. Clayton. (If you missed the first part of this interview, check it out here.)

After sharing his thoughts on brand purpose, we started discussing our experiences with art and education, and he spoke about facing limitations in school due to dyslexia and feeling misunderstood by teachers and other authority figures. Phillip also talked about his experiences working with renowned brands (including PepsiCo), judging creative work, the evolving nature of packaging design, the need for a holistic view of design.

Big thanks to Phillip for such a wide-ranging conversation!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

All right, so we’ve spent a lot of know time, you know, talking about the work that you do through your studio; a lot of your brand identity work and such. But I want to kind of shift the conversation so we can learn more about you. Like, what’s the Phillip J. Clayton origin story? So…you’re originally from Jamaica, is that right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. Born and grew here.

Maurice Cherry:

How would you describe growing up there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I grew up on a high point of a mountain — like a cold area. A cold part of the country, in a parish. So I grew up in a small town where it was a lot of mostly religion. So for me, I grew up in religion, Christianity specifically. There’s this traditional kind of way of doing things, and I felt kind of trapped inside myself. That’s what it was like for me, artistically, creatively, it’s more traditional for me. It was very frustrating growing up, honestly.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, your father, from doing my research, your father was in advertising, and he was also sort of a fine artist. Was that kind of a bit of a dichotomy between this sort of difficult growing up?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Part of my childhood, I think, was spent trying to be this great artist like my father, then learning about his profession in advertising, trying to become that as well. A little pressure I guess, I placed on myself. That was an outlet, for sure. Spending time with him in his office and watching him do what he does and then mimicking him. It was an outlet where I could express everything.

Then he started teaching me how to do. My first lesson in art was drawing was a tonal scale. So he taught me how to use one pencil to create from dark to light. It’s a gray scale, basically. So that’s where I started. And, oh, music. He’s also a classical guitar player, so I learned that as well, each day with practice. So I had my outlets. My mother did embroidery, so I was surrounded by art books and design. And my sister, she also was a great writer. So I got all of this stuff around me. So they were in the house. It was great.

It’s when I left the house, that’s when I had my challenges. I wasn’t like most of the children I knew, my cousins included. So I guess I had this big dream of what my childhood should be. But I was still on a massive property. But at the same time, I wanted to maybe a lot more creatively. I wasn’t really into games and stuff like that. I just cared about being really good at art and design.

That’s the summary of my childhood, really. Everything I did was in art or design. Sports didn’t really work out for me.

Maurice Cherry:

So you had this, really, sounds like super creative home life. Did that kind of influence you once you went off to college?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes. When I got to college, that was interesting. I felt like I knew so much already. That might be ego, but when I got there, it was definitely because of my childhood. And at that time, I still didn’t know if I wanted to be an artist or not. I was just doing it. It was a question of whether I was conditioned to do…to be creative or am I really someone who likes creating? So college was that journey for me, but I was mostly bored there because it was like, again, I want more. And what I was doing is what I did at home.

I learned techniques. I won’t put it all down. I learned new techniques, but it was too academic for me. It didn’t feel like a creative environment. It felt more academic.

Maurice Cherry:

What all sort of things were you doing there?

Phillip J. Clayton:

After my first year? You do everything in the first year and then you choose second year. I went into painting, and then I moved from that to sculpting. And then…what do you call them? Not majors, like your secondaries. I don’t know what they’re called.

Maurice Cherry:

Your minors?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, like minors. So I did photography, printmaking. I did not get to do graphic design. I was not even allowed in the class because I guess the teacher didn’t see me as a graphic designer. But ironically, though…so it was all fine art. It was photography, sculpting, painting, and printmaking.

Maurice Cherry:

The teacher didn’t let you in the class? Like, you couldn’t even enroll?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, they give you this test, and to this day I hate that. And when I was…any job I went to and they said, “there’s a test”, I turned it down and said, “I’m not interested in that.” Because of that experience, most people saw my work that I did for this test, and they said, “but you’re really good at this!” But whatever the reason was…this lecturer there, he didn’t see me as a valid candidate or something. And the same thing happened with architecture. For me, in terms of high school, I’ve been experiencing these kind of things, so again, I’ve been forced into art.

So I had to really decide what I like, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything technical for some reason. I don’t know if it caused my dyslexia, or I don’t know if I was presenting myself the right way. So I can never be sure, but I was turned down essentially, so I just stuck to art. Design was something I was really in love with as well, but for some reason, I just couldn’t get into design. Architecture is something I love, but again, I wasn’t in high school, I wasn’t allowed to do the technical drawing class, whatever the reason was. I do not know to this day. Industrial design, all these things fascinated me. But the art school didn’t have that.

It was art and graphic design, and I found it quite mundane. I was like, where’s the intrigue?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

So that was the experience for me. It didn’t work out well in the end. It’s a joke around my friends that I was asked to leave the art school. So, I think I can conform well — I think that was it, actually. Yes, I remember that statement. I think he asked me a question. He said that, the graphic design teacher. He said, “I don’t appear to be the student that will do what he asks.” So that was my experience constantly.

I don’t think they knew how to relate to me or relate or engage me. I was very dyslexic, and I have a lot of other cognitive stuff going on, and I guess I just didn’t fit into that mold that they wanted. So my entire college experience was me always feeling challenged to live up to some expectation, which I couldn’t because it’s not in my personality to do that. But I wasn’t being rude or anything. I just couldn’t fit into what they wanted. I was very expressive. My fine artwork was very dark as well, so there’s some personal stuff there. And I guess they couldn’t see beyond that.

But I did all my work. But if I may share this on here — when I was asked to leave, I don’t know why, but I found out some years later that it was for drug abuse and being a threat to the school. I was told all this is false, and I never did any of that there. There’s a lot of details to that whole process, so it was very insulting. I felt demotivated after that for a while, but today, it’s not true. Just want to make that record clear. I don’t know where it came from, but nobody asked my opinion on it. They just asked me to leave the school. So that was that college experience.

Maurice Cherry:

You know, as you describe that, that reminds me so much of my own high school and college experience in a different way, but I think in the same feelings of authority, not being able to know what to do with someone like you. And so because they don’t know how to handle — handle is probably not the right word — they don’t know what to do! That’s kind of just the best example that I can give.

I mean, when I was in high school, my teachers — especially my senior year — my teachers, my guidance counselor were like, actively not only trying to fail me because I was set up to be valedictorian, and they didn’t want that. This was a whole race thing in the South. There’s that. But then also my guidance counselor not allowing me to get certain applications to schools or to get application fee waivers, saying things like, “well, why don’t you…have you thought about learning a trade? Have you thought about going to the community college and learning HVAC or welding or something like that?”

And then in college, I mean, it wasn’t as similar as to what your experience is, but certainly…I started out in computer science, and didn’t like it because I wanted to be a web designer. My advisor literally telling me, “if you want to go into the Internet, that’s just a fad. So if you want to do that, you should probably change your major”…which I did. I changed it to Math, and I kind of sailed through on that. But it sounds like it’s just this textbook case of authority not knowing what to do with someone who doesn’t fit into their kind of rigid standards. And I feel like — and maybe I’m grossly generalizing here, please stop me if I am — but I wonder if part of it also was the fact that you said you grew up in this really religious environment, and that there’s sort of this kind of staid structure that comes with that. I mean, I grew up in a really religious town, too, so I know what that’s like.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Well, I mean, according to things I’ve heard in my own family, not my parents, like my relatives, I’m the only person like me in the entire generation. And we go way back. Chinese and European mix. Right? But everything you said is actually all my academic experiences. It’s everything you just said. And are you familiar with Frederick Nietzsche?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Right. So the will to power, which Hitler misused grossly, is what, in my adult age, that I discovered that, hey, this is the problem. And I love Jamaica, don’t get me wrong, but how I speak about [the] country professionally and academically, a lot of people don’t like it.

Well, I won’t say if you agree, but if you understand the concept of replacing managers with employees who want to be managers, was something I heard, that no employee hates the manager. They hate that the manager is doing what they’re doing to them. So basically they want to be the manager so they can do it to somebody else.

Jamaica for me, is very prudish, and that’s what I think leads to the academic experience we do have. High standards in terms of other courses or disciplines in the academic area. A lot of people do very well because we have this; I think we’re in Cambridge or something, I can’t remember. But at the same time, when you get into the professional space or the creative space, what my perception of it was, oh, you just replaced the Europeans with yourselves. So [you] use the same rules, same approach, same everything. Nothing’s changed.

The managers have changed. They’re now Black Jamaicans, and Jamaican is not even race. It’s an ethnicity. So you just replace the managers. It’s the same rules. So I’m supposed to not live up to my true potential by Frederick Nietzsche. I think it wasn’t even his originally. But anyway, the will to power, where the philosophy or the belief that society limits great thinkers from living up to their full potential. I was considered a rude child in my early school days, or not rude, or not paying attention, one of those two, because of my dyslexia and that knowledge of what dyslexia was, I guess, wasn’t that common back then.

So, yeah, the entire education experience was not great for me. I’ve helped put schools on the map regarding competitions I entered. I either won them or came second or something. I usually get one of three; first, secnd, or third, but the school was proud of that. And I’m not saying a lot of people…I’m not saying I was treated horribly by teachers or anything, but in terms of learning, they didn’t know how to teach me. And I’m probably one in the whole class that has this problem, or maybe more, or they didn’t know. So it was like, if you didn’t fit into this thing, you’re on the outside. And we know all the stories of successful people who have the same stories of teachers berating them, and they literally coming out in the exact opposite of what a teacher said they would be.

I’ve had that experience, and I guess that’s what my journey is on. But, yeah, everything you said about what you experienced is my entire education experience. And I had to leave to discover who I am and all that. Because sometimes these things come in disguise, right? So being kicked from college wasn’t…at first, it was demotivating, and I felt I didn’t feel valuable, which was a common problem with my childhood as well, not feeling smart, intelligent and valuable. I think all the experiences I’ve had forced me to discover myself and my strengths. So I guess there are blessings in disguise in spite of how horrible the experiences were.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, as you tell me all of this. It starts to make perfect sense as to why you started your own studio back in 2001. If all of this is going on and you know in your mind that you can do this and you strike out on your own and do it, it makes perfect sense.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And then keep in mind that I’m only starting with the little knowledge I knew then, right? I’m trying to sell a creative service or my talents. And without the business knowledge I have now, it wasn’t as great, but, yeah, I had to. I was like, “I can’t be these people. I can’t be that good student, that good employee, that anything. I need to show my value.” And that’s what I did. As you rightly said, I was forced to do that.

But it did help me get 9-to-5 jobs after, when I needed my sustainability sorted out. It was the freelance work that I did that got me the jobs, not my qualifications.

Maurice Cherry:

I didn’t go to design school. I got my degree in Math, and I worked jobs after I graduated, and I couldn’t get anything with a Math degree. I mean, one of my jobs –actually, I was still in school, but this was right after I graduated. I was working at the local symphony and art museum and stuff, like selling tickets. And I remember the day that I graduated. I had to go to work that evening. I still had an evening shift. And they had taken the calculator away from my station, because they have these little stations where people come in lanes and that’s where you sell tickets at. And they took my calculator away, and my manager was like, “well, you got a Math degree now, so you don’t need this.” And it’s like, just rub the salt deeper into the wound.

And the jobs I had after that were all, like, customer service type jobs. I did telemarketing for the opera. I was a customer service agent for AutoTrader, which is sort of like this used car marketplace kind of thing. And I was doing design stuff on the side. Like, I was going to the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and taking pictures because I couldn’t afford to buy the books because they were too expensive. I was, like, taking pictures in the books and then taking them back home and using my cracked version of Photoshop to try to teach myself how to make gradients. You know what I’m saying? How to do all this stuff. And my first design job was off of that. It wasn’t because I went to school for it or anything.

Yeah, it takes a lot of guts to strike out on your own like that. Especially that young. So my hat goes off to you for that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I appreciate that. And just like you, I sort of learned design through jobs or freelancing because my father didn’t grow up in a time of…didn’t do work in a time of computers. So the first time I got a computer, I didn’t think Photoshop was even out yet. But when Photoshop came out, I dove right in. And this is the artistic knowledge that helped me with design. My knowledge of lighting and shadows and stuff like that. It helps me with design.

Some of the best designers actually studied art first. Whether they graduated or not is irrelevant, but they studied art first or they knew art first. But like you, it’s something I learned as well in my teen years, and said, put the best foot forward. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. So what you’re doing in terms of jobs, I consider that survival. But what you put up front when you get the opportunity is, I’m a designer, and that’s kind of what I did.

How I got into professionally doing design is like, yes, art, I’ll do whatever I need to do to survive. But when I’m really selling? I’ll never tell people I’m trying to work with that I’m an artist.

Maurice Cherry:

Now. You’ve worked with a ton of different clients, I’m sure, over the years. I mean, starting in 2001, you’ve worked with, I’m sure, dozens to hundreds of different clients. What are some of the projects that you’re the most proud of?

Phillip J. Clayton:

When I was in production entertainment, that was the first time I understood management, because the team left me in charge of an entire comedy tour for three days, meaning there’s no other management person there. They said they have to do another show, so they trusted me to do this one, and I did it. That was my first time, and I felt really proud of that because…I don’t know if you know Red Stripe Light, not the original red Stripe beer. They had created this light beer, and they were promoting it through this comedy tour. So I was literally traveling around with all the people that worked on the show, and I’m representing the creative side, the art team. So the set design, all of that, I had to ensure we had our plans and everything. I had to follow that three times, morning and evening. So set up, pull down for three days. I had to ensure that that show went on not just for live performance, but for television as well. So that was my first time.

My second one, which I think I’m most proud of, is how I got into brand design, was I helped to relaunch…I was one of the people that helped to relaunch the PepsiCo identity. 2008, Arnold Group Identity, here in Jamaica. I believe Guatemala had got the ownership at that time, so it was on their directive. But I left printing and went right into relaunching this new identity for PepsiCo America through PepsiCo Jamaica. And at first I was like, “can I actually do this? It’s intimidating.” But I was working with an agent, a small design house at a time, so the director there got a contract and we launched it off. But then I became the key person to maintain the brand standards, to make sure that everything went out. So now I’m learning about brand and understanding the value, financial value, and the value to the company, the importance of the brand. And we also rebranded a local Pepsi Jamaica water brand here. It was a full stack, like nine years. Whole nine years, we did it all. And that was the first time I really embraced this idea of brand design.

I was all around brands, but that’s when it moved from graphic design and, “oh, this thing is here, this is interesting” kind of thing. That was kind of the experience for me. So that’s my most proud career moment, I would say. It was a big responsibility and we did achieve the objectives. Yeah, to this day it still looks, when you look back at the work, it looks really good. And just to be part of that, I think just to say I worked on that, that’s something we’re proud of. Being in Kingston, Jamaica, that I actually worked on something, an international brand like that.

I’ll only mention one more. There are a few others. I can’t remember them all, there’s so many because I don’t have favorites. By the way, it’s very difficult to pick a favorite. My idea of favorites is that it’s too partial, I think, because every project I worked on, if I’m going to pick something that was really proud of, it had to be on the value and impact it had. So that’s why Pepsi is one of those. But every product I’ve worked on, when the solution comes together, that’s great for me. And I think they’re all great products, but in terms of magnitude, PepsiCo is one of those. The Guinness, I don’t know what year anniversary we had to wrap an entire entertainment location for the Guinness anniversary some years ago, so we wrapped it all in black with the gold logo, standing out and curated experience for the guest. From the dishes all the way up to the music. That’s another impactful project. But I guess more on the event side, less on the consumer experience side. But, yeah, PepsiCo is one that stands out to me this day. I think it was the launching pad for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Red Stripe. PepsiCo. I mean, those are two huge brands. It really sounds like those helped to…I think whenever you get a really big project or you get a really sort of visible project, it really cements personally that you’re on the right path. You know what I mean?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. It’s an acknowledgement that you are capable or you’re knowledgeable about this thing. And the fact that they even spoke to me or asked me, was something — was acknowledgment that I can actually help them. And I think that’s the most important part of any profession, is that you are not needed as much. So much so you’re wanted. I think wanted even in your personal relationships, when you’re wanted, is way better than being needed. And that’s what happened, is I was introduced. I’m often recommended for stuff. So that was a recommendation as well. I didn’t apply for it. I wasn’t looking for it. I didn’t know it even was happening. I was recommended for the project. So that was a great feeling for me.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Now, it’s funny you mentioned that about sort of how it’s this kind of validating thing, because now what you’re doing is probably a lot of validation for other creatives and creatives teams, which is you’re judging. You’re a brand and a marketing judge with PAc Global for their Leadership Awards. How did you first get involved with them?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I was invited; again, another form of acknowledgment. I was invited through LinkedIn by the CEO, actually, in 2018, I believe, which is also happening this year. Again, I think I mentioned that off. I’m currently judging designs right now, but I was invited. Interestingly, I wasn’t thinking about being a judge, but I used to give my own critiques. I didn’t want to share things on any social media platform alone. I wanted to actually give my view on it, and I started to do that so I’d write my review of the thing I shared. Whether it’s a package design or brand identity, I actually write my perspective on what was done, the goods, anywhere that fell short.

I think just because I did that consistently and still doing it today, is that it got his attention. And I think we connected before, sometime before. And he invited me to be part of the commission, which is a global commission, and PAC has been around since 1950. I’m the only Jamaican on there, by the way.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m not sure if I’m the youngest. I’ll be 41 in December, so I don’t know if I’m the youngest, but I’m the only Jamaican on there. And I guess in many ways, everyone there is one person from their own countries as well. But because of the context of design and art in Jamaica, where it’s either traditional, there are some great people here, but you don’t really see it because everything dominates it. So being the only Jamaican in there, a small Caribbean island that’s really business-oriented, if I’m being honest with you, we’re known to be creative, but we’re mostly business. I think it’s a great stage for me to be on. Most Jamaicans don’t know that I have them on international stage just by being a member there. It’s a very proud moment.

I was invited on and I accepted, and it’s just been a great journey. But you learn from it. You have to be very objective. And I like to make sure that creative people understand that when you’re looking at design or art, you have to be. Critiques are supposed to be objective. Your subjective parts are there, but it’s really supposed to be an objective view. And that’s what the judging experience is, because you’d see something really amazing. And if you’re not careful, you end up giving that particular project really high marks, and then you realize “but then this other thing is here.”

So how do you judge these two things? They’re both great. So you have to really get into the objectivity of the design and the purpose behind it.

Maurice Cherry:

I was just about to ask this. It sounds like you’re kind of segueing into it. I’m also an awards judge, and I don’t think a lot of judges really talk about how they approach judging creative work. So I’m glad that you mentioned that objectivity. When you’re looking at work, especially now, since you’re in the middle of this judging process, how do you approach it? Do you have like a rubric, or are there certain things that you take into account as you’re judging creative work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, generally as a professional courtesy, it also helps you with client work as well. There are criteria that you have in mind of what makes this project a great product or this design a great solution. The good thing is PAC, and I’m sure other judging commissions, they have their criteria listed out as well. And you’re really looking for these projects that meet. They’ve already narrowed down the entries anyway, so you’re judging what you’re given and you’re going to basically see if these projects meet these criteria. Outside of that, you also have to use your own judgment on how they meet the criteria. You’re allowed to write your review of the project so you can rationalize the decision in the context of maybe it met one criteria, it didn’t meet the other one, or maybe it did in a way that is not as upfront, but it actually meets the criteria. It’s actually achieving the objective it stated it was supposed to achieve.

So it’s always approaching it based on, for me personally, it’s about the design. For me, it’s function and then aesthetics is part of design, but it’s more on what I call emotional responses. The aesthetics is used to wrap up a design solution to make it appealing the human response, but the design has to function as intended. Or unlike art, where it’s subjective, design has to actually work. If it doesn’t work, then it just failed. So I use that as one of my criteria.

In terms of packaging design, I always look for shelf positioning. That’s the first point of contact a consumer has with the design is before they even touch it, what got their attention, what will get them to go and interact with this design. So I look for shelf positioning in terms of packaging design. And I guess you could translate that into other forms of design where…how do you get people to interact with this? I always look for the function. I understand things like simplicity is often misunderstood with minimalism, but it’s not. Minimalism is a philosophy, a way of thinking, and simplicity is the functional side. So my favorite types of designs are the ones that are the simplest. If they’re really simple and have great impact. I love that one. I actually use the word love, not in my critique, but I’m saying it here. The simpler design with a greater impact, that’s a great design for me. So I look for those things. But the commission has its own criteria that we use.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you gain from being an awards judge?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Professionally, the learning never ends, and I’m always looking to learn more, add more knowledge to what I have already. But there’s also a professional status with it. The fact that you’re judging designs mean that you’re somebody worth talking to. I think it’s a big responsibility that you should never take for granted. I mean, anybody that’s put in charge of judging anything should never take that for granted. But it should also mean that you are a worthy conversation regarding knowledge and teaching, passing on that knowledge.

The lessons in judging design is you have to separate yourself. Detachment is a great thing that you can learn from design, from judging. You have to detach yourself, your personal assumptions. It’s invaluable regarding your client work. The same experience of judging can be applied to client work, and that’s how it has helped me in a lot of ways. I can detach myself from my assumptions or what I like. I can also speak to the client differently. I can listen more, to listen and observe before and respond appropriately. I know this is the right way and this is how you should do this and do that. But when you’re judging things, none of that really comes into play.

Because now it’s not about you. And in your client work, it’s not about you. It’s about understanding what the intent of the client is regarding speaking to you. And they have to trust that you are somebody who can help them. You don’t have to know all the answers, but you should be able to, in a very short space of time, through a conversation, be viewed as an expert, a professional that can actually solve problems, that you learn that a lot from judging other people’s work. That comes from art school as well. Judging art, critiquing art is the same process. When you’re critiquing art, it’s not about what you like or don’t like.

It’s always about objectivity. And I think a lot of that’s missing from the client process. So that’s what I’ve definitely gained from know.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s interesting that you mentioned that about objectivity, because sometimes what will happen, and I don’t know if this is such the case with PAC Global, but sometimes awards are just sort of an extension of marketing for companies. Like they’ll just build it into their budget. Like whatever project they’ve got going on, they’ll just automatically submit them, not necessarily whether or not they fit within a particular category or they meet a certain standard level or things like that.

I often find that when I am — it depends on the competition I’m judging — but I’ll always see the same studios producing the same work, and then sometimes I’ll know the studio just from viewing the work. Like, I won’t even have to look at who it’s from. I’m like, “oh, this is from such and such because they use this exact same template with four different clients.” They just did a color swap and switched out typography or what have you. So, yeah, it helps to try to be objective about it, even when you can see what looks just like a lot of repetition, because for companies, they may not even be looking at the acclaim that they get from awards as something that has any other merit aside from just getting them more business.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. One of the reasons that I absolutely love packaging design is that it’s an extension of the brand, and it’s often one of the first point of contact for consumers. The unboxing experience for consumers is also a very tangible part of that whole design process. Technology, and I guess molds and stuff like that, can limit your packaging design capability, but creativity is found in the limitations, right? So if this is what you have to work with, then you find a creative way to leverage what you have. And that’s what packaging design. Well, great packaging design.

That’s what it does. It finds ways of making this mundane thing very interesting. It can be little changes, whether it’s the actual graphic design on it or is the type of cap, but it’s the same bottle. You can use the same container and do amazing things. And I know exactly what you’re talking about regarding templates because I’ve seen it outside of packaging. I don’t know all the judging. I’ve never been part of anyone. But in terms of designs that are shared on social media or case studies, there are some agencies that stand out, or some designers, because you cannot be so unique.

But it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before, or they’ve leveraged something you’ve seen before in a much more interesting way. Packaging design with PAC, the submissions are always unique in that context of being unique, and that’s one of the best parts about it for me. The agencies, the clients — even clients submit their own packaging designs, or the agency submits it on behalf of them. So you get a diverse group of people submitting designs. We do have the big brands, obviously, and they may improve on something they already have out there. And you judge that, and that’s also a very valuable thing. But in terms of…my favorite part is either improvements on existing packaging designs from established brands or new products being launched from smaller agencies. They are very experimental on that side because they’re not as known as the big brands, but they submit some really interesting designs and it’s just exciting to see what they’ve done. Like, “oh, I didn’t know you could do that with this thing.”

And then we’re in an age of technology now, right? Packaging design is changing. We have the brand extensions moving beyond the package itself. What’s the consumer shopping experience like? So the ultimate goal in the end is to have the consumer have a great experience. So packaging design, for me is a great place to understand a lot about design, a lot about art, a lot about craftsmanship.

I only say this because you’ve mentioned that some of these agencies, the templates, you can tell who they are. Because if you have a style in design, I think you have a problem, because every strategy is supposed to be different, right? So if you have a style, it kind of means that you haven’t really giving different clients the same thing, doesn’t it? So, yeah, I like packaging design because it’s very difficult to be the same there. It’s just more difficult to stand out, more challenging. I don’t like saying hard. Difficult is a better word because hard probably means it’s never going to happen, but difficult means there’s a challenge to overcome there.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I think you also just have more opportunities for innovation with packaging design than you do for the web. For what it’s worth, it’s a kind of staid medium. That’s not to say that there isn’t innovation that exists, but I judge the PRINT Awards from PRINT Magazine. And I am amazed every year —

Phillip J. Clayton:

I love PRINT.

Maurice Cherry:

— at the new stuff that comes through. I mean, things that I never would have thought about in terms of how people have packaged certain things. And the good thing with PRINT is that it’s not just packaging design, but it’s also experiential design. So you can see how people have designed spaces like a gym or an office building.

And to me…I just really love it. I also judge podcasts, and if you want to talk about repetition and podcasting, I’m not going to say any names, but there’s a certain company that rhymes with “water bowl” that sweeps every year, and I’m just like, it’s the same stuff over and over. You got some celebrity to get behind the microphone and interview other celebrities. Like, where’s the innovation?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m hoping to get into podcasts at some point. Maybe I’ll do something innovative there. But I love PRINT Magazine, by the way. That’s such a great experience to have. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s an opportunity to just see what other people are doing outside of, I think, you know, what people…. It’s interesting because design in and of itself is such a broad field, but depending on who you talk to, they may have a very narrow view of it. Like, if I tell people I’m a designer, it depends, I could ask five different people. I could tell that I’m a designer. They’ll think five different things. For a long time, when I would tell people I’m a designer, they thought it meant, “oh, so you do UX?” “No, yeah, I don’t do UX. I’m not a UX designer.” Like, I have to sort of qualify that, what that means to me, because I’ve dabbled in so many different types of design, and it’s all design, but the viewpoint is skewed, I think sometimes.

Phillip J. Clayton:

I think you need, I think, I hope I have it because I support it or advocate for it. A holistic view on design is required. A wider perspective, and then you narrow it down based on the purpose that you need it for. That’s when you get graphic design and UX design all these things. A graphic designer, for example, should have the understanding of animation as much as they do stills. I guess what you’re hired for is completely different, but you pay a graphic designer well who understands those two things. They’ll do it.

But if you want somebody who does animation specifically, hire an animator. But for some reason, when you say design, you’re a graphic designer. Everything on the two-dimensional plane comes to you, and it’s unfathomable to say, “oh, I don’t know how to do that.” Right? And it’s okay to not to know how to do that. It would be nice if you did. But design is, it’s a plugin. Most people see it as a plugin.

It’s like, let’s get something and plug it in here. So let’s get the graphic designer to do these ten things, because they are a designer, and design is a process. What makes a difference is the purpose, the intended purpose of going to a design process. Evidently, if you’re doing print, you want a graphic designer. Or if you’re on the execution side, you might want a print technician, but that technician might not be a designer. But they may understand design, and they may do a lot of why I like print, by the way, which is why I’m such a big fan. I worked in printing as well, is that the things I used to do, because of my artistic knowledge and design knowledge, I didn’t print nothing amazing. That’s all over the top.

But there are little things that I learned about the machines and ink levels and the pigments that I was able to achieve when I’m printing. And then the experimental side of it is like, how about we just not do it the way it’s supposed to be done, for example? Well, you don’t damage a machine. But what if I could turn something off here? And I did that and I got different results. So, of course, my dream at the time was to have my own machine so I could go experiment at home, right? But it’s pricey. But it was like, yeah, printing machine is supposed to print this and print that, but how do we use it in a creative way? What if I wanted to do an entire exhibition and printing? How can I make it interesting? That’s how my brain works. So the machine, I was always trying to experiment with it. What happens if I…because some machines actually recognize the layers in Illustrator, for example. So you get a different result depending on how much percentage of ink you put on it.

Because the machine that I was using anyway, it automatically printed layers and layers of color depending on what I have on the artwork itself. And then if you print a rastered image, like a JPEG or a TIFF file, it would do something completely different because the colors are not layered anymore, which was amazing to me. I’m like, how does a machine know that difference? By understanding those things, it’s an advantage, I think, in design, and that helps me. And I’m sure with your knowledge as well, even your customer service experience, you can actually do marketing. A lot of people started in door-to-door sales, like David Ogilvy, and then now he has his own agency.

It’s three, four things I look for is business, authority, opportunity, and time value. Four things, right? Yeah, I said four. Those I learned from a business, from somebody who does business. And I apply to my creative development as well and processes. It has to be a business. You have to have authority of it, and there must be an opportunity, and then you don’t want to waste your time on something that doesn’t meet those three things. So for me, design is just a holistic thing of value, process and impact. That’s how I look at it anyway.

Maurice Cherry:

So on your website, you mentioned — and I thought this was really interesting, especially given how this conversation has went. You said that you’re not a self made man. Who are some of the people that have kind of helped you reach your current level of success?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, wow. It’s a very long list, but I can think of some key people. My very first professional experience while freelancing was when I went into production entertainment. My friend, she worked in the entertainment. She’s an architect, but she started a production company, and she used her knowledge in architecture to execute some brilliant event projects, and she became popular for it. What I learned from her was work ethic. She’s very meticulous about process, and I fell in love with process because of her. And I think my work ethic to this day, I would always give to her by working with her.

I learned from her other people. My last agency boss — or he’s a CEO now. I know his father’s around. At the time, I don’t remember his position, but he was essentially my boss. I learned from him how agencies are managed and how to handle client conversations.

And then there are the people that I never worked with, but just being around them. Michael Beirut said something. I think that’s why I did what I did was he said “hijack your mentors.” Because honestly, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know who to go to to get mentorship from, because what I was seeing was not anything that I wanted to necessarily learn from people. But when I got into the older I got, I realized I need to understand a lot of things, a lot about business and how agencies work. And I started hanging around people. A lot of my friends are way older than me because I learned from them, whether they’re bosses or project managers, that I was a part of a project. I learned from people like that. I learned from clients. I learned from going to unknown territory with clients, learning about their industry, learning how they manage their employees, learning how to have the client conversations with their clients. So I observed them talking to their clients. You learn from different people. It’s just that we don’t often don’t pay attention to it. And everybody goes to this self-made thing. I just one day said, “well, that doesn’t make any sense.” You can’t really be self made. You may put a lot of effort in yourself. Yes, because nobody’s there. You’re doing the work.

But what happened to me was that I said I don’t think I would be anywhere I am and where I’m going without the people that I worked with or the relationships that I’ve made over the years. When I looked at the value that I’ve learned from all these people, I said, there’s no way I can be a self made man. And I started to detest that statement. I guess I can’t say for sure if there’s actually no one out there who’s self made. I don’t know. But I think even entrepreneurs get help along the way. And I guess that help isn’t acknowledged. But I believe that you cannot be self made.

And I guess I just applied it to myself. My website is a bit of satire in terms of narcissism. It’s not seriously narcissistic, but at the same time, I wanted to have people understand how I perceive the professional space and my knowledge. So I put it up there. But it was mostly people I’ve worked with. That’s why I said that.

And I obviously put my father in there. My mother, I learned from both of them. My mother was the one who really gave me that drive that I have now. I think she is a trooper. She’s not somebody who gives up easily. So she taught me as well about discipline. And she told me, any job I’m doing, I should always do my best, even if it’s a horrible job, because you never know who’s watching. So stuff like that stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry:

It’s funny, when I saw that on your site, it reminded me of…this was way back in high school. I had a…I guess it’s like a senior book. Like, there would be these organizations like Jostens or whatever, right? They try to sell you all this stuff leading up to graduation. Like, buy these invitations, buy this tassel. But I have a senior book, and I went back and looked through it recently, and I was…God, I was so angsty in high school. But there was a quote that I had in there that was like, “I’m a self-made man. Who else would help?” Or something like that. So when I saw that on your site, I was like, “you’re not a self made man. What’s that about?”

Phillip J. Clayton:

When we’re in the challenge, or the journey? It’s easy to say that because I deal with depression. And I’m only saying that to create and illustrate something. When you have an episode of any mental challenges, mental health issues that you may have when you’re in an episode, it’s not that you don’t know what to do. You just can’t seem to find that will or ability to get up and do what you need to do to get out of it. So no matter how somebody tells you to do something: “You need to start doing this. When you’re depressed, try these things.” All these things take practice. But no matter how much they tell you, you just can’t do it until you make the first move to do it and you start to do it. And what happens is that over a period of time of learning things and doing them and becoming proficient at them, you cheer yourself because it was difficult, right? And in your context, I’m assuming in high school, that being great, your great experience, you probably wrote that because you had to do a lot of stuff yourself.

I think that’s what happens. And we tend to block out the external forces, whether good or bad. Even some bad experiences contribute to your progressive movement. Right. It’s at least, at very best, it tells you, oh, I don’t want that experience. So you make different decisions, right? So I look at everything. I look at the good and bad. I don’t believe in trying to kill fair. I think that’s illogical. I think negative and positive energies are supposed to be balanced. You can’t really get rid of one or the other. When one is given more power or energy, it throws off the balance. So these things is what I think about. So I was like, there’s no way it’s after a maturity. Of course, this is something that you need as well. So I guess my maturity came into play here and I said, “what does it mean to be self made?” And you started to process that and you started to think and you’re like, “yeah, I got help with that thing.”

Should I be grateful for the jobs I had? Would I be here? I don’t know. I think about these things all the time. But I have to kind of…should contextualize it because you just said something that, yeah, when you’re in high school or along your journey, especially when you’re younger, you’re probably putting a lot of effort in trying to get what you want out of this world. So it does feel like you’re self made because sometimes people don’t see your vision and what you’re trying to do. But at the same time, I believe in being fair. And life isn’t fair, unfair: it’s indifferent, or it just is. But we can decide the fairness of that experience. And I think to be fair, we would have to start acknowledging all the people that has helped us along the way.

They may not have helped us build our companies or build our careers, but even my college experience, it was great. But I did learn some things from it. I have to be fair about that. I learned how to critique, for example, I never learned critiquing at home. I think it’s giving the chair to the things that help you to get where you are. And I’d go too extreme and say, on a bad day, if a store was open on a public holiday and I was able to buy something that cheered on my day, I’m going to thank that person.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So what keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Reading philosophy. Gratitude. Each morning I wake up, I always make an effort to spend a few minutes with my mind, whether it’s meditating or a prayer of some kind. I think it’s just a tone for the day. My mind goes into a place where I can deal with any challenges that show up. And it’s always easy but it’s really starting each day with gratitude. I’m reading a lot of books on…I guess I could call them the schematics of living. So I found this balance where it’s setting a vision. That’s what drives me.

I have a vision of what I want to achieve each day and the months in the years and so forth. So I think setting three goals at least each day, is what I do, and that motivates me to get things done because it induces fulfillment, I think. Is it a Chinese philosophy somewhere there? I can’t remember the exact philosophy, but it’s something about not trying to do everything all at once and setting smaller objectives, not try to achieve the big ones unless you can.

So reading is part of my objective each day, to read at least a chapter of something, to review work, to have a conversation with somebody, just setting daily objectives, waking up gratitude, setting daily objectives. And the reading definitely helps. I’m motivated by my vision mostly though, that’s my biggest drive, is I would endure great pains to achieve it, I think.

Maurice Cherry:

What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing this kind of work?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Wow. I’d love to have been in the sciences because I did pretty well in it. I like developing theories and experimenting with things, understanding how they work. I would hope that if I was able to be in the sciences, particularly biology or neuroscience, I’m an explorer. Archaeology was on the list at one point too. Yeah, my first desired job was as a child was to work with a Red Cross actually, but I didn’t know how to even do that. And I think I found out that you had to fund yourself part of it. I don’t remember. But yeah, I would like to be doing something that has impact on our society, I guess. Or humans.

I’m hoping design is doing that in some way, but yeah, science in some way or some humanitarian thing, as long as I can sustain myself. I like to definitely be involved in something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Like, what do you want the next chapter of the Phillip J. Clayton story to look like?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’d like to be recognized or acknowledged as an authority in my disciplines or the field that I’m in. I’d like to know that I’ve had great impact through that discipline, whether it’s our society, whether through technology or something I’ve written just being conversations that are larger, that are beyond my skill sets. I like my thinking to be beyond everything that I do because I think that’s the ultimate point of self awareness and enlightenment is to be someone that people recognize as some kind of philosopher. I guess I would say I just want to be an authority in my field. I don’t know if authority sounds very aggressive. I’m not trying to say like this egotistical authority. What I mean by authority is that I have contributed something as an expert to the industry that’s worth something to a lot of people, that they would also come to me as a source of voice, of knowledge or something. What that means, obviously, is not just, I’m not going to go sit on a chair and counsel people.

What I mean is being an authority means that even my work should be reflecting that in a different way in five years. The type of work I do, type of conversations I have, I think being an authority establishes your prowess, professional prowess, in any industry you’re in.

Maurice Cherry:

I hear that. I mean, I think it’s certainly something where…and it’s funny, I think you definitely are at that point already. Like I’m wondering because you’re judging and you’re doing all this work, what do you think it would take for you to reach that sort of level of authority that you’re talking about?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Definitely through the work. I’m trying to do different types of work now, work with different type of clients. You’re right. I’ve been told that I am in an authoritative position at the moment. My value is strong and high. I guess it’s what Bruce Lee said: “be happy, but don’t be satisfied”…or something like that. Meaning that you should always deserve to be greater than you are, but be happy with what you have. I guess that’s where I’m coming from. It’s not greed.

It’s like, as long as I’m alive even if…I have a question. You asked about what else would I be doing if I wasn’t doing this. I make statements like this, and I don’t mean to be extreme, but I do make statements like this to my friends. And anybody that asks, is that if I can’t get to do what I want to do, I’d rather be dead. And I don’t mean that from a…I hope I’m not putting the wrong words out there. It’s not that if I can’t do it, I’m going to go die. It’s just, what is the point? If I’m not doing this, if I’m not doing what I’m doing, then why live? So it’s kind of like, be useful.

I think every human being desires to be useful in some way. And then when they don’t have that use or purpose, it’s hard to live. You start figuring out how to survive and you just never leave that place of survival. It’s like you’re always trying to find a reason to live. And I think purpose gives you that reason to live. So that’s my purpose, is to achieve that kind of level of authority where I don’t even have to go look for clients anymore. I would like to be in innovation, some R&D kind of process. If NASA had a creative department, for example, I’d probably want to be there.

I guess I would say this professionally. I like to be in a place where there’s a seamless process of innovation, R&D and innovation that leads into the brand design process and ultimately contributing to advertising and marketing output, adding meaning to the consumer — the consumer experience; people — the experience people have shopping or engaging in government services or anything. I like to innovate those things because the end user for me is always something important in our process. That’s who we’re creating for. Design is supposed to be having positive impacts on the lives of people. No matter what form is in. The only reason you’re doing it is because you’re trying to change something for an end user somewhere. And I guess that’s the kind of authority I want, is where I can develop something that changes the industry also, I guess, in how we work with people, I’ve been told, actually I’m a thought leader.

I’m not really clear on that definition yet, because I hear it used a lot. I think of myself as a practicing philosopher more than a thought leader, but maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know. But somebody once called me a thought leader.

Maurice Cherry:

I think the difference between that and this may be something that you’re already doing, but if you’re thinking of how to take the next steps to try to get there, it’s really all about — and this is, I mean, from a design standpoint, it sounds silly — but it’s all about writing and sharing your work.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That’s so…that’s well said.

Maurice Cherry:

Like people…I think of folks like Frank Chimero, Steven Heller, etc. I mean, they’re well known as designers, but they’re also well known as sort of just writing and talking about the craft. You know, Mike Montero is another one, for example. That sort of…I think to me, when I think of thought leader, and I think also just in terms of how your work spreads beyond the visual medium, how it spreads beyond, you know, a campaign or some sort of a visual project: writing is the way that I think that happens.

Phillip J. Clayton:

That is absolutely correct. I think even Blair Enns — not think, I know even Blair Enns shares that. He actually says in his book that the expert should write. And I started writing. I’m sure you think I probably shared that with you. You see them on my website. I’ve written articles and I’ve written other things, but writing, being somebody dyslexic, I didn’t see myself writing this much or reading this many books.

I used to detest both of those things growing up, but it was because I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. But now I buy so many books and read them, and I don’t just read them, I actually put them into practice and I write. And you’re absolutely correct on that. We should write. That’s what professionals should be doing. That’s how you establish yourself. That’s absolutely correct. You have to write a thesis or theory or opinion we should be writing.

And that’s why I like to do case studies. I like to write out the experience. Everything else that follows that really is just the know, oh, we developed this philosophy, and here is the brand identity from that philosophy, that kind of thing. So you’re absolutely correct in that we should write.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, Phillip, where can our audience find out more information about you, your work, your writing? Like, where can they find all that online?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So the first place, I guess I’d say, because I have all the social media links I believe on there is pjclayton.com, my primary website. Outside of that, you can go directly to LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And it’s always Phillip J. Clayton. Phillip with two L’s. J. Clayton. And I think if you hashtag it too, somewhere there, I have hashtags for them too. PJClayton. Phillip J. Clayton. P-J-C.

Maurice Cherry:

All right, sounds good.

Phillip J. Clayton. Thank you for…I mean, such a wide-ranging and expansive interview. I feel like we went in like a dozen different places from your first interview, talking about branding, to this interview, which is certainly more just kind of personal about you and your upbringing and how you got to where you are now. I really do feel like that level of thought leader that you’re talking about. I think you’re already there, and I hope that this interview will help to elevate you to get further to that, because I really think that with everything that you’ve talked about, with everything that you’ve done, you’ve got all the components. Like, you put in the work. I think we’re right around the same age. You said you’re 41, right?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, I’ll be 41 in December.

Maurice Cherry:

I’m 42 now. So we’re right around the same age. So I know the work that goes into it to sustain yourself this long in this creative industry. And you said one thing before we started recording, that you have sort of these six rules for a quality life experience. You were like: disciplined, patient, kind, acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go. Look, that can be your philosophical bent to taking yourself to that thought leader status. But I’m really excited to see what else you come up with in the future, man. So thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I appreciate it.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Thank you so much. I enjoyed it. It was, I think, my deepest conversation on a podcast. Most of it’s really about work, so I really enjoyed it. I appreciate the compliments and the chair. I do look forward to what’s next. And likewise, same to you. This is a…I don’t know if a lot of people know it, but since you’ve shared it with me through the invitation, being part of the Smithsonian Archives is a brilliant position to be in from a content perspective. I never knew that was something that could happen, and I want to celebrate you for that.

Maurice Cherry:

Thank you. I appreciate that.

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Phillip J. Clayton

Phillip J. Clayton is a design voice that you need to know. The Kingston-based creative is a strategic advisor, an international design judge, and an expert on branding. We talked for hours about his career and his philosophies on branding and life, so I split this episode into two parts just to make sure nothing got lost. If you’re interested in branding, then get ready for a masterclass!

Our conversation started off with a check-in on this year, and then Phillip shared his goals about being seen as a facilitator and about tackling complex problems and making a meaningful impact. We also talked about how he started his own company PJClayton & Co., the client-vendor relationship, and Phillip dropped a ton of knowledge about his creative process, brand purpose, and the power of extracting valuable information from conversations. (Kind of like what you’re doing with this episode!)

Tune in next week for Part 2! Happy Thanksgiving!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’m Phillip J. Clayton and I’m a brand consultant, a strategic advisor and an international design judge. I focus on brand design and development. I’m a writer. I write articles, copywriting, etc. I focus on art and design holistically as a foundation for advertising and marketing. And I’m usually hired as a creative director. I do have a consulting company called PJClayton and Company.

Maurice Cherry:

Okay, we’ll talk about all of that, certainly. But if you could use three words to sum up what this year has been for you so far, what would those words be?

Phillip J. Clayton:

So…agony is definitely part of that. I did agony…awareness. And enlightenment.

Maurice Cherry:

Agony, awareness, and enlightenment. That sounds like the hero’s journey.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, well, I’m hoping it will be.

Maurice Cherry:

Have you given thought to what you want to accomplish next year?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yes, I have. That’s the awareness part. I’ve discovered things about myself personally and professionally. So next year I would like to actually be more focused on becoming what I label a fixer, not necessarily a facilitator. I went into consulting for that reason. I would like to be more on the consulting side and looking at complex problems. They’re usually very impactful. So I like to focus on complex problems with larger corporations, I guess.

And the reason for that is the impact it can have both in this, like in their specific industries or on a societal level, regarding the thinking and the approach to sustainability and marketing behind that internal change. Right? I’d like to focus more on that regarding innovation — R&D — there are a lot of things out there, and the unsolved. Most of them that I can think of, they’re unsolved. They’re worth a lot of money as well. So it does benefit me to sustain that focus if I’m able to sustain myself doing it.

Maurice Cherry:

In your eyes, how is a consultant different from a facilitator then? Because you really sort of try to make that shift.

Phillip J. Clayton:

For me, a facilitator? Well, generally, to my knowledge, a facilitator would normally broker two parties together. I guess the ideal between two parties or to facilitate one party to another, or they find a way to accommodate something else, to align it with another thing. The consultant to me is more of a fixer. And that was something. The word fixer in this context I learned years ago, I think it was on a movie or something. But it intrigued me because I always had this desire to be someone so important that I’m only called when I’m needed. And it’s usually for something that nobody can solve. No, I’m not the only one, obviously, on the planet, but it’s kind of like that being the only one kind of thinking behind it, where you get called in because you are the only person who can fix this problem.

And a consultant, to me, is that because consulting is a form of therapy, in my opinion, where we have to…the execution is the last step of everything. The consultant listens to people, a client I guess you could say, and they have to diagnose a problem and make a prescription to that problem or symptom. A facilitator doesn’t really do that. The consultant…actually, this is why the time is so important that they spend with each client. That’s why if you’re really narrow in your focus, you probably don’t have as many clients as a company that’s serving a wider market. You’re probably working with very few clients. But those clients are really valuable, not just in the work they do, but also in the financial gain that you get from it and they get from you helping them. It’s really a form of therapy because a lot of times the problems that they come to you with are not what is not what they say it is by listening to them and allowing them to speak and asking specific questions, great questions that lead to answers, because we don’t always know the answers either. It’s just the information that we can extract from the conversation that builds trust. And then the client reveals themselves to you and you realize, “oh, there’s either a personal issue here or there’s actually a deeper company problem here.” And what most company owners will do is because there is this cliched response, especially in brand. Our brand is a solution, is that they will come with a list of requests that they believe will solve the problem for their company. And this could be anything from a little new logo or website or rebrand, something aesthetic or surface level, I call it. But those things are results of deeper processes.

So that’s kind of how I view the consultant regarding a fixer as opposed to a facilitator.

Maurice Cherry:

I want to talk about your company, which you mentioned earlier, PJ Clayton & Co. And I think it’s important to note that you started that 22 years ago, which is fascinating. My hats off to you for your longevity of keeping it going all this time. What made you decide to start your own company?

Phillip J. Clayton:

Irony is the life experience. I actually didn’t want the company. I just wanted to be recognized when I was younger.

Well, let me rephrase it. In my mind, a company requires employees. That’s what I knew back then. I didn’t really want that, but I said, I need to be respected as a professional, and I need a name for that. And during my college years, which started in 2001 — if remember I that correctly…yeah, 2001 — I was freelancing before college. You’re doing side projects. I just left high school like a year before, and I’m just getting hired by people who knew I could do graphic design or art or anything creative that I could do. People are hiring me to help them. These were really small jobs, but I always had this thing growing up in the house I grew up in, which was with my father being my first door to the world on design and all that.

At a very young age, I had this image of myself, even at that age I fell in love with, like, movies and advertising, or anybody, if it is an advertising agency, or architecture or some kind of design firm. I was fascinated with that thing, not necessarily the movie itself. And I always had this perception of myself that I wanted to become someone so valuable.

And that’s where it started. I said, “well, one day I would like to have a global firm.” I think my name, PJ — the J — is important. That’s how people find me. So I added the J in there. I’m talking like twelve years old here. I’m writing. My first logo was done around that age, too, which was hand drawn, because what, my father? That’s the era he’s from. Everything was hand done, not computers. I learned from him. I didn’t know what a logo was. I didn’t know what graphic design was. I just saw him doing stuff, and I’m like, “he’s getting paid. This is fun.” And I started at that age, sketching out my logo, which was PJC. I didn’t think about the Phillip J. Clayton part of it yet. I was just like, “PJC represents me. That’s my name, my acronym.” What’s that word for that again? It’s not an acronym. What do you call it? Yeah, no, something more language related, I can’t remember. Initials. Is that what we call it? Initials?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, we can call it initials.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. Right. So that’s what I knew growing up. My initials. I didn’t know what a logo was. My father used to sign his work with PJC or PJ Clayton as well. He has a J as well. But he’s Paul and I’m Phillip, so we had the same initials.

As I got older, I started to discover all these things about design. And then Letraset. He had Letraset books, art history books. And I’m just reading through — being dyslexic, when I say “reading through”, I’m really looking at what I can understand. And I realized that there is the typography and this thing called advertising. And he used to do mockups that he presented to clients by hand. He’d build the actual billboards, miniature versions of them, and he understood color separation, for example. That was a manual process back then. And I just started falling in love, and I said, “I want to be the person who knows all of this stuff.”

I wanted to become an admin. This is before I even knew about David Ogilvy. I said I want to be an admin. I want to be some kind of…I don’t remember if I used the word “consultant” at that age. And by the time I was in my teens going to college, that’s when I started to freelance, I guess you’d say, officially, while I’m in college under Phillip, it used to be Phillip Clayton. And I added the J because I said, I need to stand out a little bit here. The more I got involved in projects, I started to have this awareness of how the world works. And I said, “I need to have a company.” It wasn’t a company at the time. It was just Phillip J. Clayton Creative. I think I had it at the time. And it was short of PJ Clayton Creative and worked with that for a while.

And then this one that you’re currently looking at, Phillip J. Clayton. I mean, PJ Clayton and company. That one happened last year when I was pivoting myself. When I finally said, “this is it”. I think I know who I am now and what I want to focus on. And so PJ Clayton and company is the newest iteration of that.

But it’s always been PJC. It’s always been something of that. I have logos. I have, like, I think six versions of this logo. This is the most current and pleasing one for me. I wanted to have something that represented me professionally, and I still wanted to maintain my individuality as a person, where I should be able to walk into meetings in corporate offices without having to become what people expect me to become, I guess, for those meetings. So it wasn’t very important that I maintained Phillip in some way.

And I think it was like five years ago, someone saw that name that Phillip J. Clinton on LinkedIn, actually. And they said, “oh, that’s a very prestigious name.” And that’s when I said, “oh, I’m changing this company. He’s going to be PJ Clayton & Company now.”

Maurice Cherry:

Hey, other companies do it all the time. They change up logos, they change their names around. So it sounds like you already sort of had that foresight.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, from childhood, like I said, I was always thought highly of myself, but I was dyslexic. So even thinking of myself as smart and intelligent was not my strongest attribute. I guess the self confidence, well, externally was low, but in my head I was very confident, and I knew what I wanted from a very young age. It was “you’re going to be a famous artist or you’re going to be in advertising” — that much I knew.

Maurice Cherry:

What were those early days of the company like? I mean, you started back in 2001. You were still in school. What were you doing?

Phillip J. Clayton:

It was just me. I had no concept of hiring people for help at that time. It was just me and some friends of mine. They work in production, the production entertainment industry, and I started working with them. It was mostly on our art direction and set design. I basically helped them with the graphic side of things. I get paid for that. And then I slowly worked my way into becoming into the management side where they start asking me to manage a whole production by myself: stage, set up, everything. Making sure everything looks good for either the TV screen or a concert. Also worked on music videos. So there’s a lot of art and graphic applications from my side. That’s why they wanted me to work with them.

I was doing all of that as myself, and that’s really the foundation of the company where I was known as, or I was dubbed as, a great graphic designer or an artist. So it was a lot of projects like that. It was either logo work or some kind of art consulting thing where I would use my artistic knowledge to help on something. On a visual. As a visual component.

Yeah. So that was the early days, but as a starting point of my official professional career.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, if you look from then to now, what are some ways — and I mean, you’ve sort of already talked about your personal journey growing as a creative — but what are some ways that the company has kind of changed from then to now?

Phillip J. Clayton:

There’s a dramatic change. I have partners now. I’ve narrowed myself into brand consulting. The clients are different. I mean, I’m between corporate startups and the industries are diverse. It’s fintech. So I’m actually solving business problems now. That’s a big difference there, as opposed to then being a creative service, as opposed to a company that has a creative service.

It’s flipped around now. What’s happened over the years is that I now focus on actual business problems. So I’m a business that offers creative services, but I align it all to a business objective or problem. So it has more impact now as a company and myself as a professional. The partners that I have, or people…clients that I work with, are way more, I guess, grown up. You’d say there’s an adult version of the company now where we’re having serious conversations, having fun about with what we do. Yes, but it’s really trying to have that impact on someone’s company who’s asking for help becoming an industry voice.

As someone once said, I’m speaking on behalf of the company when I communicate anything online. And now there’s this responsibility. It’s like you feel responsible now in regarding or accountable for anything that you say and do. There’s this thing behind me that I need to protect. And I guess that’s the big difference now from then, back then it was, “oh, I want to be creative and make a lot of money” and that’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s say like you have a new project that’s coming into you, like a new branding project. What does your creative process look like? Because I imagine there might be steps that you have to take to sort of transform that client’s vision into a brand identity.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Oh, absolutely. This is a diagnosis, part of the whole process that, well, once anyone engages me of interest, I have to ensure that one: I can actually help them. I can actually solve, or at least I have a process of how to solve it and then I have to align myself if it’s something that is where we are good fit. But once that happens, let’s say it goes well and we are actually going to work together. That process starts with assessing the company, the business development, product development and management. There’s usually probably a brand audit as well where they are in the market and are they okay in the market, should we point them in a different direction? But we have to start with assessing the company and what it offers. And process mapping is part of that, where we identify what happens when a customer is engaged on what happens at that point and then when the engagement ends, what happens after. So you identify these points, pain points or points of leverage. And a lot of times the process of helping that client is not necessarily always going to be on branding.

They may come for that, but it turns out that they need to redo their marketing or we need to do their business management. But in terms of creative process, it’s going to start with. I try not to, first of all, do research until I’ve been given the information or because I don’t want to taint that perception. And then once I have that, I observe that thing, whether it’s a product or the company itself, whatever I receive, I try to observe that from an ignorant place where I have no idea what this is, but who would buy it kind of thing or what’s the value of this thing that I’m looking at. So you have to understand how it works. And this is why I look at a company, you have to understand how the company works. Then you can go into the strategy of how to represent that value and leverage it as on the brand side. So the process is usually going to start with business.

It has to, in my opinion…I always start there. There’s conversation therapy. That’s the part where I am…it’s where I sit with the client and we have these conversations that lead into the development process. I mean, of course, you have to make sure your agreement is mutual regarding timelines and objectives. And I tend to ask this, by the way, I learned from my lawyer, “what’s your pain threshold” and “what’s the results you’re looking for?” Those two questions are really very good questions to start with.

Maurice Cherry:

Your pain threshold. Yeah, talk to me a little bit about that. What do you mean by that?

Phillip J. Clayton:

It’s a way of identifying what that client is willing to do to get the result they’re looking for. Because a lot of times people try to charm me for some reason. You know what I mean? They try to impress you with how much money they have or money is not an issue, or “we want to be different and bold.” Oh, I love that one. They always come with that one.

Maurice Cherry:

Everybody wants to be bold. Everybody. Every client wants that.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah. And there’s this unique thing and it’s like, what I’ve learned is that no matter how complex a problem is or how unique it is to the client, it’s not that unique on a wider viewpoint or industry viewpoint, but it’s unique to that client. No matter how similar, it’s always going to be unique to that client and that company. But bold and different, distinctiveness, differentiation, fine. But when they say they want to be bold and different, it’s not a well thought through statement, because there’s risk to that. And unless you’re willing to take that risk, you can only be so unique in this sea of sameness, right? But you can definitely stand out with distinctive marketing and branding and all that, or how you represent yourself. If you have something different about a product in a competitive market space, then, yeah, you can differentiate that, but it’s to be bold.

Boldness. I love boldness. It goes against fair, which is different from being brave. I think bravery is a product of boldness. But when they come to me like that and I look at the company, this is why I assess the company, I assess the market, I assess their thinking. You’re learning about the management, the owners, you’re learning how they think, what they like, what they don’t like. That’s what conversation is about. So the pain question is to find out or identify what they’re willing to do to achieve it.

And they can tell me when it’s a pain threshold, like, well, they’re willing to do whatever it takes or, yeah, we don’t want to rock the boat too much. You get those things when you ask a question, right? You start getting the real answers, right? Then based on that you say, well, what’s the result you’re looking for? By the way, I learned it from a divorce lawyer. That’s what she asked, because she said, you’d be surprised. These two parties are, when they really go in with that aggressive approach and they want this and they want that and they realize, well, you’re not willing to do anything for this because relationships, it’s complex, right? So yeah, they want to hurt the other person, but what they really want is justice. In the end. They both want justice, right? That’s where the question came from. So what do you want in the end of this? What are you hoping to achieve at end of this process? And once the pain is threshold, what are you willing to do to get it?

Maurice Cherry:

When you look at a brand or a brand design, are there key elements that you try to put into this design that really make it memorable? I would imagine those probably stem from that conversation like you talked about before.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Always. The value of the brand is really what it represents or who it represents. So what you put into that is meaning. People add meaning to things. When it’s symbols, so that’s what a philosophy is for; what I call brand philosophy. I didn’t come up with it; that don’t mean I called it that way. I need to have that information, that knowledge that helps me or the team working together to develop a philosophy. This represents the thinking inside the company or the ownership. For people to feel valuable on any team, they need to have that accountability that without them, this won’t work. So there has to be a philosophy for this company that the brand now would express as the philosophy that this is their belief system. Right? That’s what people buy into a lot of times, whether it’s in religion or not.

I use religion a lot in conversation because it’s a great example of what a brand is and the belief systems are and how people buy into it, getting vested interest. So I have to have a brand philosophy. And then what you do is you make a declaration, so the manifesto comes out. You make a statement as a company and a brand, or you make a statement that this is who we are, this is what we’re about, and it’s based on this philosophy. So when I look at brands and I’m observing them, yeah, you’re going to see the aesthetic stuff first, service level stuff.

These are functional assets, I call them, because the very good ones are usually from a really deep philosophy. And the results of that is something so simple and powerful. When I see too much effort in the visual, I’m not usually very impressed with that because it means that you’re trying to convince something that’s probably not there. When I see a simple symbol and a really distinctive, confident visual language and architecture to a brand, I know that this company is something that I need to pay attention to.

For example, and that’s what happened, as an example I could give you was when PepsiCo, Mauro Porcini did the PepsiCo design innovation. I think it was 2012, they never had that before. That changed PepsiCo completely as a corporation. How they go about their business and their marketing. Design innovation at PepsiCo added deep meaning to the brand itself because it tells me what their focus is, it tells me what their thinking is or how they perceive their market and the customers in that market. So I look for those things. I look for deep meaning behind the logo, I look for deep meaning behind the communication. And I think that’s because of myself. I think I tried to say less and speak more. I hope I’m doing that now. Sorry. I like to speak less and say more. That’s what I meant to say. Because I think that’s one of the most powerful positions you can have when you don’t have to explain anything, urge to explain anything. If a company can do that, then, I mean, if the brand can do it for a company, then you’re really powerful. So I look for that. I look for less communication, more visual communication, less explanation, less wordy. And visual means typography as well, but less wordy, less explaining everything to me. I just want to see it because the logo is what I’m supposed to see. I’m supposed to see your whole story.

And then the logo is supposed to intrigue me enough that I want to know more. And that’s where we pour meaning into brands, because the brand actually forms when that experience ends. Anything that you have in your mind now after that experience is what the brand does to you.

Maurice Cherry:

How have you sort of seen brand design evolve, like over the past 20 years? I mean, we of course now have AI, we’ve got machine learning and all these sort of things, the way that technology has sort of infiltrated a lot of the creative industry, but then we also have changing consumer behaviors. I’m thinking particularly in the U.S. — I’m sure this is different internationally, just based on economies — but there’s been ups and downs and waves of how people spend money, what people spend money on, what people even value from a brand. How have you seen things evolve over the years?

Phillip J. Clayton:

I’ve seen both sides of that. Good and bad, I guess, or horrible. I know it’s bad or good, there’s pleasant and there’s this horrible experience I’ve seen over at least ten years, is that with automation, the objective changes.

For some reason, the brands that are paying attention, their core values didn’t change, their philosophy didn’t change, what they did was change how they interacted with their consumer and society in a whole. For example, the shopping experience, waste management, these things also all add up to what the brand represents because the company has to do these things. So that’s one, I guess, favorable experience on the brand side. The other side is that it has opened up a whole new services on what a brand is and what the process of brand design and development is. Because I rarely if ever use the word branding as a process.

I specifically say brand design and development because branding for me isn’t actionable — it’s under that process of brand design and development. Branding is a stage of the process where you start to develop these assets that represent and communicate for the company. But because of technology, what’s happening now is that…I’m sure you’re aware of a lot of on-demand services are out and what they’re doing is titled branding. Visual design. Visual identities, for example, have somehow become a separate thing from the brand design process. I don’t know how that happened where people are actually doing visual design as a service and I’m thinking, “how do you get there without the brand design process?” So when you go into on-demand services, what you’re doing is…I can pay you less money because clearly you’re billing by time, which I don’t do, but you’re not really providing a valuable solution.

Now I’m not saying that smaller companies or startups who don’t have a big capital can’t start like that. Sometimes you just want to get the company out and if you focus on doing good business, the brand will form anyway. If you’re going to go into brand as a service and you’re expecting a certain result, then it’s probably not the best move to go on-demand. It’s probably better to focus on your business and just hold off on the development of the things like logos and whatnot. You can just register a company name and communicate as a company. Your brand will form and then obviously you made some money at this time and you can do it now you have a proper process, you have an understanding of what your company does and how people perceive you. But what I’ve seen with brands is that…I won’t say the entire brand landscape is like this, but there are some brands that are aligning themselves with deep and meaningful experiences for the consumer. They’re looking into how to make the seamless process of shopping and acquiring their products in a more sustainable way. Obviously there’s financial incentives there once a consumer buys into your thinking. The other side is that there are brands who are aligning themselves to trends. And we saw this when the pandemic came, when everybody started changing…well, a lot of people started changing their messaging. You’re now changing your core value. This is a philosophy — again, you have to have a philosophy that you stick to. It has to be something that you can adapt to environments in, but it doesn’t change your philosophy.

You’re only adapting how you do what you do, but not the philosophy of it, not your core values. That’s what I have seen happening regarding most brands is that they’re aligning themselves to trends and the consumer is dictating a lot about how they do things, and that’s fine. But at some point you have to stick to what you believe in and the consumer gets over it. We saw that with Nike and Kaepernick where Nike just stuck through, right? And I think that’s the most important part, is not to adjust the brand to fit with these trends, whether — and I mean this on a deep level — whether it’s with social movements or activism or anything, do not change your brand to fit that.

If I’m selling shoes, that’s what my company does, then my brand represents a company that sells shoes. And the background, I can support these organizations, but I should not be marketing them up front where I have a company with a brand that supports, I don’t know, some social movement and that has nothing to do with my business unless you build it into your brand like Patagonia. I think they are very open and upfront. It’s part of their brand philosophy. So unless you have that, I don’t see a hardware company to not sell certain tools, to align themselves with some kind of trend. A hardware company is a hardware company. The more tools or lumber they sell, the more money they make. What they can do now as a brand is that they can use that money, I guess, from your profits or whatever they used to choose to use to support some kind of social cause.

Do that, but don’t label it as your brand purpose, is what I’m saying. Don’t get up and say “our brand purpose is to support this cause.” Your brand purpose is to represent your company. That’s what a brand purpose is. That’s what has changed; brand purpose is not a new thing, and the brand no longer serves the purpose that it’s supposed to serve. It’s now serving human social causes or needs, or it’s not representing the companies effectively because they’re changing the meaning behind what a brand’s purpose is to represent your company. So your company is the one who should be doing the social support. The brand is only supposed to represent your company so that when you see it, you think of the company and what a company does for society. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

Maurice Cherry:

They’re starting to become synonymous these days, especially, I think with, not to put this blame on social media, but I do think because social media has allowed a channel of communication between the consumer and the company that probably didn’t really exist that transparently before. What you end up having is a lot of companies having to, in some ways, sort of change their brand values or put something on their brand values that do stick with a specific social thing that might be happening.

Of course, the one thing I’m thinking about that has to do with this is regarding the summer of 2020 here in the U.S. where a lot of people were protesting and they were out in the streets. That was George Floyd. And you had so many companies kind of posting black squares on Instagram and making vows to do this specific social change or whatever. And now three years later, all of that stuff is non-existent and cut. And I mean, people try to hold companies to try to hold them accountable for that sort of stuff. But to your point that you’re mentioning, brand purpose has now gotten…it’s changed and evolved to now include how the company feels or has a stance with or against particular social issues.

And I can imagine that’s like a really difficult place to be.

Phillip J. Clayton:

Yeah, you don’t want to make your brand too human. It’s patronizing. It’s like, okay, so everybody has this human-centric buzzword now, and everybody has this brand purpose buzzword. It’s like, what is your brand purpose? And they’re going to tell you, I don’t ask that question. I don’t ask what your brand purpose asks. What’s your company’s purpose? When people try to make the brand very human, you have to understand what that means. The human being is a contradiction and a paradox. We’re subject to change. So unless you’re willing to put your brand through that constant change, that’s what it means to be human.

So yes, you can have values like you’ve mentioned there that you can add things to, you can build on it. This can be a foundation, and you can build on that foundation. But if you don’t have a foundation to build on, what’s going to happen is that you’re going to put up a black square, and then it’s going to mean nothing afterwards. But if you’re a company that has a foundation and a core value, and you express that core value — and this is what we do — but we are going to show support for this thing. That’s fine. But don’t make these bold statements as if you’re going to change the company now for the next ten years because of what’s happening.

I’m still a company that sells ice cream. My brand is whatever I write on…it’s Phillip. I sell Phillip’s ice cream, so that’s my brand. But my company sells ice cream, and I would like to donate money to this cause I like to do this, and I like to do that, but that’s not the brand. That’s a company. The brand represents the thinking and philosophy inside the company, the type of people that work at the company. So a company that used its brand to put up that black square, and then nothing else followed that, was either a company that’s just saying, “we do support, but we’re going to get back to work” or a company that gave the wrong message out there and made some kind of promises to the Black community and hasn’t delivered on it, now they’re accountable. That becomes a marketing problem for you.

So you don’t want to make your brand do that. What you want is to remember that company management or business management and brand management are two different things. I don’t know if I’m saying it in a way that people understand or if I’m making sense to them, to anyone listening, but brand purpose — if I’m going to be grammatically correct, I’d say your brand’s purpose — is to represent your company. Your company is what you do and the people that do it or help you to do it, right? The company is a group of people. So it’s about your thinking. It’s about what you find important. It’s what you value as a company. The brand represents that.

And I love using Batman. It’s a very great example of what a brand is. All you see in the skies is his logo. That’s it. But the logo represents the promise he made to the city. That’s all it is. So your brand upholds the promise that the company made. Quality products. Quality service. These things. The logo is the symbol that represents the brand and the company all at once. It’s your identifying mark.

Just develop a good core value system, a belief system that you can uphold next 10, 20 years on average — most companies, I think, they last 30 years, unless they pivot or do some kind of innovation. Like Amazon did innovation. I guess you could say Facebook, because all of these companies, their lifespan was, I think, expected to be 30 years before they closed. But they innovated. So yeah, what’s the brand in that? If they’re going to, they didn’t change. They just adapted to a new environment, made product innovation, service innovation, better customer experience. I just want to make that part clear about the brand purpose because I think it’s very confusing and muddy right now with what a brand is.

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Tj Hughes

You may have been scolded as a kid for playing with your food, but with Tj Hughes’ new game Nour: Play With Your Food, that’s the primary objective! I had a chance to speak with Tj, the creative lead behind Nour, fresh off of the game’s release on PlayStation, Steam, and Epic Games.

We spoke a lot about the intersection of art and game development, and Tj shared how teaching himself and gaining knowledge working with a studio helped shape his perspective as a creative. Tj also talked about creating Nour’s unique gaming experience, the challenges and rewards of indie game development, experimentation, and what he wants to do next now that Nour’s been released. If you want to create something truly special, then be like Tj and think outside the box!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:

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

Tj Hughes:

Hi, I’m Tj Hughes, and I am the creative lead on Nour: Play With Your Food, which recently launched on PlayStation 5, PC, a few other platforms as well. Yeah, I just make 3D art and shaders and just colorful stuff on the computer. That’s it.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. And I definitely want to talk about the game; we’ll get into that in a minute. But first of all, congratulations on the launch of the game! I know that the game dev process is arduous. It is often not linear. So congratulations on publishing.

Tj Hughes:

Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s been a crazy and very long journey. It’s wild to see it just finished. Yeah, it’s hard to process and wrap my head around and also figure out next steps.

Maurice Cherry:

What’s the reception been like so far?

Tj Hughes:

Mixed, which I fully expected. Honestly, it’s a weird game. It’s a weird game and it’s a weird format for consoles, but I’m still confident in it because it works so well at events and stuff. Like, I’ve seen many people enjoying the game. I’ve seen when I was at PAX last this last month, it was super well received. Like, folks were really enjoying it and commenting on it. There was, like, sort of a crowd around it at the time at one point. The Panic booth was really cool and like really fun to be at.

Spaces like that, it really works. But the whole time I was making the game, I kind of feared, like, “oh, once it’s an at home experience that people can run on their consoles, folks might not get it” or they might not see the appeal, or they might have just, like, a different experience with it. Yeah, that kind of turned out to be the case.

We tried to do as much as we could to, design wise to, sort of curve that, but, yeah, it still kind of came across as just like, “oh, what is going on?” But then again, there were other folks…like, there were streamers that played it on stream to a Discord call or while having the chat open and they had a good time with it. And so it’s weird. It’s the kind of game where I feel like in a crowd of folks, it’s a really fun experience. It was an experiment, for sure. It got received like an experiment kind of would.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, I feel like all games are kind of like that, right? Like you hope that the story and the gameplay and everything that you’ve envisioned as a developer and as part of the creative team, you hope that that’s going to be received on the other end by the player. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s such an exercise in communication of just, like, how well do the concepts in this game communicate? Does it resonate with people? Do they enjoy it? And so, yeah, it’s an interesting thing because games are just such a weird medium in that just two people’s experience can be so different just because of how much is possible in games. There’s just infinite permutations of your setup or what you can do in the game. And so, yeah, it’s just really interesting to see that see folks kind of rate that experience because one person will have the best time ever and then another person is just like, what’s going on?

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s the way for a lot of games, I think. I watch streamers kind of play modern games versus retro games and things like that, and it’s funny how even I think the language in which people talk about games has changed a lot. I’m in my forties; I am a first generation gamer — I guess that’s kind of a good way to put it. And the way that we talked about video games, like when I was a teenager or in my twenties is totally different than how people talk about it now. People are obsessed about framerates and DPS — they’re spitting out all these terms and stuff and it’s like, “how about you just get immersed in the game and not try to technically pick it apart?”

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and there’s a lot of focus these days on bugs, too, and how finished the game feels and all that, which I understand, to an extent. Folks are looking out for their value and making sure that folks aren’t trying to penny pinch and whatever. But, yeah, I feel like that has kind of gone overboard and led to folks really technically picking apart a game where that’s not what it originally ever was about.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I just finished playing and beating two other Kickstarter-backed games. They’re both RPGs. One is called Chained Echoes and the other one is called Sea of Stars. And maybe this is my fault — I went on Reddit to kind of see what the discourse was, which…I went on Reddit. But it’s so amazing, like the spectrum of how some people love the game or how some people are picking little things apart. And some people love the music. Some people hate the music. “Why is the plot like this? Why are the characters like that?” It’s like…just play the game. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. Just put it down. Play something that you like. Maybe I’m looking at it too simplistically. I don’t know.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I feel that sometimes where it feels like the energy spent hating on certain games could be redirected to games that that person actually enjoys. Yeah, I don’t really know what that’s about. I think it kind of satisfies a lot of folks to kind of just, like, I don’t know, just heavily criticize stuff like that. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s something unique to the game space or not, but yeah, it surprises me too when it’s like an indie game that’s being picked apart where it’s just like, “hey, a dude made this in his free time. Maybe not fair to compare it to the game that’s made by a team of hundreds of people.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, like indie developer versus AAA studio. Of course there’s going to be a big disconnect in a lot of things just because of that, because of resources.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, just the medium of Reddit and Twitter kind of connects folks directly with the developer, which can be a double edged sword. I’ve received a lot of support and a little bit of hate as well, so that’s been interesting.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I think that’s like a media thing in general. Whether you’re a developer, if you’re a musician, if you have a television show, a movie, a podcast. I mean, in the early days when I did this, I would get so much hate on Twitter and it’s like…if the show is not for you, then don’t listen. People would call me a racist because I only have Black guests and I’m like, “what’s racist about that? It’s the focus of the show. Like, did you not know that’s what the show was about?” It’s crazy.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s wild. It’s not like you weren’t warned.

Maurice Cherry:

Right? And also we’re not trashing anyone. I can understand it. Maybe if it was like a hate-filled kind of show or something like that, but that’s not the case.

People find fault in what they want to find fault in. I find — and the Internet and social media really particularly, I don’t want to put this all on just the Internet — but social media tends to just exacerbate that because it’s given people the illusion that their voice matters.

Well, let me walk that back. It doesn’t necessarily give them the illusion that their voice matters. It gives them the illusion that it’s sort of like “the customer is always right.”

Oh yeah, that’s not always the case. I don’t know who came up with that, but that’s not always the case. Just because you feel away about it and you express it doesn’t make it like law or anything.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly how I’d put it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, it’s a delicate thing. I mean, a lot of creatives I know have sort of even walked back from social media because of that. It’s like, yeah, it can be a great thing for telling people about your work, but then the feedback you get can be just so caustic.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I’ve experienced that. And also, just, no folks who have experienced that firsthand, I completely understand it. It’s not for everyone. You do have to develop a thick skin about it. Just kind of learn how to not react to certain things.

Maurice Cherry:

We’ll get more into the game, but now that it’s out, do you have anything else that you want to try to accomplish before the year ends? I’m pretty sure a lot of this year might have been just all leading up to this launch date.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, pretty much all of this year. And I’ve been working on this full time. And that, first of all, is just really cool that I’ve been able to work on a passion project for this long because not everyone gets that opportunity [to] just sit down and just make what they want to make all day. And so that’s something about this project I’ve been super grateful about. It was able to be funded long enough for me to do that. It’s been awesome. But yeah, this year has been just leading up to just the launch of Nour and yeah, now that it’s out, I kind of told myself I was going to rest for a while and so that’s what I’m in the middle of kind of trying to do is just kind of take it easy. And of course we’re updating the game, like fixing bugs and stuff like that, but just in between that, I’m trying to just relax, take it easy as much as I can.

Also kind of let the next steps kind of naturally come to me because this project started out of just me messing around, having fun with a different kind of art medium. I think my best work kind of comes out that way, so I just want to kind of make sure I nurture that a bit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, you earned a break. You definitely have earned a break. So if you get a chance to take some just R&R, please do that because you definitely have earned it.

Tj Hughes:

I appreciate that. I really appreciate that. Yeah, it’s hard in game dev to just tell yourself to take a break because it’s just like, oh, wait, but there’s so much I could be doing, could be updating the game, could be pushing out this and that. It’s easy to just kind of let it run your life. Yeah, I’m just trying to get away from that habit.

Maurice Cherry:

Well, let’s go more into the game. Like we mentioned, it just launched in September. We’ll put a link to the game website as well as the trailer in the notes. I’ve played the game. I have it on PS5. I love that it starts off with your face so people know it’s from you. It’s from a Black person. I love that. I love that when you start it up, you’ve got that little…it’s like a 3D model of you with the terrifying jellyfish.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s photogrammetry.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. So much of the game reminds me of, like, Katamari Damacy from Keita Takahashi. It’s kind of this unfettered play. There’s some ambiguity to it. You kind of just have to figure it out as you go along. I mean, granted, the subtitle of the game is “play with your food.” So that’s the premise. You play with your food, and you have a number of different sort of food-related scenarios that you can work through.

What was the idea behind that? What was the idea behind the game in general?

Tj Hughes:

The game didn’t start off as a game idea, necessarily. It’s kind of interesting how it came about. It was a very just, like, nonlinear path towards making a game. So Nour kind of started out as an art test. I was basically figuring out how to make shaders for the first time ever and just, like, practicing being a tech artist. And I needed a subject for testing out these new art techniques and whatever. I looked at food immediately because I just recently had started branching out as far as food goes.

I was traveling. I went to my first GDC. I had discovered bubble tea, and I was like, “oh, this stuff is great. I love this.” And, yeah, it was just the perfect subject because it was colorful, it was playful, it had all these different elements that had a kind of physical component to it. I was just like, “oh, I can make this in 3D, like, using 3D models.” And in doing that, part of my inspiration was also anime food and how lovingly food is rendered in 2D by animators and how, say, with Ghibli movies, like, how the food looks so good, you want to eat it, you just want to eat it. Makes you hungry. And so, yeah, I was just hoping that video games as a medium could give the same kind of love to food.

Because food is usually a background prop in video games. It’s usually this low poly thing that an artist spends maybe a little bit of time on. It’s not the focus. I always thought that was really interesting. And also shout out to the low poly grapes in Final Fantasy XIV, I believe it is. But yeah, to the point of them even becoming a meme is just, like, low poly background food in video games. And so I just kind of wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to be like, okay, what if it was just, like, high fidelity, super detailed, foreground food where just, like, everything’s, like, way too many polygons and just, like, HD and so, yeah, that’s kind of how it started.

It was me just making 3D models with different effects on them, different shaders and stuff, and as detailed as possible, and then just taking a screenshot and putting it on Twitter. And folks were super into it. The response was immediately just like, “oh man, that makes me hungry. That looks so good. Wow, that’s great.” Yeah, just super positive responses about it. And eventually I got to a point where some local friends of mine wanted to show…they wanted to show the art at an event, at an event about just, like, interactive art. Just saying anything that’s like art plus tech.

And I was like, okay, it’s not interactive, so it probably wouldn’t work at this exhibit. Not exhibit, but like, event, but I’ll see what I can do. And so I just hooked it up to some controls. Pressing a button on a keyboard just makes a food appear and fall down from the top of the screen. And that’s it. That’s all it started out as. The response was great. Folks were super into it, they were having a lot of fun with it.

That was kind of my moment where I was just like, oh, this is something. I’m onto something. And my background was already making video games, but I kind of didn’t expect this to really be a game. I was just like making stuff because it was pretty and just putting it out there. The game itself kind of evolved from folks, like sharing feedback, just being like, “oh, it would be cool if this food was in it”, or “what if this button did this? This button made the food fly up”, or like, “hey, you should add a meat grinder”, or whatever different things folks would say about the game. And then I would just be like, “oh, that’s great”. And I would kind of like, add it and then see how folks reacted at the next event. I was doing a lot of events and so it was this kind of back and forth of just like, I could directly talk to the folks who were playing the game and get immediate feedback about what folks really wanted in it.

And so, yeah, it was just like a really fun process and yeah, just like a weird way to make a game because I didn’t really start off with a premise or like a concept. I just started just making it from scratch, like no game design document or anything, just directly from my brain into the game engine.

Maurice Cherry:

So there wasn’t really like a story that you were trying to tell. It was just an experience you wanted people to have, it sounds like.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I had some visuals that I really wanted to make and I just wanted folks to kind of appreciate that without really needing a ton of context. Yeah, there wasn’t really much set up or anything like that. I was just kind of like, “hey, this is a really pretty food. Look at what games can kind of be and look like. You can use this medium to do a lot of crazy stuff. What if we just appreciated the visuals and textures of food?” So, yeah, it was just like an art exercise that was just really heavy on the visuals. That was really what I wanted to accomplish. It was just getting folks to kind of appreciate that side of things.

Maurice Cherry:

Now, is there an optimal way that you suggest people play the game? Because I played it on PS5 and I’ll admit that it felt like the controller was holding me back. I think there are certainly parts where if you, I think, pull a trigger, like a magnet will happen. Or if you press a button, it can change the color of the food or it can change the rate at which the food drops or something like that. It almost felt like, I don’t know if a controller is the right way to play this, and then I’ve seen videos of you playing it and you’re playing on this almost like 16 button, like MIDI controller almost. So I’m curious if there’s like an optimal way that you think people should play the game.

Tj Hughes:

The original version of the game played with a MIDI controller. The first first version was just like…keyboard, but then after that I started getting into MIDI controllers and just like music production and stuff like that. And I hooked up a MIDI controller to the game just for the fun of it. And it’s the Midi Fighter which is this board of 16 buttons and they’re like, arcade-like, fight stick buttons. So it was trying to be like kind of a reference to fighting games, but repurposed for music production. But then I’m kind of like taking it back into video games, which is sort of funny. That was originally how I presented it at museums and stuff. I would just bring out this controller and yeah, it was a really good way to play because it was just the satisfying nature of pressing a button and then seeing a really high-quality visual appear or being able to interact with it in some way.

It was a really satisfying thing. The initial release. We don’t have MIDI support in the current version of the game, but it’s something that we’ve been meaning to put back in because trying to support consoles and stuff, I couldn’t really have it, the MIDI tech back end, in there. But yeah, we’re trying to put it back in. It kind of just got broken along the way of making the game. Yeah, that’s something that we’re trying to get back to the roots of. It’s just like, okay, this game has been shown at a few exhibits with this controller. It would be great if folks could plug in kind of any controller of that sort and just play the game and just see what happens.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I like that experience, though, because it sort of reminds me of sort of like early gaming in the 90s, where I think developers were experimenting with a bunch of different types of input styles. I mean, of course, you had Nintendo with their standard controller. Sega had the same thing. But then Nintendo eventually also had R.O.B. the Robot, and there were like two games that you could use with the robot and then the Zapper. I think the Zapper came with when I got my Nintendo in ’85, I think it came with a Zapper. So it was like a combination [Super] Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, and so that’s an alternate way that you can play the game.

And then with Super Nintendo, you’ve got [the] Super Scope Six or whatever. And so there were all these sort of, like, alternate controllers for different games that you could play the games with. So I like that. This kind of harkened back to that for me because now everything is either Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, PC, like, it’s one of those four things and it doesn’t really give you a lot of variety onto how you play. It just the platform that you play it on.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and the folks would call all that stuff, like, gimmicky back in the day. And I always thought it was pretty fun, like, Nintendo would always try to be the ones to use those really alternative controllers. Yeah, I miss it. I genuinely miss that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, this game, to me, like I said, it really kind of harkens back to that and I think it opens up creativity for the gamer in a different way that’s not just — it’s pressing buttons, but it’s not in like a standard type of controller-esque format. It feels like to me, when you mentioned that sort of 16-button thing, that almost kind of feels like a good way to play it, especially because you were play testing this at exhibits. So you weren’t like play testing this in a play lab or something like that. You were out in open spaces and mixed spaces with people, so people could really interact with it any way they wanted to.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, and even though we were kind of just siloed off to controllers with the console release of this, we tried to do as much as we could with it as well. So with a DualSense controller, we’re just like, okay, even though you’re just controlling the game in a regular way, we still want to find alternative ways to interact with the game. So we use the microphone for that. And in the game, you can blow into your controller and that will blow all of your food away. Or if you make a slurp sound that’ll suck all the food towards you. And then if you whistle or in pitch with a song that’s currently playing in the game, all your food will kind of levitate. And so we just wanted to just whatever way you’re interacting with the game. We wanted to make it to where you just had options that were just kind of weird to kind of complement the MIDI controller back in the day. It was just like, okay, so at least with this controller, there’s something special that you can do that you couldn’t even do on the MIDI controller.

Maurice Cherry:

I mean, I could see certainly something like this doing well on VR or even something like I know you mentioned like, Nintendo with these different controller things. I mean, like the Switch controllers, you can kind of have each joy con in your hand or something like that. I could see definitely a future of don’t. Like, maybe I’m putting idea in your head, I don’t know, but I could see a future where you’re using that as the inputs as opposed to like button presses with some stuff. And that could be another way to unlock more gameplay for people, more appeal.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, yeah, VR is an idea I’ve had for a while. I would still love to do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s talk more about sort of the team and the game dev process because I know that the process can be long. You raised money on this via Kickstarter and you had a team behind you as well as you also worked with Panic for kind of helping to distribute the game. Talk to me about that.

Tj Hughes:

So it’s a fairly small team that we’re working with. So there’s Me. There’s Joey. He does programming. There’s Maximilian. He helps with initially music, but now it’s kind of just everything that he helps out with. Just programming just so much. He’s come a huge contribution to the game as well as James.

Also, like, on the music, we had like a two man music team who just kind of became developers over time. We have Mark who is on sound design and sound effects. So any of the foley or just kind of ASMR sounds that you hear throughout the game, that’s him. And so, yeah, just like small team of five folks just kind of making this over discord, basically. I’m kind of like leading the pack on that. It’s a really interesting process. Yeah, just like especially on a weird game like this, it’s kind of like anything goes type thing where there’s been just weird ideas presented to me, where I’ve just been like, yeah, send it, let’s do it. That’s how multiple things got into the game.

Like the jellyfish idea, just like having this character that comes and steals your food. When you say nonlinear, that describes everything about this game’s process from the funding to the idea, to its actual technical development. Yeah, it’s just completely nonlinear. But it’s been cool though. It’s been a really cool way to kind of make something because it truly felt like we’re just kind of playing around, really. And just like, any idea that sounds cool, we’re just like, yeah, let’s do it.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, I mean, we. Talked about this a little bit before recording. The game development process can be long, especially if you’re raising funds through a crowdfunding medium like Kickstarter. There’s been video games that I have helped to fund in the past that just took much longer, I think, than the developer originally might have thought of for it to come out. Like, we talked about Omori, for example. This was a game by an independent developer, Omocat. They got funding for it through Kickstarter in 2015. And I want to say it didn’t start coming out on consoles until like…I know it came out on the Switch in 2020. It might have been out on Steam in 2019, but it was years past when they initially said this is when the game is coming out. And Kickstarter, and you can probably attest to this, Kickstarter is a bit of a double-edged sword. Like, yes, you have people’s funding, but the people that fund it can be real assholes when it comes to, like, “where’s my game? Why don’t you have it now? You said it would be here by this date, I want my money back”, blah, blah, blah. Tell me about that, because I feel like the game dev process and then having to answer to backers kind of might have been a source of contention throughout this process.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s always tough dealing with folks who just really want the product. I luckily feel like I found a really nice corner of the Internet who backed this game because folks have been, for the most part, just super patient with it. It’s actually crazy because, yeah, we’re talking about Omori, but I think we took even longer as far as when the Kickstarter started versus when the game actually came out. It’s such a long process and through so much of it, I felt bad. I was just like, “oh, dang, folks are looking for this.” And I’ve definitely had folks kind of reach out when things were more silent because we’re just really heads down on the game and trying to make it happen. So folks have been super nice and super patient for the most part, but there are definitely a few standout folks that reached out and just weren’t so nice. I definitely had just like a few folks get in the Twitter mentions and it wouldn’t be like a majority by any means. It’s maybe like five people, but we kind of, as humans, remember negative experiences way more than positive ones. And so it was just really stand out how someone called it vaporware or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no…

Tj Hughes:

I was just like, “okay, you don’t even have the game yet, so that’s an early judgment.” Yeah, just certain folks, someone got really extreme with it, but luckily we have what’s called the block button, and so that is a fantastic tool to curb these kinds of responses. But yeah, I don’t know. I’m super grateful to have found just like a really supportive fan base and backer base. It’s a hard thing because you kind of can’t predict how development is going to go. Because straight up, I thought this game would be wrapped up by 2020, and then 2020 comes around, boom, hit with a pandemic, right? And I was just like, “oh, okay.” So this is kind of a great time for games in general, but terrible time for [the] mental health of tiny teams working on very ambitious projects. That was an interesting hurdle that no one was prepared for. But it’s hard to make such an ambitious project around such an unpredictable hurdle, right?

Maurice Cherry:

For people that are listening, Kickstarter is not a store. If you pledge something and you get your pledge rewards, that’s great. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m not going to spend time on it on this podcast, but there are a lot of campaigns that I have helped crowdfund. Where the money? I’ll never see that money again. The developer or the creator, whomever, has just took off with the church’s money, as they would say, you don’t know where they’re at.

I think one campaign I did, the person…it was for tea, of all things, this guy had a tea company and he was trying to raise some money for new blends, and then he just never sold the tea. And then he used the money to come out with an LP because he was starting his music career. It was so stupid.

You have to kind of vet, of course, how this goes. I tend to vet more projects where I can see the people have had some track record of success. But it’s tricky. I mean, I think whenever you’re crowdfunding, it can be kind of tricky, but just realize there are real people behind this. There’s real people behind this. And that if stuff happens, stuff happens. But curb it a bit. Don’t get all in people’s faces about it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, I think it’s very fair to be like, “hey, we’d like some communication about this” and all that. When it veers into the realm of harassment, of just, you don’t need to attack their character. I don’t know. You don’t need to send a death threat.

Maurice Cherry:

It was never that serious, especially for video games. It’s a video game! What are you getting that riled up about? It’s a game.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it’s a game, not a therapy session. It’s interesting. Also, he made an LP with the money?

Maurice Cherry:

I’m not going to shout out the name of the company, but they were making tea blends. I had gotten some of their tea before. I’m a tea aficionado and I really like tea. And so I was like, “yeah, I’ve had some of their tea before”, sure. And I think they raised maybe like $8,000. And then we just never heard from the person again. And you know how on Kickstarter you can see the person’s profile is sometimes connected to a Facebook page or like their Facebook profile. And so basically people in the comments had clicked through and was like, “wait a minute, he’s making music now?” Like, wait a minute. What? So we’re just never going to see that tea again because now he thinks he’s a singer?

Tj Hughes:

Okay, for a second I thought they posted their own backer update and was just like, “Actually…”

Maurice Cherry:

Oh no, they never updated or anything! They just went completely radio silent.

Tj Hughes:

Oh, okay. And people just kind of put it together. Okay, for a second I was about to say, that is so bold, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Let’s kind know switch up a little bit here. We’ve talked about the game and we’ve talked about development and stuff. Let’s talk more about you so people know more about just kind of your background and how you got to where you are now. You’re in St. Louis, Missouri now. Is that where you’re from originally?

Tj Hughes:

Yes. Yeah, I lived here my entire life, bro.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Did you sort of get exposed to a lot of creativity and design and stuff growing up? I’m guessing that you probably have.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. So my mom is a traditional artist. She does like acrylic and whatever medium she can get her hands on, really. And my dad was a jazz musician. Kind of just naturally got exposed to art super early on because of that. It was interesting because no one was really trying to push me in the direction of art. It just kind of happened just like naturally. And my dad was also really into tech and would have just like random trinkets and synthesizers and circuit boards just strewn throughout the house and yeah, I just kind of had this subconscious interest in tech that I never really noticed as being weird or different until later on when I just kind of said it all at once.

I was like, “oh yeah, I was kind of exposed to this stuff from way back in the day.”

Maurice Cherry:

That’s awesome.

Tj Hughes:

I grew up just like drawing comic books and stuff. Not to expose my brother and I, but we had our own Sonic characters and stuff. That’s how we started out. We just draw our own Sonic characters and that was huge for us. We would just make these comic books. That was kind of just the early influence. And then, I don’t know, just as the Internet was a thing, we started playing more video games. I was just interested in both those things at the same time.

And as a kid I would just always be like, “oh, I want to be a game designer when I grow up.” I said that without any kind of confidence at all. It was just kind of like a kid’s dream sort of thing. And I remember the moment where I kind of really questioned it, where I was just like, “oh snap, I’m not good at Math. How am I ever going to make video games? This is going to be so difficult.”

But then fast forward to when I was 13. I discovered Unity while procrastinating some homework. One day, I was like, “oh, what is this? It’s an engine that anyone can download. That’s crazy. Let me go and do that.” And, yeah, I just started going through these PDF tutorials on how to make an FPS game. I made this really crappy little first person shooter project, but I was learning the engine, and it was before I was even realizing it, I was just like, “yo, wait, I’m actually doing this. It kind of makes sense. It’s just like, logic.” Yeah, that’s when I kind of realized, like, “oh, snap. I have a really self-learning oriented brain” because I wasn’t particularly good at school. I wasn’t really good at Math, but just figuring things out and putting things together and disassembling them, I was just like, “wow, I’m great at this.” And so, yeah, it just kind of really worked for me. Just, like, teaching myself the video games and how to make them and how to make my own art really.

Yeah, that kind of just worked out.

Maurice Cherry:

First of all, I have to say that’s excellent that you were picking that up so young and that it was available for you and you were in an environment where I’m guessing it didn’t sound like your parents at all were trying to hold you back from doing that.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always realized I’m super lucky about was like, they’ve always pushed me in this kind of direction or just been supportive when they learned what I was making. Yeah, they’re just like, “wow, that’s really cool.” They’ve always been okay with me going into art because they did it themselves. And anytime I would show them something, they’d be like, “wow, that’s really cool.” Even if my mom didn’t really understand it, to this day she’s like, “what do you do? You do, like, the computer thingy?” But she’s still really supportive. She set the donut from my game that’s her wallpaper on her phone. I’m just like, “okay, that’s really cute.” I feel really honestly supported.

The only hard part was when I decided to not go to college for any of this. That was something that was very controversial for a lot of the adults in my life. They were just like, “no, you need to go to college. You got to get a degree. You had to have a fallback, and you had to get the proper education”, blah, blah, blah. But it was also just like, “yo, we can’t afford that. Student loans and all that. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to have debt. I just want to make money and also create cool stuff.”

That was really hard. Part of it was just, like, convincing folks that, hey, I know how it looks, but I have a plan. Yeah, I think I can say that it’s worked out and that school wasn’t exactly necessary for this kind of work, but I know it is helpful for a lot of people to have a curriculum and go through that path. And so, yeah, I’m not knocking it by any means. Just with my set of circumstances, I don’t think it would have been the best move.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, that’s something that the prior generation, I think, is always going to try to impress upon the younger generation. Not necessarily so much the value of education because you were teaching yourself, so you were getting your own education. You were learning about this at a young age prior to college, you were creating projects. I mean, a lot of that is honestly stuff that you would do in college anyway, just with a price tag attached to it. But I think specifically for game development, that’s such a different type of field than say, being a doctor or an engineer or something like that. I mean, game development as we know it is still a very young field and so the ways that you get into it are not necessarily through a four-year institution.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Another part of it is that things change so fast that by the time you get through your curriculum, it’s just like, boom, everything’s different. There’s a new tool that everyone uses. Everyone stops using this engine because of the weird PR or whatever. There’s so much that can change so rapidly. I think it really lends itself to self teaching because then you can just find all the latest, most up to date stuff and yeah, people make tutorials out. People make plenty of tutorials nowadays. Even when I got started, there was a lot of stuff, but I can’t even imagine having access to the amount of content there’s out there now. Yeah, I feel like you can kind of make anything nowadays.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah, everything you mentioned is 100% like it was in the days of the early web. I’m talking like maybe 98 to from 1998 to 2008 was such a huge jump in web development because the browser went from being this tool of presentation to now a tool for development. And so you started having people developing tools in the browser, using the browser not just as a viewport, but also as your development environment and everything. And there were no programs back then to really teach web design. Like, I went to school and majored in computer science initially because my dumb ass was like, oh, if I’m a computer science major, that means I can be a web designer. Wrong. Absolutely wrong. Everything I learned about web design has been self taught because back then there were no courses unless you went to like an art institute or something like that.

And even then, as you mentioned, the technology changes so fast that the curriculum is out to date. It’s out of date as you’re learning it. So it sounds very similar to the early days of the web, is what you’re mentioning with game development. So it seems like you certainly went in the right. I mean, look, you have a video game that’s out now on PlayStation Steam. You’re doing something right. So I think the way that you went certainly is what’s worked for you, which is all you can ask for, really.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah. Super grateful it’s worked out this way so far. It was also great just being like, “oh, hey, this is a possible route. You don’t have to fork over just like a bunch of debt just to get into this field and make stuff that you care about.”

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah. Now, you did start your early career at a studio. You were at Happy Badger Studio. How did you get started there? How did you find out about them?

Tj Hughes:

Once again, through Twitter. Weirdly. Everything in my career has happened through Twitter. Both getting this game out there, getting hired there. Yeah, it was a similar sort of thing. I discovered Unity when I was 13 and kind of just throughout the rest of high school, I’ve just been just making little experiments and learning. Every now and then, I would do a game jam. I would do the Ludum Dare 48 hour game jam a few times. I would just make things to show my friends and I would take screenshots of what I’m making and put it on Twitter. I had a bunch of projects that were way too big that I was never going to complete, if I’m being completely honest. But I was just like a kid in middle and high school, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But it was still really fun stuff to make and it was still really pretty — the different kinds of projects I was making just from those screenshots and stuff.

I would show off this company, Happy Badger Studio, they saw my work on Twitter and they hit me up. They’re just like, “hey, who are you? Want to come by our studio and just hang out because your stuff is crazy.” And so, yeah, we did that. And they offered me a contractor position and me being fresh out of high school, this was right after I graduated, I was like, “this is really cool. This is a dream job.” Like, exactly the kind of stuff I want to be doing. Yeah, absolutely. And so, yeah, I worked with them for a bit and then became a full-time employee there after a few years. It was just really fun. I got to do the exact part of game dev that I wanted to do, which is technical art. I really just like the art pipeline, the art side of things.

And so, yeah, that was just like a really good situation. And there we made SmuggleCraft, which is a hovercraft racing game with procedurally generated tracks and customizable ships. And yeah, it was a super fun project to work on and [it] really got me started with tech art. And I got to really control the art in the game, which was super fun. Like, all the colors and particle effects, that was all my domain. And so, yeah, that was just, like, super fun and a really good experience. I feel like that was honestly my college course.

Maurice Cherry:

I’d say that was your college course, your first real job…I mean, that kind of work right out of high school? I mean, that’s the dream. That’s the dream. Like, if you’ve been doing it, especially as a kid and you’re able to go right into working, I mean, that’s the best kind of education. Especially like, as you said, you learn by doing, so that’s perfect. That’s perfect for you.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really good situation. That’s actually where I met Joey, who’s on my team as well. And he taught me so much of what I know about programming because we just have sessions of C# just sitting down and he just tells me that he’s a wizard programmer. He knows so much. I know just enough to get by and actually make a game, but he’s who I go to when I’m just like, “okay, I need to do this very specific thing. How?

Maurice Cherry:

What’s in the future for Terrifying Jellyfish? I mean, we’ve talked about the game coming out. We’ve talked about sort of how you’ve gotten here and everything. And now that the game is out and it’s getting that reception and you’re in this sort of rest period, I should say, what do you want to do in the future? What’s next?

Tj Hughes:

I’ve been thinking about this. It’s hard to say. I don’t really know. I definitely have ideas for projects, but I definitely need to take some time to think about how I would make them happen. Like what the ideal setup is, whether I have a publisher yeah, just what the setup would be. But right now I’m focusing on just kind of resting up and just taking a break and letting what happens next come naturally. I don’t really want to force a project. I want to make something that folks are actually genuinely interested in.

I think I’ll do a lot of what I did for Nour. I think I’m going to just kind of mess around a bit for fun and try to fund that as much as possible, but just mess around with a few different art projects, put it out there, show folks, see what they like the most, and then just see it evolve from there. I think that’s kind of my formula now, is not just taking bets on what I, as my ego thinking, is the best idea possible. I want to actually get feedback in real time of just like, “oh, folks other than me actually like this. I’m going to pursue this idea now.” I think that’s kind of going to be my approach. So, yeah, my plan is just mess around a bit, throw a bunch of stuff at the wall, see what sticks.

Maurice Cherry:

Basically that’s a good strategy. I like that. I mean, it’s certainly different from what you would see maybe, like, a bigger studio might do, where they might make — and I don’t necessarily mean a game studio, but like, say a television studio — might make a bunch of pilots and then they will do testing on them and then they’ll sort of go and see, “okay, this is the first one” where instead maybe they could put all the pilots out on YouTube and let people sort of see which one they respond to instead of going with what the studio might think. So I think that’s a good tactic.

Tj Hughes:

I like that, yeah, thanks. Also, like something I’ve been talking about because I want to put the seed out there. I feel like if I talk about it, that’s an easier chance of kind of manifesting it. I want to do more museum games because Nour started out as a museum game, just being installed somewhere with a controller and then folks can walk up and interact with it at an event or something like that. I really love that format of game. I kind of feel like I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to worry about the tech of it all. I don’t have to worry about performance and optimization.

I’m just like, “okay, it runs on the computer and it’s interesting and it’s wacky and attention grabbing” and that’s all I had to worry about. I love making stuff like and also I got to travel to a lot of really cool places with this project as well. I got to go to South Korea, Amsterdam, like South Africa, just bringing this game to different exhibits and stuff. And so yeah, I would just love to do more of that. I don’t know how much of that it’s going on post pandemic, but yeah, any events like that I would love to be a part of again and they would just kind of find me as well. I have no idea how these opportunities were kind of come to me, but definitely want to do more stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:

I think that’s awesome. I mean, I can certainly see this kind of thing being done in design museums. Like Atlanta has a museum of design. Atlanta. I think they just had a gaming exhibit earlier this year where they I think it was called Pixels and Code. I don’t recall it, but I could think like design museums, that would work. Conferences could work. There is a conference and it doesn’t go on anymore; maybe it will in the future, but there’s this conference in Portland called XOXO….

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, Nour was actually there one year. I think it was like 2018 or 2019.

Maurice Cherry:

Oh wow, okay. I was there in 2018. My team was there in 2019. The startup I was working at at the time, we did an event in 2018. We did like this art and code event, but they had this game expo that’s where I played, like, Hair Naw and a couple of other games. I assume they probably had it the next year, so if it was 2019, I wasn’t there, but members of my team were there. That’s cool. I could see it being done in something like that where people can really interact with it in an open space.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, it was a really cool setting for it because the screen that they got, I guess it was a projector, it was gigantic. They really knew how to present the game. And so I thought that was great, seeing just this HD food up on this big, giant screen. And so, yeah, just more things like that. I just loved how just wacky and just different that convention was.

Maurice Cherry:

Yeah.

Tj Hughes:

I just hope more things like that exist, like post pandemic.

Maurice Cherry:

So for people that are hearing your story, they’re listening to you, how you came up in terms of learning about game dev, and now you have your own game out there. What would you recommend to them? If they’re looking to create their own game, what kind of advice would you give them?

Tj Hughes:

I would say just use what resources you have and go for it. It’s completely okay to just google everything. That’s basically what I did. I just googled my way into a career. I have no formal education about any of this. And so use your confidence and ask people as well. Ask people who’ve done it before. There are so many folks that are more than willing to share expertise.

Mentorship is kind of how I really got through most of this. Just folks from Happy Badger Studio just being like, “oh, here’s how you do this. Here’s how you start an LLC and get your business organized. You want to start your own bank account as, like, that’s separate from your personal funds.” There’s just, like, a lot of little pieces of knowledge that aren’t actually hard to execute, but once you know them, it just sets you up. Yeah, I don’t know. Just like tax organization. Don’t ignore that stuff.

Like, taxes. This is if you’re making it commercially, like, if you’re actually trying to make money from it, I would say the biggest thing is start small and ramp up incrementally. Think of it, I guess, like. working out. [That] sort of thing. You don’t go right to 300 pounds on your first deadlift or whatever. You want to work your way up there because you don’t want to tear a muscle. You don’t want to burn out. You want to do what you’re capable of. That was something that I really had to just learn.

It had to just be nailed in me because, yeah, starting out, I wanted to make the biggest FPS project ever. I wanted it to be multiplayer and have, I don’t know, like, be an MMO at the same time. Just a ton of players on the same server, zombies everywhere. It was just like I was in way over my head. I was never going to do that. But still fun to start out and mess around with.

Then I scaled it back and my first game, Feesh, that’s when I made that. I made that during a Ludum Dare game jam, like in 48 hours. That was the tiniest possible little arcade game. I released it on Steam for like 99 cents and with no marketing; folks bought it. That was a great experience. And so I think there really is something to keeping it simple, scaling it back and cutting things. If you have an idea for a feature, just imagine the game without it. I can’t stress that you can never cut too much from a game.

Just actually done is so much better than having it be perfect.

Maurice Cherry:

Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Nour, about the game? Where can they find that information online?

Tj Hughes:

Terrifyingjellyfish.com is the main spot, but social media-wise, Instagram is the most active — @terrifyingjellyfish on there. I post anything I’m working on to there. I’m on Twitter, X, or whatever the heck you want to call it, at terrify– @jellyoccult or at @_Teejay5 online, everywhere. Food.game, if you just want to look up Nour and buy that game. Yeah, everything’s linked. So if you just look up “terrifying jellyfish”, you’ll kind of find everything all right.

Maurice Cherry:

Sounds good. Tj Hughes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you, one, for just…I mean, you’re such a creative force. I mean, I feel like I’ve learned a lot just from hearing your story and hearing you talk about game development and your process. I think what you embody is kind of the core thing that I try to put forth with Revision Path is to let people know that there’s more than one way to get to what your definition of success is. And I love that for you. You’re really creating what you want to see in the world. It’s coming from this really pure place and I’m really going to be excited to see what you do in the future.

But yeah, definitely take your rest now, but in the future I’m going to be so excited to see what you accomplish. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Tj Hughes:

Yeah, thanks for having me on here. Yeah, it’s been really fun talking about games and through the whole process.

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