Nick Caldwell

Nick Caldwell is passionate about inspiring people to get into technology. As chief product officer of Looker, he oversees the company’s product, engineering and design teams, and also serves as one of the public faces of the company. (And that face is all smiles — Looker was acquired in 2019 by Google for $2.6 billion!) What does life look like on the other side of such a big buy? Well you’ll just have to listen and find out!

Nick talked about how his dad’s Tandy 1000 sparked his love of programming, what it was like attending MIT and interning at NASA, and even went into his years at Microsoft and Reddit before joining Looker. From here, the conversation turned towards the state of the Valley, and how he sees opportunities out there from his point of view. Nick also shared what success looks like for him at this stage of his career, and talked about how he gives back to the next generation of Black technologists. It’s really an honor to share Nick’s story with you all!

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Full Transcript

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

Nick Caldwell:
Hey, I’m Nick Caldwell, Chief Product Officer at Looker.

Maurice Cherry:
So talk to me about your work at Looker. I’m curious, what is an average day like for you there?

Nick Caldwell:
Oh, complex question. I’m a Chief Product Officer, so that means I’m responsible for product engineering and design. I also have the security team, which I’m responsible for. My average day is honestly really hard to predict. But I can tell you what I aspire for it to be is that I’ve enabled all the people who work for me to get their best jobs done without my help.

Nick Caldwell:
That is to say, if I’m doing my job correctly, all of my team members know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing to contribute to the overall strategy, and then I don’t have to jump in and bother them about it. They can do it themselves.

Nick Caldwell:
But what that leaves for me is, in the instances when my team can’t do that execution without my help, I get to jump in, get people unblocked, help solve problems. And I guess, the position I’m in, only the really juiciest most difficult problems bubble up to me.

Nick Caldwell:
And then beyond running the team in that way. The other cool thing you get to do as the Chief Product Officer is you get to be kind of a public representative for the company. So I spent a lot of time talking to customers. Just before recording this podcast, I was doing an interview with a news publication to talk about our upcoming release, Looker Seven. Just generally finding ways to represent the company publicly, not just by talking about the product but also by bringing my own personality to the mix. It is a really fun part of the job.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like, one, you help with the vision being the representative of the company, but then also ensuring that the people under you can manage and do strategy and actually contribute to the overall product.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah, for sure. We’re scaling. Looker is a fast growing company. I guess I should mention, we just got acquired by Google, and that’s kind of a testament to how well the business is going. But as we scale, we have to think about how does our organization handle more people who work for us?How do we handle the much larger volumes of customers that we’re going to have? For me that means thinking about, obviously the product, what we’re building, but in some sense, I also have to treat the organization like a product as well. It has needs that grow and develop over time as well.

Nick Caldwell:
So, trying to figure out where our next generation of leaders is going to be, trying to empower them with all the same sort of skills and techniques that I would want to apply myself. But I can’t be everywhere, so we’ve got to have that next generation of leaders come into play. And leadership development and that sort of class of problem is really fun. I enjoy coaching folks, mentoring them and then seeing them go up notches in their career. And I’ve been fortunate, for the past few jobs I’ve had, to be in positions where I am doing a lot of that scaling and growth and people development, and get to see the fruits of that bare out in successful products. And also just seeing people get further along in their careers.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah, it’s fun. I enjoy that part of my job quite a bit.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. As I was doing my research, I was looking up the acquisition, $2.6 billion.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Nick Caldwell:
Not bad. Not bad for a boy from PG County. Yeah, we’re doing pretty-

Maurice Cherry:
I know all that money didn’t go to you, of course. It went to the company, but I’m curious, how did that acquisition change your life?

Nick Caldwell:
There’s a couple of different ways to answer it. I’ll give you the corporate answer. I think you want the real answer. The corporate answer is the corporate answer is we’re going to be … Sorry, the deal hasn’t actually closed down. I think it will probably close by the time this podcast airs, but what it means from the product perspective is we’re going to be able to accelerate all of the product functionality we want to build. We’ll have access to greater resources. Google plus Looker enables us to really fully deliver on the vision that we have for the overall product.

Nick Caldwell:
But I think you’re talking about from a personal perspective. From a personal perspective, what’s happened is this opens a whole new class of problems/opportunities for me, largely around the fact that, yeah, to be blunt, we’ve got a lot more money. It was just the most first world problem to have because it’s making me think about responsibilities that I have, back to the community or to my family. It puts me in a position to have a much greater impact than I thought I could ever have, even just a year ago.

Nick Caldwell:
Earlier, I was talking about my desire and strong passion on leadership development. Well, now I’m in a position where maybe I can take some of my good fortune and reapply that to nonprofit efforts or more larger scale ways to develop leaders. I didn’t talk about this earlier, but one of the things I’m doing on the on the side now is my wife and I have started a nonprofit, which is focused on getting more people of color into technical executive leadership positions.

Nick Caldwell:
I guess even before that, I was spending increasing amounts of time with a nonprofit called /dev/color, which is around getting junior engineers of color into higher level positions within their company.

Nick Caldwell:
So starting to think a lot less about securing the bag and a lot more about legacy and what it means to help develop the next generation of leaders. And I think anyone who’s been given privilege, at least in part, has to think about how they can use that privilege to help lever up other people. So I spend a lot of time thinking about that right now. I don’t know if I have the right answer to it, but I certainly have an opportunity to make an impact in a way that goes well beyond building products, and into making it easier for the next generation of engineering leaders of color, making it easy for them to succeed. So I want to try and do that.

Nick Caldwell:
Where we’re getting moving on it. I aspire to make a difference here and I just feel fortunate to be in a position to be able to have this as a problem.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get started on Looker?

Nick Caldwell:
It’s not too complicated. I was VP of engineering at Reddit and I had been there for a couple of years, and I was starting to think about what my next opportunity would be. As you know, in the Bay area, your typical tenure at any company is around two years. Startups move really quick. So I’d started to look around.

Nick Caldwell:
Looker, the CEO, a guy named Frank Bien, he needed someone to help them scale the product and engineering organizations. And then additionally Looker has what’s called business intelligence product. And I’m in my previous roles at Microsoft, I actually built one of the world’s dominant BI products.

Nick Caldwell:
So it was just very, very fortunate in terms of timing, it all came together. I was right in the mindset of exploring new opportunities, and Looker needed someone with almost my exact expertise to come in and help them scale up. So running product engineering design for a fast growing, modern approach to BI was just the right place at the right time.

Nick Caldwell:
I think three months after we joined, we started to think about potentially IPOing, and then eventually we got acquired. So I really chose the right horse to bet on.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the hardest part about what you do?

Nick Caldwell:
The hardest part about my job is that there’s a large number of what you call stakeholders. There’s a lot of people who depend on my organization to be successful. So if you think about what product and engineering do, we are trying to build the best possible product for our customers at any given moment. But how do we know what the best possible product to build is?

Nick Caldwell:
Well, we have to get inputs from all sorts of different sources. Existing customers, future customers, those customers can be differentiated by size, region, all sorts of different dimensions.

Nick Caldwell:
We have our customer support team who wants us to focus on existing the existing product and making sure that the known bugs are addressed rapidly. We’ve got input from our field sales teams, who we’re discovering new requirements and new functionality. And then, I shouldn’t leave out, it’s important to treat your engineering organization as a customer as well. So they want us to, of course invest in better developer productivity tools, paying down technical debt, innovation projects that they may have discovered.

Nick Caldwell:
All of this is the challenge. And synthesizing all of this is the challenge. And it’s my role to build an organization that can take all of this input, translate it into the best possible product roadmap or set of investments that we need to make as an organization. And not just the roadmap, but we didn’t have to go and build the organization, hire the right people, make sure that we have the right managers and line everyone up. All the skills that we have at our disposal are lined up to best meet these very, very difficult product challenges.

Nick Caldwell:
So in a nutshell, synthesizing all of that is the toughest part of my job because there’s so many inputs, they change all the time. And the thing that we do to meet this demand is we build an organization. That organization is constructed with people, and every person has different motivations, things that they want to accomplish with their careers, different things that excite them and things that they want to learn. All of that has to come together in the right way for us to build a successfully operating product organization. So it’s complicated.

Maurice Cherry:
I can imagine, first of all, I think just with the acquisition, that changes the game for every single person that works at Looker because now you are part of this much larger, much more well known company. Of course there’s more money, but then there’s also, I would imagine like a merging of cultures, that probably come into play. Is that right?

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah. We haven’t merged yet. We’re still waiting to integrate, but it’s one of the things that we do talk about as a potential concern. But the nice thing about the Looker plus Google union is we see a lot of good cultural overlap.

Nick Caldwell:
Looker’s headquarters is in Santa Cruz, so we want to make sure we don’t want to lose that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Santa Cruz, but Santa Cruz is kind of a beach town. It’s a very laid back and chilled place. We don’t want to lose that kind of cultural element that makes Looker feel relaxed and so forth.

Nick Caldwell:
At the same time, we’re pretty excited about, I don’t want to say Google propeller hatism, but they do give out propeller head hats to every new employee. But there’s a certain amount of excitement that we have around the Google technical culture and how we can integrate some of their more forward looking products, like BigQuery and so forth. How we can more directly work with those products and integrate them into Looker’s product roadmap?

Nick Caldwell:
So we’re pretty excited about it. From a culture perspective, I think we have a really solid understanding of what makes Looker great and successful, and then we want to take the best of that and bring it with us to Google.

Maurice Cherry:
Very nice. So you mentioned being a boy from PG County. What was it like growing up there?

Nick Caldwell:
I don’t know if your audience knows where PG County is. PG County is in Maryland-

Maurice Cherry:
It’s black people. They know.

Nick Caldwell:
Awesome. Yeah, PG County is like 95, 98% black County in the Southeast of DC. Growing up there, on the one hand it’s super comforting. You’re in the community. It feels very welcoming in that sense.

Nick Caldwell:
But I think the downside of that is … What’s a way to put it? Opportunities are not equally distributed. Talent, I think, and potential is equally distributed. But opportunities are not equal distributed. So, if you grew up on the East coast or in Maryland, I think if you’re going to stay in that area, you’re largely going to be thinking about government jobs, things of that nature. I kind of very early on in life realized tech would be a great way to go, if you wanted to think about A, being a part of forward looking trends, and B, making money.

Nick Caldwell:
I very early on tried to think of ways that I could achieve these goals, and it became clear to me that, because opportunities are not equally distributed, that I would have to find a way to get out of PG County and go somewhere else, if I wanted to achieve my maximum potential. And I think I realized that pretty early on. I can’t remember the exact moment, but it’s something that is kind of born out to be true.

Nick Caldwell:
When I wanted to get the best possible education to set myself up for future success, I realized that it wasn’t going to be University of Maryland or UNBC, it was going to be, I’m going to try to swing from the fences, and I really wanted to get into a school like MIT or Harvard. Early on, I decided that was going to be the goal.

Nick Caldwell:
And then from there, it kind of followed. I just kept setting this kind of personal mission to go wherever the best opportunities were, and try and take the best advantage of them. And that’s played out for, I guess most of my life.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like tech was maybe like a big part of your growing up, like you were exposed to it at an early age. Is that correct?

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah. I think when I was a, I must have been a toddler. I was like three, four-ish. My dad brought home a Tandy 1000. These were one of the very earliest types of computer. And my dad was doing casework. He was a a lawyer and he went from doing that on paper by hand to Tandy 1000 personal computer. So I used to sit on his lap and he would let me kind of punch into the keyboard. I’m surprised I didn’t break anything.

Nick Caldwell:
But yeah, he got me kind of early games to play on it. And over time, I just got fascinated with this thing. By the time I was aged 10, I was for sure hooked on video games. I was playing PC games. And he bought me a book called Learn C Plus Plus in 12 Easy Lessons. Which was a lie, you can’t learn C Plus Plus in 12 easy lessons.

Nick Caldwell:
And I really just dug into that. I decided that, that was going to be the thing I spent my summer learning. And by the end of the summer, I’d taught myself C Plus Plus and I used that knowledge to start my own bulletin board system. I don’t know if you remember these things, but pre-internet, you could set up your own little bulletin board systems and start your own community.

Nick Caldwell:
And I started coding extensions for that, like little video games and things like that. I was already hooked and I started to see, as a part of doing this bulletin board system that the world was so much bigger than PG County. People from across the country would like call into this bulletin board system, leave messages on it or upload files. And it gave me an opportunity to talk to people from different walks of life and different age groups, different jobs. It was kind of like I got early access to all of the potential that the internet could have. And the key realization to all this, to me was like, this is going to be a huge later on. I should learn as much as I can about how to code so I can be a part of it.

Nick Caldwell:
Unfortunately, I dropped all my other hobbies. So, I went from like your typical eighties kid, playing outside every day, riding your bike around the neighborhood. I went from doing all that to just coding and working on software plugins almost instantly.

Nick Caldwell:
So, I just immediately fell in love with it. There’s just something cool about, you write software and you know, you hit run on it and the computer is doing something like in a program fashion that you told it to do that. It’s just always been fascinating.

Nick Caldwell:
And the other thing which is really important, this sparked a desire to me. I really started to get hardcore academic at this point in my life. And so it wasn’t just fascination with computers, it led to better academics. It led to me going to another school in Maryland which had better a computer science program, which ultimately ended up leading me to go to MIT.

Nick Caldwell:
So it had kind of a very foundational role in my life. Being so excited about computers at this early age set me up with a great foundation for future career.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Did you have your family support you in all of this? Because I would imagine starting out with this, and I guess I might be projecting a little bit, because this sounds so similar to me growing up.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
we didn’t have a Tandy 1000, my older brother had he had a Vtech Laser 50 computer. It was sort of like the size of a standard 10 key keyboard now. It has a one line dot matrix screen on it, and you could basically program. And I learned basic. In the library, they only had one computer book and it was on basic. I need to find that book. But it was like a green book that taught you how to program in basic. And the Laser 50 came with all these little peripherals like a cassette, like a disc drive, but it’s a cassette, you know?

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It had a little tiny dot matrix printer that you could expand memory and do all this sort of stuff with it.

Maurice Cherry:
And I remember just learning how to code on basic with that thing, and then graduating from that to like the Apple 2E in school. We were learning how to do that and work with doss and all that sort of stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
My mom probably hated it. She wanted me to be doing other stuff, like getting out there and, “Oh, you should be going outside”, like you say, riding bikes and stuff like that.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was like, “No, I want to program. I want to go to the computer lab”. How was your family? Would they support you in all this?

Nick Caldwell:
It was odd. My family is great in the sense that they tried to expose me to a lot of different things. My dad, jazz music, chess club, painting. They would encourage me to do all sorts of things. And programming was one where it was so clear and that it stuck with me, that I really wanted to stay with it, because I dropped all these other hobbies.

Nick Caldwell:
So they actually leaned into it with me. I think what I remember is once I expressed that I was interested in it, not only did my dad continue to take me to the bookstore … The first book I got was learn C Plus Plus. I think the next book I got, which was stunning to me at the time, it was like a $250 book on how to code video games. So that was the second or third programming book I ever bought. So I was learning how to do assembly language within about four or five months of deciding that this was interesting. And my dad was putting a lot of money into it. I was like, “Wow, 250 bucks”. Oh, and also my mother like found out-

Nick Caldwell:
I think part of this was… Oh and also my mother found summer programs for me to go to where you could…A part of it would be like coding camps and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Nick Caldwell:
And to get to those things, they were not in PeeGee County. We had to drive like two counties over to participate in those things. I was fortunate that they A. recognized that I was excited about this and they were willing to tolerate my near total fixation on it. So I was really fortunate in that. But yeah, I did have a few times where my mom did show up and just kicked me out of the house and saying: Hey you need to go stop staring at the screen and go biking. That did happen one or two times, but largely speaking, they were super supportive.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about MIT. You went there for undergrad. What was it like there?

Nick Caldwell:
MIT is pretty brutal. I actually, to be honest, I don’t recommend most people go to it. People ask me about that a lot now because I think MIT has a great reputation as a school. You will learn a lot, you will learn how to work. It is an extremely difficult school though. And for me, it was kind of doubly difficult because it’s not a very diverse school. So I was coming from PeeGee County, Maryland, which again PeeGee, my hometown is like 95% Black. Boston is none of that. Cambridge is none of that. So it was honestly like a major whiplash for me. To go up there and kind of be isolated from the community and then simultaneously… Like No one goes to MIT… When you were in high school, in order to get into MIT, you have to be pretty smart. So I was like yeah, I was a pretty smart guy in high school. You know, you build up a little bit of ego and so forth that lasts maybe three hours into MIT. I’m not exaggerating.

Nick Caldwell:
I remember the first day at MIT, they pair you up with the other first year students, right? You’d go out to lunch with them and things like that. So the first few hours of my MIT experience was: I went to go hang out with my group and when I sit down at the lunch table and I’m waiting for people show up. A little kid shows up. He sits down and a few other people show up. And we were all are kind of wondering why the little kid was there. So we asked him, Oh Hey, is your brother here or are you waiting for somebody? He was like, Oh no, I’m a first year too. I’m like, Dude, how old are you? He’s like, Oh I am 12. [crosstalk 00:24:20] That’s when it kind of hits you that like no matter how smart you think you, you weren’t, here’s a 12 year old who is probably a genius. He ended up being… A Few years later, he was teaching one of the classes and it was wild. It really forces you into a different mindset, which is no longer can kind of coast through any challenges. The challenges are going to be really hard and it gets you into a kind of a mentality that whatever life throws at you, you’ll have to come up with a plan and work your way through it.

Nick Caldwell:
So in that sense, MIT was formative for me. There’s really not been any challenge that I’ve faced professionally that has come close to what I dealt with as a black student, going to MIT, going from PeeGee County to Boston and then putting up with that very, very rigorous difficult curriculum. But at the same time it just set me up to be able to take on any sort of challenge. If you look at my career after that, I mean I take big swings at things and largely speaking of have been able to pick my way through and find success. So I’ll stop there.

Nick Caldwell:
So how did the NASA internship come up?

Nick Caldwell:
Oh, that’s funny that you mentioned that. So, like I was saying earlier in Maryland, you know a large number of people out there end up working at government institutes. So when I was in high school, because I could code, I had and because I had good academic record, we had the opportunity to do kind of an intern program as part of our high school curriculum. So I think this was junior year, I was able to take time off of regular school and go work with a governmental institution. I’ve loved the space program since a young age. I mean I think anyone from our generation probably would tell you how fascinating to watch shuttle launches and stuff. It used to be a huge deal.

Nick Caldwell:
So when the opportunity came around, it was like NASA or NSA or the FDA. I think those are the three ones that I could go to. And of course I jumped at NASA. I ended up working there as an intern for three years and working on satellite parts. Now the problem with working at a government institution like NASA is it takes a long time for that stuff to ship. Nowadays, if you’re in tech like people complain about like, Oh, don’t do waterfall. What they think waterfall is. It takes like three months to plan something that’s nothing at NASA. I mean I was there for three years working on this satellite, high energy solar spectral imager. I believe it didn’t actually launch until three years later and then it exploded when it launched. They had to redo it. So I think the from a total project length, I think it was more than eight to 10 years. So I really enjoyed being exposed to that early on because one, again, I got to learn more coding. When I was at NASA, I got to do a combination of Visual Basic, Assembly. I got to learn very how to code for very specialized pieces of hardware, which was really fun. But it also taught me that working in a government Institute was not what I wanted to do for my career. I like to be entrepreneurial. I have to be fast paced and thought to myself like maybe the answer to that, what I really want to do isn’t at this NASA job no matter how cool I thought it would be, I’ve got to keep looking. So that kind of planted the early seeds of I want to do something entrepreneurial. Like I didn’t get to sow those seeds for a very long time, but that’s kind of where it started.

Maurice Cherry:
Just hear you talk about this. I’m trying not to make these parallels myself. but like, so this is probably about, I don’t know, maybe 11th or 12th grade. I just wanted to like get out of my small, so I’m from Alabama, I’m from Selma, Alabama. And it’s funny you mentioned that about like spacing growing up because space camps in Alabama, it’s in Huntsville because we have a, Oh sorry. We have an nice facility and normal, which is near Huntsville where the space camp is and so never got to go to space camp. But space was always something that was kind of around, I felt like based on where I was going in terms of my education, like working for the government was going to kind of be the goal. So right around 11th or 12th grade I was really looking at like what are places that I would like want to intern and work at. NASA was one of them, CIA and FBI or what I was looking at like I want it to be a clandestine service agent.

Maurice Cherry:
I laugh at it now, but because I was good in math and it was sort of the thing that my, one of my teachers was trying to push me into, like you can really do this and you know, that sort of stuff.

Nick Caldwell:
yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And so you mentioned The Challenger and I’m actually a Ronald McNair scholar, Ronald McNair, one of the astronauts on Challenger. And so that’s how I ended up going to Morehouse. I got a McNair scholarship and then that’s sort of fed into the NASA internship. The program that we worked on. The first year I interned, I was at aims, which is out in Moffett field, which is a near mountain view kind of South of San Francisco in the Bay. And I worked on these a Sofia projects, it’s a seven 47 that they cut a hole in on the side and they put in a huge like gyroscopic telescope.

Maurice Cherry:
Sofia stands for a stratospheric observatory for infrared astronomy. So the plane like orbits the earth and like observes like magnetic fields and comets and all that sort of stuff. And so my internship was with Ames at the SOFIA Science Center. We were doing stuff like that. We were working with robotics. It was so cool. It was the coolest shit I have ever done in life. I kid you not. And I was also working with like HTML and stuff. Like I got the program, the robotics education homepage and we were teaching K through 12 students how to do programming with robotics using Lego Mindstorm kits. I’m like, this is the coolest shit ever done ever. And I go back to school and you know, studying and whatnot. And then my next internship was at Marshall Space flight Center in Huntsville and I was doing something a little different. I was working more with human… What was it called?

Nick Caldwell:
A human computer.

Maurice Cherry:
No human factors engineering. Oh that was where I saw like my first 3D printer. That was where I saw… Cause like they 3D prints nose the cone on the space shuttle because it burns up on reentry. So they use this, this hexagonal like printing filament called Markcore. And like they print out, they showed me how they print out the nose cone and so I got to work with like human factors engineering and stuff like that. Still is some of the coolest shit I had ever done and I really want it to continue on that path. And then 911 happened and they pulled, the government pulled the funding for my scholarship program and I was like fuck. I don’t have anything else lined up? So I’m curious though, when you talked about like the entrepreneurial thing, once you graduated from MIT, like what was your next step?

Nick Caldwell:
I had a lot of students debt. So I want to start with this. Cause a lot of people ask me specifically like, Hey man, if you graduate from MIT, you should have gone to work for Google or Facebook. So I want to frame the timing of my graduation. Put it all in context. Google. I mean they were basically still a startup when I graduated. Facebook did not even exist or Mark Zuckerberg was still at Harvard and I had huge amounts of student debt. I really wanted to A. Be intact. The be finds the shortest possible path to like a successful, lucrative tech job. I want to pay back those loans, set myself up for success. Maybe go back to my hometown and be the big hero, help my mom pay some bills or something like that. Microsoft at that time was the biggest tech company and I decided I wanted to work there. They had a group called the natural interactive services division. It’s just a fancy way of saying they work on machine learning and natural language processing, which I had become like fascinated with during my time at MIT. I was doing machine learning on during an era when it was definitely not considered cool. I remember my advisor actually told me not to pursue machine learning is that it was a dead end. You know, it took a while.

Maurice Cherry:
My advisor told me the same thing about the web. He said it was a fad. If you want to study this, you should change your major. So I did. Cause I started out computer science and changed the math.

Nick Caldwell:
Who is going to do this HTML stuff? I mean I ended up choosing Microsoft and it wasn’t an entrepreneurial decision. I think during my time at Microsoft I tried to bend the experience that way. I’ve joined teams that did lots of internal kind of new projects and new startups. I tried to find ways to express my passion for doing new things with new technology and taking on those big sorts of challenges within the broader ecosystem of Microsoft, which was obviously a very well established business. But if you, trace my career through there, started in a team that was doing like very, very forward looking [inaudible 00:33:58] and NLP tech and then they carry through to to multiple different other teams and was able to carve out like a very successful career.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice and you were there for a long time?

Nick Caldwell:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
15 years over 15 years. A little over 15 years.

Nick Caldwell:
I like the emphasis you put on that. Like a long wow time.

Maurice Cherry:
It is a long time. You started in what, like 2004, 2005 or something like that?

Nick Caldwell:
My first internship there was 2001 I think.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a long time.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Well I mean I say that because you know, of course the industry has changed so much from year to year. I mean even if you think of those early times in the 2000s to now. It’s like night and day. And to be at the same place, especially a company like Microsoft that we know where Microsoft’s reputation was back then and then of course it, I don’t want to say it’s gotten maligned, but I would say like between like 06 and 2013 people were like: Yeah, we’ll look at Apple. Now Microsoft has started to sort of have this great resurge. It’s not just the gaming but like also with Windows 10 and with you know, devices and stuff like that. So to be at a company that long and to see it through all of that, that’s a rarity in this industry.

Nick Caldwell:
Let me shortcut, because I know we want to give people advice. I mean I definitely tell people not to stay at one place for 15 years nowadays. But in my defense I was just having a really good time. Externally Microsoft was dealing with all of these sort of challenges with governmental regulation and so forth, but for me in my role, like I was just popping between really, really fun projects. My first project was I got to own the spellchecker for all the Microsoft products. That thing shipped to more than a billion people. I mean like impact, right. You know, then I got to do a bunch of machine learning and NLP projects as a part of Microsoft exchange and SharePoint like one of the cool things about it was you could ship something and it could go out to you know, millions and millions and millions of people and you could really have big impact.

Nick Caldwell:
And Microsoft also has something that early on to be blunted it had a very safe sort of understandable career path. Like you know, any big company that got like really well established job ladders and you can kind of like, particularly if you’re a video gamer that’s like, Oh, a ladder goals, achievements, I’m going to play that game and see how far up I can get it. So at Microsoft the game is like everyone wants to work their way up to a ladder level called partner. Right? So a partner is like considered you I guess you win the career game. So I, for a large part of my career I had this mentality that like your career was directly tied to your job title or the number of people who report it to you. And I had gotten into this mindset and you know in a big company like Microsoft, they actually do set it up so that you can if you value success in that way you can drive career in that way.

Nick Caldwell:
And I was doing like doing that quite well. I ended up becoming a general manager at Microsoft, I think after 12 years. I hit that partner goal after around 12 years, which if for folks who work at Microsoft, like going from like new employee to partner or general manager and 12 years is extremely rapid pace. I think the only person I’m aware of who did it faster was a guy named Scott Guffey who’s currently the senior vice president of all of Azure. So I was having a really good time. It was long story short and I got to work on a product called power BI ended up being like the fastest growing Microsoft product in 2016 so I was having an amazing time, but I did kind of eventually realize that although I was having a great time working on new products inside a big company is not actually entrepreneurship.

Nick Caldwell:
I started to slowly realize this over time. Part of it was when I was getting toward the, I guess the last, the final few years of my career at Microsoft, I had decided to go get an MBA cause I love formal education. It’s just the way that I like to absorb content and learn. Formal education forces you to be in a place and a time to learn things. And sometimes I need that discipline if I want to learn. So I decided to get an MBA and I decided I wanted to learn about entrepreneurship. So I started to fly down to Berkeley Haas school of business on the weekends to take my MBA classes and I started to get exposed to people outside of the Microsoft bubble outside of the Seattle bubble. People who were could tell me about all of the cool things that were happening in Silicon Valley.

Nick Caldwell:
And I was like, Oh wow. Like I used to not take this part of the world as seriously as I should have because I thought like, Hey, Microsoft is shaped can’t it company and you know, I can spend my whole career here and be happy. But as I started to get exposed to all these other people and companies and ideas, I realized just so much more opportunity out there if I’m willing to take on a little bit more risk and get a little bit more uncomfortable and maybe trap, pursue a career that isn’t just popping up job ladders and has maybe about taking a few horizontal moves or maybe have a smaller team with bigger impact because you know what I can deliver to the company matters more. So I started to think about my role in companies and how I want him to navigate my career radically differently.

Nick Caldwell:
After that, that MBA, and then I think within six months of graduating the MBA, I had a meeting with my corporate vice president at Microsoft and was like, Hey, I think it’s, I think it’s time for me to go. I want to go, I want to go really be part of this startup ecosystem. And he’s like, where are you going to go? And I was like, well my, my friend works at Reddit and he says they’re looking for a VP of engineering guy like laughed in my face. It’s like, you’re going to go to Reddit. What’s that? So, but I really wanted to, I mean I think at that time Reddit was a series B startup. They really needed someone to help them scale the engineering team. And I was like, I’ve done this before. I’ve worked at, I’ve run big teams at Microsoft. I’d bet my skillset would be really, really valuable to this team. I bet I could have a huge impact, even though it’s a smaller team, that the impact that I could have would be much, much bigger in effect, all of the Reddit global audience, which is hundreds of millions of people. So I started to get really excited about that.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean you….You kind of joined Reddit in 2016 right? Like latest 2016.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
This was at a time when like the company maybe didn’t have the best reputation.

Nick Caldwell:
I mean you’ve said it very politely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean to put it in context with people who are listening. This is near the time Trump got elected and there was a lot of stuff going on around Reddit in terms of just violent hate speech and things of that nature. Did you think about these things when you thought about going to Reddit or were you just kind of strictly looking at like, this is a startup, I want to do something more entrepreneurial. This is a good place to go for that?

Nick Caldwell:
No, I did consider it because, going back to what I said earlier I early on in my tech career, if you will, I was running bulletin board systems. So I understand the challenges that come with building online communities. It’s just something, I was doing pre-internet. So when I looked at what the challenges are with Reddit, sorry, I kind of looked at that more like, I see the value here and the reason that they’re trying to hire me is because they also recognize these problems and they need someone to help. And the pieces that I can help with have to do more with engineering and so forth. But alongside me, they were hiring all new product people. They were gearing up to really take this sort of challenge seriously. I don’t know if you recall this, but the first week I had the job at Reddit, we actually went to a conference, excuse me, we went to the exec team, all went together to a conference called tech inclusion.

Nick Caldwell:
It’s a conference that used to be run by Wayne Sutton.

Maurice Cherry:
Wayne Sutton, yes I know Wayne.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah. No he is an awesome dude. But the very first week we were there, the whole exact team went and did an hour long, let’s talk about how Reddit is going to address problems on the site, including things like hate speech, including like wanting more diversity on the platform. So we were taking it really head on. So I knew all those problems were there, but in all of my interaction with the exact team, all I got was like the authentic desire to try and, make things better. It was like, well I can be a part of solving that. It was super fun. I mean that whole experience, I mean getting to scale their engineering team, getting to, I think you would agree that the reputation of the site is now a lot different in the sense that they have invested heavily and cleaning up a lot of the toxic communities and the infrastructure for doing that as alignment to scale more rapidly. You know, I feel really about the work that the team did there as well as the culture that we built inside the company. I mean we had one of the most diverse I probably the most, actually I’ll make a stronger claim. That was the most diverse company I’ve gotten to work at in my professional career. I was really proud of being a part of building that.

Speaker 1:
When you look at your career now, you look back at it, currently at Looker, slash Google, Reddit, Microsoft, etc. What is Silicon Valley like for you at this stage in your career?

Nick Caldwell:
At this stage in my career, Silicon Valley is just unlimited opportunity. I wished I had moved out here sooner. Silicon Valley, it is interesting the more… I’ve only been here three years if you just wall clock time.

Speaker 1:
Okay.

Nick Caldwell:
So I’m still learning about all of the different facets of how Silicon Valley works. And I’m by no means an expert. But one thing I have realized over the past, year or two, is that there is more opportunity and more money to fund ideas here than in any part of the world by far. It is an engine for connecting investment capital with bright, ambitious people. Now that’s all fine and good. The negative side of that, the thing that.

Nick Caldwell:
Now, that’s all fine and good. The negative side of that, the thing that as a person from P.G. County that I’m starting to realize is that, the opportunities are not equally distributed. So, although this is a place that is just phenomenal, there’s no better place in the world for investment, changing the future, yadda, yadda, yadaa, that opportunity is not available as equitably as it should be. And I’m trying to find ways to help with that problem. Part of it is, can we find ways to get more underrepresented people; people of color into tech positions. So, I do see a lot of progress on that dimension here in the Bay area. There’s so many bootcamps’ and if you talk to startups in increasingly large companies, they’re seeking out new ways to bring diverse candidates into the top of their hiring funnels.

Nick Caldwell:
I see a lot of progress happening there. But, I still think that much of the wealth opportunity sits high in higher levels of career growth. Right? So, executive levels in particular. So, one thing that I’m spending a lot of time on now is trying to think through, how do we get people who are in middle or late career, people of color into executive roles. One thing I guess you didn’t ask me about Reddit was how do I even discover that opportunity? Access to executive recruiting networks, is something that I had discov- to discover effectively through word of mouth. I kind of got lucky. If I hadn’t had that luck, I don’t know if I would have ever been able to leave Microsoft, get introduced to the right people and start exploring different executive opportunities. So I’m going to try and make that easier for the next generation.

Nick Caldwell:
I think that having access to the right people, in the right network, is one of the largest inhibitors for people of color, to get to the next level of growth. And I want to try and invest in creating those networks. So next, I think I told you this, but next week I’m actually going to host an event where we connect. I invited a little more than a hundred people of color, mid and late career, who want to learn about how to get into tech exec roles. We’re going to have them and then we’re going to have a panel with more than six different executive recruiters and people of color who have made it into exec. roles and just talk about the paths and the right ways to network, the right ways to position yourself for those opportunities. How the interviews work differently than normal tech interviews.

Nick Caldwell:
I just want to spread that knowledge, as far and wide as I can into the community, to make it easier for the next, the next generation. Cause for me I had to discover all this stuff the hard way. I don’t think it needs to be that hard if we just share information.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How do you define success now?

Nick Caldwell:
Early on I defined success as, trying to make money. You know, I’ve talked about that student loan thing. The middle of my career, I think I defined success is as, having freedom; the ability to work where I show wanted to on the projects that I wanted to with the people that I wanted to. And then, I think now, I’m switching into a mode where I define success as legacy. What am I leaving behind, and will I be remembered for having made an important difference, not just from a product perspective cause products come and go, but will I leave a positive impression on the next generation of, of people of color in tech? I think that’s where I’m landing, so I’ll, I’ll stop there.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. How do you sort of navigate the expectations that others might have about you? I would imagine, being at this stage in your career, and you’re doing all of this kind of outreach to the community, like you’re saying… How do you manage those expectations that folks have?

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah, I was going to say, what do you mean? Is this a trick question? Did you have some expectations?

Maurice Cherry:
No… Do I have any expectations?

Nick Caldwell:
I’m curious what you know.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean look, I’ve talked to a lot of people on this show, right? I never know how people are going to react. Some people I will ask and they’re like, I don’t want to talk about x, y, z. I don’t want to be classified, as a black blank, you know, whatever their title is or what have you. I was just curious because I know I’ve talked to people that are at, you know, sort of different levels of their career. Certainly ones that are at very high levels, and it seems like from the larger community, there’s a big expectation of, I don’t know whether it’s benevolence of helping out or reaching out, reaching out or reaching back or what have you. Are those things that you even think about?

Nick Caldwell:
I don’t think the larger community puts this sort of expectation or pressure on me. It’s something that’s like intrinsic to me. I’ve been a manager for a long time. I think, I could claim I was pretty good one. And one thing that I think makes for good managers is you, you care about other people. That the best managers I’ve ever worked for, have tried to understand where I’m trying to go with my career and my life and they’re trying to line up the right opportunities, and the intersection of that is kind of the sweet spot. My personal goals and desires line up with what the business wants. We end up in the best possible place. So for me as a person who’s been doing that for a long time, as a lifelong manager, it’s just something that comes natural.

Nick Caldwell:
I really want to try and lift up others. So I look for opportunities to do that, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. But the community itself, it doesn’t, it’s not like people are kicking my door and I’m like, “Hey Nick, like because you’re in this position, you’ve got to give back”. That hasn’t happened. It’s really just more of a natural outcoming for the things that I want to do. And I, I feel like I’m very privileged in the sense that, I have access to knowledge, experiences and networks that I can make it more easily available to, to the next generation. So I guess that’s my answer. I don’t feel pressure for it. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. If you could go back and talk to young Nick, like fresh out of MIT degree, what advice would you give him?

Nick Caldwell:
Young Nick, was not the Nick you’re talking to now. I have a lot of, takes a while to recover from MIT. So I guess the first, the first thing I would say is MIT related, which is, I graduated thinking technology, could solve all problems and technology is amazing, but it turns out people solve all problems and you can’t code your way to success. It’s a combination of code, working with people, and that is how you solve problems. So I would say, young Nick, spend more time understanding how the broader business you’re in works beyond development. Talk to PMs, talk to the testers, talk to sales, marketing, talk to all the people that it takes to bring an organization together, to build something. And it’s not just coding. I think chart your own course. I think, I learned this a couple of years in, but the best opportunities just don’t show up.

Nick Caldwell:
The best opportunities come from, you being proactive and sometimes that means you just going out into the organization and saying, “Hey, is there any place I can help,” or “What are the big initiatives and where should I try and plug in?”. Sometimes it comes from, it does come from luck, but that luck, at least in my experience, is a result of having delivered good product and done good work and network. Right? So I would tell my young self,”Spend more time, trying to, create the environment where good opportunities will come to you; not just doing good work and expecting your manager to reward you for it. But networking and understanding the broader business context so that you could, so you can understand where your time should just be spent”.

Nick Caldwell:
Actually, let me talk about one that’s probably the most important because you were making fun of me for working at Microsoft for 15 years. That’s probably the biggest thing I would say, which is, a lot of people talk about “Imposter Syndrome”. Imposter syndrome is like, “Hey, you know, I’m doing really good at, at my job, but I don’t believe I’m doing it. Like I lack of self confidence maybe I feel like I’m faking it”. So I hear a lot of people talk about imposter syndrome, but I think there’s like a bigger problem that affects people of color, underrepresented folks. And that’s what I call, “Just happy to be here syndrome” which is, for the longest time coming from P.G. County and going and having your first job be like a six figure paycheck. Right. That’s a pretty big freaking difference. That’s a big Delta. So for many, many years of my career I was like, well I’m just happy to be here because I’m making this amount of money and my alternative would be going back to P.G. county or something like that. I had that in my head. Just happened to be here.

Nick Caldwell:
So, no matter what my bosses would ask me for if they wanted me to come over the weekend, something in the back of my head was saying, you, you’re just fortunate to be even in this situation. And I didn’t realize until far too late, that you don’t have to just be happy to be there. It’s the fact that you’ve made it into tech and that you’ve had any success, your knowledge, skills and abilities are what you have to offer and they have their own intrinsic value and that is what your managers and your company is rewarding you for. So they should be happy to have you. If you show in any sort of skill and results, increasingly, your company should be happy to have you.

Nick Caldwell:
I think that holds a lot of people back, who are under-represented. They maybe had a big transformation in their lives, going from, where, for me it was P.G. County to Seattle and making so much more money, making more money than anyone in my family had made. But, what that blinds you from is, particularly in tech, if you’re always just happy to be here, you’re going to be blinded to all of the new opportunities that are around you. And in tech, as far as I can tell, there’s no ceiling. There’s no job I’ve gotten in tech where I didn’t like pop my head up, look around for five minutes and there wasn’t even a bigger opportunity just right over the hill. Even today, I’m chief product officer at a multibillion dollar company that just got acquired and I can tell you, there’s much, much bigger things out there that I could even be doing it.

Nick Caldwell:
There’s no end to it in tech. There’s so much opportunity. But, when I talk to people like myself, I suffered through this as well, who are new to their careers and they’re maybe not as confident of themselves or understand that they have this intrinsic value. They will pass up opportunities or, or let fear dictate like what their decisions are, and they will just be happy to have gotten the job at all. And I think the faster you can kind of get self confidence and get out of the mentality, the more you can control your own destiny, start making your own career decisions and really navigating all of the opportunities that are sitting here in tech, because they’re enormous. It’s much for the person who’s listening to this, and you just landed your first six figure job, the opportunities to go beyond that, are there. You can do much better. I, trust me, so don’t get locked into this, “Just happy to be here syndrome”.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, that’s powerful. I really, I really, really liked that message. What’s something that you’re really proud of that’s not on your resume?

Nick Caldwell:
This is not explicitly on my resume and I, and the reason I can’t talk about it publicly is because we’re not supposed to share these sorts of impact numbers publicly, but when I was at Reddit, one of the things I was most proud of, I alluded to it earlier, was the impact that we had on our diversity in the engineering organization. We moved the number of women in engineering, the number of people of color in engineering there by double digit figures in a very, very short amount of time. So, for me being able to have that sort of tangible impact,, at a place that like has a reputation like I don’t know, you know Reddit has a reputation for not being the most diverse website, at least it did at the time I joined. But being able to come in and have that kind of sort of substantial impact, move the numbers in a real way, not just platitudes, and do it fairly quickly felt really, really good.

Nick Caldwell:
It’s not something we’d get to talk about in public a lot because I think Reddit has a policy about sharing the specifics on the diversity numbers, but they’re quite good internally. I think the, on a related note, many of the people that worked for me at Reddit and many of the people who I mentor during that timeframe, have since gone on to get executive level jobs. I guess the thing I am very proud of at this stage of my life, is just seeing that my time and energy that I put into people, allows them to get to the next level and achieve whatever goals that they have in mind. That, I am broadly speaking proud when that occurs. I know it’s an odd way to be selfish, but I guess selfishly, I like to know that I helped other people. I guess that’s a way to put it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s 2025, what are you working on?

Nick Caldwell:
I think, I’m going to be at Google for a while. We just got acquired, so I mean I, I’m excited about what we’re going to do with Looker plus Google. So I think for a product perspective that is pretty straight forward. But I think my ambitions are increasingly, expanding beyond product. I think, there’s kind of two other avenues that I’m exploring now. By the way, my wife also, is at Slacks and we both had startup exits last year. Silicon Valley standard for having a startup exit as you start to look at angel investing and you start to think about venture capital. So on one angle of what I’d like to see myself doing in five years is, I would like to have been first check to several startups founded by black starters that have, well black founders that have successfully exited. So over the last year, I think I wrote three checks to black founders last year. So, hopefully in five years we’ll see them being successful. Shout out to Morocco. I love you guys.

Nick Caldwell:
The second thing that I’m thinking a lot about is how we can contribute to the next generation of people of color in leadership positions. So, I’ve been working on training programs and opportunities to try and give the next generation of exec talent, access to the same sort of things I was fortunate to have, that really set me a part of my career. So I was at Microsoft, I got access to proto executive training and it also had lots of training on it through my MBA program.

Nick Caldwell:
I’d like to see if there’s ways we can make those sorts of trainings accessible to the next generation of executive leaders, because to be blunt, not everyone should have to go through the level of difficulty that it took me to get those opportunities. I want to shorten the gap between the very, very large and existent, up and coming generation of potential leaders. I want to shorten the gap between them and available opportunities and I think that’s going to come through training and networking and just shining a light on the fact that there are all these folks who are just on deck, ready to take a swing.

Maurice Cherry:
Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah. If you want to follow me on Twitter, I think that’s the way most people find me nowadays. So follow me @Nickcald, Nickcald. If you’re interested in learning about engineering management or product philosophy, I’ve got a ton of stuff that I’ve been writing on medium so you can just Google that and otherwise I don’t. Don’t be shy. If you would like some advice. A lot of people just reach out to me on LinkedIn. I respond to almost everything, but I know a lot of people want to get coffee so I’ll tell you right now so I can’t have that much coffee. Like man, I would be wired nonstop, but I will always, always, if you, if you write me a thoughtful question, 99% of the time I take the time out of my day and try and give you an answer. So those are all the ways you can reach me.

Maurice Cherry:
Awesome. Well Nick Caldwell, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I really had, no idea how this conversation would go. I knew that as I was doing my research, I was like, “Oh we have some things in common”. Like, I interned at NASA. I was looking at the time. I’m like, I felt like we were kind of right, doing things like right at the same timeframes and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
But, hearing you talk about not just you interning at NASA, but the work that you’ve done with Microsoft, the work you’re currently doing at Looker, and really how you look at giving back to the community, in ways that I think will help set up the next generation of tech executives etc. I think is something which hopefully our audience can and learn from and get inspired by, to see ways that they can create a more equitable future. A theme that I’m running with for the year, how do we use our talents and basically the places where we’re at to kind of make a better future. And I feel like you’re doing it. Like you’re, you’re doing it, you’re making it happen.

Nick Caldwell:
I’m trying man. I actually know that you mentioned this. I’ll just put one more thing out there cause you asked, “What advice could you ask me? What advice could I give to a younger version of me?”. I want to give advice to the older versions of me out there, because there’s a lot of folks who I’ve come to meet that are maybe sitting on the fence and they don’t know if it’s okay to try and give back or, or try and do kind of social good. There’s a lot of people who are in the generation ahead of us, and they’re out there wondering if they should help. Now’s the time to do it.

Nick Caldwell:
There’s, there’s never been more attention and focus on equity and diversity than now. And the numbers are starting to move. So if you’re from kind of that older generation and you’re, you’ve already made it and you’re on the fence about whether or not, you should try and invest in this, do it now. Like this is the time to come out and like help the next generation. We need more heroes out there and I know you’re out there. I know that there’s multiple people who come from the generation before me, who can have an impact in the up and coming generation. So please, I’m begging you. Just go do that.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Well again, Nick Caldwell, thank you for coming on the show, man. I really appreciate it.

Nick Caldwell:
Yeah, thanks for having me. I had a great time.



Submissions for Volume 2 of the design anthology RECOGNIZE open on March 1! For more information, visit recognize.design!

Sponsors

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Erwin Hines

I first learned about Erwin Hines last year when we profiled him for 28 Days of the Web. He serves as creative director at BASIC®, a branding and experience design agency that builds digital products and services that turn cultural values into company value. Creative direction is definitely a great fit for Erwin, as you’ll discover as you learn more about his story.

We talked about Erwin’s upbringing in Cleveland, and he shared the moment that he knew design was his calling. Erwin also spoke a lot about fellowship and empathy, including how the spaces we create — even digital ones! — can uplift a community. He even hipped me onto the San Diego creative scene, including his latest project — a monthly pop-up series called Crafted. Erwin is proud of where he comes from and who he is, and he represents that clearly through his work and by reinvesting in the community that supports him. It’s a great message for Black History Month that I hope will inspire you!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Erwin Hines:
My name is Erwin Hines and I am a creative director or one of the two creative directors at BASIC Agency. Our headquarters are located in San Diego, but we have offices in Mountain View as well as St. Louis.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about your work at BASIC. What’s an average day like for you there?

Erwin Hines:
Oh, man. My role as a creative director is different from some of the other creative directors at the agency’s role. We each kind of focus on our unique specialty. It’s pretty expansive. I focus a lot on client work of course. And so that just involves managing teams of two to maybe five people and guiding the process throughout the duration or the lifetime of a specific project with one of our clients and doing all of the initial strategy. And so at BASIC, we don’t necessarily have a traditional strategy department. We expect all of our creatives to actually dive deep into strategy. That’s understanding the different cultural nuances of the client’s audience and making sure that we are making those unique connections based on what the client’s goals are and what the audience actually values.

Erwin Hines:
At the base level, that’s one of my roles at BASIC, but since I’ve been there for seven years, was one of the original people at the company, I’ve also really taken it upon myself to help guide the brand as a whole. As an agency, we don’t necessarily just view ourselves just as a service company. We also view ourselves as a brand that we’re constantly trying to build. One of our products that we deliver is our service, right? We’re very inspired by brands like Nike of course. And so my other role is really heading up what our brand looks like, what our brand feels like, what our brand sounds like, and then all of our different community initiatives that we do.

Erwin Hines:
Our podcast, Brand Beats, that’s one of the things I kind of head up. Then we also have a community series called Crafted that was actually built to help bring together the different creatives within San Diego and help them to rub shoulders and break down the barriers between the different industries or creative verticals. And so I do a lot of community stuff as well as the client stuff. So again, it’s pretty expansive.

Maurice Cherry:
That is really expansive. One thing that you just touched on there, which I thought was interesting, is that you expect the creatives … I’m imagining these are individual contributors, right?

Erwin Hines:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry:
You expect them to get into the strategy. Often that strategy part tends to be reserved for maybe someone higher up the ranks, like maybe a creative director or art director. Why did you all decide to take that approach?

Erwin Hines:
I think it came out of necessity. When I joined, there was only five people, so all projects, we had to wear a lot of hats. I joined as a senior designer, but as a senior designer, I had to come in and build brands and all of that stuff and we didn’t have a strategy department. And what we realize is that having that designer or that creative from the very beginning thinking about the brand strategy, thinking about how the brands needs need to be met and/or what the consumer’s actual desire is and how the product that we’re trying to market or trying to build a digital experience for actually meets that consumer’s need, and having the designer onboard from the very beginning just creates a stronger, more seamless kind of project and process as well as just a stronger experience in the end. And so it’s just sort of stayed that way because we realize the value in it from the beginning.

Maurice Cherry:
And now with one of the products of BASIC kind of being the service that you deliver, is that something that came as sort of an organic evolution of the agency?

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, I would say so. And I think again, it’s mainly because we like to view ourselves as a brand, and all great brands, the things that they create add to their larger sort of why, their larger sort of essence and their larger perspective. And so we like to make sure we’re always considering what is our larger perspective, what is our why as a company and how are we bringing that forward through the work we do. And probably that also comes from the fact that we build a lot of brands for our clients and we always tell them to start with the why, understand why you exist, what your customer wants, and then make sure you’re delivering on that constantly. And then all of the things that you do are just really an ecosystem of consumer touch points that reflect your why. And so I think we just internalize that ourselves and try and make sure that we’re constantly focusing on refining and defining our why so that our work at the end of the day can become stronger.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you first get started at BASIC?

Erwin Hines:
Seven years ago, I was actually doing freelance. And so I was freelancing, working at home, not working with anybody, not working with other designers, just working with clients, and I was doing that for about six months. I started to get very, very restless because before that I hadn’t been at a couple other agencies so I was always able to toss ideas off of people, always able to feed off of the other creative energy, and I thought I would really, really love that freelance lifestyle where I get to do anything I wanted and hang out all day and take whatever days I wanted off and all of that stuff. But after six months, I, again, started to feel a little bit stir-crazy. I didn’t have people to toss ideas off of, and BASIC actually reached out to me because I was doing some freelance work through an ex-employee of BASIC. And so through that ex-employee, Matt Faulk, who owns BASIC, actually saw my work and decided to reach out to me.

Erwin Hines:
And at first, so a little bit of a funny story. There’s actually a pizza place in San Diego that’s really big called BASIC and it was located across the street from the agency I had previously worked at and we would go there every single day. So when BASIC reached out to me via email, at first I thought it was a pizza company asking for me to become a designer at the pizza company. And at that point my freelance work was Activision, Sony. I had big clients as a freelancer. And so I was like, “No, why would I ever want to meet with these people?” But because it came through the referral of one of my other freelance clients, I decided to go meet with them and was pleasantly surprised that it was an agency that was doing amazing work.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, talk to me about the team that you’re working with here, because I would imagine after seven years the agency has went through a lot of changes, you probably went through a lot of changes as a professional. What’s your make-up like now?

Erwin Hines:
I was going to say we do. So I think there’s two answers to that question. One is over the years, we didn’t focus on this and this wasn’t a thing we tried to do, but because the company is ran by a black man, so Matt Faulk is black and then a lot of the leadership is black as well as women, we’ve actually created a very, very diverse team with people from all over the world, all different cultures, all different perspective. And that was just because we truly valued different ideas and different perspectives coming together in one space and felt like that collision of differing perspectives and ideas actually fosters better work, right?

Erwin Hines:
So that was the perspective we had every time we would hire someone new. We were like, “Do you challenge us? Do you come with something different?” And if they did, that’s when we knew that this was the right person. Of course, taste level, great work, great portfolio, all of that stuff was like table stakes. Yes, have all of that stuff, but you have to challenge us. And so that’s why I was like, “Please ask that question again,” because I had to make sure I gave this a proper response.

Erwin Hines:
Again, that’s one side. And then as far as the make-up of the team, it’s pretty standard. We have about … I’m going to probably mess up the numbers … We probably have about 35 people in our San Diego office, 40 to 50 people in the Mountain View office, and then we have like eight people in our St. Louis office. And so the St. Louis office is really an extension of the San Diego office. It supports a lot of the work that we do in San Diego. And then the Mountain View office is really just focused on Google, and then some of our other sort of Bay Area clients, but their main focus is Google.

Erwin Hines:
And so that team make-up is a lot different than the team make-up in San Diego. The team make-up in San Diego is project-based for individual clients. So you’ll have teams of three or four. We like to try and keep them small so they can be a lot more agile and nimble as well as allow all of the designers to really have direct contact with the clients. That way, there’s no hidden people, right? We always want to kind of elevate and empower all of our creatives, like I was saying with strategy, to really be the face of the company and to be able to someday lead their own projects. That’s really our goal, right? We really want to make sure that each person grows. We have junior designers, senior designers, art directors, creative director, and then we have kind of the higher level leadership team that helps guide and really think through the vision and mission of the entire agency.

Erwin Hines:
All of those departments and all of those groups, we do our best to work seamlessly together. We strategically have set meetings so that whatever the leadership talks about can then be distilled down and shared to the rest of the team as well as we have methods for communication in the other way. So we can take things that maybe a new designer comes in and has some frustration points or some tension points with some points in the culture and all of this other stuff and maybe has some great ideas. We have tools and really it’s just talking, but we have tools, that allow that new designer’s frustrations or ideas to bubble up to the surface to the leadership team, and that’s how a lot of stuff at BASIC is really done. It’s more so done from the younger creatives or from the ground level as opposed to top down.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s an interesting kind of model and it’s something that I’ve noticed as I honestly am interviewing and hiring creatives and stuff is that there certainly is more, at least I’m finding that there’s more of a need to have designers that have sort of led projects in that way, maybe not necessarily from end to end, but they were more than just, say, a team member that did visual design. They actually had a project or part of a project that they really got to completely oversee. So it’s good that you’ve got the agency kind of structured in that way to work with clients.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, and I think also, it benefits us at the end of the day and of course, the designers, because then these creatives are well-versed if there has to be a shift in our agency. They’re not just trained in one skillset. We like to say they’re trained in brand building, which extends past websites, extends past UX, extends past whatever new medium or media type there will be. But now you understand the foundations of how to build a company that resonates with people. And then whatever that company needs in order to speak to that audience, we can create it.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of clients and projects, one of the clients you’re working with are the Webby Awards, which people know from … I don’t know if I even mentioned this on the show, but I’m one of the judges this year. How did you all end up working with them?

Erwin Hines:
That was an honor because they honestly just reached out to us. They didn’t do any pitching process. They just reached out to us because we have won so many Webby Awards within the digital category over the past five years. And so I think because of that, they looked at us firstly but then they also saw the quality of our work and our focus on really elevating the brand and trying to define new UX patterns because we went a lot in best practices and we do that by trying to look at and understand and really pull forward what your brand’s actual unique value proposition is, what your brand’s mission is, very similar to when people are creating a retail experience for Ralph Lauren or when people are creating a retail experience for Off-White.

Erwin Hines:
Those stores look different because they’re trying to express what is inherently different about that brand, and far too long, digital experiences, we’re moving away from that because everybody was sort of moving to these templatized systems because they were deemed as easier to use. And so I think that we came in because we started … the agency started doing at the very foundation was mainly branding and I think that’s why we approach all of our projects with a very, very brand-heavy mindset. And so they saw that we really hone in on what that brand’s message is, what the nugget of truth is and pull that forward into the digital experience to create something that is still very, very easy, simple to use, but also has just a touch of difference, something that expresses that brand.

Maurice Cherry:
What are the best types of clients for you to work for?

Erwin Hines:
I honestly think for me all clients are the best type of clients. That might sound like a cop-out answer, but the-

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a little bit of a cop-out answer. I was going to push back on that.

Erwin Hines:
No. I was going to say, the reason I say that, because I mean, obviously I have ideal clients. The ideal client is somebody who wants to be super open and super collaborative, challenges us, very similar to what we look for when we look for new employees. It’s almost the same as when we look for our ideal client, right? We want to be challenged. We want to be pushed. We want this work to be the best work that we’ve ever done. Not saying that it needs to be the craziest design, but it expresses your brand, it tells your story and you want to push us because you know your industry better than we do, and we know digital maybe better than you do. That’s what we really look for when we’re looking for relationships.

Erwin Hines:
The reason I say all clients is only because I’ve been in situations where at first I was like, “I don’t want to work with this type of client,” or, “This type of client is really, really frustrating,” but just based on my time being in this industry or maybe it just comes from my me being a black man in America, just realizing that most situations are not easy and I’d rather look at it as an opportunity to learn and grow than ever a challenge that I need to run from. And so even those clients that are super challenging, I think I learn something new, I learn how to look at something new, I learn how to navigate a new area or a new industry or a new client and deliver something good at the end of the day.

Erwin Hines:
And as an agency in general, because our product that we deliver at the end of the day is this service of design, we look at our clients who’s reaching out to us really as our consumer or a customer and we try and understand their latent needs. We try and understand what’s frustrating them about their company, what hierarchy they have to go through, what pushback they’re getting. We don’t look at our project in a silo saying, “We have to get this through and all this stuff.” We really try and understand what the client is going through, what the individual, the person, is going through at that organization so we can help them at the end of the day.

Erwin Hines:
At the end of the day, their goal is to create this product, get this website done, get this digital experience done, get this brand done so that they can help their company be successful, ultimately helping them be successful. And so we try and understand their pathway of growth and all of that stuff. I think that’s why I’m like, “Every client is great,” because every client is a person and at the end of the day, we’re here to help people, not just create websites.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. Great explanation there. I like that. Let’s just switch gears. And talk about your work at BASIC, and I do want to get more into some of the community work, but tell me about where you grew up.

Erwin Hines:
Actually, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio.

Maurice Cherry:
Ah.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah. Grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Love it still. Just can’t move back there mainly because there’s not the job opportunities, although it is having this really awesome resurgence. Every time I go back, which is only once a year and it’s during the winter, so it’s probably not the best time to come back from San Diego that’s always sunny, but every time I go back it’s like there’s something new. There’s new energy. There’s new creatives moving into that city. So every time I go back it is cool and it makes me miss it, but again, I can’t move back purely because of the industry and now my investment in San Diego.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, that makes sense. For folks that have listened to the show for a while, they know I’ve got family in Cleveland. My dad’s side of the family is from Cleveland, Shaker Heights.

Erwin Hines:
What?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Erwin Hines:
Oh wow. Yes. Most of my family, my dad’s side all grew up in Shaker. I grew up in Beachwood. So if you have family that is from Shaker, I feel like there could be a connection. They might know them.

Maurice Cherry:
Probably so.

Erwin Hines:
My family is heavily involved in community stuff in Cleveland and they were a family of five or six in the Shaker school system, and so they had somebody in almost every grade. There probably is some overlap.

Maurice Cherry:
I think there probably is. Yeah. Growing up there, I mean, was creativity a big part of your childhood?

Erwin Hines:
Yes, I would definitely say so. I think I always had an inkling for creative. My family would push me into doing sports. I think that was just by default what my family did. Everybody played sports. Everybody was good at sports, and so on top of me wanting to be creative and my parents supporting that, so they put me in art classes, they encouraged me to try music, although I sucked. I tried to play trumpet, the worst experience. And at some point I actually thought I could sing and I thought I could play piano but it was just me playing on my parents’ piano and I’ll be in the living room singing and trying to play.

Erwin Hines:
I think about it now and that had to be so cringeworthy, and my parents wouldn’t yell at me. They would just let me do it. So I think I had very, very supportive parents when it came to exploring my creativity. But again, I was also pushed to do sports. But in high school, I actually dabbled in pattern-making. I really, really loved clothing and creating my own clothes. So that was my main form of creative expression throughout high school was making clothes or making shoes.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Wow.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah. I viewed that as … I drew and stuff when I was younger, super young, but then as soon as I got into high school and I touched the sewing machine, I was like, “Oh, this is dope. I can create the things that I put on my body. I don’t have to wear other people’s stuff.” That was so cool to me and I viewed it as this living testament to who you are inside, so it was like this walking billboard of sorts. Billboards sound so markety, but the reality is this walking art piece. I always found that very powerful. I didn’t realize the power of it. I think I liked it on a very shallow level, but there was power in creating something that I was going to put in my body or that other people desire to put on their body.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you sort of know then … I mean, with not only this exposure that your parents supported, but even now you’re talking about fashion and apparel and stuff like that … when did you kind of know, “Oh, this is something I could do for a living”?

Erwin Hines:
I actually didn’t know that until my second half year in college. Well, because my parents supported it, but it wasn’t like … I didn’t have any patterns to look at when it came to a designer. I didn’t know any designers. I didn’t know anybody who made it in fashion design or I didn’t even realize fashion design was a thing. I was doing it, but I didn’t realize it was like a thing. I never fathomed that. My access to creative profession was actually architecture and so on top of doing fashion stuff in high school, I also did a lot of CAD and took architecture classes and that was mainly due to the …

Erwin Hines:
… classes. And that was mainly due to the fact that I had exposure because my parents owned a development company and so I saw it. And that was like, “Oh, I don’t really…” I saw construction as a place I can go in my … So my parents owned a development company and then my grandparents on my father’s side owned a successful exterminating company and landscaping company. I’m sorry, my grandparents on my father’s side owned the landscaping company, my grandparents on my mother’s side owned the successful exterminating company. So those were like the pathways that I was exposed to on top of doctors and all of that stuff, but those were the entrepreneurial pathways that I saw.

Erwin Hines:
And so out of all of those I was like, “Oh designing landscaping, like a landscape architect, that’s kind of cool.” Or designing a home where people can live and creating these spaces that impacts your emotions and, and all of that stuff, I found that deeply interesting. So I took some architecture classes in high school just to learn CAD and I also did like my senior project at my parents’ company with the architect.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s convenient.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah. That was super convenient. But again, it was basically what I was exposed to. It made my path way longer to get to realizing that design was a thing I could do. So then my first year in college I studied… Or my focus was construction management. And with that I wanted to really focus on this idea of architecture or city planning. And that was partially due to the fact that when I was seeing my parents build these homes, so they build homes in… They built affordable housing in the inner city and when I saw them doing that, and then we would actually go back and always meet with and talk to all of the people that we build homes for to help maintain them because we also had the landscaping business, and we also had the exterminating business. So we would actually help these people maintain their homes. And it was amazing just the connections and then the joy that we would see on these people’s face, right?

Erwin Hines:
And I think I was very, very impacted by that, the fact that again, space things that we create can uplift a community. That to me was like, “What the heck? This is incredible, this is incredible.” And so that’s what took me in this space of really trying to pursue architecture or city planning. And my whole thing of city planning was like how do you actually create spaces and cities that are equitable for both the privileged and the underprivileged and how do you bridge that gap between those two to actually begin to create some empathy so people understand the other side? To me empathy is the biggest thing in the world because once you have a sense of understanding, true understanding, not just like, “Oh yeah, I know what you’re saying but I don’t care.” Once you have true empathy from both sides, then we can begin to push forward and work together to create equitable solutions for everybody. That might be hella idealistic, but that was my mission, my goal, my vision. But-

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like nowadays what they called that, service design or something to that effect. So you were ahead of the curve there?

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, except the only challenge was I hated math. I hated it. So been like I’m there, I’m designing cool things, but none of them can be built so my teachers are like, “You know, you can’t make this at all.” And I’m like, “But it will be cool though, if you could, right? Right?” And so my first year in college, that was happening and then I also took art history classes. And I had never ever taken an art history class so I didn’t understand the history of art, I didn’t understand the story of art, I didn’t understand the depths of art really before I went to college. So that first year I also took an art history class.

Erwin Hines:
In that class they’re teaching us about like Basquiat, they’re teaching us about Picasso, so they’re teaching us about… It was a very in depth all history of art. And they’re talking about the impact that each one of these artists had had and how they were… And this is something that I took away, where it’s like every single artist was… every great artist was basically acting as a mirror reflecting society’s ills back to itself so that society could actually digest it and understand it. Because in our day to day life, we move so fast, we don’t actually take time to sit and think and see what’s happening in front of us. And the purpose of art has been to create and take a moment and take a chunk of time and give it to us in a digestible way so that we actually can understand what’s happening, right?

Erwin Hines:
So great writing, great podcasts, great anything, and I’m including all of these things on the umbrella of art, do that, right? They force us to have a conversation, they force us to talk, they forced us to live in a space for a moment and take us out of our day to day. And so I saw that and I was like, “Oh yeah, I don’t have to do architecture. I can just do some art to have the same level of impact.” So then I actually took time off of school and I began to just… I still didn’t know that I could do design, that still wasn’t clear to me. So I took some time off from school, about half a year and I went and hung out in my friends like dorms at UPenn and I would just go audit classes.

Erwin Hines:
And she was studying marketing and advertising and sitting there with her being able to… And sitting in those classes and hearing about branding, hearing about marketing, hearing about advertising. I was like, “Oh shoot, this is like they’re using this power to create these emotions and create these feelings and create these desires and they’re tapping into the things that make us human.” That to me became really, really interesting. Still, I didn’t know how to get into it because I definitely couldn’t get into UPenn after dropping out of college. So I went back to creating clothes. Again, that was my default. I kept making shoes and selling shoes and then one of my other friends actually saw the shoes that I was making and was like, “Hey, you should come check out the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.” And I was like, “Yeah, why not?” I was kind of down for whatever.

Erwin Hines:
And then I went down to Pittsburgh and met with some of the people at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I’m not saying the Art Institute is good, I would never promote the Art Institutes. That’s just where I had to go because I didn’t have a portfolio at all. And then I actually wanted to do game design at first, and it was because they were talking to me about their courses that they had, going through all of the details. They first mentioned game design. They talked about advertising, they talked about all these other things, but game design was interesting because it wasn’t far off of what I enjoyed about architecture, which is creating these immersive spaces that people essentially live in or inhabit for a period of time. And those spaces can be used to create connections. And since games are played over the internet and it creates connections for people across the world, I was like, “Oh yeah, I totally want to do that and try and figure out a way to create healthy games that create these connections and try and build empathy with people.” But you needed a portfolio.

Erwin Hines:
That’s like a constant theme where it’s like these are the things I wanted to do, but I didn’t have either the love of math, or I wasn’t good at math, and I didn’t have a portfolio. So then I was then forced into graphic design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and through my courses and through my classes actually ended up falling in love with it because once I took my branding class, again it kind of re-sparked some of the energy that I had when I was sitting in and auditing the classes at my friend’s school, where I was like, Oh, branding has immense impact. It’s not just about the beauty, it’s not just about the aesthetic, but you’re creating this entity, you’re creating this thing that if used properly will reflect and amplify the voices of the people that are supporting it. And so that’s when I knew that I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to go hard at branding.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s quite a journey.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, it was… It’s a little bit all over the place, but it has a through line.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious and I’m going to… We don’t have to dwell on it too much, but why would you never promote the Art Institute? I didn’t go to the Art Institute, I just want to be clear about that, but I’m just curious why.

Erwin Hines:
Oh, I mean their [for 00:32:43] proper university has been sued mad times. And the Art Institute of Pittsburgh has actually closed down, so I don’t want people to get confused with the Chicago Institute of Art. That’s an amazing institution and it nothing to do with the Art Institutes. The Art Institutes are all for-profit and they would… They lied and they would fudge the numbers for how many people they were actually placing, which was just sad because you would see people who… They would say they had really high placement rates and there were some people who got jobs, I was somebody who got a job, but I did so much work outside of school. Everybody who got a job did so much work outside of school, but they didn’t tell you that, right?

Erwin Hines:
And if you’re a student and you’re putting your trust in an organization to teach you the skill sets and the things you need to get that job, it’s almost like, okay, if that’s a part of it, why aren’t they including that in the onboarding? Why aren’t they saying like, “Yes, you’ll have your curriculum, you’ll learn your skill sets, you’ll learn the tools, but in order to guarantee a job, you need to make sure you’re doing freelance. You need to make sure you’re going around to all of these different networking events. You need to make sure you’re collaborating with kids from Carnegie Mellon.” You know what I’m saying? All of those opportunities were open but it’s like I had to figure it out and open them myself.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No I was curious about that for two reasons. I mean one, I like when people push back against these sort of, I don’t want to say industry standard tropes of, “You have to go to this school in order to make it as a designer.” I do think, and you know this is sort of a problem with the industry, is that there is still this notion of that you have to go to these certain schools, like you have to go to design schools to be considered a designer, essentially. I know just to tell my story a little bit, I went to HBCU, I went to Morehouse here in Atlanta. It’s funny you mentioned you didn’t like math, I majored in math.

Maurice Cherry:
But my first semester I was like, “This is a lot.” And I really wanted to go into web design. I was a computer science major and I remember my professor at the time, I was telling him I wanted to do web design because I had been tinkering around with HTML, reverse engineering, so this is 1999, so this is… God, this is so long ago, this is a while ago where I was telling my advisor this and I remember him telling me how the internet is a fad, like, “This isn’t going to be around for too much longer and if this is something that you really want to put all your eggs in this basket, you should probably change your major or go to another school.” And I was like, “Well damn, okay.”

Maurice Cherry:
And at the time I wanted to go to the Art Institute because we had two art colleges here in Atlanta. We had the Art Institute of Atlanta and we had the Atlanta College of Art. The Atlanta College of Art is now closed down, now we have Savannah College of Art and Design Campus here. But for me I was like, “Yeah the Art Institutes…” Like that was it because I saw the commercials, they would have these commercials where you could see they’re doing all this stuff. And I was like, “Oh so this is where you go to learn design.” And then even later on in my career, because I’m self-taught, even later on in my career there would be these sorts of, I guess you could call them gatekeepers I suppose, I don’t know, who would say like, “Oh well you’re not a designer because you didn’t go to design school.” Like that’s the only way when clearly it’s not the only way, that’s one of the great things about this industry is that you don’t necessarily have to follow a specific path or go to these specific schools in order to be a success.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, I was going to say that’s trash. Very much so because again for me, even without the Art Institute, I think I just needed to be exposed and the Art Institute exposed me to the fact that this could be a profession, but I did all of the work on the side and on my own. You can go audit classes to learn some skills or you can learn a lot of the skills that you need on YouTube and stuff. To me, I think the main takeaways of university for me were some of the non-design classes or the classes that were more focused on theory and psychology. Those to me were the biggest helps because it expanded my mind as opposed to just expanding my skillset. And so if there is anybody who’s listening who is questioning whether they need to go to school or do I need to do this? I think as long as you’re doing things that are expanding your mind so that you understand cultural nuances and you understand again, how to look at the world differently, that to me is what, as a designer, university is really good for.

Maurice Cherry:
Gotcha. So from Pittsburgh to San Diego, that’s a trek. Well really from Cleveland to Pittsburgh, to San Diego, that’s kind of a trek. When you look back at your career, because I did my research, I saw you’ve worked at a few agencies, at Nobis, Modifly, you did some work for Digitaria, etc. When you look back at your career, what did each of those places teach you? Did you walk away from those experiences with a nugget of information that you take with you now?

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, I would definitely say I did. I think whether it be good or bad, I definitely learned something from each of those experiences. So Modifly and some of the other ones were just freelance clients. I was the dedicated creative but they were mainly freelance so it wasn’t necessary major learning experiences, right? Other than continuing to hone my craft. Whereas Nobis Interactive, I was also the only creative and was brought in as a Creative Director and it was to help lead and build out this brand. And I think one of the things that I learned from that was the importance of good leadership and the importance of a strong founder. And [inaudible 00:38:42] Nobis actually didn’t have that and I think that’s why I learned it, because I saw what lacked in the experience and how it kind of destroyed the organization and the company. And so from that it’s just how to be a good leader by doing everything opposite of what that leader did. And how to be honest, right? And making sure that you’re inspiring your team.

Erwin Hines:
And then when I went to Digitaria, that was learning how to manage growth because when I went to Digitaria, it was still relatively small, it had just gotten purchased by JWT, and over the time that I was there it expanded rapidly and what ended up happening was you kind of lose some of that design-forward culture. And the the owners knew that, their focus was expansion, growth and almost taking over and becoming their own holding company. That was their goal and they’ve done that so now they’re called Mirum, and Mirum is bought out a bunch of other digital agencies and then Digitaria became Mirum, which is the holding company of all those other digital agencies. So they were super successful in that goal, but I saw the sacrifice of creative to be this bigger entity.

Erwin Hines:
And so I think it was… From there it was making sure that when I go to the next organization that we managed growth properly so that we don’t lose culture because when you lose culture, you have high attrition, attrition costs more than keeping people as well as a cost your work. If your work is your product and if you lose all of those people then your product suffers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That is so true, I see that now in a lot of startups, a lot of tech startups usually where that’s the case. There’s been this sometimes over-indexing on culture fit, and oftentimes when bad things happen at a company like that and it’s to the detriment of the product, it’s to the detriment of the people that work there, it’s pervasive when stuff like that happens.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’re in San Diego, which, and we talked about this before recording, I was like, “I don’t think of…” When I think of San Diego, I don’t think of design or culture, but San Diego’s one of the 10 largest cities in the US, which I don’t know if a lot of people know that, but I’m curious to learn more about your community work there. You said through BASIC that you all are kind of… I guess you did this community series in San Diego. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Erwin Hines:
Yeah. All right, so I’ve been in San Diego for 10 years. When I first moved here, moving from Pittsburgh where you had gallery crawls once a month or spending time in New York a lot where you just have a lot of culture, just a lot of creative culture. And then even touching LA, it was like there’s just an energy and a vibe. When I moved here 10 years ago, I was looking for those things and then all I could find was like, “Okay, there’s breweries and there’s beaches, okay.” Which is super cool for a little bit, especially when you feel like you’re a city boy and yeah, I liked the beach, I’m going to sound ungrateful, the beach is nice, but at the same time as a creative, I need that creative energy.

Erwin Hines:
So when I first moved here there was nothing, and over the years, especially within the past three or four years, I began to realize how wrong I was and just how hidden the energy and the vibe was in San Diego. It was like you had to know. You had to know the people, you had to know what’s going on in order to find it. So it was a lot more about the underground scene in San Diego and it was just hard to find. And then within the past like two years, that underground scene has started to really bubble up.

Erwin Hines:
And so when we talk about what is the creative scene in San Diego, we have some of the best poets in the world, like our poetry society wins nationals all of the time. We have some of the best dancers in the world. There’s two dancers in San Diego who do choreography for Justin Bieber, they have a new Broadway show, they do stuff for Brittany Spears, but they live in San Diego. And then we also have some amazing other dancers, traditional urban as well as classical ballet. Then we have amazing chefs and an amazing culinary scene. And then we also have amazing creatives and amazing designers, like BASIC being one of those, but then you also have Grizzly and a few other agencies, and young creatives who are here in San Diego. And then you have amazing DJs and music.

Erwin Hines:
So you have all of these different amazing creative industries and creative spaces, but one thing that we were seeing is that they weren’t rubbing shoulders. So it kind of goes back to the thing I was saying that I had this goal since my very foundation of my creative spark, which is how do you build spaces where people can come together from different backgrounds and start to develop empathy and understanding and work together? And again, so you have all these different creatives and creative people in these different spaces and they’re all doing these amazing things, but they weren’t rubbing shoulders, there was no friction, there was no collision.

Erwin Hines:
And so we created this very simple series, or this very simple idea of just bringing 12 people together from different industries, different backgrounds, different cultures, different races together over dinner. And we used food as the medium of connection because it’s visceral, it’s easy to understand, and it caused us and sparks conversation. And so we strategically do a five course to seven course meal mainly because it creates more time. And then the food itself is never really the central focus of the time, it’s there, but really the central focus is about creating a space for conversation to happen. And these 12 people do not know each other at all, and they get free invites so no one has the pay because we want to make sure that it’s open and accessible to everybody.

Erwin Hines:
So we’ll always have a student, we’ll have somebody who works in architecture, we’ll have a scientist, we’ll have somebody who owns property within an undeveloped neighborhood, we’ll have fine artists, designers. So we’ll kind of mix and match these different groups. And then each one of the experiences, which happened monthly has a theme, and we utilize the food to connect and to make people comfortable and then the theme is utilized to create a unifying connection and conversation between everybody. And those themes are things like identity. And in that dinner, which was our dinner in December, in that dinner the theme was identity and it was about exploring the ever evolving nature of the self and what identity means to each one of us individually.

Erwin Hines:
And so we usually start off each dinner with introduce yourself and then kind of go into that line of conversation. And usually that first round of conversation is like really, really, really deep where people kind of get really personal, they expose things that they wouldn’t have otherwise exposed, and maybe it’s because it’s a group of strangers so you feel a little bit more comfortable and no one knows me here, but they’ve been really powerful mainly because it’s a small intimate group who ends up having a very deep conversation with one another. And we’ve seen a lot of people begin to work together from the different Crafted experiences, which is really the main goal. There’s no other ulterior motive other than bringing people together and then promoting and showing people that there’s other things going on in the city so you don’t have to leave.

Erwin Hines:
because we also had like high attrition of like creative talent in San Diego because a creative was like, “I do fashion but there’s no one else here doing creative stuff, I’ll just go up to LA because there’s more opportunity.” Which right now there still is more opportunity in LA obviously, there’s more people who appreciate that type of stuff. So you will have a larger consumer base as a creative in LA. But one of the things that we’re really focused on with this dinner, as well as all of the other groups who are doing really amazing things. So there’s also this group called the Traveler’s Club. There’s a group called Weird [Use 00:00:47:00], and I can go on and on with all of these different groups, but everybody is now focused on creating an opening up the doorway for opportunities for these young creatives so that they don’t have to leave.

Erwin Hines:
So that’s the dinner as well as the energy in San Diego right now is everybody is focused on building a community that can thrive and can be self sustaining. And it’s amazing because it’s really collaborative, so there’s not a lot of negative competition, if that makes sense. It’s a lot of collaborative, co-building of the community that we all want.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I might have to visit San Diego, it sounds like a lot of great energy there. Also, I mean, San Diego is right on the border to Mexico like you guys are right [crosstalk 00:47:46]

Erwin Hines:
Exactly. That’s another beautiful thing about it is we have all of this rich culture. One of the things that I find the most interesting, and we begin to talk about this a lot through our Crafted Instagram is this idea that culture is made by many and the beauty of San Diego is unlike some of-

Erwin Hines:
Whereas made by many and the beauty of San Diego is, unlike some of the places on the West coast, unlike SF or unlike LA, people come here with different perspectives and goals and backgrounds. Like a lot of people will go to SF with one perspective and one goal. So no matter what race you are, what cultural background you are, you have a specific perspective or goal. Whereas here, because you have the military, because we’re a border town because you have all the universities and the different levels of universities and then you just have random transplants who are just coming here because it’s something different or you have the people who are coming here for the beaches, you have the people who are coming here for the music.

Erwin Hines:
So you have all of these different people that it almost is akin to something like a New York where you have this really, really diverse makeup and that’s what makes the culture of New York. And to me it’s like that’s what makes the culture of San Diego is this diverse makeup and it’s just us realizing, over the past year, we’ve been realizing that that is our true power. We don’t have to just be a beach city and a brewery city. We can be a creative powerhouse.

Erwin Hines:
And this year we’re going to actually have our first design week as well. So it’s like there’s a lot of movement around San Diego and I’m happy to work at an agency that has been so invested and lets me take the reins on a lot of the community initiatives and making sure that we’re using our skill sets and our talents in authentic ways. Then we still do canned drives and all of those things, but I think we used to just do that and we started asking ourselves how do we as people who understand how to build brands start to build the brand of our own city and really give back to our community in a deeper, authentic way that lasts.

Erwin Hines:
So it’s the teach a man to fish versus just fish for them. So I think what we’re trying to do is build programs that teach people how to fish ultimately that will come back to other issues like homelessness or other issues like education because by connecting these different people you can essentially begin to affect all of those different things because you’re building empathy across these different groups. So connecting somebody who, like having somebody who maybe their family is being gentrified or they’re a part of like the gentrified class, you have them at the table with a property developer and maybe a city official and you actually allow them to have true conversation as opposed to just like yelling. That’s the main goal of of Crafted.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you satisfied creatively?

Erwin Hines:
Oh yeah, totally. I’m more than satisfied partially because whenever I’m unsatisfied, I can just create something like Crafted. I literally just think about like, “Okay, if I’m not having that feeling of expressing empathy or the feeling of me being able to tell my true authentic story and really explore who I am. If I’m not that, then I just create another avenue and another pathway for me to have it.” So I never really rely on other people for my creative satisfaction, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
No, that makes sense. The reason I was asking that because I was talking with a friend of mine actually, her name is Diane Holton, she’s been on the show before too and we were just talking, just catching up and she was mentioning, she’s like, “You’re like Beyonce, like you don’t take your foot off our necks.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” She’s like, “You’re doing this revision path and now you’ve got this anthology series coming out and stuff.” And for me, when I’m doing these things and essentially you mentioned, you sort of see the void and you figure out like, how can I fill the void with something that can help? So with me with the anthology, I was like, there’s not a lot of people of color and indigenous people doing enough writing about design.

Maurice Cherry:
You go to a bookstore and you look in the arts or design section, there are very few, if any, book in there from people of color, definitely not from black people. And it’s like where does that begin? It begins with just writing an essay and getting the feedback from people and then building on that and you know I think now certainly with technology it’s easier than ever to start up a blog and put your thoughts out there. One thing that I’m experimenting with this year is getting back to blogging. I used to blog a lot in the early 2000s and stuff and I’m thinking about getting back out there now because it’s so much easier to just get your thoughts out. Before, when I was blogging back in the day, you had to know how to have a MySQL database and install it to the database and then run the installation and then keep up with all this and you have to have hosting and a domain and all this.

Maurice Cherry:
And now I use this tool called Notion, which is sort of like this all in one work place. It’s like Evernote and Trello and all these things had a baby and it’s Notion. And you can blog from Notion, so write a page and you can set the page to public and then because it’s all in the cloud or whatever, but you can set that page to public and then just have people read your stuff. And it’s like I have all my projects, I have all revision path recognize all my stuff in Notion and then I’ve got a little separate thing that’s going to be the blog that I’m going to start and it’s like, “Oh, I can just write while I’m in here and publish and it’s so easy.” But I get what you mean about if there’s something that’s not fulfilling you, then you find a way to kind of get that [crosstalk 00:53:36].

Erwin Hines:
Get fulfilled. Yeah. Yeah, and I actually love what you’re just saying. I think that that’s one of the biggest things within our industry that we’ve started to see in almost every other creative industry. So you start to see it in fashion and it’s being led by these black designers and I know that they probably wouldn’t want you to call them black designers because no one wants to be pigeonholed and I hate being called a black designer because it feels like, “Oh, you’re just trying to say I’m good for that,” as opposed to just being like, I’m a good designer and I happen to have a very rich narrative that helps guide everything I do that you might not have. But what you’re saying about how we need more of that, we need more of that story within this industry, within the design world. Because for far too long, it hasn’t been there, but we’re here.

Erwin Hines:
But it almost feels like, within this industry, it almost feels like we’re a minority group who’s just pushed to the side and it’s not about us. You know what I’m saying? It’s strange because the level of importance that, specifically for me, like black people have had within the building of America and what America is and what America pop culture is. A lot of stuff is based on pop culture and the nuances of pop culture and all of that stuff and we kind of create that and our people create that. We create the vibe of coolness that drives commerce around the world, but people don’t want to recognize that and so I think it’s important. What you’re doing, hella important because it begins to shine light on the importance of these views and understanding these views and takes us out of just the, maybe a young black kid reads it and it helps to take them out of just the consumer mindset of just I’m going to consume, consume, consume. I can actually create.

Erwin Hines:
These platforms like Instagram and all of those things became popular off of the content that youth create. A lot of those youth are young black kids. They’re creating content for an organization that they don’t even know that they can work at or that they don’t even know that they can build themselves. And so I think it’s just showing that pathway. Going back to what I was saying at the very beginning where I didn’t even know things existed because I wasn’t exposed to it and so, by what you’re doing, you’re helping give that exposure, hoping that young kids are listening to this stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
I hope so man. Hope they’re listening. Hope they’re reading. And not even that I would say just young kids because that exposure can really come at any age.

Erwin Hines:
Yeah, true.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to know that the option is out there or that there can be something different, that can really come at it at any age. But yeah. What piece of advice has stuck with you the longest when you think back over your career, you think over your creative journey? What is that advice?

Erwin Hines:
Ooh, so I never had a specific mentor ever in my creative journey and I think it’s just because I was a knucklehead so I never looked for mentors. I would just always listen to interviews from Kanye West or whatever creative I’m super inspired by at that time, but the biggest nugget of truth that I ever received was from my family that just was about… My father one time said, “I don’t like who you’re becoming.” And it was when I was losing myself for a little bit and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about my heritage and my past and my upbringing. And to me that conversation is the conversation that has stuck with me and helped to guide me.

Erwin Hines:
Although my father probably wouldn’t remember this, but that one moment and then the conversation that followed about making sure that you’re checking with your heritage, making sure that you’re checking with the things of your past, the things that your grandfather did, the things that both sides of the family have done for me. It didn’t put a burden on my shoulder, it actually made me proud of who I am, where I come from. And it made me want to truly honor that.

Erwin Hines:
So that was probably be the biggest piece of advice. Again, I think I’m somebody who looks and desires to look for inspiration outside of my industry. I have never really looked at other design and other designers for my pathway. I really love to understand and look at culture because the things that we’re creating are all for culture. And so even with creatives, my biggest inspirations are people in the world of fashion or the world of music. So it’d be Kirby from Pierre Moss or Virgil. Those, to me, are some of my biggest inspirations because they stand for breaking down barriers and walls just by being fucking good. I don’t know if you can curse on this, so I’m sorry.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. You can curse. That’s fine.

Erwin Hines:
All right. Just by being good at what they do and they move with theory and a message. And that to me is my biggest inspiration, is the idea of moving with theory, moving with a message that is consistent and it might evolve over time, but there’s always substance there. Yeah. And so for me it’s a combination of what my father said as well as growing up. I think I’ve always been really proud of being a black man, no matter where I was or how I grew up and I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. But I would walk around school, my predominantly white school, with my fist in the air because I was just super proud of who I am and where I came from. And I think it was because, on top of what the media would show you and all the negativity that the media would showing you about being a young black man and how you can just be a rapper or you can just be this and that’s all you would see or the criminalization of black people.

Erwin Hines:
My parents had these books, I forgot what they’re called, but we got these books every single month, yeah, these books every single month that would just dive into one impactful African American. And so seeing those stories of Booker T. Washington and getting to see this diversity or Harriet Tubman. Seeing those things at a very young age, I got to see the diversity of black people and that we exist on a spectrum, a very large spectrum and we’re not just a homogenous group. So I had an early realization that I didn’t have to try and be black, I just was black and that blackness can exist on a very large spectrum, but it’s still impactful and it still carries the same narrative story, but my experiences are going to add to that history and that legacy to create something unique.

Erwin Hines:
But I need to make sure that I carry all of that with me into every room I go to, into every time I’m sitting with a CEO or a C Suite person at Google. I need to bring with me the legacy and heritage of blackness and be proud of it and speak with the strength of that heritage.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing in 2025?

Erwin Hines:
So me and a couple of my friends actually started another project that’s actually building a restaurant group. We have two restaurants, one is actually opening, they’re actually building it currently. One is opening at the beginning of 2021. There’s another one that’s opening in October and then we have a retail space that’s opening next month. And so that to me is the next project and it stems from Crafted, which is again, like this space.

Erwin Hines:
And just to put a little bit more color around it, I actually explained Crafted as a living art experience that uses space and food and art to create empathy between disparate groups of people. And for me, going back to what I view art as, art, the true end goal of art, is not to create something beautiful, it’s actually to create opportunity for conversation. That conversation can create change, but in a conversationless society that silos us through algorithms, conversations between disparate groups of people stopped happening and therefore it limits the amount of change that we can have, impactful change. So Crafted was that opportunity for me to create a space for conversation between disparate groups of people to create change and so extending that, we’re looking at how we can actually go into some of these different neighborhoods.

Erwin Hines:
So the chef and the guy who actually is going to own these different properties, so I’m a partner in it, but the main owner, he’s from this neighborhood called National City. And for him, he grew up there, but he always had to leave there to go to restaurants or to go to coffee shops or to go anywhere, which removes that sense of pride in your neighborhood and when you have a sense of pride in your neighborhood, then people begin to invest more, invest more time and invest more energy into that neighborhood. It’s very similar to what we’re seeing now in San Diego. Now that they see all of these different things are going on, people are more proud to be in San Diego and then they’re more likely to invest, more likely to stay. And so what we’re trying to do in this neighborhood called National City, where all of our three concepts are actually opening on one street, is trying to create a sense of pride in that neighborhood, so people feel prideful, they want to stay and they want to reinvest into the community.

Erwin Hines:
And so it’s almost how do you move into a neighborhood, or not even move in because he’s from there, but how do you reinvest into your community without it ever having the need to be gentrified? So I think we’re trying to… For me that’s my thing is how do we figure out this fucking gentrification problem and it’s almost going back to my passion for city plan, or not passionate, but what my goal of city planning was. It’s going back to these things that I had from the very beginning, which is how do you create equitable living spaces and make sure that you’re fostering opportunities for conversation to create empathy. And so over the next couple of years we’re going to be launching those three projects and then from there who knows, we’ll see.

Erwin Hines:
It’s probably going to be more stuff like that. How do I just get deeper involved in helping to build true community? Yeah. And reinvest in the community. I’m big on community right now.

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

Erwin Hines:
So of course, you can go to basicagency.com to see the agencies work and if you want to learn more about Crafted, you can actually go on Instagram @experiencecrafted, again, that’s @experiencecrafted. And then if you want to follow me, it’s just @ErwinHines. Very simple.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s on Twitter, Instagram?

Erwin Hines:
This is all on Instagram. I mainly use Instagram partially because I’m managing a lot of different social accounts and I can’t be going back and forth between Twitter, Instagram. I find Instagram my main space to create conversation.

Erwin Hines:
So yeah, definitely the main thing I would encourage people to follow is probably the Experience Crafted Instagram just because that’s where I put a lot of my time, a lot of my effort outside of BASIC®.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Irwin Hines, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I sort of had an idea when I started this conversation kind of where things would go, but you blew my mind. Finding out more about your background and seeing how, now you’ve been able to weave all of these disparate experiences and influences into your story and then use that to guide your work and go back out and give to the community, it is such an inspiring thing to hear. One of the themes that I’m trying to carry throughout the year is basically, how are we as black designers helping to build a more equitable future?

Erwin Hines:
Whoa. That’s cool.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel that certainly you are doing it. One, through your design and branding work, but then also through experience Crafted and then through these actual physical spaces, these restaurants and retail space. When they say people out here doing it for the culture, you’re out here doing it for the culture. So thank you so much-

Erwin Hines:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
-for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Erwin Hines:
Thank you man. And if I could leave with one last thing, it actually goes to exactly what you were just saying. I think and I feel, and I’ve had a conversation with other people of color in general, that from a very young age, since we grew up in America, we were actually forced to learn empathy and a sense of understanding of people outside of ourselves before we even were able to understand ourselves. And so I think that that is a very, very powerful tool set as a creative to have in our tool belt because we can approach every single thing with a broader understanding and bringing that and making sure you’re bringing that and making sure you’re not shying away from it, to me, would be like the one thing I hope that people would move forward with.



Submissions for Volume 2 of the design anthology RECOGNIZE open on March 1! For more information, visit recognize.design!



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Joshua Leonard

I only recently heard about Joshua Leonard, but I had no idea about his inspiring life story until we sat down for this interview. Joshua is currently doing freelance animation work for Nickelodeon, but he is perhaps most well known for Team Supreme — a group of differently abled super-powered kids!

Joshua started our conversation with a little behind-the-scenes look at working with Nickelodeon, and we talked a bit about different animation styles and how long it can take a concept to go from idea to reality. Joshua also talked about growing up as a military brat, his early animation influences, and about evacuating Hurricane Katrina to make a new start in Atlanta. I don’t want to give away too much about our conversation, but make sure you stick around for Joshua’s words of wisdom in the second half of the interview, as well as an update on the status of Team Supreme! Joshua’s work has already caught the eye of some major players, and I’m so proud to be able to share what he’s doing here on Revision Path!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joshua Leonard: Yeah. My name is Joshua Leonard and I’m a 2D animator and a character designer and I’m the creator of Team Supreme, which is an animated series in the works right now.

Maurice Cherry: All right. We’ll definitely get into talking more about Team Supreme. What’s your kind of average day-to-day work with like right now?

Joshua Leonard: Well, I wake up, first thing first, go to the gym, workout for about an hour, come home, do some character design work. I do freelance for Nickelodeon right now, really just working on Team Supreme. That’s really it. And the Joshua Leonard Foundation, we’re getting that up and running, so I just try to stay as productive as I possibly can-

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Joshua Leonard: … until everything starts to kind of really take off.

Maurice Cherry: So with the freelance character design stuff for Nickelodeon, can you talk just a little bit about that, like what you’re doing with that?

Joshua Leonard: I can’t give the names of the show, anything like that. So basically, I graduated from the Art Institute 2018, summer 2018, and I posted something on LinkedIn, I think it was an artwork and it went viral. And one of the recruiters from Nickelodeon hit me up as I was walking into Home Depot where I worked and offered me a freelance position on an upcoming show. So I took that and it’s been a blessing ever since, man. So I really just… whenever they need character design and stuff, they kind of just reach out. So it’s not like a guarantee, but when it’s here, it’s great. So I’m real grateful for it.

Maurice Cherry: And that came just from a LinkedIn post?

Joshua Leonard: LinkedIn, man, yeah. I love LinkedIn. Social media, in general, is great for me. As long as you run it as a business and professional, I think it’s the way to go.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. So with Nickelodeon kind of just contacting you when they need you, I’m pretty sure, because I’m curious about this too, what does character design look like for a studio like that? Talk to me about the workflow. What does that look like?

Joshua Leonard: Absolutely. One thing that I do like about Nickelodeon, and I appreciate them coming to me, they like my art style and specifically, for the show that I’m working on, there are some African American cartoon characters. So that’s one thing that kind of makes me stand out, especially on LinkedIn. A lot of my followers and connections on LinkedIn like my art style. So that’s what Nickelodeon was looking forward to, and also Disney. So it’s pretty dope how they look for a specific style that would fit their certain cartoons, because a lot of these shows look the same, a lot of them shows use the same character design. And so I guess sometimes, you got to go out of the box and get different looks and styles. But what they do, they gave me a real slat image, real bland, real simple, almost like a children’s book for the artwork. It’s real simple. So they asked me to put my style onto this style that was already [inaudible 00:02:50] in the book, and that’s what I did, kind of just really hooked it up in my style. And they loved it.

Joshua Leonard: And when I went out there to Nickelodeon and when they took me on a tour and all of that, because I’m in Atlanta and Nickelodeon is way out there in Burbank, when I got out there, I was expecting to see my artwork on the wall. I would joke around with the whole team and just kind of laugh about how my artwork’s probably going to be on a wall with red X’s crossed through it, but they actually showed me a clip of the cartoon that they’re working on and developing and they made it and everything and it was my character. So it was so dope to see my actual character designs come to life like that. And it was in 3D too, so I’m like, “Man, you got to be kidding. This was [crosstalk 00:03:34].” So to see that, man, and like I said, I just graduated in 2018 and it’s just been a super dope ride, man, so far. So I’m real grateful for that.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. So that’s interesting that they start off with something simple, and then I guess you just have to redraw what they have or are you putting your own particular styles and things onto the images?

Joshua Leonard: No. No. So what it is, when I say I’m drawing, say, their character has a beard, he’s kind of buff and he’s wearing this outfit, that’s what I’m talking about. Now, I can draw whatever I want as long as he has the beard, this outfit, as long as they know it’s going to be this character, I can do whatever I want with it. So I’ll put them in a different pose and sometimes, they may want the character turn around, where you got to draw the front side, three quarter back. So it just depends. I’ve done a bunch of facial, different facial expressions and stuff like that. So it’s fun, man. I love it.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So it sounds like it just varies pretty much based on what they have, what they need to get done.

Joshua Leonard: Right.

Maurice Cherry: Let’s switch gears here just a little bit. I do again want to go into talking about Team Supreme and especially about the Joshua Leonard Foundation. I’m curious to hear about that, we’ll talk about that later. But tell me about where you grew up.

Joshua Leonard: I’m actually a military brat. So I was born in Miami and we left Miami after hurricane Andrew, went to Alaska. So I lived in Anchorage for a little bit, then we moved to Maryland. So I was in PG County for a little bit, then we went to Biloxi, Mississippi, where hurricane Katrina hit, so I got evacuated to Atlanta. So I kind of grew up everywhere, but born in Miami.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Joshua Leonard: But, yeah. So now, residing in Atlanta until I have to go to LA to really start production on the shelf. So.

Maurice Cherry: When did you move from Miami?

Joshua Leonard: Oh, man. Hmm.

Maurice Cherry: Hurricane Andrew was like, what, ’90…

Joshua Leonard: I think it was in ’90…

Maurice Cherry: ’92, ’94? [crosstalk 00:05:30].

Joshua Leonard: ’92. I think it was ’92. I’m not quite sure. I don’t really remember. I was a lot younger at the time, but I just remember riots. There was a lot of riots out there at the time. Yeah, it was rough. It was rough at the time in Miami.

Maurice Cherry: With all of this moving around because you’re, like you say, a military brat, moving from city to city like this, was creativity something that was a part of your childhood during this process?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, definitely. So I’m the baby out of two more older brothers and one of my older brothers, he taught me how to draw Garfield when I was really young, I think I was in kindergarten. And I’ve always, once I learned how to draw Garfield, I just never stopped, never stopped, always drawing in class, getting in trouble drawing and even moving around a lot. I just, I never stopped. I’m real good at sports. I got recruited in D1 Football, track scholarships, play baseball, basketball, but I never stopped drawing. I always had that kind of that thing to fall back on. Even though as a kid, I knew I would be an artist, but I thought I was going to be a professional athlete, which I could have, blew my knee out. So everything happens for a reason. I’m grateful for that. I’m doing what I’m supposed… I’m put here to make this cartoon and change these lives. So I’m real, I’m thankful for that.

Maurice Cherry: What were some of your favorite animated shows and movies and stuff growing up?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah. So I came from a strict background, obviously, military, but mother was real religious, so I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of crazy stuff. So I grew up on Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones, some Disney, some Nickelodeon. I watched Doug, I’m a big Doug fan, but mainly Looney Tunes. Man, I love Chuck Jones. I love the style that they put in into the Looney Tunes characters. And that’s kind of what made me fall in love with animation, like the frame by frame animation, because I’m a traditional animator. I do the frame by frame stuff, which takes forever, but it looks the most beautiful. So.

Maurice Cherry: When you say frame by frame, what do you mean?

Joshua Leonard: That is drawing every single frame, right? If you pause a film and it’s just step by step by step by step, that means every single drawing. So if I’m drawing somebody waving, I have to draw every single drawing. Right now, you’re seeing a lot of puppet animation on TV where they can just move the hand and then do this and it doesn’t look as good.

Maurice Cherry: Hmm.

Joshua Leonard: [crosstalk 00:07:52] which shows are kind of puppet animation because they’re real stiff when they move. And then you can also tell when Disney does their frame by frame animation, Cinderella and all that stuff, Aladdin, that’s all frame by frame. It’s beautiful to look at.

Maurice Cherry: Is the switch from frame by frame to puppet, is that just how the industry is going? Or is that because of technology?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, it’s both. It’s both.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Joshua Leonard: So you have studios that is cheaper doing puppet animation. Because what you’re doing is basically 3D, except you’re doing a 2D character. So you have a… that’s where I would come in at, I would design a character, flat 2D character, and if somebody else would come in and rig it, and then rigging it is adding the bone structure inside it is, that way, they can move the puppet. You can grab this little elbow right here and make him raise his arm or make a wave or whatever it’s going to be, but, yeah. That’s why it’s a lot easier than drawing every single picture. You just draw one character and then you can move him around like a puppet.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Leonard: But I like old school, frame by frame.

Maurice Cherry: I really, when I was growing up, I really like, I like Looney Tunes. I really like Tex Avery.

Joshua Leonard: Tex [inaudible 00:09:02]. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, [crosstalk 00:09:04].

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. The Tex Avery cartoons, the wolf and droopy dog. I love [crosstalk 00:09:08].

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. They had the good punch lines and yeah, they were definitely ahead at that time, Tom and Jerry, all of that stuff was really dope to me. So, [crosstalk 00:09:17].

Maurice Cherry: So because of that, I’m curious, how did that play a role in the development of your style of animation? You said it’s frame by frame, but did you get other influences from those series?

Joshua Leonard: I mean, frame by frame animation is frame by frame animation. It’s really, if you have to draw every single movement, you’re getting, you grab them from everywhere. But definitely, Chuck Jones, Disney, obviously, Fleischer brothers, Tex Avery, so yeah, I studied all of that stuff and it’s so many more. Aaron Blaise, he did a lot of stuff. I think he did the character design for the Beast in Beauty and the Beast, animated the Beast, so a lot of other animators that I studied, the cartoons that I watched and learned from. But yeah, definitely.

Maurice Cherry: So your brother teaches you how to draw Garfield, right? So he shows you this one character. When did you I guess first know that you are good at art, period? When did you first [inaudible 00:10:16], “Oh wait, I could do this, not just as the one thing that my brother taught me.”

Joshua Leonard: I think that’s about when, because I was real young. I mean, we’re talking about kindergarten. So I don’t know if I was five, I don’t remember how young I was, but once I drew that, I mean, it was just a straight headshot of Garfield and it’s easy to do. So ever since then, I’ve always taken an art class or some type of, anything dealing with art, I was taking it, but elementary school, middle school, high school, always to the art class and always aced the art classes.

Maurice Cherry: So you’re in Miami, you’re moving again between all these different cities, you’ve got this passion for art and animation, when did you I guess really decide you would pursue it? Because-

Joshua Leonard: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: … if you mentioned earlier that you wanted to be an athlete-

Joshua Leonard: Right.

Maurice Cherry: … you got drafted D1, where was the split there between athletics and animation?

Joshua Leonard: Absolutely. So like I said, I was always… I come from an athletic background and so I think around probably high school, maybe 9th, 10th grade, I was getting a lot better at art. I was still trash, but I got a lot better. But I was still an athlete and I was still getting recruited and all of that, but it was a fallback thing. I knew I would go pro or do something like that, but at the same time, even me being a pro, I was going to still open up an animation studio or something like that. Probably high school while I can definitely learn a little bit more. But also, living in Biloxi, Mississippi, there’s not much to do out there. They got the military base. I actually started off as a graphic designer because there’s no animation in Mississippi. So that was kind of a hinder for me and I didn’t like that, but I do love graphic design as well, not as much as animation, obviously, but I do, I still love fonts and character fonts and all of that type of stuff and motion graphics and regular graphics.

Joshua Leonard: But when I came to Atlanta, that’s when it really got like, okay, this is why I’m here. This is what it’s going to be. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And you said that happened as a consequence of hurricane Katrina.

Joshua Leonard: Right. So what happened was 2005, I think, hurricane Katrina came.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, 2005. So I got evacuated here. My daughter was also born during hurricane Katrina, so Katrina hit [crosstalk 00:00:12:35]-

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Joshua Leonard: … August 29th, my daughter was born September 6th. So I was homeless. Yeah, I lived right on the beach. I was going to William Carey College in Biloxi Gulfport, and when I came back, it was nothing there, man. It was a slab. It was crazy, man. All those big mansions on the water, they were gone. They were gone. Have you big old 20 foot deep holes. And I mean, crazy, crazy, looked like the end of the world. But like I said, everything happens for a reason. So as bad as it was, I’m grateful for it. I mean, it was bad, like a movie almost. You couldn’t get water. You can only pump a certain amount of gas. I mean, it was a lot of people going crazy out there. But talking about bathing and the same bathwater as everybody else in that house with, I mean, it was rough, man. [crosstalk 00:13:25].

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Joshua Leonard: So I got evacuated to Atlanta, daughter was born and I kind of just followed her and her mother back to Biloxi to kind of help them out. And now she’s here. So I came back and I’ve been here since 2014. Been the best, best thing ever. Ever since I moved to Atlanta in 2014, Atlanta has been so good to me. It’s been really, really a great move for me.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, that’s good. That’s good. So before that move though, between you sort of getting to Atlanta, had your daughter, then you went back to Biloxi, were you still working on animation during that time there or were you just focused on getting back to Atlanta?

Joshua Leonard: No. At that time I was just, I think I was just working.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Joshua Leonard: So I started working at Home Depot. Yeah, the animation really started when I was in Atlanta. When I came, when I got evacuated here, I started to go to the Art Institute to see if I can get in. I didn’t get in, in 2005 during hurricane Katrina. But I was just glad, because I had too much debt, that’s the reason why, I had too much debt at the time. But just, when I came to Atlanta, then know they had a SCAD out here and art institute and all these animation studios, I was like, man, this is perfect. But I said, man, I’m going to do what I love to do and that way, I don’t ever have to retire. And that’s why I stayed with it and I don’t have to get… I don’t have to tackle these big old 230 pounds running backs anymore and get hit by big linebackers anymore. I can stay healthy and just draw, man. So, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: What was your time like at the Art Institute of Atlanta?

Joshua Leonard: It was good for me. It was good for me. And a lot of people, they have different, you read a lot of bad stuff and you read some good stuff. I think it depends on the person. I remember, man, when I went 2014, shout out to Mr. Myvett who was my president of that school at the time, he told me, kind of pulled me to the side, because I was on President’s List the whole four years I was there. I graduated with a 4.0 top of the class, I was the commencement speaker, me and Rep. John Lewis. We spoke, but I remember Mr. Myvett kind of pulled me to the side, he’s like, “Man, look, this school, you have to brand yourself. That’s what this school is good for. You got to brand yourself.” But I took that to heart and that’s what I did.

Joshua Leonard: I remember, I would go to class with sweatpants on and an Under Armour shirt, but I sat in the front, right up front, passed everything, straight As. And the more I did it every quarter, the teachers are like, okay, [inaudible 00:15:52], I got the tight shirts on with the muscles, okay, get straight As. He’s not playing around.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Joshua Leonard: And I kind of let my teachers know, I was one of the oldest one who was in there anyway. And I remember talking to kind of my younger peers who weren’t really getting that work done, I’m like, “Man, you don’t even have to work after this. You just go home and play video games. Why aren’t these projects done?” I got to go home. I mean, I get off out of class, man, I worked full-time jobs. So I get up at 3:00 in the morning.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Leonard: And then I have all my stuff done and everything like that. So I’m trying to tell him, “Man, this school costs way too much money for you all to be playing around.” So I kind of went in there with the mindset, I’m out to kill all the competition I can up here while I’m here and everybody will know that I went to this school and that I did well at this school. And I loved it, man. I would tell my teachers, “Look, you might not be able to tell this person that their work is trash, but you can tell me. You got to be honest with me. This is going to make me [crosstalk 00:16:47].” So some kids didn’t like that. Teachers would get in trouble because they were too honest to the kids. I’m 100% with that. You got to… truth hurts, but you got to, if it’s trash, you let me know.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Joshua Leonard: And they will let me know. I feel like this could be better. I said, “Okay, no problem. I’ll go back and change it. Let’s make it better.”

Maurice Cherry: So once you graduated, do you feel like the Art Institute kind of prepared you for the animation industry? Did they sort of get you ready for the next step of life?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, absolutely. Because even as a freshman, I was already doing work for big time animators. I wasn’t getting paid, but I worked on a short film called Mila, which is not out yet, but what I did, and people, especially younger kids, I guess they think I’m joking on, I mean, LinkedIn and stuff like that, social media, all I simply did, I remember seeing a post on it on Twitter. It’s a short film, shout out to [inaudible 00:17:46], she’s the one that’s producing it and she worked at Dreamworks. So now, she’s over [inaudible 00:17:52] up in Canada, so big time animator that kind of mentored me that I met on social media, and all I did was send a message. I said, “Hey, I’m a…

Joshua Leonard: And all I did was send a message. I said, “Hey, I’m a freshman at the Art Institute… I love to help out any way I can.” Boom. And they wrote me back, “Hey, okay, well this is a kind of a free opportunity when I… This is just people that want to help out.” And I’m like, yeah man, absolutely. This is how I’m going to learn. These are industry people and that’s what I did and it’s been the best relationship even to this day. So matter of fact, if it wasn’t for [inaudible 0:00:00:27], she’s the one that helped me with my resume and because I had, my website was pure animation. She’s like, “Nah, take that off, you’re a character designer. That’s what you’re going to be known as a character designer. That’s what you’re the best at. Take the animation off, do this stuff.” My animation won best of show and all of that. You’re a character designer, trust, me, you do this. And once I changed all this stuff, that’s when Nickelodeon hit me up. So I was like, maybe [inaudible 00:18:51].

Joshua Leonard: Super dope, man. But yeah, I feel like Art Institute really helped me out. Me, specifically, like I said, the teachers were a 100% honest with me. So that’s what I was really grateful for. You have some teachers say, “Man, you can’t graduate from here and then get a character design guy.” I did, but I don’t think he was talking to me specifically because like I said, I went in there to kill all the competition. I wanted to really, I wanted them to know who I was. And anything I could do, I was asking questions. Anything, I can do this. It was too much money. You spending all that money, you better get as much as you can out of it. Ask everything you can, learn as much as you can. That’s what I did. But yeah, I felt like they really helped me out a lot.

Maurice Cherry: And I mean it sounds like you had a mission though also going-

Joshua Leonard: I did.

Maurice Cherry: … into school-

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, I did.

Maurice Cherry: Just to kind of give you just a little bit of background. So I’m in Atlanta too. I don’t know if I mentioned that or if I said that earlier-

Joshua Leonard: No, I didn’t know that.

Maurice Cherry: I’ve done some advising at the Art Institute of Atlanta. So they have this thing called the… What’s it called? The Professional Advancement Group or something like that. It’s something where basically the faculty at the Art Institute of Atlanta, they talk to designers and folks in the industry that are in Atlanta and they sort of like talk to them to get a sense of what are the things that we should be teaching students. The industry is changing a lot. And so schools can often be very lax at keeping up with that.

Maurice Cherry: And so they’ll ask us, “Well, what are the things that you’re looking for when you’re trying to hire? What are the skills that you want to see in? If it’s the web, of course the big thing is UX and product design or something like that. And there are people that come through that are traditional like visual designers, graphic designers, and the conversation tends to get more about, at least from what I’ve seen when I’ve went to talk to them, the conversation ends up devolving into just like nostalgia about their time there. Or it’s teachers complaining that the students don’t have enough initiative to do more things. And I’ll tell this to students too, when you’re putting your portfolio together, for example, depending on the position that you’re looking for, you have to be able to tell a story.

Maurice Cherry: You have to be able to show your thoughts behind why you’ve done certain things, what the certain decisions are that you’ve made in particular designs that you’ve done. Because otherwise it’s just a picture book. And anybody can take, like there’re all kinds of mock-up things that you can get on the web for free or for cheap. And you can just throw your logo in there and it makes it look like you did a professionally shot campaign or something. And that’s not the case. What was the rationale behind that? Why did you make these decisions? Did you talk with the client? Did this serve the business goals? And I mean that’s of course if that’s what you want to do with design, but it’s sort of boiled down to making sure that students go into school having that initiative that they need to get something out of this experience other than just a degree. And it sounds like for you, you went into it with a plan, pretty much.

Joshua Leonard: Yeah. And I feel like that’s, you had to, you had to, man. Because I mean that’s the mentality I had. I want to learn as much as I can, I’m spending this much money, I’m going to use every outlet I can. And I did work. I mean this was as a freshman man, I was doing work for NFL players, logos, anything that I could put on my resume as a freshman. I had business cards already. I wasn’t playing around man, I really wanted to brand myself at the school. And then once the school started noticing, they started getting behind me. Like, this interviews. I was getting interviews and they would put me on stuff and I mean just everything. Plugging me in certain things and it was really good for me, really good for me. So I’m real thankful for it.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. And so you’re here in Atlanta, a lot of the big animation studios are out on the West coast. You kind of alluded there a little bit about having to move from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Is that happening in the near future?

Joshua Leonard: So here’s what it’s going to be. People that don’t know the animation industry is less than 3% black in it. It’s really bad. The diverse is getting better, but it’s still really bad. I have Leonard Studios here, I have an LLC right now. So after I go out to LA for Team Supreme and we start production, I might have to stay out there for like two, three years. I’m coming back to Atlanta. I’m building a studio out here. I’m doing my Tyler Perry thing out here. I want a big facility, animation. I mean a real, real, that’s where I’m going to be investing my money in. I’m already looking at buildings and land and that was my thing like. And the crazy thing about Atlanta and LA, LA shows me a lot of love as far as jobs and stuff. Like I said, Disney had me out there, gave me the tour.

Joshua Leonard: I was going to be a character designer for Devil Dinosaur and Moon Girl on Marvel, but they went another direction, which is, that’s perfectly fine. I’m thankful that I got the opportunity to go out there. They gave me a tour, I got to meet everybody. Just for them to consider me. That was major, stuff like that. I did the special Olympics. Special Olympics flew me out to LA and I was in a high rise all the way at the top in a suite and I did an interview live with all these celebrities. Kobe Bryant’s sister was there with her daughter. I think she’s a chef or something like that. But I mean like LA showed me a lot of love. I can’t get a job out here in Atlanta at an animation studio.

Maurice Cherry: Really?

Joshua Leonard: [crosstalk 00:24:29] It’s crazy man.

Maurice Cherry: Wait, wait, wait, let’s talk about that actually because… So I’ve done, for folks that have listened to the show for a while, they know that, well, one thing that I try to do is I always try to talk to folks here in the city because Atlanta is this weird outlier in the-

Joshua Leonard: It is, it is.

Maurice Cherry: … creative industry and that for design animation certainly there’s something about Atlanta and the city and the culture that breeds this immense amount of creativity in a lot of different fields. In music, art, fashion, film, TV, et cetera. And there are certain industries that have taken advantage of that. Most notably probably television and film, but then like Zine or even like what you’re talking about with animation, it’s still something where you have to go to like New York or LA or somewhere else to get the opportunities and they’re not here. Which you would think Atlanta has Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. You would think, well I mean, that’s one company, but. I didn’t know that it was that… Is it bad? Is it really bad out here for animation?

Joshua Leonard: Did you know a lot of people don’t know this, there’s over 90 animation studios in Georgia.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Joshua Leonard: In Atlanta. Yeah. Yep.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Joshua Leonard: And I’m a part of a group called [inaudible 00:07:47]. So it was a lot of SCAD members and that’s the thing. I think that’s why I don’t really get looked at out here like that because I didn’t go to SCAD. I almost did. I’m like, Art Institute, way cheaper. I’m going to have to go here instead and we had SCAD teachers and all that. I know everybody over there at SCAD and, but yeah, and that’s, it’s crazy because you see a lot of SCAD people at these companies, Turner and Cartoon Network. And so I think it is, I’m still black for one. The animation industry is still going to be extremely hard for me to get in and I get that.

Joshua Leonard: But at the same time I have no problem with somebody who’s better than me. I will, 100%. You know what? You’re right. That was the right move. You’ve got a good dude right there. He’s better. [inaudible 00:26:31] But-

Maurice Cherry: Do you think-

Joshua Leonard: … and that’s how I have a chip on my shoulder right now.

Maurice Cherry: You do?

Joshua Leonard: I feel, oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely. And that’s why I’m building this studio. That’s where the whole Tyler Perry mentality came from. Like you know what? Man, if I can’t get hired, these other companies is going to have to… We’re going to have to battle. We’re going to have to battle and my cartoons are going to be better. That’s what’s kind of frustrating. I’m like man, with Team Supreme, not one studio in Atlanta? I would be jumping on this. But do you know what studios come? LA, Canada, all the other ones.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. There’s big animation in Canada. [inaudible 00:27:08].

Joshua Leonard: Oh, Canada’s huge, Absolutely, yeah, they’re huge. And then Toon Boom, is a shout out to Toon Boom. They sponsor me. So I get software from them. But yeah, I mean it’s crazy. Atlanta has been great to me. Don’t get me wrong. I love it. I love, I’m real grateful for all my connects out here. Because I know a lot of people in the industry, especially the music industry, but the animation part of it is still kind of tricky. Still, kind of tricky. I’m like, man, look, I will be a janitor at Cartoon Network or Bento Box. Just get me in the door. I’ll leave artwork all over the place so they will be like, “Man, who does this?” I’ll make myself known. It’s, you can even get in. But then I got, I know people that just graduated that got hired at Bento Box this year. It’s like eh, it’s kind of frustrating. But at the same time I’m very patient. I know I have a good brand on my hands so I just stay with it, man. Just stay with the [inaudible 00:28:01].

Maurice Cherry: Do you think, because we’ve got an Art Institute and there’re other schools that have design programs and such. Do you think there’s maybe too much talent here and not enough work? Well clearly, There’s not enough work is what you just said, but. Do you think there’s too much talent here?

Joshua Leonard: No, I don’t think, I mean I think it’s a lot of talent, but I just think that… Here’s the thing. So my portfolio day, we didn’t have any studios come out to our portfolio day. I’ll be honest with you. None of them came. But-

Maurice Cherry: And what year was this?

Joshua Leonard: This is 2018 and I’m not mad at that because if the seniors are not putting out work that’s good enough, like the years before. Why would you waste the time? So I did my due diligence on my own. Like I said, I branded myself. I was like, look man, here’s my portfolio. Boom. As a, I think I was a junior, I got paid $6,000 to do a 32-second commercial for a client. This is, I mean I’m still in school and working full-time and running Leonard Studios, LLC with the NFL players doing this stuff and I was the best thing.

Joshua Leonard: And that’s just from social media. Me, posting artwork, $6,000 man, it’s easy. It took a while because I did… It was frame by frame animation. But I mean it is a lot of talent here. I still think it’s kind of cliqued up. I still think it’s kind of cliqued up with the whole SCAD and artists 2 thing. I do think it’s two different monsters and that’s fine. That’s fine. I’m all about being fair but I do believe certain studios will look out for their friends and their guys. That’s unfortunate, but it’s life, man.

Joshua Leonard: Well, I mean that same thing happens too, unfortunately in the design industry, that whole pipeline, companies and schools and like if you didn’t go to that school then you don’t get in. I’ve been in the design industry for a long time and I didn’t go to design school. I went to Morehouse here in Atlanta, majored in math, like I have no formal design background at all. Everything has been self-taught. And luckily the design industry is lenient in that way and that you can make a living without having actually gotten a degree of some sort in the field. But there are opportunities, I know that I’ve been shut out from because I didn’t go to design school and I’ve heard it explicitly. I’ll give you another example. I went to, not I went to, I had a job at AT&T, this was in 2000. Actually this might’ve been about the time you first came to Atlanta, this was in 2006. And I got a job at and AT&T in Midtown at the big tall AT&T tower.

Joshua Leonard: And everybody that was on the design team went to Art Institute of Atlanta. They were graduates, friends, et cetera. And I was the only one there that did not go to Art Institute. And I remember that first day, I’m like doing a tour and everyone’s, “Hey, what’s your name? Blah, blah, blah. Did you go to Art Institute?” That was the first question, not where did you go to school? Or when did you graduate from Art Institute? I said, “No, no, no. I went to Morehouse College.” “Oh, where’s that?”

Joshua Leonard: Oh, wow.

Maurice Cherry: I mean, well, like if you look out the window.

Joshua Leonard: Right, it’s right there.

Maurice Cherry: You see that green roof way off in the distance? That’s Morehouse. It’s here. So I get that. I totally understand that thing. But wow, I didn’t know it was still so pervasive. That sucks.

Joshua Leonard: It’s tough, man. And you know it was crazy. I got a couple friends that work at the CNN Center, so I got a good buddy of mine that he’s up there and he always sends me stuff. He’s like, “Man, you can do this way better.” Yeah, I could. And he like, “Man, look, send me your resume. I’m going to do this, Boom. I’m going to drop it off.” And we’ve done that like three times. Nothing. The one thing I do think I’m put here, actually, I know I’m putting it to create this cartoon and do this Team Supreme stuff.

Joshua Leonard: And I believe that’s why I keep getting shut out as far as Atlanta goes with animation [inaudible 00:13:50]. So it kind of gives me a little more motivation to just strictly grind on Team Supreme. Like I said, we got the book coming with some crazy technology attached to that. Just came from the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta yesterday. So we’ve got big partnership with them. I went and spoke at Novartis, which is a big pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, so they pay me, I went out there to speak at the disability mentoring day, had a blast. So it’s a lot of outside stuff that I get more… I like a lot more anyway, as it pertains to Team Supreme, it’s starting to really move.

Maurice Cherry: Let’s talk about Team Supreme then. Because for folks that may not know or may not have heard of Team Supreme, can you just tell us a little bit about what it is?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah, so Team Supreme is a cartoon that I’m creating about a group of kids who have a disability, but the disability is their superpower. So imagine a Marvel, but all of the characters are inclusive. So I have a character that has spina bifida. I have an amputee, I have a deaf character, my main character has autism. I have a deaf character, blind, sickle cell. So basically I wanted to create a whole universe of these inclusive characters, every type of disability, diabetes, anything and all these character would be the forefront instead of kind of hidden in the background, so. And that’s kind of where Team Supreme came from. I was like, man, you know what, for me being a person of color and growing up you didn’t see a lot of characters that look like us. I’m like, man, not only am I going to make a character that looks like me, I’m going to give him a disability and make this age a cartoon about disability and special needs.

Joshua Leonard: Because I know everybody in the world knows somebody or has a family member. This will be so big that it will touch so many souls. And not only just motivate kids, but it’ll help the parents. And so that’s what it’s about. So I’m actually still developing it. I have Lena Waithe and Hillman Grad on board as producers and-

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Joshua Leonard: … and Jason Weaver. So everybody knows Jason Weaver from Lion King. He plays Simba, he’s in ATL, big mentor of mine, great friend, shout out Jason Weaver. Shout out Lena and Richie. I have a writer that writes for the show Quantico. So shout out to Jazelle and she’s actually partially deaf. So super dope and I’m super excited about the next steps, which is us pitching to a bunch of studios, Disney, Nickelodeon, Netflix. So we moving forward.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. When I told people that I was interviewing you, the main question they asked me is, “when is Team Supreme coming out? When is it getting animated? When is it coming out?”

Joshua Leonard: Can you tell folks about the development cycle when it comes to animated works?

Maurice Cherry: Yes, I can. That’s a great question because it gets frustrating and I get it. Because this is, man I think I started touching on Team Supreme around 2014, kind of teased it and it went viral. Even that next year, they like, “When is it going to be available? When is it going to be out?” And I remember I was in two car accidents back to back days when I was at the Art Institute. The first one I was at a red light in a car, just totaled my car in the back. Had to stop. So I had to get five epidurals. So as I’m home I had my Cintiq on the bed and I’m drawing.

Maurice Cherry: So what I did, I animated a little one-minute clip. This is old, old and that’s what you’re seeing in the little preview and that’s why all the characters look totally different. Because I was still developing, I’ve learned some stuff. I was still learning how to animate so I was playing around with it. So the development process is long in itself. That can take a year or two. And then you’re talking about a cartoon like mine that’s so important and serious that you don’t want to step on any toes. My cartoons taking longer to make and create and develop because I have to make sure everything is 100% true to life. And it’s correct. The words that we use are true and the proper.

Joshua Leonard: Correct. The words that we use are true, and the proper words. We have to consult with people that have a disability, and specific disabilities to our characters. That’s another thing, so you’re talking to doctors and nurses and medical field industry people. It’s a lot of studying and stuff like that. Then you have to get the cartoon picked up, and that can take another year, or another two years just doing the contract, going back and forth with contracts and stuff, so it’s a lot. But my team is really excited about the next step, which is the pitching part of the process. We’re really close. Yeah, we’re really close to getting it picked up, and I’m really excited about it. Yeah, it’s a long process. It’s a long process, but I think for this show people will appreciate the length of this process, and see how important it is, because we don’t get everything right. So yeah, I’m really excited about it, but I apologize for the wait. Just bear with me if you can.

Maurice Cherry: I didn’t know UPS was going to be coming this late. I’ve been waiting around all day for them.

Joshua Leonard: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: What was the last thing you were saying just now?

Joshua Leonard: I was saying that I just apologize for the wait, but with a cartoon like mine, everything has to be 100% correct, and I want to make sure it’s done right. I was saying how I think people will appreciate that we took this extra time to really consult with all of these different people. Disabilities are not just … Just making sure we’re getting everything right.

Maurice Cherry: It’s interesting you mentioned that it’s changed over time. Is that a worry when it comes to the development process, that you started out with things looking one way, and then maybe your personal style changed over the years bit by bit?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah. What happens is, I’m not worried. That’s just the development stage. You start off with some trash character designs, and I have a ton. Once I put out the Team Supreme, the art of Team Supreme, you’ll see all these bad designs, and these bad character models. The original, I had these kids, they were super young, kindergarten young, real cute, and big heads. But as I kept getting better with the drawing, more anatomy and stuff like that because I studied some more stuff, I started to get better, and just found my style that I really wanted to stick with, with this thing.

Joshua Leonard: One thing I was tired of seeing was the same look for cartoons, and they kind of joke around. I forgot what they call it, the [cow arts 00:02:30]? Just straight arms, the hands, real simple, but I get it. Kids don’t care as long as the writing is dope, and it’s colorful and fun. I get it, but hopefully we won’t have to do that for this one, because my characters, they’ve got meat on their bones, the fingers and the joints and all of that. But yeah, where I have the characters at now is where I’m happy.

Maurice Cherry: Got you. As folks who know, who have listened to this show for a while, I’ve personally had my own, I guess you could say, graphic novel idea that I’ve had for a long time. I’ve been like oh, I really need to find an illustrator to collaborate with, because I want to write the characters. I’ve come up with the characters, whether it’s just a matter of oh, well who do I find that can do the designs or something like that?

Joshua Leonard: Right.

Maurice Cherry: When it comes to that kind of process, because you’re the artist, how long did it take you to find a writer, to be able to get everything together with Team Supreme?

Joshua Leonard: Well, I’ve already … A lot of this stuff was done by me in the beginning. We had a whole … Team Supreme was supposed to be a short film. I was going to do a short film, and that’s why I was trying to raise the money so I wouldn’t have to work for a year. I was just going to animate the whole show for eight minutes by myself, backgrounds, everything, storyboard. I was going to do it all by myself. I didn’t raise enough money with the Indiegogo campaign. I think I ended up raising $6,000, which I’m super thankful for. I’m real grateful for that, but we had to go a different route. That’s kind of where we’re at right now.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Just so folks know, the animation, all of that, it takes time.

Joshua Leonard: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: It’s not as simple as … I wouldn’t say as simple as one might think. I don’t know how simple they think it might be, but I guess maybe because we see so much animation now these days, I feel like we see much more animation now than we did when we were kids, between television and especially now with feature films and stuff. Animation is big now.

Joshua Leonard: It’s big right now. Yes, absolutely. Yeah, so frame by frame animation is what I was going to do. That commercial I was telling you about, the 30 second commercial? Just for 30 seconds it took me three months, but that’s me still working full time and going to school, just doing it whenever I could, after a weekend or so like that, but that was the whole process. I had to do tons of character design, I had to do character turnarounds. When you’re talking about a book or something like that, it’s still difficult to do. Then a lot of people don’t realize how expensive this stuff can get. Some people charge by the hour. Some people charge like, “Hey, do you want this? This is going to be a flat rate, $1,200,” or whatever they charge. I don’t know. I think as somebody … If you have your book, as long as everything is in detail you’ll save a lot of money, because you’re going to save the artist some time. I get a lot of people, “I need a logo.”

Joshua Leonard: “Well, what do you want?”

Joshua Leonard: “Man, I’m not even sure.”

Joshua Leonard: “Well, you’re going to spend extra money, because I’m going to have to do extra designs for you.”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Joshua Leonard: What I usually do, I sketch something out. I don’t care if it’s stick figures. Sketch something out just so I’ll know where’s that in your mind, and then I’ll work around that. I’ll hook it up for you. That usually saves them a little bit of time. But as far as book illustration, I’ve never done one for a client, just because I don’t know … If it’s a serious client and they really understand the process, how the money and stuff works, and time and all of that, then I may think about it. But most of them want 34 pages for $500, which is not … The work is not worth the time I put into it, because it is a lot. You’re talking about backgrounds and painting and coloring, and character designers could add as well, so it just depends on the artist, I think.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Okay. Let’s kind of switch gears a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about Team Supreme. We’ve talked a lot about just your story in general. I’m curious to know at this point where you’re at right now? Are you satisfied creatively?

Joshua Leonard: I am, yeah. I’m very satisfied. For me, like I said, just being out of school for two years, I’ve done probably more than a lot of people. I’m so grateful for that, because I know if I was in Biloxi I wouldn’t … Team Supreme still probably would have popped off, but I don’t even know if I would have made it happen if I was out there. You know what I mean? So where I’m at right now, I’m really grateful, man. It’s pretty dope. I have a lot of celebrity support behind it, so yeah, I’m very happy where I’m at.

Maurice Cherry: What keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Joshua Leonard: Definitely my daughter keeps me motivated. Other artists keep me inspired. Seeing these kids, especially yesterday at Children’s Hospital, stuff like that is dope to me, man. I did not even want to leave. I met a little kid up there. Little kid had his fire red hair and he had fibrosis, I think he had. He came up with these little characters. He was telling me, “Yeah, I come up with these ideas for villains and good guys and bad guys.” I mean, really young kid, man. He might have been seven, and just his imagination was so dope. As they’re taking me on a tour of these places, they showed me this other little kid that drew two different pictures. One was him as a regular kid, and he has sickle cell, little [inaudible 00:43:47] kid. Then on the other side, it was him as a superhero. I was like, “That’s what Team Supreme is, man. That’s exactly why I’m doing this, because you guys do have super powers.” Seeing stuff like that, super inspiring, super motivational.

Joshua Leonard: Even when I’ve seen … If you guys are not familiar with Shaquem Griffin, he’s the one went to, I think … I know he’s from Florida, but he’s an amputee. He’s a linebacker, and he plays ball with half an arm. I remember he was in the combine, and they really doubted him. He wasn’t that good, and this and that. Then this dude ran a 4 340 at 230 pounds was unbelievable to me. To see that with just one arm, how in the world? 4 340, that’s Olympic speed, and if you’re 230 pounds running that fast? Super power, you know? Stuff like that, man, is really motivational to me, and very inspiring.

Joshua Leonard: I’ve seen a dude doing climbing a rock wall attached to his wheelchair. He had his seatbelt on the wheelchair, and he pulled the whole thing up on the rock wall.

Maurice Cherry: Wow.

Joshua Leonard: Man, crazy, crazy stuff. I’m thinking in my mind, why hasn’t anybody done anything like this? My thing is, I think it was out of fear. “Oh, I [inaudible 00:45:03]. If I don’t do it right, they’re going to rip you apart.” But that’s why I’m here, man. This is my project. I’m going to make it happen.

Maurice Cherry: Where do you think your life would’ve gone if you weren’t doing animation?

Joshua Leonard: Is that if my knee wasn’t messed up?

Maurice Cherry: Well, yeah. So you’d have stayed and been an athlete then basically?

Joshua Leonard: Yeah. I definitely would have played pro baseball and pro football, for sure. Like I said, my whole family is very athletic. My dad was a top running back coming out of Texas, blew his knee out. I’ve got a cousin Ray Butler that played for the Colts. Ike Forte, my uncle, he played for the Redskins and the Patriots. I’ve got a couple of cousins at Southern Miss right now. I’ve got one in high school that just graduated. One thinks he’s going to be going pro. He’s 6′ 4″, 350. Athletes are here, so yeah, I would definitely be a professional athlete somewhere.

Joshua Leonard: Oh, then in 2005 Hurricane Katrina came, but I was training as a boxer for the 2008 Olympics. But Hurricane Katrina messed me up, so I had to get evacuated out here and all this stuff, so it was a mess.

Joshua Leonard: In 2008 my best friend got murdered, so it really … That’s more motivation and more … Yeah, he was robbed and murdered in 2008, so that really motivated me and kind of inspired me to keep going. Matter of fact, Brent is the main character. He’s the dad in my cartoon. That’s that big dude you see.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joshua Leonard: Everybody thinks that’s me. That’s not me. That’s my best friend. That’s me keeping Brent Jackson’s name alive. Good dude. He had a great heart, and he was real [inaudible 00:46:35], big dude, man, so that’s just me keeping him alive, and that’s how he was. He loved people, loved kids, but that’s where I get all my inspiration from, and motivation.

Maurice Cherry: What advice has stuck with you the longest? It can be life advice, career advice, anything like that.

Joshua Leonard: Life advice? Always stay humble. That’s from my dad, and he’s a big inspiration to me. Grew up poor in Texas, retired in the Air Force as a chief. He’s got three master’s degrees, a bachelor degree. He always gives me just life tips, right? “Hey, whenever you make it to the top, don’t forget to send the elevator back down,” stuff like that, so it stays with me.

Joshua Leonard: Let’s see. Career advice? Yeah, definitely just staying humble. You’ve got to … I was told animation studios and the industry doesn’t like those real shy people, especially an animation studio. They want to have fun in there. What I remember going to Nickelodeon, the first thing I noticed, everything was bright, colorful. Everybody was smiling. It was amazing to me. Then I went to Disney and they had puppies in each … People could bring their dogs to work and stuff like that. They want people with these personalities that fit. But man, I’ve gotten so many good career advices. Wow, that’s tough right off the top, man. That’s tough. I’d have to think about it a little bit more, but I’ve heard. That’s a good one. That’s a great question.

Maurice Cherry: Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I know Team Supreme is still in production right now, but we’re in the future now. It’s 2020. Come 2025-

Joshua Leonard: Billionaire.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. What is Joshua Leonard working on? What’s he doing? He’s a billionaire?

Joshua Leonard: No, I say that to say this. Money comes and goes. I’ve never really been … You obviously have to have money to survive, but like I said, that’s where being homeless comes in at. I appreciate the little things, so money, with $1 billion I’m all about helping people. That’s where the foundation and stuff come in at. The money’s going to come, especially with Team Supreme and what I do, speaking to students and kids and all of that stuff. I’m going to create the [steam 00:48:50] program. We do the field trips, I want scholarships, all of that type of stuff.

Joshua Leonard: But yeah, five years from now Team Supreme is probably going to be starting to work on a live action. It’s going to be major, man. This is a major project, and it’s limitless, really. It really is. But I just see Team Supreme really taking off real heavy, a worldwide household name. I mean worldwide. I get emails from Africa, Australia. There’s people thanking me for creating this for their son or their relative that has any type of disability, so super dope. I’m really excited about the next five years.

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

Joshua Leonard: My website where they can find all the Team Supreme stuff is leonardstudios.com. That’s L-E-O-N-A-R-D, studios, S-T-U-D-I-O-S, dot com. Then social media is, ImJoshuaLeonard, and it’s just I-M-J-O-S-H-U-A-L-E-O- N-A-R-D. There’s two Joshua Leonards out there. There’s the one that … There’s the white guy that did the Blair Witch Project, so that’s not me.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Joshua Leonard: A lot of people-

Maurice Cherry: This is on Twitter or Instagram?

Joshua Leonard: This is on all levels. Yeah, it’s the same. As a matter of fact, if you add the … If you add that on Instagram, my Instagram has all of my sites on it, so you’ll be able to find the Team Supreme page, the Leonard Studios page, all of it, the website, email, anything.

Joshua Leonard: I also mentor kids or anybody. If you’ve got questions and stuff, I’ve got the email on there. I’m always open to give back and help people, so that’s about it, man. My main picture is me in a suit. I love wearing tailored suits, so you’ll see.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Joshua Leonard, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. One, for sharing your story. I had heard about Team Supreme a while ago, and I had seen the viral clips and everything. I was like, “Oh, this is pretty dope.” But to hear your story and to hear it in your own words, to talk about how you managed to overcome not just setbacks that have happened in life to you physically and professionally, but just even the emotional setbacks … Sometimes, especially in this industry where there’s not a lot of people who look like us, there’s not a lot of role models or people that we can look to for things. Still having the perseverance to move forward and to succeed, to not only do that, but just bring people up with you as well, to inspire the next generation, I think, is really, really awesome. Thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joshua Leonard: Thank you so much for having me, man. I appreciate it. It was a lot of fun.


Submissions for Volume 2 of the design anthology RECOGNIZE open on March 1! For more information, visit recognize.design!


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Alex Pierce

It’s great to be able to look back at the early days of Revision Path and see just how far some designers have come. Take for instance Alex Pierce, one of our first interview guests from 2013. Fast-forward nearly seven years, and Alex has risen to the ranks of associate creative director at Publicis Hawkeye!

Alex talked about his day-to-day work at the Dallas-based outpost of Publicis, and spoke on how he approaches new projects and how his career has grown since starting at the agency over seven years ago. We also discussed the absence of Black people in the creative industry, Alex’s feature in NET Magazine, and what success looks like for him at this stage of his career. Thanks for the updates, Alex!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alex Pierce: Hey, I’m Alex Pierce. I am an associate creative director at Publicis Hawkeye.

Maurice Cherry: Well, first off, congratulations on your recent awards. I was looking at Twitter and I saw you got site of the day from … how do you say? Is it a wards? Because it’s like awwwards. Do you just say awards?

Alex Pierce: I just say A Awards. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some fancy way to say it, like you know how people in France say publicists versus people in America say publicists. So yeah, something like that. So I say A awards.

Maurice Cherry: All right so you got site of the day from A award. You got also site of the day from CSS Design Awards for your recent homepage redesign. So congratulations on that.

Alex Pierce: Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry: It’s been almost seven years since you’ve been on Revision Path. For people that are listening who are long time fans, listeners of the show, Alex was the last text interview I did before I did my first recorded interview, which was episode one of Revision Path. It sounds like a lot has transpired for you since then. Now you’re … well, you’re still at Publicis, but you’re now an interactive associate creative director. What are some of the responsibilities that you have in your current role?

Alex Pierce: Yeah, so I’m an associate creative director on the digital team. So some of my responsibilities, I’d say, and I remember one of my colleagues and friends, Dan, he’s a creative director, he told me this. He’s at a different point in his life now with his career and he’s given me advice, as an ACD, you’re in kind of a weird limbo, right? So you’re 60% … I would say 50, 60% still kind of hands-on, but then 40% of my time is managing other creatives and their work and their goals and stuff like that. So my current lead or kind of role on my team is I am a design lead. While I work at the agency, our team is kind of device, or not device, but I say device agnostic on a lot of client presentations, so I just automatically say that. No, our team is pretty client agnostic in terms of, we work across all of the agencies, brands, and portfolios, but we do have our own digital clients as well. So, I currently manage the creative for Disney that we have, the piece of Disney work that we have at the agency as well as US figure skating, actually.

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Alex Pierce: I don’t skate. I don’t skate, but I learned a lot about skating, apparently. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Now, I think when we first talked, you were just a art director, I think.

Alex Pierce: Yes sir.

Maurice Cherry: At Publicis.

Alex Pierce: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: So what’s been sort of the big change between art director and associate creative director? I’m not super familiar with the latter hierarchy as it relates to agencies, but it sounds like you … of course in seven years you’ve leveled up, but what are the differences between those two?

Alex Pierce: Well, yeah, it’s funny, even though I started at Publicis and I’m currently at Publicis, there was a whole period … so I went to Publicis as a mid level art director and I was at Publicis. I left Publicis to go to Hawkeye, I would say in 2012, and I stayed there for a while. Then, not too long after that, we got acquired by Publicis group and then they merged the Publicis Dallas office with the Hawkeye office, which is now Publicis Hawkeye. So, I saw all of my old friends and coworkers again.

Maurice Cherry: Oh wow.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. So it was a little bit of a boomerang kind of situation. They were like, “Oh man, we couldn’t lose you, so we just acquired the whole agency.” They like to make that joke. It’s obviously not true, but yeah. No, I think the difference was really just in terms of responsibility from art director, it’s basically just a mid level position. Senior art director, I think I had leads explained this to me. I would say senior director is more responsibility in terms of being able to be client facing, be able to manage presentations without a creative director in the room if needed, that kind of stuff, being able to be lead design leads on projects. Then, really the big shift from senior art director to associate creative director is really … I’m still figuring out myself. I’ve been in the role for a year and some change now, but I’d say it’s really just basically what I’m doing except now I am in a role of more mentorship and more creative direction, managing the vision and process for projects and accounts, doing scoping, doing hours estimates, that kind of stuff. Some of the more administrative tasks that I didn’t have to worry about as a senior art director, I have to definitely consider more of and then working with the account leads and strategy and being very client facing, that kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry: Now, are you also coming up with strategy or is that left to a more senior creative director?

Alex Pierce: That’s really more, I would say, for that big picture stuff, that’s really more related to, I’d say the group creative director, but even more so we really rely upon our strategy team to kind of help guide that. We actually take that strategy, help enhance it, give our feedback, and then we help interpret it into the creative work, but yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. Yeah, I figured there were certain discrete levels at agencies where you have that kind of division. I’m working ostensibly for a startup and even, I think, if you’re someone who is at the, let’s say like VP level, you find yourself doing not only strategy, but also management and execution, which is probably more on like the individual contributor level. So it’s kind of like the shifting of roles, no matter what your particular title is, so that’s interesting to to see. How do you approach new projects at work?

Alex Pierce: Well, I think how I approach is really, and this is what I like about working on our digital team. It’s definitely a collaborative process. So, it isn’t like everything’s put on the creative team. Everyone has their role to play, so I definitely rely upon account service and project management and strategy to kind of help come to the table with a fully fleshed out, approved brief from the client. Sometimes, depending on the situation, that’s not always the case, just depending on the type of client and the type of timeline and process, but usually we work out with a brief. So, usually start there, give our feedback there, ask any questions, and then really think about timeline roles and responsibilities. Is what they’re saying … Are the deliverables in alignment with the strategy and what the client is asking for, ultimately from a goals and KPI kind of standpoint? That kind of thing.

Maurice Cherry: Now that you have worked at the same company and moved up the ranks as you have, that feels like a real rarity in today’s current creative industry. Even now from what you said earlier, you were at Publicis, you left and went to another company, that company got acquired, and now you’re right back at the same company. I’m curious to know, what has being at Publicis taught you and what makes you continue to stay there?

Alex Pierce: I think, it’s kind of a cliche, but it comes down to the people. An agency isn’t really anything without its people, right? We’re the ones producing the work and the product. I mean that in a more general sense because I don’t mean just in terms of creative, but I also mean in terms of strategy, account service, managing client relationships, all that kind of stuff. I think, as you go across agency, and I had this piece of advice from my creative director, from … and it’s funny because he, actually, this guy, Gary Hawthorne, he’s actually a group creative director at Publicis Hawkeye right now, but he was actually my first boss ever in the industry and he hired me straight out of school as a junior art director at Shaffer Advertising in Fort Worth. He told me this a long time ago, “Don’t ever just leave one agency for another just because they maybe offer you moderately, a little bit more money because I think it’s really just all kind of the same thing.”

Alex Pierce: He didn’t mean that in a cynical way, but it’s just kind of like, be sure you’re leaving for the right reasons. Be sure that you’re leaving to do something different or to really pursue a specific goal because you kind of get that money trap with those golden handcuffs and then you’re just kind of beholden to that and you might be getting more money, but you’re not happy doing what you want to do.

Alex Pierce: Also, I love the people at my agency. I love my team. They’re super talented. I love working with everybody. We’re just kind of like a family. It’s like a home away from home for me, so that really means a lot to me. I think some people … everyone has their off days, and even on my off days, I still … I think about like, “Well, if I’m having a bad day, I’d rather have a bad day with people I like than a bad day with people I don’t like.” That’s kind of why I stayed at Publicis.

Alex Pierce: Then, in terms of Publicis as a agency and kind of things I’ve learned is, frankly, just interpretations of interactive and digital in the context of what I do. It’s interesting, Publicis, I think as a larger agency, their interpretations of digital and interactive versus where I came from. It’s funny, I actually … when I left Publicis to go to work at Hawkeye and I interviewed with the managing director of digital at the time, he still is today, Wes, he interviewed me. I was showing him my stuff and I was showing my web work. I started showing him some banner ads and he was like, “Oh no, no, no, no, no. We don’t do that here. We don’t do banner ads. Can you move that on?” I’m like, “Oh, sorry. Okay.”

Alex Pierce: I think there’s just like this interesting dichotomy, and what I’ve learned is just really thinking bigger picture. Right? So, I really love just UI, UX design, just visual design, interactive design for obvious reasons based off of my portfolio site just redesigned. Working with Publicis, it definitely opens me up to learning more about brand centric kind of work and more strategic, larger, big picture things. So, thinking about the website as a tactic and a larger strategy about talking about this customer journey, right? So, how are we communicating to these people through a variety of different channels? And really kind of opening my mind up to all those different avenues, whether it be display advertising, email marketing, web, that kind of stuff.

Maurice Cherry: How is that different from, say, user centric design?

Alex Pierce: Yeah, user centric design, I’d say, and this is the kind of funny thing because I actually gave a talk about this I think a year ago, at the American Advertising Federation conference for kind of the Midwest or Texas area, Texas and Oklahoma. I forgot, it’s like district 11 or something like that. I think user centric versus brand centric sometimes there is a clash. I think the mistake that people make is that these goals are mutually exclusive. I think if you’re always designing for the user, you’re ultimately designing for those business goals as well. When you think brand centric in a more traditional sense, it’s really more traditional media, that kind of stuff and you kind of think about that one way communication. It’s really all about trying to deliver on the client’s or the brand’s goals and approaching that advertising creative or that digital creative in that context.

Alex Pierce: I think the mistake that we make is, just because … I guess the mistake that we make is, when we look at it from that lens, I think it’s easy to make mistakes or get so myopic and looking inside that bubble. Our job as creatives is to help them look outside of that bubble and really think about their customer and their consumer and the users that use their product or service or brand or whatever. When you’re doing research and learning about those people, you need to open yourself up to learning that, this and product design, I would say. Sometimes just through user testing and interviews and feedback, you learn that people use your product in unexpected and in amazing ways.

Alex Pierce: I actually saw an interview, I think the … Was it the Glitch cofounder? He was talking about why he loved Glitch and just all the cool, crazy shit that people make on the platform in just unexpected kind of ways. That’s kind of where my mind is, strategically, when I think about user centric versus brand centric. Just thinking about the user doesn’t mean being boring. It’s really thinking about the context of, like … and I always think about this and it sounds cynical, so stay with me here. I think about this in the context of, what value does this serve the user with? What value does this give the person whose product you want, the person that you want to use your product or brand or service? If you’re making like this cool crazy idea, ultimately, how does this serve them? Because for people, when we’re alone, by ourselves, using this in the comfort of our home, no one’s watching us, we’re selfish. I want this to benefit me in some way and I don’t want this to be some sort of masturbatory kind of thought experiment from a brand to try and win some awards because awards are cool, but at the end of the day it’s not creative if it doesn’t sell.

Maurice Cherry: It’s an interesting thing about awards. There was a while back on here, I’d say maybe … Oh God, I’m dating myself by saying about a hundred episodes ago, but it literally was about a hundred episodes ago when I was talking about awards and black designers winning awards and what awards actually mean. It’s so interesting now because the conversation around awards in the creative industry … this episode will come out kind of during the … I want to say the end of the awards season, I think, for creatives. When I say creatives, I’m lumping in music, television, films, kind of all into that. So many times we see work that is clearly chasing an award. We’ve all seen a trailer and we’re like, “Oh, they’re trying to win an Oscar.” We’ve all seen the thing that’s like, you can tell they’re trying to chase the clout that this particular award can get. I wonder often, one, what that is in service of. Yes, it’s in service of the award, but just because you get the award doesn’t necessarily mean that opens up a new level of understanding or what have you from that, but I’m just always interested in that because it’s something that we want those awards to validate to other people that the work that we do is worthy. Yet, everyone can’t win an award. So.

Alex Pierce: Yeah, I think for me … I’m going to go on a sidetrack in a little bit, but for … just to speak on that, I think talking internally, it’s like that vicious cycle, right? You hear about specifically an advertising industry where that kind of desire to win awards kind of goes wrong and you hear about campaign fraud, that kind of stuff, with companies and agencies or brands just putting out work and they’re buying a billboard for like one hour in the middle of the night to say that it’s published and to try and win awards and it’s a whole big controversy and you see cons trying to crack down on, in other words, that kind of thing.

Alex Pierce: You ask yourself like, “Well, why is it that people are trying to do this?” I think ultimately it comes down to money, right? I think it comes down to … and I don’t necessarily … I think it’s shady, don’t get me wrong, and it’s not great, but you think about why people enter award shows and I think ultimately it comes down to new business, at least from your thinking about a larger agency picture, why agencies wouldn’t enter into award shows. It’s about demonstrating to clients that we do work that gets noticed and we do work that is validated in the industry and work with us. I think that sounded like a very simplistic kind of surface level of the reason why, and then when you get down to the individual level, right? I think it also just comes down to, I want my work validated. I want people to know that I’m competent at my job. That being said-

Maurice Cherry: It all boils down to validation.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. Yeah. I think when you’re talking about Oscar season and stuff like that … and I have to talk about this, man, but did you see the Irishman?

Maurice Cherry: I have not seen the Irishman. I’ve heard a lot of talk about it, particularly just it’s runtime, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Alex Pierce: Oh my goodness. Oh my God, man. If there’s ever a movie, I felt like, that was chasing something, it was that. You see the memes about it, man. Just people just, “Yeah, it’s five days in and I still haven’t finished that movie.” I’m that guy. To be frank, it’s my fault. Frankly, I’ve … the last two times, I ate a Popeye’s chicken sandwich right before I started watching that movie and then I just kind of passed out and I woke up kind of sweating in the middle, so that’s kind of problematic. Then also I just felt like it was a meandering plot and then that face-aging technology that’s supposed to be all amazing. Robert De Niro did not look like he was in his twenties. I’m sorry. It just looked like they just smoothed Robert De Niro’s face. It look better when he was in his middle age. They were kind of showing the middle age, but anyway, that’s this whole rant. I could talk about that for a while, but we’re not here to talk about Robert De Niro and his smooth face and Irishman, but I just think about, it seems disingenuous.

Alex Pierce: I guess, when you see the ads and you see those ads come out and you see those ads that are clearly awards bait, it just feels disingenuous and it doesn’t feel like they made that creative for the actual end audience. They made it to speak to the judges, right? They make stuff for the judges and not for the people. I say that, like, I’m not some … I’m not the guy. I’m not some guy who’s supposed to be … who has all the answers. So, for anyone who’s listening to this and they’re thinking like, “Who’s this guy? I promise you, I don’t have all the answers.”

Maurice Cherry: Well, I have to butt in here now. We’re both members of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. We are also both current Webby Awards judges.

Alex Pierce: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: We kind of operate, I guess, a little bit on that level, but go ahead. Keep going. Keep going.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. No, you got me. You got me. No. Yeah. I think … and actually, I will … I don’t want to call out a brand but I … because I don’t know what agency did this, but I did something and I was just talking about it. So we had our holiday party last night and I made sure not to drink too much because I knew I had to do this today, but we were just talking about the Webbies and I think I need to actually get my judging entries done today at some point, but I was looking … Last year, I was looking at this one entry and it was for a popular bacon brand. I won’t say who, but it was crazy to me, man, because I looked at this and amazing technology. It was some sort of VR 3D website experience that you’re kind of exploring. It was very black and white and noir and very abstract.

Alex Pierce: Yes, man. I had no idea what was happening in this thing. All I saw was at the beginning because it was like a black label, bacon brand, whatever and I was looking at this. People are probably going to infer what that is, but whatever. I was looking at this and it was like … I’ll say this, the execution was amazing. It was cool, but I just couldn’t give it great marks because, well, one, from a navigation standpoint, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I was just like out exploring this world. I had no idea. I even wrote in the notes, “I have no idea what this has to do with bacon, but I guess this is kind of cool.” I was just thinking in my head like, “What? How did this creative director sell this?” Because I want to talk to him and learn his secrets because this website looked like it cost a million dollars to make and it had nothing to do with the brand whatsoever.

Alex Pierce: So that’s kind of what I was thinking. I’m like, “Who are you making this for? Are you making this for the user? Are you making this for the brand? Are you making this for yourself? What’s the motivation behind that?” That’s kind of where I was getting at. I think, because I think to a certain extent even judges have their limits, right? You’re just like, “Okay, what is this?”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I need to start looking into what I’m going to, I guess submit as my picks, because I’ve been keeping track of a couple of campaigns and seeing what’s new and what’s interesting and what I feel like are interesting ways that people are using the social media tools that are out here. I see how different people use Instagram and Facebook and Twitter for different implementations, because I think it’s one thing, of course, to use it as intended, but sort of like how you said earlier, people will use these tools in all kinds of different ways. So, who’s using Instagram not just to post pictures, but like to post mini magazines?

Alex Pierce: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Things like that.

Alex Pierce: Did you see the adult swim, the Rick and Morty thing? That was amazing.

Maurice Cherry: No, I didn’t see that. What was it?

Alex Pierce: No, they, for their promo … I think this is last year, but they made their own Rick and Morty adventure experience. So you’re traveling. So, they made a bunch of different Instagram accounts that are all linked to each other and like they’re tagged to each other, so you’re basically traveling the different planets and universes through these Instagram accounts. It was so meticulously well done and I’m like, “How much time did they take to do this?” Because you’re looking at those Instagram grids for each of the profiles and you see the galaxy and you can zoom in to the planet and you can zoom out and go to-

Alex Pierce: You can zoom in to the planet and you can zoom out and go to different and… I’m like, “Man, this took a lot of time.” I don’t know, it’s just like people taking mediums and using them in unconventional ways always just fascinates me.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I’ve been saying that a lot on YouTube also. This kind of, almost choose your own adventures style of, I don’t want to call it videography. I don’t know if that’s really the best way to categorize it, but I’m thinking particularly about this show that I saw, it’s called A Heist With Markiplier. It like starts out with the intro video, Markiplier is trying to break into a bank, and for those who don’t know, Markiplier is a YouTube influencer guy. But he’s trying to break into a bank and then the video is short, maybe like 20, 30 seconds. Then you know how you can have annotations that will pop up on the screen so that you can choose, okay.

Maurice Cherry: Very similar to how Netflix did the Bandersnatch episode in Black Mirror, but it’s all done through YouTube videos. So you select what the right path is and there’s different endings, and I’m like, “That is really an ingenious way to look at how to even do something like this.” Because at least with YouTube you can sort of unlist all the videos so then you can’t really track what the right path is. It’s really interesting way to use the platform, but I think it also speaks to honestly, the disposability of these types of mediums. The fact that you can spin something up that quickly and easily for just that purpose and it can also be gone just that quickly.

Maurice Cherry: Actually, another interesting thing, and this actually might be one of my webipics, so I might be spoiling this, but the same guy Markiplier, him and this other guy Ethan, who’s a YouTuber, are doing this project called [Latin 00:01:45]. I think it’s Latin for one year. They’re going to release a video on YouTube every day for a year, and then once the year is up, they’ll delete everything. They’ve gotten already over a million subscribers, they’re selling March, doing all that sort of stuff. I’m interested to see what they are trying to get out of it. What the end goal is, because they’re both already YouTubers. They already make videos. So making more videos isn’t the point. I don’t know if it’s just a creative exercise.

Maurice Cherry: They’ve sort of implied that it speaks to the ephemerality of life and things like that. I’m interested to see where they go with this because you can tell as you, so I’ve watched all the videos cause I’m a dork. But you can tell that there’s an underlying slightly sinister theme that connects all the videos and I’m wondering if that will play out as the year plays out. I’m just interested to see where it goes from here and it’s those sorts of things that I really like seeing, brands and people take the tools that are given to you and use them in a way that no one would have expected.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. You’ve touched on something interesting, to be clear, I mean I think there’s, when you think about user centric, I also about using the medium as an art form, right? I think like as a creative exercise, so sometimes it’s what separates visual communication in graphic design from more fine art, right? It’s open the fine art aspect being a little bit more open to interpretation and it’s really meant to provoke a dialogue and discussion. It’s really all about the artist’s intentions and thinking and the message they’re trying to communicate. Visual communication touches on some of those subjects. But ultimately the idea is to communicate a clear message that a large group of people can understand. I don’t know, you touched on that, because sometimes entertainment is just entertainment and we don’t need to overthink it that much, but then there’s times when you actually need to service a specific goal.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Interesting. Yeah. I want to go more into your design career, but first let’s take it back to the beginning. Where did you grow up? Was design a big part of your childhood and everything growing up?

Alex Pierce: Absolutely not. No. I think, it was just growing up it was me, my mom and my brother. My uncles played a big influence on my life. Two of my uncles were Army dudes, one Army, one Air Force. I even think when high school they were trying to get me to sign up when I was trying to figure out how am I going to pay for college? They’re like, “Air Force is the way, Army is the way.” I was like, “I do not have the discipline for either, so I’m going to get a student loan.” I think, what actually started me down, this whole path of creative exercise and graphic design is kindergarten. I think about this to this day. I love Garfield. Garfield basically got me to where I am today.

Alex Pierce: If you want to sum it up. Garfield, I love the cartoon Garfield. I was obsessed with it. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my mom would give me for my birthday, every year I think until maybe I was like a pre-teen or whatever. She would give me a Garfield book every birthday and I just was obsessed with it, I always try and draw Garfield cartoons and stuff like that. Then I got really into drawing and then for the longest time I swear to you I wanted to be a comic book artist. I wanted to be like Jim Lee. I wanted to be like, was it George Perez, I think that’s his last name. Jim Lee’s the one that comes to top of mind always because I loved his style or [Linelle Hue 00:00:27:38].

Alex Pierce: But I think I really obsessed with comic books. I still love comic books, it’s kind of a bad habit. I go through spurts of just buying a whole crap ton of comics, stacks of them. I just spent too much money and my girlfriend makes fun of me for it. But it’s fine, whatever. But I think for me I just love that medium, I love the storytelling, I love the art, the visuals and just the message and just the art form of it. Going through high school, I was in Houston, I grew up in Houston and Westfield High School and then I transferred. I had a, I would say it was a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air moment kind of situation.

Alex Pierce: I didn’t get into a fight at a basketball game and I got transferred. But my family we got help from a family member and we moved out to the Woodlands, which is a more affluent area and it was definitely a different world, right? Not a lot of black people up there in more the suburban area of Houston outside of Houston. But good schools and that kind of thing. I was on all the art classes and I actually got introduced to design from this teacher. God, forgive me, I forgot her name, but in high school she showed, it was like this digital design class or electronic media class or something like that.

Alex Pierce: We go in there and we use MS-DOS to make animations. I remember the first thing I ever did, we had an assignment to use Photoshop and this was old Photoshop, right? We had to use this, what was it like? I had to Photoshop myself into a picture and of course for some reason I chose to Photoshop myself into a Run-DMC album cover. I was obsessed with that after that and I was like, “Well drawing’s cool but I like this too.” I just went down the rabbit hole on that and just designing things. Then a person from SCAD came to the school to talk about all the different programs and of course, the thing I learned and the reason I didn’t get into comic book art man is, drawing comics is freaking hard.

Alex Pierce: If you don’t know this, I have a lot of respect for those guys because basically the program was called sequential art, which is basically just fancy for comics, right? But being able to do character study and drawing the same person from different angles and consistently, that’s very difficult apparently. But they had another program called the Visual Communication and Graphic Design Program. I was like, “What is that?” I learned a little bit more about it, I’m like, “This is really interesting.” Because I love computers, I love the technology of it, I love making things that people see and interact with and I just had really awesome time with it.

Alex Pierce: I decided to pursue that and actually looked at a few schools in the DFW area. I think University of North Texas is like, I don’t know if you knew this, but University of North Texas is one of the top design schools and at least the Southeast or whatever you want to call Texas Central area. At least in Texas it’s the design school to go to. [inaudible 00:30:57] has an amazing design program and it’s a public university. I went there and I just found the program to be not really what… It didn’t really seem like a right fit to me. So I went to actually, UTA and to this day he’s still my mentor, but Robbie McEwen, he was a professor in the design department at the time and I remember he had a Hummer, this huge hammer.

Alex Pierce: He took me and my mom around the campus and to this day I’m trying to think, “Why did he do that?” He took his time, drove us around the campus, he showed us the senior student work and I’m like, “I’m sold.” He’s cool dude, he looks like Santa Claus if you ever meet him in person. He’ll even joke about that himself, he’s an awesome guy, he’s the coolest guy ever. I learned so much from him over the years at that university and I owe a lot of what I am today to that guy because he really took me under his wing and he really taught me about design, about communication, about art versus design, that kind of stuff.

Alex Pierce: I would say, went a little tangent, but that’s my journey from kindergarten, drawing Garfield and reading Garfield comics to going to college, University of Texas at Arlington and getting a official design BFA degree there. Then getting my first job, which how I got my first job was actually very lucky because I graduated in the middle of the recession.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, it sounds like, I mean that’s when you knew that you could do this for a living, I guess at that point, right? When you saw the campus and saw the student projects and everything?

Alex Pierce: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. My mom and bless her, I think… This touches on a larger question and I would love to hear your thoughts on this, but in terms of why we don’t have more black people in the creative design industry. I have my own guesses, but I think it just comes down to opportunity and thinking that, “If I’m going to go to college, I need to go to college to learn a skill that will really make me money.” As a kid I loved animals and my mom was thinking I was going to be on some Dr. Dolittle stuff, right? I’ll be a veterinarian.

Alex Pierce: Because I told her I wanted to be a comic artist at first and she was like, “What?” She’s like, “Well, but you love our dog Hershey, right?” Our dog’s name is Hershey, our childhood dogs names. She’s like, “You love her, you love animals.” I’m like, “Yeah, I love animals but I don’t want to necessarily work with animals.” Then I think she saw, and when I was talking to her about majoring in graphic design, I didn’t go to college not knowing what I wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do and I was telling her Graphic Design Program and she’s looking at it and she was looking at how a graphic designer could make money. It isn’t necessarily a full on art degree, although I have respect for those people too, for sure. But she saw that and she said, “Oh okay, I’m okay with this. I’m okay with this.”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Once she could see it, it’s like, “Okay, now I can get it.” To answer, I guess the question, I think that’s part of the answer is that the lack of visibility is why we don’t see more of us in the industry because it’s really a mix of things, right? First of all, it’s complete economics. In order to be really working in the creative industry, you need to know these industry standard tools, these tools are expensive. Folks don’t make a ton of money, so it’s like how are you going to get the money to get access to the tool? Then the time to learn the tool to get good at it, to then get jobs and then get in the industry. So it ends up being this pipeline situation.

Maurice Cherry: It’s lack of resources, lack of professional training. I would say even sometimes accurate information about the industry, getting into it. But also I think it’s a matter of visibility. As you stated before, your parents didn’t really see like, “Oh, this isn’t something that I want you to do because I can’t see you being successful or making money. You’re making a living from it.” Art ends up being treated as a hobby and not a profession and so oftentimes that lack of visibility into seeing the ways that you can get paid from this, is a reason that we’re not in the industry, I think.

Alex Pierce: I want to be very clear, my mother, Marsha, she does support me very much. Because he’s going to listen to this episode and I don’t want her giving me grief. My grandma gave me grief about this, she’s very supportive of me. She actually talks about me a lot to our co-workers. She features me on her timeline, which in my opinion is the biggest award of them all. So thank you mom. I love you. I obviously owe everything to her because I’m existing because of her, so just want to throw that out there. Thank you.

Maurice Cherry: But yeah. That’s probably a big reason into it. I mean, that’s something I’ve discovered honestly from doing the show is that for a lot of folks, they just weren’t exposed to it. They didn’t know that they could do this until much later on in life. After college, after working a few jobs and they’re like, “Wait a minute, I really like design and art and I can focus on this.” Or, “I really like coding and I can focus on that.” That being a part of the creative industry, it’s like the exposure and the visibility to this ends up happening at a time where for us, I think it ends up being just much later in life, than with other places where the viability of that as a profession is a much earlier and easier opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: I mean, as kids we’re all exposed to cartoons, drawing and art and painting at the same time. At least here in America, that’s part of the American primary school system. So how is it that there’s this huge bifurcation of people of one particular race or culture that are over index in the creative industry and then so many others that aren’t? What happens, where does that split happen? So, yeah.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. It’s tough because yeah, to your point, man, I didn’t think it was a thing that people… Intellectually, you know someone made that stuff but you don’t really think about it. Then you get a little bit older and then you just realize, yeah. I actually have Michael Beirut’s book on my desk right now and I’m going through and it’s just like, “Man, I can’t imagine doing anything else but this.” I realize I’m in a position of privilege that maybe people of of the same race as me are not in the same, really or they don’t see that opportunity because of socioeconomic factors or the fact that there hasn’t been exposure or in terms of just education in the arts program, that kind of stuff. Or the fact that, thinking about how to get into that, it might be too late. I don’t know, I don’t have all the answers on that. That’s a larger topic that I’m assured that you are definitely tackling at the AIG level.

Maurice Cherry: Well, I mean it’s one of those answers that just has many layers to it. There’s no simple answer to the question. There’s so many layers as to how that happens, so yeah. Now you said you graduated in the middle of a recession, but you got your first working design gig, working for your school. You were working for University of Texas in Arlington. What was that like?

Alex Pierce: Working for UTA, it was exactly what you think you would be. Now, I mean it was a great job. I think in high school and one of the things that I did in high school as I worked for Kroger, I was a sacker all through high school. As soon as I was old enough to get a job, my mom was like, “You going to Kroger.” Because Kroger was one of the few companies that hired 14 year olds. You have to wear a special name badge to indicate that your managers can’t abuse you. But, I mean you can’t work extra hours and stuff like that. But I worked there and then I just remember thinking, I learned how to deal with people and I guess that I still think about that.

Alex Pierce: I wasn’t a waiter or a server, I didn’t work in the food service industry, but I worked in a different thing that I dealt with people. A lot of different types of people every day and working in that environment, one thing I did learn is, I definitely did not want to work at Kroger during college. I wanted to try and do something that can help hone my skills and learn more about the profession I wanted to get into. Actually before that, I think a little bit of overlap, I actually worked at The Shorthorn, which is the college newspaper and it’s actually a pretty big newspaper, pretty award winning.

Alex Pierce: I was a page designer, a layout artist and then I also did illustration, cartoon editorial illustrations and stuff like that. Obviously it is a school job, so I think I got paid like 90 bucks every two and a half weeks. That was not sustainable for me. So that’s why I looked at getting into the design program. I applied to different departments but they are the ones who finally hired me and really I just managed just vendor relationships and stuff like that and making assets, helping student events, making all the graphics and displays for that.

Alex Pierce: I think my proudest moment was, I got to make a label for a water bottle that they were handing at events. I don’t know if that’s kosher to say today, necessarily making labels for water bottles and the plastic is choking our ocean or something like that. But I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I got to make a little label for a water bottle. That’s cool.” But I think I just got experience with a lot of different types of mediums. I got to work on web work, I got to do email stuff, I got to do website stuff. I got to do packaging and print stuff. It was all just kind of like a generalist initial exposure.

Alex Pierce: That being said, I mean, I was a designer and I didn’t really have any design mentors in that program. I just was really working and getting mentorship and guidance from my actual design teachers and professors in that. When I mentioned Robbie McEwen, which he’s awesome dude. So I was learning that along the way, but I was working in a corporate little office environment. I was in a cubicle way in the back, it was almost like a closet. I shared and office with [inaudible 00:41:52] smell like pancakes, it was really weird. That was definitely in my first [inaudible 00:41:56] into professional design and learning about how my design decisions affect other people.

Maurice Cherry: I’m going to show you a photo, and I want you to first describe this photo to the audience and then I want you to tell me the story behind it and the feedback. So I’m going to show you the photo now if you want to take a look at it.

Alex Pierce: Okay. Oh boy. Yeah. This photo, I’m wearing my Bob’s Burger t-shirt. I am clean shaven for the most part, I didn’t have my beard yet. But it’s like a me of my feature and net magazine. This is like back in 2017, I believe. Yeah. I’m holding just the cover art for the article, the featured article, diversity in design. It’s an article I wrote talking about how to be more inclusive in your design and UX and visual design overall experience for people, audiences, users, that kind of stuff. I’m in my agency’s office and I actually had my co-worker Ale, short for Alejandra.

Alex Pierce: She actually took a photo of me, she’s one of the art directors on my team. She took a photo of me and she actually forced me to do this whole photo shoot. This was one of like 50 photos at different angles. You could actually, in one of the other photos there’s actually a scene of one of our junior art directors at the time, she’s way in the background and she’s rolling her eyes and she’s just very fuzzy and we still make fun of that to this day. But yeah, I was like a really proud moment of me. I bought like 10 issues. I sent a couple to my mom because she had requested them. But yeah, that was a really proud moment for me.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. What was I guess the feedback behind it? As I’m looking at the image and I’ll make sure to include this in the show notes so people can take a look at it too. But it says diversify your design. Five steps to diversify your UX design.

Alex Pierce: Yeah. Do you-

Maurice Cherry: … steps to diversify your UX design?

Alex Pierce: Yeah. Do you mean feedback in terms of what people were saying about it or what I was [crosstalk 00:44:07]?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, about the article and everything. Yeah.

Alex Pierce: Overall, I had a lot of positive feedback. I think the thing was just people… You hear a lot of people getting on their soapbox talking about diversity is important, diversity is important. For me, I’ve always been a very practical person in terms of how I approach things, in terms of how I approach things in my professional and personal life. If you know me in real life, you know if someone were to ask me, “Hey, we’re going to go out to this lunch spot. You want to go?” And my first question, and they know this, is, “What’s the parking situation? Because if the parking situation ain’t good, I’ll see you all later.” I have to think about that.

Alex Pierce: But in this context, for diversifying your design, for me, I wanted to do something that was very practical like, “okay, yeah, I need to be more diverse in how I’m thinking about approaching my work, my creative work, but how do I actually do that? What’s some simple initial steps that I could do?” And like I said, I don’t promise to be the guy who has all the answers, but I just thought this is actually kind of a therapeutic piece for me to do. Because actually, it was funny because how I got into doing that article was I had reached out to NetMag and I was saying, “Hey, I did my Black in History Tumblr site.”

Alex Pierce: And for people who don’t know the Black History thing, I did a Black in History Tumblr, which it’s still up, it’s still live, blackinhistory.tumblr.com. And it was basically about just game changers, figures that have affected everyone’s lives, not just black people’s lives, and they’ve fallen through the cracks. So I just think about an entry that uniquely talks about this person and I put that to them and they’re like, “Man, this is great. We’re going to feature this as a side project of the month.” I’m like, “Oh that’s great.” And they’re like, “Also, hey, our issue’s on diversity. So maybe if you can write a feature about that, you have two weeks.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I’m like, “I’m definitely not turning it down.”

Alex Pierce: But I got advice from my fellow copywriter colleagues and just friends and I interviewed coworkers and colleagues, my bosses to get a really holistic view, because I definitely wanted not only to talk about diversity, but have a little bit of diversity in the thought and opinions about how to approach that from.

Alex Pierce: So I have five different steps. So it’s the first one, just understanding that it’s the right thing to do. I think a lot of people call it PC Culture, and I don’t think it’s PC Culture to think holistically about your audience. I think it’s opening your mind up to the fact that not everyone who uses your product or uses that brand looks exactly like you or lives exactly like you.

Alex Pierce: And then I think it’s just stop being lazy. I think as designers, especially when you’re in the grind, the daily grind of things and stuff like that, it’s easy to get caught up and just go to your go-to sources, that kind of stuff. So just learning to actually force yourself to take a step back and think about, “What am I doing? Am I representing this product the right way? Is this the actual thing I need to show or the say or to write?” et cetera. And then just the other ways to do it through visuals, so advice around photo shoots, video, that kind of stuff. Doing it through copywriting, so using inclusive language and strategy around that.

Alex Pierce: And then UX, obviously there’s a lot of talk lately around accessibility and then just overall thinking around inclusion in your user experience design, and I think that’s been a big conversation these last few years around that. Then just the last thing, selling it to clients, which is sometimes actually surprisingly, well, actually maybe not surprisingly difficult to do, especially if they think it’s a counterintuitive to maybe what they think their audience is or their own envisioning of their goals for the brand.

Maurice Cherry: What do you think is the most important skill that a designer needs to possess these days?

Alex Pierce: God. Man. I think it’s a combination of two things. I would say first and foremost, it’s cliche answer, but empathy. But to get specifically around this, because I had actually a designer reach out to me and ask me, “What’s an important skill set?” And I actually told them this, this guy. I said, “The most important thing you could have this self-awareness actually.”

Alex Pierce: I think self-awareness is always the first step in making some good decisions. I think being self-aware of your position of who you are as a person and how people perceive you, how you present things, how you talk about things, your creative design decisions. I think you take a step back and you objectively look at yourself and you learn about maybe you have some unconscious biases, and I think that’s where the empathy and the self-awareness combine to each other.

Alex Pierce: But I think it’s really more of a soft skill, I would say, but it also lends itself into actual creative skill in my opinion, too.

Maurice Cherry: Now, you mentioned the Black in History on Tumblr. That’s actually when we first talked seven years ago. I think you had just started that project or it had been out for a little while. I don’t recall, but I know that that was a project that you ended up getting a good bit of acclaim from. I think even got a Webby, not an award, but you got a Webby mention.

Alex Pierce: Honoree, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Honoree. That’s the word I’m looking for, Webby Honoree for that. Is there another dream project that you would love to do?

Alex Pierce: I think about this a lot. I think for that it was just something that came up. My family liked to joke about that every time during the holiday seasons or during some sort of special season event. You see all the brands put out some R&B music and show black people doing stuff with their products. And it just got me thinking like, “Man …” Or in Black History Month, right, just where it just becomes so myopically focused on just a few key characters. And it turned into that.

Alex Pierce: For me, I don’t know. I’m still exploring that to be honest. There’s a lot of things I’d like to approach in a dream project for me. And maybe if people see my Instagram, you’ll know this about me. I love food. I love everything about the … I love making food more accessible to people. I think for me that’s a dream project for me to work on.

Alex Pierce: Another thing, and I’ve been getting more and more into this, I’ve been exploring it, but I love games. I love video games, which sounds like a typical nerdy black guy thing to say. But I love video games and I would love the idea of working on interactive experience, gaming interactive experience, maybe using pixel or I don’t know. I’ve been getting into pixel art lately, as you might know. And actually, what got me thinking about that is I saw something, I think it was on A Awards or I can’t remember, but it was this guy who did this interactive side scroller or pixel art game about is Japan cool, and he gave this history of Japan and I think talking about Nintendo and that kind of stuff. And it’s this interesting interactive side scrolling experience I can’t remember the name of. It’s killing me.

Alex Pierce: But I don’t know. It just got me thinking, “What a cool, educational way to talk about something and make it engaging too.” And I don’t know. I like the idea of making an interactive game and getting deeper into that. I’m not a developer myself, at least not first and foremost. I know enough development to be very dangerous. That’d be something for me to explore, getting deeper into the interactive space.

Maurice Cherry: What is it that inspires you these days? How do you keep that creative spark going?

Alex Pierce: For me, it’s just I learned a long time ago not to get invested in my work so much that my identity is wrapped up in my job, because I think once you start doing that, it’s easy to get burnt out or get depressed about certain things or … Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t get any fulfillment out of your job, but I think it’s really important for you to try and discover personal interests outside of that.

Alex Pierce: And for me, what inspires me, and it sounds, once again, simple, but I just like going on the internet and just looking at cool shit. I like looking at Sidebar, I like all the inspiration blogs, but then I just also think about what are ways for me to explore something and take it back into my work at the office. I like to explore different technologies. I like to do things.

Alex Pierce: But in my personal life, what actually inspires me is I love to read actually. I love reading science fiction. I love reading novels. I am actually in a book club. I’m in a book club and people are going to be like, “Okay, that’s all right. Wow, that’s fancy. That’s hoity-toity.” No. We meet at a bar and we talk about our book. We’re half in the bag before we actually start talking about the book. But I think for me it’s just helped me expose myself.

Alex Pierce: And you know the designer, what’s his name, Tobias van Schneider, I think? The guy behind Semplice and he’s the guy at Spotify. I remember him saying how he gets his inspiration from people outside of the industry and how little he talks to people in the design industry. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I think it is useful to live outside your bubble and just sometimes taking a step away from the screen. And I’m very technology focused, so I’m not saying, Put down your phones. Rah, rah, rah.” I’m saying just find things that you enjoy and have fun with, and I think you can learn how to connect those things together.

Alex Pierce: For instance, I did a thing a few years ago. It’s one of my actually things on my case studies, but I did this thing called, “We Lunchin’, Bro,” which is just an in-office term of just, Where we going for lunch, man? What are we doing?” And my old creative director, he made this word document of just lunches or lunch spots or restaurants in the area, that kind of thing. And I thought, “Okay, this is interesting. So how can I take that and make something a little bit more accessible and interactive for people to help make better decisions during lunch?” And I did that on my own time for the office and I made it a thing. I made it a little mobile website and it was fun to do that. But it’s just one of those things where I’m taking something from another part of my life and seeing how can I apply my own personal skillsets to enhance the experience for me.

Alex Pierce: So that’s where I come from, how do I find inspiration? I have my passions and interests and hobbies and I think about how can I inject that into my own creative mind a little bit.

Maurice Cherry: So what does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Alex Pierce: Success? I think success looks like I’m working on stuff I want to work on. I think success for me is I think having good synergy with your team. For me, I think it’s about … Man, that’s a tough question.

Alex Pierce: Success, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. But I would say I love where I’m at right now in terms of my team. I think success is me continuing to learn, and I think this is one of the things I tell people on my team all the time, which is, especially in our industry, in our field, interactive work, you always have to be learning. You always have to stay on top of things. And I just have that passion around just making sure that I am moving ahead. And success to me looks like I always have something on the horizon, I always am looking forward to the future, I have something that is fulfilling my creative passions and desires. And people might recognize that. Maybe they don’t. I would guess success would be that people do recognize it, I guess, maybe formally or informally or whatever.

Alex Pierce: But for me, and I think this is a long time ago I said this, for me success is me making something that people get a use or enjoy out of, whether that be functionally, whether that’s an app or product or tool, making products that outlive me would be great. But obviously, as we talked about, sometimes especially interactive design can be ephemeral and doesn’t last forever. But I think making things that serve a purpose or function and I want to make experiences that people enjoy. And yeah, that’s where I would leave it at. I think just getting some sort of satisfaction out of people utilizing whatever I make to serve their goals or needs.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Well, it’s 2020. It’s like the future now, which is … it’s so wild to think about. But where do you see yourself in the next five years? In 2025, what will Alex Pierce be working on or what do you want to be working on?

Alex Pierce: Maybe I’m designing a website for the first hoverboard. I don’t know. Right now, I’m currently an associate creative director and I love where I’m at right now. I love the mentorship and guidance as well as still being hands on. I think five years now, I think I’m still doing both those things, maybe at a higher scale, hopefully at a higher scale or larger level. I think my goals are just continuing to just do cool work. Just remember that, for me, we’re so lucky to do the work that we do.

Alex Pierce: A lot of people, for them, you want to make sure that, I want to be clear about this. A lot of people, their job is not their career or their first passion. Sometimes, a job is just a job and everything outside of that, that’s what they … they go to work to earn money to live their life. And that’s perfectly fine and that’s great. And for me, we’re lucky because we get to take our passions and our creative thinking and we go to work and we get to express that. And I used to joke not a lot of people can go to work and their job is to just dick around on the internet.

Alex Pierce: My brother, he’s like a super genius. My brother, he has like three degrees and he’s a VP over at … he’s actually in Atlanta actually. He’s a VP over at Citi, and he’s a math genius, a math nerd, a math whiz. He was a mathlete in high school. Oh, hey, congrats. For him, he tried to explain to me his job once and it just flew over my head. I got a lot of good grades in college, but math was not one of those classes I got great grades in, unlike you, which you’re apparently a creative genius and a math genius.

Maurice Cherry: Well, let’s not go that go that far. But no, go ahead.

Alex Pierce: I’m just grateful for working on stuff that a lot of people … and I want to make sure that people don’t take that for granted, especially if there’s a takeaway from this, is that don’t take what you’re doing so seriously. Some people are like, “Oh, we’re doing work that’s going to change the world.” Yeah, there’s certain … design does have a very important impact on people’s lives. And I think that’s one of my goals, to have my design work impact people’s lives in a positive and in an meaningful, impactful way.

Alex Pierce: But I think at the same time, sometimes you just want to make people smile. Sometimes you want to just entertain people. Sometimes you’re just wanting to have fun. And that’s what I did with my portfolio site. That was the goal. It’s not for everybody, but I made something that … And I remember one comment from a designer on Twitter. He was just like, “Thank you for making personal sites fun again.” And granted, there’s certain flaws with the site, I think from an overall maybe architecture standpoint, but I think the goal for me was just to experiment and have fun and just do cool stuff. And I want to keep being able to do that. And I think that’s something I want people to remember, just we’re really lucky. Just have fun and don’t take yourself so seriously and …

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

Alex Pierce: They can go to my personal site, TheGeekDesigner.com. I’m on Instagram quite a bit. It’s at AlexJamalPierce, all together, lower case obviously. And then I am also on Pinterest, strangely enough. So if you want to see some random recipes that I like, go on Pinterest. I think it’s Alex Jamal Pierce, Pinterest, something like that. If you see a black guy’s face, and I have glasses and a beard, it’s probably me. So, yeah.

Alex Pierce: Then I also still have my Black in History Tumblr up and going. It’s been a little lapsed since I put any entries in, so I need to get back into the flow of things for that. But if you want to check that out, there’s that too. But otherwise, I’ll be at home trying to finish The Irishman. Pray for me on that. I probably won’t. I’m probably going to watch that Six Underground movie that just dropped by Michael Bay. So-

Maurice Cherry: Isn’t that wild how we can binge watch a whole series of a show, but then a three and a half hour movie is too long?

Alex Pierce: Yeah man. I was [inaudible 01:01:55] in that Avengers End Game movie, so I can sit through a long movie, but you got to give me something, man. You got to give me something.

Maurice Cherry: All right. Well, Alex Pierce, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Well, first, I think thank you for, I guess I would say coming back on Revision Path. Like I said before, you’ve been on here before seven years ago, which is wild to think I’ve been doing this now for seven years. My God.

Alex Pierce: I’m impressed. That’s [crosstalk 01:02:24]. I’m glad to be an OG.

Maurice Cherry: OG. Yeah. Well, I think it’s been good to see not only your growth as a designer and really your growth in your career, but also to see how you uniquely approach projects, as you were talking about brand-centric design and user-centric design. I think it’s that level of intelligence about the field and about the work that more people need to see, I think just from us in general.

Alex Pierce: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And hopefully, that will inspire more people to want to get involved, even in some small way. Like you said before, you want people to not take themselves so seriously. But I think it’s important to show that there are folks that are in this industry that can bring that level of play to their work, but also be very serious and smart about it too. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alex Pierce: Thank you. I’m glad to be back.

Sponsors

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Dwight Battle

What does it take to work for a company like Amazon? Well if you’re Dwight Battle, it’s all about forging your own path. As a self-taught designer, Dwight has honed his design skills at agencies from Atlanta to Seattle, including product design at HBO.

Dwight started off talking about his work at both Amazon and HBO, and then we talked about his live growing up in Ohio and moving to Atlanta to start his career. We also had a pretty spirited discussion about the changing tech and design scene in Seattle, the need for representation for Black designers, and why saying yes until he could afford to say no has been instrumental to how he works. Dwight’s living proof that success in tech is within your reach as long as you allow yourself to find your own way!

Links

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dwight Battle: My name is Dwight Battle. I am a senior UX designer at Amazon working on the Kindle team.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. You just started at Amazon a few months ago, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I started at the end of August. Yeah, it’s-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: Yeah, it’s been-

Maurice Cherry: What has-

Dwight Battle: It’s been a crazy time.

Maurice Cherry: I was going to ask, what’s the experience been like so far?

Dwight Battle: It’s very much… The phrase I use a lot the first couple of weeks there was drinking from the fire hose, and it’s very true. I think people go in with a preconceived notion about what Amazon is and what working at Amazon is like, and it’s fairly accurate. You do hit the ground running, and your head kind of has to be on a swivel. It feels like… I’ve been there six, seven weeks now, and it feels like six, seven months. I’ve done too much stuff in that time.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. You say you’re on the Kindle team, like as much as you can discuss, can you talk a little bit about just the kind of work you’re doing?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I am on what we call the reader team. We manage the, as it sounds like, the reading experience across our various platforms and the e-reader. Specifically, I am the main designer for the core app experience team, so really, the overall IA of the product and how things look, work, and feel on a very high level before you dive into a specific book or piece of media.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. What is a just a typical day like meetings, things like that?

Dwight Battle: I’m still so new there, I don’t feel like I’ve really gotten to normal yet. We have our usual standup meetings and sprint planning things and things like that, but I’ve been really focused on one particular feature at the moment so I’ve been really heads down trying to solve what is turned out to be a fairly meaty challenge for most of this time. I don’t actually know what an average day at Amazon is like yet because it’s been a very… I feel like it’s been a very unique experience right now.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. I know beforehand Amazon, you were at HBO. That’s when we first-

Dwight Battle: Was. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: We met in 2016 at HOW Design Live here in Atlanta.

Dwight Battle: This was at HOW. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and you are a senior product designer at HBO. Can you talk about what your time was like there?

Dwight Battle: My time at HBO was amazing. I was there for just under four years. We worked on the HBO Now and HBO GO streaming products here in the Seattle office, so that’s everything across phone, tablet, TV, desktop. I touched a lot of different things. What I really liked about that team, especially early, it was that it was a fairly small team so I got to do a lot of different things, and then as the design team started to grow, that focus became more and more narrow, but even then, it was narrow to a point where I could focus on things that I found interesting within the product and areas where I could affect change and make improvements to the product. They gave me a lot freedom to explore those things, so I got to do a lot of really cool things there.

Maurice Cherry: It sounds like you were there at the time when these big streaming services got off the ground. Of course, people knew about Netflix, but I mean, of course, HBO has HBO GO, HBO Now, like you mentioned. Amazon has its own Prime Video and things like that. How was it learning how to create those interfaces for TV because that’s so different from the web?

Dwight Battle: It was… When I made the pivot from print design into digital design, I made a focus on, or I focused on digital product experience in screens and TV screen to particular because I felt like that was a really interesting opportunity, and there wasn’t a lot of people doing that at the time. Coming into HBO and everything that that was, and yes, Netflix was around and Hulu was around and Prime Video was starting to kick up, and now everybody’s got some sort of a TV experience, there was a weird window of time where no one really had it figured out, and there was a lot of opportunity to say, “Hey, this is what navigating a screen with five buttons should look like and should feel.”

Dwight Battle: There’s so many interesting challenges there because you don’t have things like hover states or you don’t have long presses like you have on a phone or something like that. I think when Apple came out with their new swipe remote, that opened up a lot of possibilities with how you interact with a piece of content. It was a really fun and interesting time to be working in that space.

Maurice Cherry: I remember Android TV from around that time, and it was so clunky to use, not just because I think of the overall, at least back during that time Android was ugly, but aside from that, just the tools that you use to navigate, it wasn’t remote-friendly. I remember the Android TV I had, it was a keyboard. It was like a keyboard, and then on the right where there would be a number pad, instead there’s a track pad with a little, like buttons. It was a very odd experience, and it’s like-

Dwight Battle: That was a while ago. You’re, like-

Maurice Cherry: It’s like you can’t really lounge-

Dwight Battle: … Google TV, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: … on the couch. Yeah, you can’t really lounge on the couch with a keyboard and try to do certain things because of just ergonomics and such, so it has really come a long way.

Dwight Battle: I think a lot of times people tried to translate, especially in those early days, tried to translate the keyboard/mouse/monitor experience to a living room experience. I’ve always been really fascinated with media servers like Plex and Xbox Media Center and things like that, so I’ve been looking at that for a long time. That’s all it was, was taking that mouse/keyboard/monitor interface and throwing it on a big screen TV. That’s not how most people interact with a screen of that size. It’s much more of a lean-back experience, and you’re just kind of grazing the content, finding something to watch.

Maurice Cherry: I would say it’s also more of an audible experience, like you want to be able to hear those beeps as you go from menu to menu, from item to item where, like on my main computer, I don’t have speakers. I have headphones, but I may not always be wearing my headphones, but I can still navigate the web silently just viewing. It can kind of be hard to do that with television, especially if you’re not really looking at it. Sometimes you’ll be on the remote, you just point in the air and you hope that it did the right thing, but at least you hear that little audible cue that’s like, “Okay, it’s moving. It’s doing something.”

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I think that feedback is so critical, so when you hear the bloop, bloop. It’s funny, when I’m watching TV with my wife and where commercial hits, she’ll do the bloop, bloop, bloop, which is the TiVo sound, and that’s the sound for me that, “Hey, you should fast forward through these commercials.” That’s something… We haven’t had a TiVo for 10 years, but that has become such a known paradigm. That audible indication that something is happening is so much more important on a TV space.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, like the rise of audio branding as streaming services have grown has been really interesting. I think TiVo and Netflix really come to mind with that. When you hear the Netflix, like… you know, “Okay, this is Netflix, the show is starting, the episode is starting,” whatever. That’s the cue for you, the non-visual cue to say, “I need to pay attention.” I don’t know if any of the other services really have that. I don’t recall if Amazon or Hulu have it.

Dwight Battle: I don’t, I-

Maurice Cherry: I think Showtime might have something. Something, they have like-

Dwight Battle: Showtime’s got their little chime, but it’s tied in with their programming. It’s funny, everyone knows the Netflix, but what I grew up with, and honestly when I took the job at HBO, I posted this video, but back in the ’80s when it was the Saturday night movie premiere, the night, and they had that pan through the city, and then the HBO theme would play and the-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah.

Dwight Battle: … HBO logo would come spinning, that was the sign that was like, “Oh, yeah,”-

Maurice Cherry: I remember that. Oh, my god.

Dwight Battle: …. “it’s about to go down,” it’s Saturday night, and that has always chimed. That’s always been a trigger in my head. When I took the job at HBO, I posted that video to say, “This is where I’m going next because that was so iconic to me.” When I see things like Netflix’s chime or Showtime’s chime, those are the things that I think about.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I think the broadcast channels have all picked up on that. Of course, NBC has the xylophone… and CW has like a little, I don’t know, like a soft rock riff or something, but all the networks have their little visual thing… or not visual… audio thing where you hear it, and it’s like, “Okay, this is something from that network or from that [inaudible 00:08:49].” It’s a really interesting kind of a branding thing.

Dwight Battle: It’s-

Maurice Cherry: I find that really interesting. You’re currently a Seattle, but you grew up in Columbus, Ohio, right?

Dwight Battle: Yes. Columbus, Ohio, home of the Buckeyes.

Maurice Cherry: Home of the Buckeyes. What was it like there?

Dwight Battle: I loved Columbus, Ohio. I have so many memories of what it was like growing up in Columbus. It seems kind of crazy to say that it was a small town, but at the time, to me, it was my world. I don’t know. I just remember… I don’t have a good answer for that question actually.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. When you think about that time, was design and art, was that a big part of your world growing up?

Dwight Battle: Yes, absolutely. That was one… I used to draw a lot. I think I always knew I wanted to be in some kind of a creative role, even if I didn’t know what that meant. I was always drawing. I was never really big into sports as a kid, which is crazy to people who know me now, but the thing that I used to always get excited for was a Super Bowl, not because of the game, but because of the commercials. I have distinct memories of being excited to watch the Bud Bowl and Spuds MacKenzie and things like that. I was always drawn to that, those type of experiences. I remember having a drawing of the old Camel mascot, which-

Maurice Cherry: Oh, Camel.

Dwight Battle: … the Camel cigarettes, met Joe Camel, and which probably isn’t great for an eight-year-old to be drawing, but I always knew I wanted to do this and something in that realm. I remember doing a shadowing experience. I followed, I shadowed a photographer for the day, and I went to his studio. I’ll never forget, he had this beautiful brick building, and he had this huge studio. He was showing me how to work the cameras and such. I was… and the thing that stood out to me was he was wearing jeans to work. I wanted to do that because he wore jeans to work because I saw my mom going off to work in her suit and sneakers and I saw my dad going off to work in his business attire. I was like, “I know… That guy is wearing jeans. Whatever he’s doing, I want to do that.” I’m always in this space, so.

Maurice Cherry: So you knew from an early age, this is exactly what you wanted to do?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, I didn’t know how it was going to manifest itself. I was really into comic books as a kid. I tried to draw. I’m a terrible drawer, but I tried to draw. I was really in a lettering, so I was trying to do something with that. It wasn’t really until, I think, high school when we moved to Minnesota that I even learned what graphic design was and started looking at that as a potential opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: Was your family supportive of you going in that route?

Dwight Battle: Oh, yeah. My parents have always been very supportive of this, of me doing this. I don’t know if they always understood what it meant, but I remember them putting me into art programs when I was young, like the summer school like at CCAD, Columbus College of Art & Design. I did a couple of summer camp things there, so they’ve always been really supportive of this.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. You’re in high school in Minnesota, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: You graduated high school, and then after that, you went back to Ohio.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: University of Dayton, right?

Dwight Battle: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: Tell me about that.

Dwight Battle: Wanted to go to Ohio state, and I didn’t get into Ohio State, and so I thought, “Well, I’ve got family in Ohio. University is the next best thing.” They had a really good design program. I remember going out to visit the campus and being really impressed. For being a Catholic school, one, the number of black faces I saw around. It wasn’t a ton, but it was more than I was expecting, and the design program was really, really, the art and design program was really very good.

Dwight Battle: I took a year off after high school because I wanted to work, I wanted to save up some money for school, so I actually took a year off before I went off to University of Dayton. I started there, and honestly, when I look at it now, I was there for a year. I probably enjoyed the partying a little too much. I enjoyed the social aspects of college more than I enjoyed the class aspects of college.

Dwight Battle: But in hindsight, I think I was making decisions about my future from a very, very poor perspective. It was, “Hey, this is your… You’re 18 years old. You’re supposed to go to college. Go to college. This is what you’re going to do.” I knew I wanted to do something in design, but the idea of alternative pass for that never crossed my mind and the idea of I could’ve moved down to Atlanta early and done something. I wasn’t coming at it from the right space, and I don’t think, honestly, it was the right time for me to go because I went into it, and I kind of blew the opportunity. I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that was in front of me.

Dwight Battle: It was kind of a sobering experience when I got the… At the end of the year, I looked at this next looming bill for the next year, and I was like, “I can’t afford this. I can’t afford to take out another loan for this, so I need to go figure it out something else.” I moved to Atlanta, moved in with my parents, which started a nice long period of moving in and out of my parents’ place for a number of years until I figure things out.

Maurice Cherry: It’s so interesting, the first year of college because… and I don’t know if it’s like this at other colleges, but it feels to me… and maybe it’s just a combination of freedom from the parents and being in a new environment, but it feels like the college throws everything they can at you to make you not go to class and to make you not want to study or do anything. It’s like there’s so many extra curricular activities, there’s football games, there’s parties.

Maurice Cherry: When I went to Morehouse, they had charter buses. The clubs would send charter buses, pick us up, take us to the club, and drop us right back off on campus. It’s like you don’t even have to worry about transportation to get to and from places. I don’t know. Maybe it’s different at other colleges, I don’t know, but it felt like, I mean, I had that experience freshman year. I think I’ve talked about this on the show where my freshman year Morehouse was rough.

Maurice Cherry: It was rough. I mean, I got kicked out of my dorm. I had to get into another dorm, and it wasn’t even so much because of the partying and everything, but it’s just there’s so many other things to do that have nothing to do with class, and you have complete total unfettered freedom to do those things, and there’s nobody to snap you back in line or tell you, “This is what you need to do.” You have to go in with this level of self-discipline that I don’t think a lot of 18-year-olds have.

Dwight Battle: It’s kind of crazy that we sit 18 year olds down to say, “Here, you need to decide what you’re going to do for the rest of your life over these next four years. You’re going to take out hundreds of thousand dollars in loans to do this, and we’re going to give you zero support. You’re an adult now. Figure it out.” It’s crazy to me that we do that because that was how it felt. It was like, “I’m an adult. I can do whatever I want to now,” and the switch never clicked that was like, “Oh, I also have to do these things because it’s going to move me forward and to the path that I think that I want,” but again, what I wanted at 18 years old is dramatically different than what I wanted in my mid-20s or even mid-30s.

Maurice Cherry: Right, and I mean, oh, my god, that’s so true. I racked up credit card debt. I just did dumb shit. I had a job. I did get a job. You remember College Club? Do you remember-

Dwight Battle: That sounds familiar.

Maurice Cherry: … their website?

Dwight Battle: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: It was a precursor kind of to Facebook, but College Club had this interface where they gave you a number, and you could call the number, and it would read your email back to you. They had all these little campus sites, so whatever school you went to, there was a site just for your school, and you could meet people at your school or at other schools. I ended up working there as a like a campus representative from Morehouse for College Club. Then I was hustling on doing that because I was getting paid to do that. The way that they had the pay structure set up was you got paid like… and this is wild now for people that are listening that are hearing this. We got paid $3 per picture and like $5 per new account.

Dwight Battle: Wow.

Maurice Cherry: Every time you took pictures, like you went around and you took pictures of campus life and uploaded them, I’m just counting in my head, “3, 6, 9, 12,” boom, boom, boom, boom. Same with accounts, 5, 10, 15, 20. I was in the computer science department at the time because I had majored in computer science, computer engineering that first semester, and I remember talking with a friend of mine… Actually, the same friend I told you about who teaches at Ohio State.

Maurice Cherry: We put together this macro program that we could basically just take pictures, and we would upload all the pictures to a folder, and then run the macro, and the macro would upload everything, and it would give us a total of what it would be at the end because the digital cameras we had… This is 1999. The digital cameras we had took a, like one of those hard floppy disks.

Dwight Battle: Oh. Wow.

Maurice Cherry: It was a Sony Mavica, and I remember it having like a box of disks in my backpack just like slotting them out, taking pictures and stuff, and the macro, we made another macro that would just make random accounts. We were getting money like hand over fist like every month, $4,000. What am I going to do at 18-

Dwight Battle: With [crosstalk 00:18:37]-

Maurice Cherry: … with… you think that I’m about going to class, and I’m making this much money now? I almost flunked out the first year. I was so just not even focused on it. The other reason also was because I wanted to do web design, and my advisor was like, “If you want to do that, you need to change your major because you’re not going to be able to do that here.” He’s like, “The web is a fad. There’s no way that people are going to be doing stuff on the internet in five years. What are we going to do on the internet? Play solitaire?” So yeah. So yes, so after-

Dwight Battle: Well, that person was right.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. After Dayton, you said you moved to Atlanta?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. Yeah. I was living with my parents. I got a job, bounced around, was working retail, just really trying to figure out what my next step was. I knew I still kind of wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t know what that path was. I think it was… I did that for a couple of years, and I think it was, ’99, 2000-ish that I found the Art Institute of Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: I went and checked it out. At the time, with a couple years of post-Dayton, I said, “Let me make sure that this is the right place for me,” and did my due diligence. It seemed okay. Then I got in there and realized what we all know now about the Art Institutes, but I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I remember, and I only remember this because this is what kind of kick-started my career was I had a class, and the teacher… They made such a big show about the teachers are working professionals, and so they’re going to their jobs and then they’re going to come teach these classes in the evening.

Dwight Battle: Well, the professor was never there. This woman basically wound up teaching us. It was a Photoshop class. This woman who was a classmate there basically just started teaching the class. She told me about this company that she worked for that was a small… It was a publishing company. They made apartment magazines. She asked if I was interested in a production job, and I said, “Well, sure. I need a job while I’m going to school, so this is perfect.” I started working for the apartment guide, which is such a quaint idea now, but they were little books-

Maurice Cherry: I remember those.

Dwight Battle: … that you can pick up at the grocery store, and you would have listings of apartments, and you would pick out your apartment. That was how you found where you wanted to live. I started out as a production artist there. By this point, I realized I was giving the Art Institutes a lot of money. I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I think there was one class I only showed up for three times and still got an A, so I said, “This is not the right thing.”

Dwight Battle: So I left there, and that was the start of my career. I started out as a production artist pumping out those books, and did that for three years. I was starting to think about what the next step was going to be. I started having conversations with what they called art directors, what was the next step after being this production artist, what could I do next? They said some of the cities were large enough to justify having their own in-house artists who basically ran the, quote-unquote, “art department” for these apartment guides. Originally, he was going to send me that Vegas, and thank god he didn’t. That sounded amazing at the time. Thank god I did not wind up there, but-

Dwight Battle: It didn’t. That sounded amazing at the time. Thank God, I did not wind up there. But he said, “We need an artist for the Puget Sound book,” and I had no idea what that was because I don’t know what the Puget Sound is.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And he said, “It’s Seattle.” I said, “I don’t know what Seattle is.” And so in 2003, I moved out here to Seattle. I knew exactly one person. I knew a girl I went to college with who was living here, so she was the only person I knew here. And I moved here in 2003 and did that for a couple more years.

Dwight Battle: Realized fairly quickly that print work in the Seattle market was drying up quickly, and I was trying to make this move into advertising because that was what I knew I had always wanted to do. And I talked to a friend/colleague at it, at an ad agency here, and I took him my sad, pathetic little apartment guidebook and poor portfolio and said, “What could I do here?” And he looked at my book, and he said, “Did you do these ads on a Mac or a PC?”

Maurice Cherry: Hmm.

Dwight Battle: And I said, “Oh. I did them on a Mac,” and he said, “So, it’s not completely worthless.”

Maurice Cherry: Oh, wow.

Dwight Battle: “I can work with you here.” He was like, “You need to get out of that job because this job is not going to get you where you need to be.” And I think it was shortly after that that I gave like two weeks’ notice or two months’ notice, and I said, “I’m going to go find something else. I’m going to go find something that is closer to what I want to be doing.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And that took a while. I did some exhibit design. I worked for a company that did all of Microsoft’s conferences and trade shows. So, it was their CES exhibits and their E3 things and things like that. I freelanced for a while doing a lot of logo branding work, websites, and things like that. And then it was about 2010 where I kind of saw the horizon of what was coming down, and it was the iPad. And I was so intrigued by the potential of that device and that screen and what it meant and what it could be that I immediately went out and bought one and changed my focus and said, “This is what I want to do,” and started focusing on that and made that pivot.

Maurice Cherry: So, I want to go back because you just covered a lot of time. The early part where you’re talking about you’re working in an apartment guide. I’m just curious. What was that time like for you? That’s three years. That’s a long time to be at a place for design, especially back then because there wasn’t really a lot of variance in what you could do for digital design like there is now. You can be product or UX or what, you know?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Interaction and what have you. What was your mind frame like during that time when you’re working at the apartment guide just doing these print ads?

Dwight Battle: Honestly, it was a time where I said, “This is the time that I’m going to put my head down and grind.” It wasn’t design work. It was very purely print production work.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: So, it was throw headphones on and grind through these ads and grind through making these copy changes or whatever they were.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And so, I knew that that was a means to an end. I knew I didn’t want to do that forever.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: But I knew that I needed to pay my dues, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know because again, I was coming from basically two years of college separated by five years. So, I knew I needed to learn a lot. And so, I’d work on stuff during the day. And then, I would go home, and I would read books on design. I’d mock up my own ads, and I would do as much learning as I could on my own even with the limited resources that were online at the time. And just trying to read and soak up and inhale as much as I could so that the next time I was doing these print production things, I could do it a little bit more efficiently so that I could get through more things so I could go home and do more of this other thing.

Dwight Battle: And so, when the opportunity to … And I started having conversations with the people who would be my bosses about becoming an art director for a book about a year before it actually happened. I went to them and said, “What do I need to do to get here? Because this is what I want my next step to be.” And so, doing that was a big help because they basically provided the roadmap for me, and when the time came to interview for those roles, I had done everything they were looking for anyway. And I had shown that I was capable of doing all that work anyway. So, it really became more of a, not formality, but I had shown I was able to do the work. So, getting the job was easy.

Maurice Cherry: So, it sounds like that was your education.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: That was your college basically.

Dwight Battle: Basically, yeah. That’s kind of how I’ve started referring to it, yeah. My career started in earnest in 2003, and it was such a dramatic shift from what I was working on because I went from working in a production office pumping out things to having to support salespeople and having to work with people who had completely different priorities than I did and having to work with people who thought about things completely different than I did.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, it was a very strong fundamental shift in how I thought about design work because I was so used to just like, “Hey. I can design all these things in a vacuum, and it doesn’t really matter what happens outside of this.” And I moved here, and it became very much, “No. These things have a purpose.”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: “We need to … There are numbers that I need to hit, so I need to make sure that this content matches that.”

Maurice Cherry: What was Seattle like during that time, during those early 2000s?

Dwight Battle: It was crazy. I knew Seattle because of Microsoft and Amazon and Starbucks and Nintendo. I lived … My first apartment was right across from the Microsoft campus, and it was like driving onto the Microsoft campus was I remember being shocked that it was literally a campus. I just, I guess for some reason in my head I always thought of a building, a big, tall building downtown that had Microsoft on the top, and that was Microsoft. And to see how much, how ingrained in the community it was was kind of mind blowing for me.

Dwight Battle: But I never really thought about Seattle as a tech city. It was just a city that had some tech companies in it. I stayed largely away from it because I didn’t want to work in tech. I wanted to work in advertising, and I wanted to work in design. So, I stayed away from all of that. I remember turning down interviews at Amazon, so it’s like, “I don’t want to work. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to work for Amazon.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, it’s crazy to me when people say that Seattle’s always been a tech town because it didn’t really feel like a tech town to me really until about 2010, 2011 when it was like, “Okay. Now, Facebook is here, and Google is here. And companies are starting to move here to take advantage of all the engineering talent.” And so all of a sudden, you would look around, and Uber’s over here, and Lyft’s over there. And Facebook’s down the street, and Google’s taken up like several city blocks over in Kirkland. And you looked up one day, and you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. Yeah. This is now a major tech city.”

Dwight Battle: In 2003, it felt much smaller. It felt much more of a community. I loved my early days here. I felt like I knew a lot of people. I made it a conscious effort to get out and meet people because I didn’t know anybody here. And so, I had distinct friend groups of my design friends and my friends that I would go out to nightclubs with and my friends that I would play sports with. It just felt a lot smaller than it does now.

Maurice Cherry: Mm, interesting. I knew about Seattle from The Real World.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And now, I remember that because that was the year we first got cable, and I had heard about this stuff because we had magazines. I grew up in the deep South in Selma, and so anything that I knew about pop culture and everything came in the mail. We had magazines, and that was pretty much it. And I think when we first got cable in like ’97, ’98, and I think Real World Seattle? Was Seattle?

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: So, yeah. Seattle. Yeah. That was the one with where Stephen slapped Irene, yeah.

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: That was the first one I saw, and then I went to Seattle. It was 2002. I had got an opportunity to do an internship interview at Microsoft. Actually, that’s the only time I’ve been to Seattle now that I think about it. It was my first time there, and I was like, “I got to see The Real World house.” Never found it, but I got to see Pike Place Markets on the Space Needle. And I saw the Microsoft campus that you were talking about, and I just remember going there and seeing all the Segways and thinking, “This is like the future.”

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Like, “Oh, my God. People are driving around on Segways? I’ve only read about Segways. What?” Didn’t get the internship, but it was a really interesting experience. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since, so hopefully 2020 can make that happen.

Dwight Battle: Come in the summer.

Maurice Cherry: But, yeah.

Dwight Battle: Come in the summer. This is my-

Maurice Cherry: Come in the summer?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. This is the part that I think people who know me would be remiss if I didn’t say it. Don’t come in the winter. The weather here is terrible. I hate it.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I would have said that summers are beautiful, but it’s about to start raining for the next eight months.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Dwight Battle: So, just fair warning.

Maurice Cherry: So, now that Seattle is kind of, I guess, changing into a tech city sort of like you’re saying, how has the culture changed? Have you felt that shift as well?

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I remember a couple of years ago. I remember reading an article about things that were happening with long-term residents of Silicon Valley and fighting against the … There are long-term residents of San Francisco fighting against Silicon Valley and stopping buses in the street and doing all these things to disrupt what was happening to their city. I remember, I think it was three or four years ago, the same thing happened here in Seattle, and Microsoft, I think, was using street bus stops or something like that. And somebody literally held up a sign and was stopping one of those Microsoft transit buses because you were like, “You’re destroying this neighborhood.” And so I’ve felt that. I’ve noticed that.

Dwight Battle: I remember, I mean my starting day, my first day at Amazon, and I think I was in a room with 300 other people. And that was their day one along with me, and I think it was 300 people. And they told me it was the smallest one they had had this month.

Maurice Cherry: Mm. Okay.

Dwight Battle: So, Amazon is bringing in a ton of people. Google brings in a ton of people. Facebook, obviously, is bringing in … I think Facebook’s second biggest campus is here. So, yeah. It definitely has had an impact on the community both in terms of obvious things like the cost of living and housing, but also in the way I feel like when I moved here there was care for, this is going to sound really out there, but it felt like there was care for other people. You didn’t hear a lot of talk about people as “they”, or at least I never did, you know?

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I’m sure there was NIMBYism floating around back then, but it’s been very apparent here. We need to do something about the homeless problem, but we don’t want it over here. Do it somewhere else.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I think that’s come from a lot of that, a lot of people coming from Silicon Valley up here, people coming in from other places because this is a more affordable place to be compared to some places in California. And so, there’s been a … And in the weather here is pretty moderate most of the time. And so, it’s become a destination, and so it’s become a destination, but there’s nowhere for anybody to live. And there’s people who have been living here for 30, 40 years that are fighting against all of that. So, yeah. I definitely feel it. I’ve definitely noticed it.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I’ve heard that from … There’s this video channel on YouTube that I really like that’s based out of Seattle called Cut, and they often will show, well, they feature Seattle people because they’re in Seattle. But every now and then, they’ll have something which sort of talks about the city, or they’re interviewing people in the city. And they’ll talk about how things have really changed with sort of the encroaching of tech upon, I guess, the Seattle culture and everything.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: So, that’s really interesting because I think about that with Atlanta, also. I mean Atlanta is a city that has been changing a lot over these past 10 years, mostly because of entertainment.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: Because a lot of film and TV that is done here, and that has certainly not just, I think, changed the culture, but also it’s changed the cost of living, et cetera. It’s not as expensive as a New York or a San Francisco or L.A., but it’s affordable enough where people are starting to move here, and that influx of people is changing the culture. I’ll admit I’m not super involved in the local sort of design scene for many reasons, but I’m wondering. Now that you’re at the position where you’re at, especially having done so much in the field, do you feel like there’s really a design community there in Seattle, or is it just all tech?

Dwight Battle: I don’t. I’ll say that with an asterisk. I’ve become an old man living in the suburbs. So, I go to work, and I come home. And I play with my dog, and I watch TV. So, I’m sure there are things happening that I just don’t know about. But I know when I was younger, I struggled a lot with going to trying to go to design events here, not feeling very welcomed, and getting frustrated and leaving.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And so, that happens enough times, and you give it another shot. And it happens again, and you give it another shot. And it happens again. Eventually, you just stop going.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And so, part of that’s on me. Part of that’s on the design community here. I feel like the things that I go to now have been more tech-focused, but I think that’s also because my career has been more tech focused.

Maurice Cherry: Mm.

Dwight Battle: I haven’t been to a design-focused event in a while here, and I feel like when I go to other cities … I was in Minneapolis for the IGA conference, and I went to a bunch of different design events and felt immediately welcomed in, and it was a great time. And then, I tried to come back to that same one here after that event. It just wasn’t very welcoming, so I’ve just stopped trying to go, and I do acknowledge that I need to be better about that because I also grumble about the fact that I don’t have any peers that I can talk to. So.

Maurice Cherry: I remember that from when we met in Atlanta. You were sort of telling me that. Do you think part of that is just the infamous Seattle Freeze?

Dwight Battle: You’re going to get me in trouble, Maurice, because I have very strong feelings about that. I think the Seattle Freeze, I’ve actually come around on a little bit on that idea a little bit. I think people here are you have to work to make relationships here. I don’t think that’s ever been in question. The way I always describe it, it’s a hard nut with the super soft center. And so, you’re going to take a lot of work to get through that nut, but once you get into the middle of it, it’s this very welcoming, great place.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: But you got to do the work. And if you come from somewhere like an Atlanta or Minneapolis or places where it’s very outwardly, like you walk past people on the street and then the next thing you know, you’re over at their house for Sunday dinner. That can be a hard transition to make.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I fight against it myself. I don’t want to become that person. I don’t want to become that person that I have complained about for 15 years now. So, when people reach out to me, I do my best to try and follow up to them because I can’t complain about the Seattle Freeze and then freeze people out myself.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: So, I think my perspective on that has changed a little bit as I’ve been here for some while. I think Seattle might get a little bit too much of a bad rep for that. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely possible to meet people here.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I read a recent article from, I don’t know if you know this guy, Timothy Bardlavens. Does that name sound familiar?

Dwight Battle: Yes. I know the article that you’re speaking of.

Maurice Cherry: You know what one I’m talking about?

Dwight Battle: Uh-huh (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. It’s-

Dwight Battle: I have not met him.

Maurice Cherry: Oh. I haven’t met him either, but, yeah. He’s been on this show before, actually for an article he wrote back in 2016, also about AIGA.

Dwight Battle: Hmm.

Maurice Cherry: Back then he was talking about why he quit AIGA, and this recent article that he wrote was about how AIGA upholds white supremacy, which I mean, whoo.

Dwight Battle: That’s, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Right out the gate. Right out the gate. I was like, “Oh, shit. Let me sit up.”

Dwight Battle: Coming out swinging, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: Now, I sat up in my chair when I saw that headline. Like, “Oh, okay.”

Maurice Cherry: And it’s interesting because when you talk about sort of design community and when I think about design community, AIGA invariably does come to mind because it’s the professional organization for designers, and there are chapters in every city. And I know that there certainly are some cities that are more welcoming and open than others, but then it seems like as a whole, the organization just sort of has this issue with diversity. And design events tend to be tied to AIGA in a way where it’s like unless it’s coming from that chapter, you really kind of don’t see it in a way.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: I think Atlanta is unique in the respect that we’ve always had a really strong arts community here. It may not specifically be digital design, but you can meet people who write, paint, sculpt, what have you, and it’s not within the confines of a sanctioned professional organization, that sort of thing. Have you found that kind of community in Seattle? Just the creative community not necessarily digital design.

Dwight Battle: No, and I would love one. I really would. I wish, and if someone’s listening to this and knows about one, find me on my website. Please tell me because I would love to have a community to talk about just general design stuff and period. That article in particular I think encapsulated a lot of the frustrations that I had with AIGA both local, and, man, I don’t want to say nationally because I don’t have a lot of experience with nationally, but definitely locally. I just, I never really ever felt welcomed there except when they were trying to like, “Here’s our diversity event.”

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: “You should come to this.” But if I went to just a regular event, I just, it never felt right. And I have this group of friends that I’ve met through actually through the HOW Conference, and they all have a diverse set of backgrounds. There’s photographers. There’s artists. There’s entrepreneurs. We don’t have anything in common other than the fact that we met at the HOW Conference, and those are the relationships that I value the most because we come from such different backgrounds and because we have such different specialties that I value those relationships. We get together once a year, and it’s great. But I would love something like that locally.

Maurice Cherry: Well, if any folks in Seattle are listening, make sure to hit up Dwight about that. Absolutely.

Dwight Battle: Please do.

Maurice Cherry: There’s a post that I saw that you wrote on LinkedIn a few years ago. It’s called, Where’s My Ari Gold? Ari Gold for folks who might not know is from Entourage, right?

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, from Entourage. That’s a good show, right? In this post, you were asking about like, “Where are the agents that are representing designers?” You’re saying that like, “Musicians have agents. Authors, et cetera, but when it comes to designers, there’s often no one that’s advocating for the designer for better work and things like this.” I really want to get into that because, well, one, I’d love to get an agent.

Dwight Battle: Dude.

Maurice Cherry: I would love to have someone that could advocate for me about that, but why do you think that exists? Why do you think there’s that dearth of, I guess, representation for designers like that?

Dwight Battle: Well, let me start by talking about why I wrote that.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: At the time, I was in that transitional phase when I was looking for trying to get into the digital space. And so, I was working with a lot of recruiting agencies, and that’s a very frustrating experience.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I remember having a conversation with a friend who is an illustrator, and she’s written a couple of books. And she was telling me about her agent and so on and so forth, and then I was having a separate conversation with another recruiter who flat out told me, “I don’t work for you. I work for the company that’s trying to hire you.” And that really changed my perspective of how I engaged with recruiters because they don’t really have our best interest in mind. They need to fill a role, and they’re looking for the best person to fill that role. But if I where I wasn’t at that time in my life, I’m looking to make the next step in my career, and I make looking to make a pivot in my career, I have no one that can advocate for me.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I don’t have anybody that can say, “This is what this person is.” I’ve got my website, but I don’t have a person that can say, “Here’s why you should consider Dwight for this role.”

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And that was where it came from was I would happily pay somebody to go out and advocate for me and to help me negotiate salary, which is something I think all designers struggle with. I think underrepresented designers probably struggle with that as much if not more because we’re always making on the low end of the scale.

Maurice Cherry: People aren’t checking for us anyway.

Dwight Battle: Right, yeah. I don’t have somebody that can say, “Hey, on Twitter, hey, come work for me. Here’s a bunch of money.” That doesn’t happen. I just read this. It’s on as a tangent. I just read this article about the Game of Thrones guys.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, God, yeah.

Dwight Battle: How they basically were like, “We don’t know anything about this, but here. Here’s a bunch of money to go make this this fantasy show for 10 years.”

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And that’s not something that happens to designers in particular and underrepresented designers in general. So, that was where that came from was I’m trying to make this pivot into a space, and I want someone that can advocate for me. Not just advocate for me but help me get to that stage where I can advocate for myself.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I had to do all that. I had to, again, find all that information and work through that stuff on my own, and I finally got it all figured out about six months ago when I was having these conversations with Amazon. So, that was where that came from. As to why we don’t have them, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s because there’s a lot of people out there who want to be designers and are willing to call themselves designers and-

Dwight Battle: … who want to be designers and are willing to call themselves designers and will take anything that’s given to them salary wise, job wise that there just doesn’t seem to be a market for that. I don’t know, but I know that there’s a lot of talented designers in this world that aren’t being found because they aren’t in the right circles, they don’t know the right people. And that seems to be a hole that could be fixed.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And you hear all the time, “Well, if we could find talented black designers, we would have talented black designers”.

Dwight Battle: And my response to them is always, “Well, you’re not looking”. You can’t ask your employees to go find talented employees and be surprised when they all come back looking like the people that you already have working there.

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And still wish I had an Ari Gold.

Maurice Cherry: I feel that one. It must be it for real because it’s one of those things where, I think the general thing that I get from you is there’s a lot of figuring out, and oftentimes as designers, and especially digital designers in this field, there’s already so many other things we have to figure out in terms of the right tools, and the techniques, and working with the clients and all this other kind of stuff. You want to be able to, I guess, offload some of that in a way, to an agent. I think that would be a good thing and I hope for people that are listening, they don’t think that this is coming from some kind of elitist state.

Maurice Cherry: I think anyone, once you get to a certain level in your career, you don’t want to have to keep fighting for the same things that you did when you started out. You shouldn’t have to go tooth and nail with someone on salary or on certain benefits or things of that nature. Maybe that’s just sort of the nature of whatever market that you happen to be in, if you’re in a big city, if you’re in a small city, et cetera.

Maurice Cherry: I know illustrators often have agents, so they are a part of an agency and that’s who tends to get them gigs. I don’t know if there needs to be something like that for designers, or if there’s just not … I don’t know. I would love to know what that is because I’ve certainly had folks on the show who are, what’s the best way to put it? They’re creative consultants or something. They work with designers, almost in like a collective sort of sense.

Maurice Cherry: So I’m thinking of one person, off the top of my head, Ian Davies, who I think I interviewed him back in 2017, 2018 something like that. And he has a collective of people that he works with and helps them out with gigs and stuff. But it’s very much a closed door sort of thing. You have to know someone who knows someone. I know of different creative collectives. Laci Jordan, whom I’ve had on the show, I know she’s part of the [inaudible 00:46:44] collective, which is made up of designers and writers and artists. So it’s a number of different types of creative people. I don’t know if maybe that’s the model that needs to happen, like a bunch of us just need to get together and be super friends. I don’t know what that would look like.

Dwight Battle: The Avengers.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. No seriously, because I’ve had designers of all stripes that have been here on the show and that’s a common thing. They want to be able to have people that are going to help push them to whatever the next thing is in their career. And that’s not necessarily a mentorship kind of thing. I won’t even say coaching or sponsoring, but it is sort of an agent thing because this is something like you mentioned in the post, you’re willing to pay for that.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: You would pay for someone to help you do this, whether that’s a percentage of the salary or what have you. And I think headhunters kind of do that, but even that’s tricky because the headhunters are not really for you, they’re for the company that they work for because they’re probably getting paid on commission or whatever.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Oh man, it’s real tricky. I hope there are folks that are out here listening who are in the creative field, that might know someone who does this. Please reach out to the show or something like that because I feel like that’s a really big need, especially for underrepresented designers, because what’ll end up happening is someone puts out a call on Twitter or something.

Maurice Cherry: I feel like that’s how I see a lot of these sorts of opportunities crop up. “I’m looking for such and such”, and then someone starts a Twitter thread with 50 people in it or something. And I don’t know if someone’s going to look at all 50 of those people or whatever, but it’s like a sort of lazy man’s way of aggregating that kind of information. But man, I would love to have an agent. Really just someone that could help out in that respect because as you get to a certain point in your career, the recruiters are just trying to hit quota. They don’t really care whether or not … I still get recruiters that will contact me for like, “Oh, we have a six month content writer position”. I’m not looking for six month contract gigs. Get out of here.

Dwight Battle: Yep.

Maurice Cherry: First of all, I’m employed full time and secondly, I’m not going to do contract work at this stage, especially for like … No, no, absolutely not.

Dwight Battle: I actually put that on my LinkedIn. That says, “I would rather not be contacted by third party recruiters”. And it doesn’t stop them.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. It doesn’t stop them.

Dwight Battle: But yeah, it’s just that. And I respect it. Listen, you have your roles to fill, you’ve got your numbers to hit. I get it. But I’m at a stage in my career where I would rather honestly take that energy that I’m spending trying to find my next job, and put it towards helping someone that is where I was 15 years ago and help them get their career started.

Maurice Cherry: Right.

Dwight Battle: And so when I spend all this energy trying to find a job, I can’t also do that. I get lots of emails through my website all the time, asking, “How do I do this? How do I get into this career?” And I try to respond to every one that I can. But that takes time, it takes energy, that takes your spirit. You’ve got to get into a mindset to do that.

Dwight Battle: I love that idea of collective. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I think one of the things I’ve always done in my career, and this has probably been because I spent so much time contracting was, I’m always looking at what the next step is. I took Amazon for very specific reasons. So once my time in Amazon is done, what’s the next thing?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And I’ve been thinking a lot about that idea of having some sort of collective where a bunch of designers can be in one space. It can be a very creative space, you can run your own thing, you can come together. But then also provide opportunities for young designers who don’t have those contacts and who don’t have blue check marks next to their names, and who don’t have this huge network of people that are willing to just throw opportunities out into the Aether. I feel that strongly. I want to do that. I want to be in a position where I can do that because I didn’t have those resources when I was starting my career.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. So just to shift gears just a little bit here. We’re talking certainly about the energy that it takes to put all this together, and certainly what I’ve gained from listening to your story is that you’ve had to really, and I’ve said this on the show before, but you’ve had to make the road by walking. You had to forge your own path through all of this to get to where you are right now. What do you think helps fuel that ambition?

Dwight Battle: I’m always looking forward and it sounds kind of silly to say that I’m never happy, but I’m never happy. I have this vision in my head for myself and so I keep moving towards that thing. So I take steps that I think will help me get there. I just started doing some motion design work because it’s something that I’ve always found interesting, I thought it’s something that could help me and somewhere down the line in my career, so hey, let’s start doing some motion design work.

Dwight Battle: And I think that may have come from the fact that the way I started out my career, I didn’t have the tailwinds of coming out of school with a degree and an internship and all these different resources and references and things like that. I had to do that individually, step-by-step and trying to find help where I can. And to be clear, I did not do this by myself. I couldn’t have done any of this without lots of support from various different people.

Dwight Battle: But I think that drive, always thinking about what my next thing is and thinking about, okay, once my time here at Amazon is done, I’m going to be however old I am and starting to think about the next step in terms of retirement. So what is the next thing that going to get me to that point? And what do I want to do? Do I want to be driving through Seattle traffic to go into an office at 55 years old? So if I don’t want to do that, what do we need to be doing now to get to that point?

Maurice Cherry: Can you afford to take a break?

Dwight Battle: No.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: I couldn’t take an extended break. I took a month off between HBO and Amazon, and got a lot of things done and did a lot of different things. I don’t know that I’m built to take a super long sabbatical. I don’t know what I would do, I think I would go crazy. I know I drive my wife crazy.

Dwight Battle: I don’t think I could and I don’t know that I would want to, unless I was doing something very specific like traveling. I’ve never been overseas so that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But, no.

Maurice Cherry: The reason I asked that, I wasn’t like trying to like poke a hole in what you were saying, but I do feel like, particularly for underrepresented designers, especially when you get to a certain age, like late thirties, early forties it’s like, what’s next? Do I still want to be doing this 10 or 15 years down the line? Because if the industry has changed … Well, the industry will change. That’s just inevitable. What is my place in it?

Maurice Cherry: Much like you, I was self taught. I was doing all this design stuff as a hobby and lucked into my first design job in ’05 and have managed to build on skills and opportunities to get where I am now. And that’s great, but I don’t have a formal education in design, I’ve got my experiences in my projects which have helped me out. And it’s interesting even to have that.

Maurice Cherry: If I try to look at what the next thing is, then it’s like, does this transfer? Can I use this? Do I have to go back to school? What is the next thing? And part of me is like, well maybe I should just like take a break. And it’s not something that I think underrepresented designers, when we get to this stage in our career, really even this age in life, is not something we can really afford to do. We have to keep going and it sucks.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: It sucks. I would love to have just three months. I would get so much stuff done. If I could have just three months to not have to worry about what the next thing is I have to do, what the next step is. Like what’s the next project? Oh, yeah.

Dwight Battle: If you said, “Dwight, you have to take three months off”, I would spend most of that three months figuring out what I was going to do on day 91. And maybe that’s coming back to design, maybe it’s not.

Dwight Battle: I’m big into these home improvement shows, and so I was watching this show last night and the designers said something that really resonated with me, and I’ve always tried to put it into words. She said, “Always say yes until you can afford to say no”.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dwight Battle: And I feel like I’m starting to get there. Over the course of trying to get to this job, I said no to other jobs. But when I think of that, holistically about my career, is there a point where I don’t want to be a designer anymore? She went from a fashion design career to being an interior designer.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: Is that a shift that I can make? And what does that shift look like? So I think if I took three months off, I would do basically that. Figuring out what that 91st day looks like.

Maurice Cherry: Always say yes until you can afford to say no. Wow.

Dwight Battle: I might get that tattooed on me.

Maurice Cherry: I feel like I’m starting to get to the know part, but even when I give the nos, it’s sort of like a, maybe. It’s a soft no. I haven’t gotten to that point yet.

Dwight Battle: I feel like it’s hard, especially for us. It’s hard to say no because you don’t know if you’re going to have an opportunity to say yes again.

Maurice Cherry: Exactly. Oh my God. Yeah.

Dwight Battle: So you feel like I have to take this thing, even though it might not be the best thing for me or for my career. I have to take this because I don’t know if there’s going to be another opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I’ll give you a prime example. So, two years ago I publicly was like, “I’m not speaking at conferences anymore”. The last one I think I spoke at was after How. I forget what it was. Whatever the conference was, but it was a pain in the ass to deal with the conference organizer, and travel, and accommodation.

Dwight Battle: I remember you telling me about this. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I was like, it’s not worth it to go through all of this to do 45 minutes on stage, for what? And at this point in time, I also was kind of thinking to myself, where’s my agent? Who’s advocating for me so I don’t have to put up with all this bullshit?

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: And I was on a podcast called Working File with Andy Mangold and and Matt McInerney. It was the two of us. It was Cap Watkins who was VP of design of Buzzfeed at the time and myself, and I was like, “I’m done. I am capital D done with speaking at conferences”. Have yet to get a conference invite since then. But I don’t know if it’s because I said no or if they’ve just stopped coming.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And recently, I spoke at Bowling Green State University and that was really my first time giving a fairly big talk, I’d say there was maybe about 150 people there. It was students. And I’ve done little things around town, here in Atlanta, but it’s like 50 people at a morning coffee thing or 75 people at a … Actually, I wasn’t even speaking about design, I was speaking about podcasting. I wasn’t even talking about my design work. This was the first time I really got back on a stage and talked about design stuff in like two years, and I was like, “This is good”.

Maurice Cherry: And I told myself then that I would like to speak at more colleges or universities because I just feel like I would rather impart this knowledge on students, so they can take it into the future, than on working jaded professionals right now, who are just here on a professional development budget.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I’m thinking of like what’s the impact of what I’m putting out there? As opposed to just being on the stage, so I can add a credit to my CV or whatever. I don’t care about that. But yeah. Oh man, always say yes until you can afford to say no. That one hit me deep. Oh man.

Dwight Battle: Yeah. I had to pause it and had to think about that for a minute because it hit me the same way it hit you. Man, that puts it all into words.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Dwight Battle: And the bulk of my journey this past year was that. Was okay, can I say no to this? Is it the right thing for me? And if I say no, is there going to be another thing? Because if I had just taken the next thing, I wouldn’t be sitting here, working at Amazon. I’d be doing something less interesting.

Maurice Cherry: Right. All the could have, would have, should haves.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Take a look back at your career, if you could put up a billboard, or a manifesto, or something to say anything to anybody in your field, what would that say? What would you want to put out there that you want everyone to know?

Dwight Battle: That path isn’t a straight line. Or I would say, the path that people think that you need to be on isn’t always your path. And it’s okay to take a left turn, even though the GPS says to go straight, and see what happens when you do that. You may wind up where you were originally intending to go. You might wind up in a better place. So feel free to get lost, I guess.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Feel free to get lost. I like that. When you look at other work from your peers or anything like that, is there any projects that you’ve seen lately that have really inspired you? That made you wish that you had done that?

Dwight Battle: I don’t know if it’s lately, but a couple of years ago there was an ad campaign. I think it was the Old Spice guy. The guy with the towel around his waist and was riding a horse with the diamonds or whatever. And this was when I was super trying to get into advertising. They had just rolled out this character and I think the guy went on Twitter in character and just started answering questions in character, and making commercials and putting them on YouTube in real time in this character. And I just thought that was so brilliant and such a good use of all of those mediums, instead of going forth then and building up this big, expensive ad campaign, something that’s going to air a handful of times for three months. Reacting to people in real time.

Dwight Battle: And that has always stuck with me, and I try to think about what are the things that I can leverage that are happening right now? Whether that’s, Tik Tok would be the thing now, but it would have been Snapchat last year. But, can I be ready to jump on a thing that people aren’t even thinking about, to communicate things to people? If I were to take this to the extreme in my role at Kindle, how could I leverage Tik Tok to get people reading more books? That’s always stuck with me. And that campaign was a while ago, but that’s always stuck with me.

Maurice Cherry: So one thing that I really have been trying to focus on for 2020 is how can we use the talents that we have to really, I guess, build the future. There has been campaigns and art installations I’ve seen about, there are black people in the future. Have you seen these before?

Dwight Battle: Mm-mm (negative).

Maurice Cherry: It’s like a billboard. I think there’s one in Detroit, or maybe it originated in Detroit, where a woman has a billboard and it says, “There are black people in the future”. Because when you see science fiction, we’re normally not there. It’s like, Uhura and Worf and Geordi, and whatever to do was on Deep Space Nine, that was the Vulcan.

Dwight Battle: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Deep space nine. I’m showing my Star Trek nerdery here. But, when you look at the future, the next five years or so, what kind of work do you want to be doing?

Dwight Battle: If I look five years into the future, I think I want to be helping the next generation of designers get work and get paid. Those are the two things that I see in the future for me, as my career gets to wherever it’s going to be. I feel like I almost have that responsibility to bring people along and again, because I didn’t have those resources of opportunities. I hope I’m in a space where, whether it’s at Amazon or elsewhere, that I can be in somewhat of a position of power to bring people into the room because I think that’s also important.

Maurice Cherry: So you’ll have the Battle agency? Is that what it’ll be? Something like that?

Dwight Battle: I have such a fortunate last name that I really should leverage it more than I do and in a more creative way that I do. But yes, something around the Battle agency.

Maurice Cherry: I need to see how much it is to trademark though, because I come up with all kinds of stuff from my last name all the time. Some of it I see makes it out into the world, some of it doesn’t. I need to get on that.

Dwight Battle: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Well just to kind of wrap things up here, Dwight, and this has been a great conversation by the way, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Dwight Battle: You can find my work at dwightbattle.com. You can find me all over various social medias at Dwight the mayor, and that’s Twitter, Instagram, Dribble, LinkedIn. All those links are on my website too.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Dwight Battle, I want to thank you just so much for coming on the show. Like I said, when we met back in 2016 and I heard about your story, and even hearing it again now, I think it’s really important for folks to know, as you said before, that any of the success and things that you see in the design field, in tech, none of it is unattainable. You don’t have to follow a specific path of this school to this company, to get what you have to go. I think you’ve been a prime example of someone that has really worked their way up through the ranks, paid your dues, learned as you went, made the road by walking to get to the success that you have today. And I hope that that becomes an inspiration for people that are listening.

Maurice Cherry: So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dwight Battle: Thank you for having me. I had a great time.

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