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Chris Rudd

We’re wrapping up our interviews in The Windy City this month with Chris Rudd, founder of social and civic impact design firm ChiByDesign. Chris’ work is grounded in anti-racism, and that’s reflected not just in the clients ChiByDesign serves, but also by him building a collaborative and dynamic space for designers of color to thrive and do work that improves communities.

Chris and I talked shop for a while about entrepreneurship, and then he told me the story of how he started his firm in 2018. Chris also spoke about growing up in Chicago, studying at Stanford and becoming a Civic Innovation Fellow, and shared the one thing he still wants to accomplish in his career. I hope that Chris’ story gives you the confidence to be yourselves and push for the world you want!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chris Rudd:
Chris Rudd, founder and CEO of ChiByDesign, and my role is to give leadership to the organization as we practice our anti-racist design and systems and social service work around the country.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s 2022 been going so far?

Chris Rudd:
It’s been good. It’s been busy. I think because our work is again, centered on anti-racism and designing anti-racist outcomes. After the racial awakening of 2020, lots of organizations and institutions are trying to figure out, A, how are they perpetuating systemic racism, and then B, figuring out pathways to stop and from our perspective, hopefully to heal the communities and folks that they’ve harmed over the past. So yeah, it’s been a lot. Great work, but also heavy work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I can imagine. So I would guess you probably got an influx of work during that summer of 2020. I think there’s a lot of people I spoke to on the show where during that summer or right after that summer, they just kept getting hit up with requests to speak or to consult or to work or anything like that. Did you kind of have that same swell of interest during that time?

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, a lot of speaking. I think during that time particularly, people were really trying to wrap their heads around what it was, and so there was a lot of, can we just talk to you? We want to hear what you’re thinking about this. Then the work started to pick up, but we actually developed a rubric for our firm on what we would do and what we wouldn’t do. So we really started to vet the organizations that wanted to work with us to see if they were actually about the change that they say they were, or if it was just we want to put a black face to the work to somehow validate the efforts, even if they knew it was going to fall short. And even if they didn’t know, we would work with them to say, “Hey, here’s where we see your shortcomings.” And da da da. And if they were willing to understand and accept that, then we could move forward. If they weren’t, then we were happy to walk away.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good. I mean, because I can imagine people probably came all out of the woodwork that found your firm and was like, wait a minute, that’s a black guy. Let’s talk to him. Let’s see if we can help him.

Chris Rudd:
I know. And then really they thought they knew that was a lot of all we got to do is just it will come out in this way. All we have to do is just make this one simple change and boom, racism’s gone, or we will function differently. And the hard part for us is helping them understand that changing an organization, changing a system, an institution is a huge shift or requires large scale shifts from top to bottom, not just in terms of personnel, but also in terms of philosophy, practices, policies, all these organizational structure. And so that was a hard thing for folks to deal with. Cause you’ve been doing this thing for so long and from your perspective, you’ve been doing a great job. Profit margins may be through the roof or you’ve put out a couple surveys of rate us, and for the most part, you send them to people that like you and you’re like, yep, those are great. And then the negative ones that come back, you’re like, ah, they don’t really get it. So yeah, it’s been an interesting journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s kind of dive in more and talk about your firm ChiByDesign. Which you describe as a collaborative and cultivating space for designers of color that already just, that hit me a ton of bricks there. Tell me more about ChiByDesign.

Chris Rudd:
Sure. That piece is huge for us. When I started the firm in 2018, I started out of anger, to be honest, honest, I was back home in Chicago and the philanthropic social sector was really starting to embrace design thinking at that time. And at that time I was like, “Ooh, design thinking is the bees knees. Here we go. We can use this methodology to change the world.” And so I would see these projects popping up around issues and health and safety and they’re always in Chicago is very, very segregated. People don’t know. It is probably, we battle Milwaukee for the top spot of most segregated cities in America every year. And it’s really hard for people who are not from here to understand what that physically looks like. And so for example, you can cross a street and the color of the people will immediately change.

So you’ll be on one intersection and on one side it will be almost strictly black folks. And then on the other side it will be strictly brown folks. The contrast is so stark here in many, many communities, and because of that, issues are very contained and acute in particular areas. So health disparities that affect black folks more heart disease, hypertension, blah blah, blah. Those are very concentrated in Chicago. And so there was these design projects, how might we improve heart health for black males? And it was like, oh, that’s great. I’m glad you all are thinking about that. And then I would look at the design firms that were the lead on the projects and it would be six white dudes and one Asian woman. And I just knew, I was like, there’s no way they’re going to get this right. And so at that time there was also this, where are the designers of color, we can’t find black people, da da, da.

We’re trying and they’re just not there. And so I just said, “All right, cool. I’ll start something and we’ll do that. We’ll bring them here.” And to do that means you can’t create the cultures that many design firms have because they are monochromatic. And so I wanted ChiByDesign to really be a place for black and brown designers to come be excellent, be great as we are, and not try to fit into some mold that is not natural to us and still be excellent. The notion that if we’re going to be us, that somehow it’s less than the notion of excellence that’s been perpetuated in our society. And so ChiByDesign is all about having a home for designers of color specifically, but for everyone generally. So one of the founding principles was that 75% of the people I work with at all times would be folks of color and 50% would be women based on the notion that you can’t design the future if you don’t have all those inputs.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m looking at the website and everything right now. I like that you have anti-racist design as of a core principle of everything that you’re doing because I know just from doing revision path, what will happen is sometimes people will look at what you’re doing and instead of seeing the positive way you’ve designed it, they look at or they sort of perceive it as exclusion. I could see someone looking at ChiByDesign and thinking, well, isn’t that discriminatory that you’re only going to have black and brown people and talk to WT as opposed to you doing that by design in very much the same way that maybe some other firms may have only white people by design.

Chris Rudd:
There’s not a thing where we’re saying there won’t be white designer. So we hired a white designer last year, and so we’re totally open and willing to do that. I don’t believe that white people don’t have a place in the anti-racist fight. They absolutely do. And to your point, yeah, it’s not about exclusion. It’s saying that we have to center the most harmed in the process, whether that’s the design team and/or the folks that we’re designing with. So we also practice co-design only. We are not a human centered design, traditional human centered design firm. We do not design for anyone. Every project we do, the folks most impacted by that system, by that organization have to be a part of the process. That’s based on understanding. They know their challenges, their strengths better than any of us. This idea that designers can develop empathy through one hour conversations and therefore create the optimal experience or system or service for someone, in my opinion is a bit ludicrous.

Maurice Cherry:
What does your creative process look like when it comes to starting on a new project?

Chris Rudd:
Sure. So lots of prep work with the clients of what is the issue, who’s most affected by that? Who do they, really trying to figure out who they have relationships with on the ground in the community. And that can be a for-profit client or a social service client. We need to understand what is your relationship to those most affected by the thing you do. And then we set out to hire co-designers to join our team. So once we know and understand who are the people most affected, we do intense outreach to hire those folks to join our team for the duration of the project. And that’s a huge thing for us because, again, this notion of how do we create a space for black and brown designers, it’s also creating a space for this pipeline. I come to design very late in life. I was in my thirties when I really first understood what it was.

And so I think folks of color are some of the most creative people on the planet based on our conditions. We have to be. And again, I don’t say that as thinking that we’re a monolith, but proportionately to our socioeconomic status, we have learned and have had to be very, very creative for survival. Yet we have been excluded from the professional practice of creativity in terms of design. And so we use every project as an opportunity to introduce more and more black and brown folks to the field, to the practice and have them lead us in our design process. We have a methodology, but they have the expertise. And so the more we can give what we have to them, the better equipped they will be to lead us.

Maurice Cherry:
Why do you think more firms don’t do that?

Chris Rudd:
I would assume, honestly, this was a journey for me when I first started projects and I was kind of independent consulting before I built up the team. It was scary to ask a client to pay for that. So I would hire people and pay them out of the money that I had designated for myself because I didn’t have the confidence to say, “Hey, this is so important that it should be important to you as well.”
I actually participated in a class, a friend was teaching at ID Institute of Design, her name is Mo, and she teaches, I don’t know, it’s adaptive leadership. And I went through the process with her students and we talked about this and finally one of them said, “Just put it in the budget.” And I just said, “Okay, I’m going to make this commitment to you all that I’ll do it.” And I tried it and the client didn’t go crazy. And so from that point on, I said, this will be a standard for every project we do. This is one of our criteria for acceptance. If they’re not willing to do that, we won’t work with them. It shows a lot about their mentality if they can’t value people in the same way we feel like we’re trying to value people.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. Back when I had my studio and I was taking clients, I think I came to the pretty early realization that sometimes clients really just need to be told what to do. There’s the whole thing about, oh, the customer’s always right, yada, yada, yada. I get that. But if you’re coming to an expert for something that you may not have the skills in or you need the help in, I would think there has to be some level of deferment. And for you to be the experts, you have to be able to let the client know like, “Hey, this is what it is, this is what our process is. We’re not bending from that, we’re not changing that, or anything like that.” So it’s good that you’re sort of vetting clients, I think, and the way that you mentioned earlier, but then also just letting them know, this is how we work, and you can either get with it or not.

Chris Rudd:
And exactly to your point, they are looking for that guidance. So we’re not trying to position as a, you just don’t get it and you’re stupid. We’ve done this a lot of times, we’ve been recognized for it. It works. And if you really want to achieve what you’re saying you want to achieve, trust us that this will get you there. 100% of the time. They’re super happy that they did it. Their relationship with those folks amplifies and expands in ways that they never thought. We get information and direction that we couldn’t conceive of because, again, we haven’t been in that position. So there’s so much nuance that we will always miss if they are not there. And so yeah, I think more studios should definitely try, especially if you’re in social sector work. If you’re developing products for P&G, HCD will probably help you do that a hundred percent of the time and it’ll be fine. But if you were trying to redesign social services, if you’re trying to redesign society, we cannot do that in our studios away from the real world.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any projects in particular you’ve done through the firm that you’re like especially proud of?

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, we’re currently wrapping up a project with the state of Ohio to redesign the foster care system to be anti-racist. So this was a huge, huge lift, but very excited with where we’re at. We’re in talks with counties to actually prototype. The challenge with doing anti-racist work is, especially for social systems institutions and governments, is that they are very averse to prototyping, especially when it’s about anti-racism because it’s just the political climate in our society is many of us are like, “Things are racist.” And then there’s a growing set of the population that is just like, Nope, that’s not a thing. Don’t talk about it. Don’t, da, da da. And so these government employees are navigating that, which typically we have not won that side of the argument. It’s exciting that we might be able to prototype some of these ideas with them. And I think the hypothesis is that they would drastically change and reduce disproportionality in children’s services for black, brown and mixed race folks in Ohio, which could then be a standard for children’s services around the country.

That’s been a big one that I’m very, very proud of. And then we did a project last year here in Chicago to co-design an equitable food system with urban growers, with educators, with nonprofits, business folks. And it was one of those projects that just taught me so much. So learning about the land, learning about growing practices, indigenous practices, going back to our roots in a lot of ways, and how food is just so vital to humanity. I mean, we all know that, right? We eat every day. We’re like, we love food. I do. But just the breadth of how food is vital to culture, society, not just from the consumption of it, but the production aspect. And so that was a really cool and exciting project as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What gets you truly excited about what you do?

Chris Rudd:
Man, all of it. I’m getting excited as we’re having this conversation. My team, they’re just amazing, brilliant, awesome people to be with every day. The fact that we’re doing work that we all believe in, that’s just huge. I’ve talked to so many designers who are just like, “Ah, I’m so tired of creating new features on websites to help people pay faster for things they probably don’t need.” Or I don’t want to design another Pepsi bottle. They want their creativity, their brilliance, their skill sets to truly improve life outcomes. And so I just feel very privileged and very grateful to be able to do that. All of our intellectual capacity, all of our creative capabilities are really honed in on improving the lives of folks of color, which to your point earlier, would absolutely improve the lives of white folks too. If you lift our standards, my belief is that if you can eliminate racism, every racial group on the planet will have better outcomes.

Maurice Cherry:
True. Let’s kind of dive a little bit into your personal story. ‘Cause I’m curious to know where this strong foundation of civic duty in this way comes from. So tell me more about where you grew up. You’re from Indiana, I think you told me originally, right? But you grew up in Chicago.

Chris Rudd:
So originally from Gary, Indiana, and then we moved to Chicago when I was like four. So I come from the Midwest’s union strong. And so my father was a steelworker. A lot of the men on my dad’s side of the family worked in the steel mills. He eventually got a job at the post office and has been there ever since. My mom was on the railroads and then really entrenched herself in community organizing in Chicago, but is also an artist. So that’s where my creative side comes from. So she was an art teacher for a while and then went back to labor organizing.

And so I very much grew up on picket lines and at protests my whole life. So I always remember when you came back to school in September, the teacher was, “What’d you all do this summer?” And friends of mine were like, “Oh, we went on vacation to blah, blah, blah.” And I’m like, “Yep. I was at a picket line for three weeks in Decatur, Illinois.” And those moments really shaped my perspective and my outlook and very much are with me in my design practice and in my life now.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned earlier that you didn’t really get into design until you were in your 30s. When you were a kid, did you sort of have a sense of what it is that you wanted to do outside of that?

Chris Rudd:
No clue. Zero clue. I think I was so many other people every year. It changed. Before the internet, for me at least on the south side, wasn’t a lot of options around you. Nobody in my neighborhood that I can think of even now had a professional career. We grew up in a very working class community, so people worked blue collar jobs. So that was kind of like my plan, if you call it a plan, it was finish high school, get a regular job. My parents had a couple friends that were professors, but I had no interest in going to college and especially for that long to become a professor. So my kind of goals growing up was to be a family man and get a job that’ll allow me to take my kids on vacation once in a while.

Maurice Cherry:
So when you started out in college, you went to City College in Chicago, Harold Washington College. Tell me about that time. What were you were studying at that time?

Chris Rudd:
So I studied youth development, so that’s actually one of the only two programs I’ve ever focused on. So I studied youth development. ‘Cause at a certain point, I think I was around 24, I figured, okay, I’ll be a teacher. A lot of the women in my family were teachers and I was like, “All right, I could do that. I like young people, I want to help.” So I went to Harold Washington to try to get my gen ed out the way so I can go into a teaching program. But what that actually led me to was working in the non-profit sector. So I took these youth development classes and it totally changed my outlook. I no longer wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a youth worker because I felt like being a youth worker was more around building relationships. You could not demand respect from young people as opposed to being a teacher.

You go into a classroom, I would be Mr. Rudd, but as a youth worker, I was Chris. And so they were able to refer to me as my first name, the same way I was going to refer to them by their first names. So it was more around reciprocity rather than hierarchy. At least that’s how I felt. And so I went to the nonprofit sector, working with young people in Chicago and just really trying to help them figure out what’s their path. It was tough during that time. We had a lot of violence. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean Chicago definitely has that, I mean reputation, as you know, hear in the media and stuff for having a lot of violence. I think a lot of big cities have similar reputations. I mean, I’m in Atlanta in the West end, and I mean it’s southwest Atlanta. It gets its kind of bad reputation too for that sort of stuff. But I think that’s just a byproduct of living in an urban city, that will happen. For you though, I’m curious, you wanted to go into youth development. Was there something in particular that really drew you to that?

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, again, it was really around the relationship building. My early years were focused on organizing. I was an organizer in high school and I just knew that we’re going to make things better. We have to get to know each other, we have to appreciate each other, and then we have to struggle with each other to be our best selves. And that only happens as you are forming or developing relationships with one another. So this approach to working with young people, that centered relationship building really spoke to me. And so that’s where I focused my efforts. I didn’t go to school to become a teacher ’cause that I felt like this path was the right way for me. And it’s funny having this conversation. So much of that is very much a part of my design approach and process.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it definitely stems from a place of community. So you graduated from City College. What does your early post-grad career look like? What kind of work were you doing? Is this where you started with these youth groups?

Chris Rudd:
Sure. Yeah. So I was working on the west side of Chicago. There was a young man had gotten murdered at that time, Darion Albert. And so it was national news and all of a sudden there was just all these resources poured into Chicago to curb youth violence. And so I was working at a non-profit on the west side, which I’m from the south side and in Chicago, south side folks don’t go west side, west side folks don’t like, we don’t go to South side. It’s strange. So I got kind of thrown into this whole new world, which I love and I love the west side now. And working with these young folks who at the time there was a rubric created to identify the 1,000 young people most likely to kill or be killed. I don’t know what was involved in the rubric, but there was basically an army of youth workers deployed to make sure that they didn’t die and they didn’t kill anyone.

And so every day I was on the west side working with a group of 10 young men, trying to get them to understand that game banging and doing whatever else they were doing was not the right way for them and for society and supporting them to get their lives in the place that they wanted to be. A lot of them didn’t really even want to be doing the things they were doing, but there wasn’t an alternative. Unemployment rates for young men, black men in Chicago, I think is like 80%. And that’s been-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, it’s unbelievable. And that’s been true for almost a decade now. It’s not a new statistic that happened post pandemic. This has been true in Chicago for many years. And so there’s a lot of judgment thrown at these young people. Oh, why don’t they just get a job? And now that there’s job openings everywhere, this may be partially true, but at that time it was not possible for them to get traditional work. And for many of them now, it’s not possible due to past convictions or honestly the way they look.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Chris Rudd:
We hear it all the time that soon as they walk into a place looking for a job, but they have dreads, absolutely not. The employer won’t even think about it. So a lot of this is not on them. Also, they’re children. These are teenagers, so we cannot put these expectations on them that we have on adults. And so yeah, that’s where I started. And then I moved to another organization that was less focused on violence prevention, like the one I was doing and more focused on youth empowerment, which was what I was practicing, because I don’t think youth or violence prevention is really around keeping kids busy and getting them into sports, which is all great, but my perspective is that you really have to change their outlook on life and help them figure out their own purpose, which to me is around that’s empowerment. And so I started working at another nonprofit that really focused on youth empowerment, helping young people find their voice or not find it, but use their voice. And that is what led me to the design world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s talk about that. In 2015, you had become a civic innovation fellow through Stanford University. And so this was a fellowship program. Tell me about that experience. How did that sort of change things for you?

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, I loved it. One, Stanford is like Disneyland. Never imagine anything like that. There’s always a joke that one, you’re in Silicon Valley, so there’s that bubble and then there’s a bubble on top of it, which is the Stanford bubble. And then there’s probably another bubble over that that you just can’t see because it’s too many bubbles. So it was coming from Chicago in this really deep youth work to taking a moment to just figure out what is it that I want to do? How can I really advance helping society? And then learning this new process of design that seemed very familiar. There was a lot of overlap to things that I had been doing before, but then there was also something new to it. It was this really diving into creativity as problem solving. It just really spoke to me, relying on people to help figure out the solutions, bringing diverse people together.

We talked about, it was always radical collaboration, and that was folks on the multidisciplinary. But for me it was always thinking about multiracial perspectives. If we’re going to solve societal challenges, it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of black folks and brown folks to figure out racism beyond the shoulders of women to figure out sexism. This is something we have to do together. And so I took multidisciplinary in that way. So Stanford was great. It’s got all challenges as Stanford, but for me to stay sane and not get consumed in the bubbles, I joined the organizing community out there and we were fighting against police murder. I think while I was out there, the police had murdered four people.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Chris Rudd:
All folks of color. And so there was a hunger strike. The Frisco five did a hunger strike. So I would spend my nights on the street of San Francisco, pulling guard duty for them. I ended up getting arrested when we had a protest in city hall against police murder. Those are all things that may seem divorced from design, but one thing I would always tell my students is that designers didn’t break the world and we’re not going to fix it. You as a designer is also you outside of your nine to five. So what are you doing besides your professional work to impact and change the world? So yeah, I really appreciated my time out at the D School. Still very close with all the folks in my cohort and my instructors become, I felt like I really became part of another family, a west coast family.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. You had designed a program during that fellowship called Youth Tech Design. Tell me about that.

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, the Civic Innovation Fellowship is a project fellowship. So you had to have an idea of what you wanted to do. And so when I was in Chicago, how they found me was I was working with young people here and we created a web app called Expunge Gio to help other young people expunge their juvenile criminal records. And so that’s what got the attention on the D school and had me go out there. So because that thing worked, I said, “Okay, how do we scale this?” And so how do we allow more young people to create technology that solves issues that they care about? And so youth tech design was created for that purpose. And then the second part was how do we utilize technology to allow young people, young people of color specifically to get into college. Lots of times we don’t have the opportunities to go on trips to Haiti to build houses that look good on your college application.

We have too many other responsibilities. And so when you have technology, you can scale impacts pretty rapidly, which for a young person from the south side of Chicago to say, “I built an app that helped expunge 1,000 records in the first year, which then led to a policy change in Illinois for automatic expungement.” That’s huge. And the young people that I worked with here can say that they were all able to say that without, it was true. It wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t an exaggeration that they were part of such a massive shift in society.

And so hopefully that would give them a leg up to get into institutions like Stanford or where we’re traditionally excluded. And so Youth Tech Design was set up to do that. And then when I left the Bay and came back here, I didn’t maintain it as an organization, but I still continue to do those types of workshops for young people on the south side. And currently right now at ChiByDesign, that’s one of our passion projects is to stand up a youth program in the same vein, but now no longer focus on just teaching human-centered design, but teaching co-design as the way for social change and with anti-racist practices and principles.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve been someone that’s been part of the Chicago community and now part of the Chicago design community for a long time. How would you describe it to someone outside the city?

Chris Rudd:
I feel like it’s pretty welcoming. Most of us from Chicago have a lot of roots in the south. So Chicago’s the big city with a southern hospitality vibe to it. I think it’s still pretty segregated as well, but I know that there’s efforts to change that. So I’m also on the ops board for the Chicago Design Museum. And I know in every meeting we have, we’re trying to figure out what engagements, what services, what possibilities we can create to bridge that gap. And there’s a lot of organizations working on that too to be honest. I feel like a lot of designers are trying to figure out how to use their talents for the city and for underrepresented communities. So I feel like it’s a good time. It’s very collaborative. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of tension, which is great. Sometimes people jockeying for space and all that, but I feel like everyone’s so open to working together and moving a pretty strong social agenda forward that it’s really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
And now after you started ChiByDesign, you also began teaching design as well. So this is another way that you’re kind of helping to give back to the community. You’ve taught at Stanford D School, you taught at UT Austin at IIT Institute of Design. What does teaching design, how does that help you?

Chris Rudd:
Oh, I love it. So all of a sudden I got back to my dream of teaching, what maybe 10, 15 years after I initially had it. So this other thing, letting your purpose kind of drive you will always lead you back to where you should be. And that’s just something I really strongly believe in my heart. And so I love teaching. Honestly, my time at ID is what gave me the confidence to try to really break the mold of design. So again, going to the D School learning design Thinking Human, when I was there, it was like, oh, this is the Bible. This is how it has to be done. This is the only way it could be done. And when I started practicing, when I got back, it just didn’t feel right. I saw some validity in some of the things, but I was like, man, this is just not going to get us to the world that we need.

But I had no clue and I didn’t have the confidence that it could be something different. And so when I got to ID, I would start to express this to my colleagues and they were just like, “Well, change it.” And I was just like, “What? No, this is how it is.” And they’re like, “No, this is how it’s been. We made it up. All this stuff is made up. You make something different.” So that just set me, I was like, oh wow, okay, cool. And so teaching really allows you to learn, and especially when we’re talking about social issues, I feel like young people, and I’m not that old, but people younger than me just get this stuff in a much more nuanced, complex way and they just help push me. I felt like I was bringing things to them and they were absolutely bringing things to me that we were kind of challenging each other to be better and to think differently.

And then because you’re in an academic institution, you can experiment a lot more freely than if you’re doing client work. So when I was at id, I would get to try out these different methods that I was creating to see if they would actually help us understand racism in the system differently. Or if we tried these activities, could we create anti-racist outcomes? So one of the assignments that I created was making an inanimate object that pushed me so far to help understand the mechanisms of racism and then therefore, what are the principles that we need to embody in our work to create anti-racist outcomes. And so it was, as I was tinkering and teaching at the institutions, we were applying and refining at ChiByDesign. So they really worked well and in relationship with one another because what I was learning from ChiByDesign would help me teach more advanced concepts and methods in my classes. So I felt like that was a really exciting time. And students, I love them. They’re great.

Maurice Cherry:
So it’s, it all kind of feeds into each other, it sounds like.

Chris Rudd:
Absolutely. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career and all your experiences, is this how you imagined yourself when you were a kid?

Chris Rudd:
Oh, not at all. Again, had no idea what design was big into art and making, but not in the practice that I would say we do now. A lot of elements transfer over. But no, I never saw myself doing this. I never saw myself owning a business. I tell my team all the time, I’m like, “Man, I’m ready to quit.” Just ’cause … But it’s great to have a team that’s supportive and they push me every day. And so I guess the one thing that I would say that is true now as what I hoped it would be as a child, is to be surrounded by people who care enough about me to push me to be better.

And so I always saw that a part of my work, whether it was I worked at Pepsi stocking shelves, and I always surrounded myself in those environments just as I am now with people who I could talk ideas with and could push me and I could push them. So I think that part is true, but professionally, you know what I was going to do eight hours a day, 10 hours a day, so different. But I love it. This is what I love about design. You’re paying me to draw and sketch and think about things. Who could ask for a better job?

Maurice Cherry:
Well, and I would say also with what you do is you’re designing, I want to say designing futures in a way, to be honest. I mean, it’s one thing, like you said, to be a designer that’s making graphics or something like that. But you’re really taking design and using it to design the world in a way design, help youth in how youth outcomes will be shaped. And even the work you’re doing with the foster system in Ohio, you’re designing on a much grander scale that impacts real lives in a real way.

Chris Rudd:
Yeah. And I would say that I think product design is similar. The folks who designed the iPhone changed the world and changed social interactions in a way that I’m sure they didn’t plan for the object. So that was the purpose around designing the anti-racist object is that the object can shape societal interactions in very large ways. As product designers, we have to be thinking about those things. It can’t just be about the form of the object, right? Socio=technical systems, how does that object now impact the human beings around it? What organization needs to exist? So now, because of the advent of social media, there are social media departments and organizations that are attached to communications teams.

Now that we’re focusing on sustainability, we’re thinking about life cycles of products differently. All of this stuff has so many larger impacts that I think a lot of us are trained, I know I was, not necessarily to think about. It was like you got a really great insight that it will improve customer experience and or user experience, which I hate that term too. And go for it. And so I think where we’re at now is, and it’s not me, it’s a lot of folks, we’ve got to slow down. We got to think deeper about the systemic social impacts of what we make because they absolutely have those outcomes.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there something that you want to accomplish that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

Chris Rudd:
Actually, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think I might go back to school to learn industrial design. I just want to get better at making tangible things beyond, I love thinking about the systems in the larger, complex problems and solutions, but I do want to get better at making things.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a good natural extension though, of what you’re doing is to extend into things. I’m curious, have you heard of the Black InDesign Conference?

Chris Rudd:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you been?

Chris Rudd:
I have not.

Maurice Cherry:
I think, well, let’s see. They have it every other year, so I know they’re having it next year, because they started it in 2015. And so they do it, it takes place at Harvard, their graduate school of design. And I feel like the work that you are doing would be such a perfect fit for what that conference is about. So that conference kind of tends to deal with design in terms of the lived space. Usually, it’s been architecture, landscape planning, stuff like that. But they’ve started over the years to extend it into areas of black futurism. I think they had one year they were talking about biomimicry and stuff like that. But I think what it is is showing the application of design in people’s lives to change outcomes and stuff, I feel like the work that you’re doing would be a really natural fit for that. They had the 2021 conference virtual, I feel like they’re going to have the 2023 conference in person again, but it’s at Harvard. It’s a good conference. I think you should check it out.

Chris Rudd:
Oh, definitely. Yeah, definitely. I’ve seen it. And I think I didn’t go in ’21 because it was virtual. I think I was just virtualed out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Chris Rudd:
But [inaudible 00:47:32] like the move. And it’s interesting that we’ve been doing a lot of work recently with organizations to help them figure out the future of their built environment. So there’s a lot of desire for new community spaces and activating, especially in Chicago, we’ve got a lot of vacant lots and stuff like that. And so we’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from organizations around that. So, which I think is great because architecture is just so focused on the build environment, they don’t necessarily have that perspective on what the lived environment is looking like. And so we just finished a project for a nonprofit here in Chicago that they’re trying to do, they’re trying to build a WeWork for education focused nonprofits so that they can really bring the ecosystem together physically so that they would, by extension work better and collaborate more on their programming.

And so we work with them to figure out what the principles of the space should look like. And so we did these co-design workshops with their staff leadership, the students that they serve, and helped them think through what is the ultimate vision for this place and what are the principles you need to design around as architects that we’re not going to build it. Don’t, I’m not going to tell you which materials and lighting and all that, that’s their expertise. But if they have this roadmap, how might that change their architectural desire? Because I’m sure for most architects, they’re dealing with the client.

So if you’re just dealing with the leadership of the organization, they can only tell you their vision. But that has nothing to do with, or not nothing that has little to do with the folks that they are serving. And so was really, it’s been interesting to do this alongside architects and hearing them say how valuable it’s been for them to be a part of those workshops and see those perspectives and see how they should create differently. So yeah. Are you going to be in Black InDesign next year?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’m definitely going to be there. I remember the first year I went in 2015 and I was trying to get other black designers to go. And I couldn’t. A lot of people were like, I don’t know if I want to go. I mean, are they talking about Photoshop? Are they talking about Sketch? ‘Cause these were product designers, UX designers, et cetera. And I’m like, first of all, it’s 2015. There were no black design events going on back then. I’m like, this is the first time something this is happening. It’s cheap. I think the tickets were less than $100. I was like, let’s just go and just see what it’s like. And a lot of people I know didn’t go that first year, but they have it every other year. So if you don’t go the first year, you can check it out the next year.

They record all the sessions, they live stream it. So if you happen to not be there, you can go back and watch previous year sessions to kind of get a sense of what it’s like. But it’s such, when I last went, it was in 2019 before the pandemic and I did do the virtual conference, of course it just wasn’t the same. But it’s such a collegial, black family reunion esque type experience. I mean, I would say as much as you could get on Harvard’s campus, I’ll put it that way. They’re not bringing out the grill or anything like that. But I mean, it’s as much of a collegial space for black design as you’re going to find. And it’s students, it’s longtime designers, it’s educators. And every year or every other year when they have it just brings something different to the space itself. They have it at Harvard Graduate School and Harvard’s campus and it’s great.

It’s great. The thing about it is though, that because they do it every other year, they have a different staff every other year. So it’s always a little bit different. I hate to say inconsistent, but it’s a little bit different every time they have the event. So I’m curious to see what they pull out for 2023. For 2021, for example, the theme was around Black Matter. And so they were talking about designing for joy and black urban mobility. They had a bunch of workshops on spatial thought and things of that nature. So it was pretty good. I mean, I feel like they take design and really stretch it in a way that I don’t see from other black design conferences. And it’s even funny to say other black design conferences, because so many of them have popped up over the past couple of years now. But it’s a good event to go to. I think especially with the work that you’re doing, it’s probably good if not just for networking, but just to go and see and get inspired by what other folks are doing.

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, definitely. The other thing I’m thinking about is we started a fellowship program this summer for ChiByDesign. Again, thinking about how are we reaching back and making sure that we’re creating opportunities for young up and coming black and brown designers. And I don’t want to sound like those companies that I talked about in 2018, but yo, it was kind of hard. We were getting flooded with lots of applications from non folks of color. And I was like, “All right.” And we reached out to the HBCUs, they were kind of pushing us away.

Maurice Cherry:
The HBCUs were,

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, and I assume it was cause they didn’t know us, even though two of our team members are HBCU alums. So we were just like, all right, we got to do better and be more aggressive on getting our folks, I mean, we hit our goal, but yeah, we were shocked to be honest at what happened when we sent that application out. So yeah, it’d definitely be dope to be there. Network even more, not networking on the superficial, what can you do for me? But like you said, coming to the reunion.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely. What advice would you give to somebody that wants to follow in your footsteps? They’ve hearing your story now, they want to do a similar type of thing. What would you tell them?

Chris Rudd:
Yeah, whew. Figure out who you are. Figure out who you are. Stand on that. Be confident on who you are, what you stand for. Don’t waiver. Things will get very hard. There have been many times where I’ve had to decide whether or not I was going to stay true to who I am and risk my job or just do what they wanted me to do and be secure. And I would like to say the vast majority of the time I put my career on the line, I can think of many instances, but I’m sure, I don’t want to be arrogant and say I did it every time. I’m sure there were times where I folded too. So that will happen. So then be patient with yourself. There will be mistakes along the road, but letting that purpose, that who you are, guide your work, the opportunities will come.

They may not be as fast or as you want, but they will happen. None of us knew 2020 was going to happen. And so I had started doing this anti-racist design work before that, and that’s when everybody was talking about equity center design. And so I stayed away from that because I didn’t believe it was possible under the system we have, under capitalism. So I was focused on anti-racism, and then 2020 happened and anti-racism became a thing and people started to embrace it. Kennedy’s book was a best seller.

And so again, it may not come at the time that you want, but as long as you’re staying true, it will happen. And even if it doesn’t, you’re standing your own truth. So I think for, again, it’s figuring out who you are, what you believe in, what you’re trying to accomplish, and then utilizing every skill set that you have to help get there. Right? Don’t be afraid to challenge the norm. Just ’cause it is doesn’t mean it should be and doesn’t mean it’s right. So keep pushing. I feel like so many young people are already doing that. But yeah, just keep doing it. We as a society will be better for it.

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

Chris Rudd:
Oh. So I feel like I will still be at ChiByDesign. With what role? I’m not sure, but I think we’ve built a thing that is exactly what I hoped for. And so part of that was also turning over power. So an example, we have at ChiByDesign, we have Ghana Independence Day off as a company holiday, and we have Diwali off as a company holiday because we have team members who are from Ghana and India. When I was developing the company, one of the craziest things that I found out about capitalism when our HR person was like, “What company holidays are you going to have off?” And I’m like, the regular ones. And she’s like, no, that’s not how it works. You have pick which ones you want and which ones you don’t. And I was like, that’s nuts. I thought it was the standard demand.

There was a policy that you had to have these things off. And I was like, “That’s wild.” But again, because we’re in the United States, they’re all American things. And so I didn’t want them to feel left out. We wanted to co-create this organization and we’re constantly co-creating the organization. And so I made a decision that we would celebrate as a company something that was important to them as well, so that they wouldn’t have to use their personal time or sick time to try to celebrate something that was meaningful to them. While the rest of us would always just get the things that we’re supposed to get off. And so I think we’ll keep co-creating and based on the people we have, it’ll always be the place that I want to be. I believe that. I hope that’s true. So yeah, I’ll be here, but again, I don’t know which role. I don’t think I will stay at the top in terms of title in five years, but I don’t know what it’s going to be. So I’m always excited about the unknown.

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

Chris Rudd:
Sure. So our website is www.chibydesign.com and Chi is CHI also, for folks to know it is ChiByDesign. We always get ChiByDesign, or She By Design? No, it’s Chi. It’s for Chicago. Instagram, Twitter, same thing, @ChiByDesign. And yeah, we’re always looking to collaborate with folks and make the world more anti-racist.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good to me. Well, Chris Rudd, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, I think just what you’re doing around anti-racism via design is so monumental and important that like your background of wanting to help out kids and help out youth, and now you’re being able to use this along with human centered design methodology and stuff to really impact and make change on such a grand scale. I’m really excited to know that there’s somebody like you that, one, is a designer, but is also someone that is really passionate about community and passionate about social justice and about using design to really make this a better world. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Chris Rudd:
Thank you. I appreciate that.

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