Gus Granger

Gus Granger has been a staple in the Dallas design community for over 20 years. Not only that, his design work has reached international acclaim, earning honors from Adobe, AIGA, Communication Arts, and many other groups. But perhaps Gus’s biggest honor is his tireless advocacy work helping eliminate barriers for Black designers and empowering them for success in the world.

We caught up and talked about his recent career shift back to entrepreneurship, and he shared what he’s learned through that transition and how he brings those insights to his current work. Gus also gave some great advice for any designers looking to strike out on their own, spoke a bit about the current state of the design community from his perspective, and discussed some of the moments of joy in his career.

Hopefully this interview inspires you to find a way to help lift others up as you grow!

Interview Transcript

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

Gus Granger:
Hey, my name’s Gus Granger, I’m a designer, by that, I’m an epigraphic design roots, going brand identity messaging, positioning, web, print, really everything that a brand needs to show up and be seen and memorable in the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’re recording this kind of right before the year ends, so I’m curious to get a sense from you, what was 2022 for you?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, 2022 was a rollercoaster ride, I think we’ve got, with all things, the personal side is, which is kind of most prominent in having three kids and career changes going on, I’ve got a daughter that just started college this fall and that was exciting, which means she graduated from high school in the spring and that was exciting. And I had the amazing experience of joining a partnership team at VSA Partners based out of Chicago, which was a dream job of mine when I worked there as a designer in the early 2000s, and I wrapped up my tenure there this summer, wanting to get closer to my design roots and being more hands on, so that was a big change in the summer and getting back to working as Gus Granger design again and just getting into the trenches with clients and designing and having these in-depth conversations and just being able to walk that journey with my clients while doing the work has been really exciting and something that I’ve missed.

Maurice Cherry:
That is a lot. Well, congratulations definitely on your daughter going to college.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, yeah, it’s wild, the first few weeks was really difficult and my mom said, she’s like, “The first month is the hardest,” and I was like, I wonder what she’s doing now, and da da da, but she’s doing great, she comes home for the holidays pretty soon.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Is she far from Dallas where you’re at?

Gus Granger:
Oh, as far as possible, I’m in Dallas and she’s in upstate New York at Syracuse University.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Gus Granger:
Yes. She’s a double major in political science and photography and I think is just tapping into her creative side as well as wanting to change the world and change the systems and make the society better and learning the building blocks of tools and how to make that happen from the inside, so that’s exciting to see her grow in that regard as well.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome, that’s really awesome to hear. So you mentioned with VSA this kind of was a full circle moment for you in a way, you started there many years ago as a designer and then now going back and being a partner, what was that experience like for you?

Gus Granger:
Oh, it was amazing, going back to… I’m having to embrace my kind of elder statesman’s status, which is terrible, but for one, going through design school in the mid 90s VSA partners was a dream, I think the were shops at that point was in VSA and Pentagram, which really kind of helped set my kind of goals for what I wanted to do in the profession, and when I ultimately ended up working there as a senior designer, we came across some of the just most talented and really interesting projects that I’d come across in my career at that point, and it was from there that I went off into the wilderness and started my own agency and drew that for me, working by myself on an extra bedroom to a 50 person studio on the 30th floor of building down here in downtown Dallas to selling it to a client and then going in-house and leaving that.

It was definitely an exciting bookend, kind of not just from having worked there before, but also looking up to the work that that studio was doing in just groundbreaking, just design, in depth understanding of clients and delivering business value while just doing just stunning work, getting to go back and join the leadership team there as they kind of enter this new digital era that everyone is getting their bearings with was really a great opportunity and honor and something that I enjoyed a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you’re working for yourself as a consultant, has it been kind of a big shift going… I don’t know, I guess maybe this is another kind of full circle thing, going back to working for yourself, has it been a bit of a shift?

Gus Granger:
Oh, for sure, I think that, as I mentioned, going from running a large agency, starting it from scratch, and I always say, every time your team doubles in size, it’s a different job, so when you go from one person to two person, you’re like, “What is this?” I’m like, this is completely different from two to four, from four to eight, from eight to 16, I was doing that for about 15 years and it kind of felt like the math isn’t right here, but it kind of felt like six or seven jobs, working at six or seven different places, but during the last few chapters, so much of my time was focused on just running a business and being so distant from the work that I really, certainly wasn’t designing, there were times that I may have been wearing an executive creative director hat, but it was more just business operations and payroll and HR and cashflow management and sales and all the things that were not what I was passionate about in the first place, it’s an essential part of running a large business.

You just missed what you were passionate about in the first place, ultimately, that’s what led me to we transitioning the agency to in-house situation through that acquisition to our client, Cyxtera, at the time, that was a brand new gigantic global technology company, data center, cybersecurity that had been a client of ours that we’d been part of naming, building their brand identity from scratch, and that they had been growing so large as a client, just sat down with the CMO and it was like, let’s look at how this could look if we just took our team and kind of became your in-house group, and then all of us are dedicated, and ultimately, that’s what we did, and that allowed me to get back to being more hands-on and with the same group of amazing people that I had in the 70kft days, but we were kind of on the other side of the client curtain.

And what’s fascinating there is that there’s so many different problem solving challenges that you can confront as a designer, as an art director, as a creative director, as a product architect that would not necessarily be sent to an agency and I’d never been in-house before, and it’s just a very different and fascinating ecosystem when you’re working directly with sales teams, when you’re working directly with product teams, and the pace of work is very different, the way that you manage work is very different because there aren’t, “Budgets,” for your hours and your team’s time, and you’ve got to find different ways to manage capacity and how much time should something take, but it also opens up opportunities to, we’re designing wayfinding systems for least 60 data centers around the world, to graphics for interior sales displays, to events, to video work that just the sheer volume and depth in the brand experience was really, really, really exciting.

But seeing how our clients would have to socialize that and sell that work and get the information gathered, that all of those things that we missed out on that we weren’t necessarily as exposed to being on the agency side, just giving a much deeper appreciation for our clients that sometimes we can have fun kind of teasing our clients and being difficult, make the logos bigger, blah, blah, blah, we can’t get them to sign off on something, yeah, I still have my agency chip on my shoulder of that regard, but it’s much more empathy, I’d say doing the two years there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, back when we had you on the show in 2015, the firm that you’re talking about is 70kft, and I mean, I think it’s important to… a couple of things that you mentioned I think are important, first, the thing about every time you kind of double your staff, it’s a different job, that is so true, it does distance you from the work a bit, and the more that you have to be the CEO running the business, it takes so much time away from actually being hands-on with the work, sometimes you can do it, I mean, depending on the type of business that you have, you’re able to do it, but it does get a lot harder because you just have to be aware and present about so many other things that have nothing to do with the projects at all that you’re working on.

Gus Granger:
Absolutely, and I don’t say that to scare people off from starting or growing their own design firm or agencies, and there’s certainly ways that I could have grown the agency differently to keep myself closer to the work in leading it, I think at the time, there was just enough fatigue and wanting to do something different that when that opportunity came up with Cyxtera, it was like, look, here’s a way for me to continue doing the type of work that I love doing even more of it and being more hands-on, keeping my team together, and then happened to also be a client that we adored and we’d had done a lot of work with over the years when he was in different companies.

And so there was a lot of just trust and alignment for the business value of great design and what it looks like to advocate for that within groups in a large growing organization, and so that made that change a lot more attractive, so I say all of that, the attractiveness of that moment was like, you know what? This is more interesting than trying to go through a wholesale reset of how I have organized in bringing in different leadership to handle the types of aspects of the job that I didn’t enjoy so that I could be more hands on, it was just like, you know what? Let’s go this way because this looks like fun and something fresh and new and it was, and I’m glad we did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because I mean, at the end of the day, you’re running a business, so especially if you’re a designer that maybe came up through design school or if you don’t have that kind of business acumen, you’re either sort of learning it on the job as the company grows or you have to find some way to, like you said, supplement that with bringing on folks that do know the business end so you can build and scale things out hopefully in a healthy way, and I think certainly you grew 70kft, like you said, the 50 people, I mean, that’s a testament to not just the work that you’ve put in on the brand, but also the people and the team that you built around it.

Gus Granger:
Oh, a hundred percent. I forget who said this first, it actually may have been one of my first bosses through VSA, I think it was Dana Arnette, it talked about so much of growing a great team, it’s about curating talent, and that my philosophy through this was just trying to find and attract the best and most talented people possible, and then just finding opportunities for them to do their thing and get folks to work well together, and that was the most fun part of that, in creating an environment where they can find just joy in working with each other and pushing each other and finding new and inventive ways to sell our clients’ story, and we had a whole mix of things that we were very much leaned into business to business technology, but we are also working with a lot of startups and some retail work.

And we also reserved a percentage of our time for non-profit work, which ended up being a lot of work for the Dallas Holocaust Museum, which kind of helped us satisfy this more mission-centric priority for the agency, it was from the leadership standpoint on my side and wanting to make sure that we’re putting our skills to use to benefit society, and that’s something I still try to do with my own time, but that it’s like there’s so much that we are creating that’s just fleeting, make a website and it might be live for a year or less, the client gets acquired and the identity that you just love just gets wiped away, and then what’s left? What impact did you make on the world? You helped someone sell a business and that’s great, you put three more dollars in their pocket.

But I think what we have unique superpowers in capturing people’s imagination and attention and persuasion through our gifts as artists, as creators, as communicators, and too often those skills are not put to work for the most important communication challenges that are holding the world back today, whether it’s just racism, just bias in general, climate change, we can just go right on down the list, and that for us to isolate our gifts for corporate interests is a tragedy, and notably, but we’ve got to eat, we got kids to put through college sometimes, there’s a whole number of things, and finding the right balance of that is key, but yeah, that’s part of my soapbox.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I mean, I feel like that’s been a growing awareness of the industry over the, I don’t know, I want to say at least over the past three years, but I would even go back as far as maybe ’15, 2016, you’ve started to see this sort of unfold in different ways, I would say definitely in the 2016 to 2018, 2019, it was more about, I think, civic design and making sure that people were using their skills towards maybe improving government services and understanding the election process and voting and all that sort of stuff, and then certainly with 2020 and a lot of the protests that happened around the murder of George Floyd, then you started to see a more active presence around social justice issues, and I think it’s definitely going to increase as more, I hate to say, just as more bad shit happens in the world.

But that’s kind of the reality of it, is like as more things happen, we, as designers, are tasked to come up with more solutions that are not just product focused, in a way, it almost feels, almost, I’ll say, it almost feels a little dismissive to just focus on product as a designer almost, I mean, I think there’s utility in it, certainly even as you mentioned with doing stuff with Cyxtera, doing things around cybersecurity and things that’s important, that feeds into product. But I think of the designers of 2011 versus the designers of now, and how the focus back then was so much on product and UX and interfaces and all that sort of stuff, and now it’s about how do we use our skills to solve the problems that are facing our society and our planet?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, there’s definitely a different mindset today, and I think I totally agree that sadly, something has to really go wrong to get people to wake up or enough people to wake up because even you mentioned things like government services and election design, I got involved with that going back in 2000, there’s an organization, I was part of AIGA Design for Democracy that came out of the problems around ballot design in Florida in the election between Al Gore and George Bush, that’s an effort which continues today around how to make sure election systems are better designed to protect the integrity of the vote, and there were many people that were rallying to the cause back then, but there’s the problems that we can be attacking with our skills are ever present, yeah, it’s a matter of we could also wear ourselves out trying to do everything, so you have to, I think, in my mind like, all right, pick your space, I’m like, where can I be the most effective and make a biggest impact?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is a typical day look like for you now? What does the Gus Granger workday look like?

Gus Granger:
Gus Granger workday, you know what? I think these days I’m so much more guarded with for my health, my mental health, and that I talk about joy and wanting to be in a good space, and I’m like, even though I’m working from home, I’m like, I start each day… I’ll go to one of my favorite breakfast spots and it’s my commute and I have carefully curated and found the best chocolate croissant places in the Dallas metroplex area, I will rotate through those locations and I need to start a chocolate croissant blog, but that’s a whole other podcast, but I say all that, that that’s my happy spot, and I just know that I’m like, I’m listening to comedy podcast, I’m not going to wake up in the morning and to start listening to the grim news of the day because I need to start the day in a positive space.

But from there and I get back and start work back in my pandemic inspired office, which didn’t exist back in early 2020, but now I’m so much more comfortable and cozy there, but I’m working with having a number of different conversations around projects that’ll come to fruition months from now, working with clients that I’m in the middle of right now, and it’s a mix, some of these things are in a design phase and we’re going through looking at identity explorations or design system explorations, others are in a brand strategy phase, and we might be doing interviews with subject matter experts and other internal contacts to really start figuring out the right ways to differentiate the brand and looking at how to start the conversation in the right place and to elevate the right values and principles that are going to help define that brand at its best because we try to do that before we even start designing anything, before we start writing anything.

But I’ll go through that brand strategy and messaging phase with amazing copywriters that I’ve been working with for years and we lay that foundation, and so I’m in different stages of that work. And I’m about to start a web project next week but what’s great is that there’s just enough of it that it’s not a 9:00 to 5:00 type thing, I can go and have a leisurely breakfast and go and walk four miles and come back and I can start my day at 10:00 and if I feel tired, I can take a nap and wake back up and do some of those things and the next day it’ll be completely different, that’s the great part of being the home-based consultant, at least at this moment, talk to me a month from now and you might get a more frazzled version of me, but hopefully I’m able to keep that at bay.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, it’s always, I think, an ebb and a flow with entrepreneurship, some days are going to be better than others, some months, some years, it just sort of ends up happening that way, but it sounds like you found a deliberate way to put joy just into your everyday work life in general.

Gus Granger:
Yeah. And it’s a lesson that I’ve taken I think from the more intense days of my myself in the kft experience where they were… I think from my standpoint, I’m like, I could go through just joyless months and just trying to hold teams together and dealing with all kinds of just different operational headaches, HR headaches, team conflicts, and when you’ve got dozens of people working for you, not everybody gets along, and there are times when that the job becomes camp counselor and couples therapists, and it’s not just for its own sake or it’s like, look, I’ve got to get these folks to work together so that we can get this project completed so we can build it on Monday, that’s an intense part of the experience, and that’s definitely not something they teach you or even allude to in design school and in talking a bit earlier it was like there’s so much that gets into… they’re designers that are ready to start working for themselves as soon as they know how to design, whether they’re coming out of a four year program or if they’re self-taught.

And they’re like, “Now, I’m going to start working for myself,” and I’m like, I am so regularly trying to steer them clear from that, and be like, “Please don’t, for your own sanity,” but there’s so much that needs to be learned at that point from other people, and go and find a creative director, art director, somebody that’s going to take you under their wing, whether you can work for them directly or they’re going to mentor you, that you are going to just make a ton of mistakes, find ways to solve problems that you never even thought of, that you got to kind of go through that for years to really learn how to design at your best, and then once you figure that out, you start working for yourself, it may start being familiar when it’s just you or when you start collaborating, but it will start growing to a point where you’re like, “Oh, this is why people go to business school.”

And you start realizing, all right, do I start reading more business books and all these other things or start hiring for skills that I may not have? Because when you’ve got a dozen people and you’re dealing with at least negotiation, and that’s a different animal these days, because I mean, with remote and hybrid work, it’s a very different atmosphere than when I was growing my agency, but I think those days I’m like, you kind of had to have an office in order for a client to take you seriously, and that that’s like, all right, we’re looking at commercial real estate, downtown Dallas, seven year lease, but how do I grow? How do I contract? Is that even possible? And looking at business insurance and all kinds of… it’s again, stuff that you wouldn’t even get into at design school, but you may find great relationships from other designers, which I did, that had run studios, to be able to pick their brain and to figure out what things that they did and who did they seek out for consulting.

And you start finding consultants that just specialize in working with design firm principles or marketing firm principles, and that’s such an important resource that I feel like just gets overlooked a lot, whether we look at our design conferences and our design groups, we’re talking about how we can be better problem solvers, be better designers, better collaborators, and that’s all essential and that’s central to what it is that we do, I think we’re kind of a naturally entrepreneurial group of folks and want to create our own thing, we enjoy the independence or the autonomy, but the other aspect of it is there’s a lot that you need to learn that we don’t talk about enough in design circles that I’d love to see change in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m laughing only because as you mentioned that I’m thinking how back when I had my studio, particularly I think in the first four or five years about trying to have an address was so important and to let people know, oh yes, we are a real business, and I remember, I think I got some little tiny office space because I’m in Atlanta, it was important for me to have an address that was like, “Peach Tree Street,” so people know, oh, he’s official, and I had some little tiny office, I think I got it through Regis probably, the real estate company, got it through Regis, some little tiny office in Midtown that I never went to, but I just wanted to have the address so people knew like, oh, this is official, in the grand scheme of things, did it make a difference? Absolutely not, but in a way sort of like you mentioned, it would’ve been good to have had some knowledge to know maybe I don’t have to have this, maybe I don’t have to waste money trying to do this to prove it to customers I’m never going to get.

Gus Granger:
Well, I don’t know, man, I’m like, it’s kind of tough to prove a negative because you think of-

Maurice Cherry:
It’s true-

Gus Granger:
How many folks reached out to you because you had an address during those days where it’s like, oh, this isn’t in a PO box or somewhere in the suburbs, but just by seeing that you were there on a Peach Street, no one’s going to call you and be like, “I saw that you had an address, let’s talk about the [inaudible 00:28:58].” I think it’s definitely one of those things where I’m like, I think when I had moved from… I’d been working in South Bend, Indiana for some time, my wife was running marketing and PR for Whirlpool Corporation, which was based near there, we were about to have our third kid and we wanted to move closer to friends and family, and we came back to Dallas and the agency was growing at that point and I was like, I’m going to go ahead and get a space in, I think at that point it was like West End in Dallas, it’s a historic district, pretty creative space, and I just knew that the clients that I was wanting to work with were going to want to come to an office and see me and see the space.

And frankly, and I think at that point where I was also just thinking about just as a black designer period, that I’m like, if I’m constantly trying to meet clients in a Starbucks when I’m trying to get them to pay me a hundred grand for a website that what we’re talking about in the 2010s, I think that was a tougher ask at least in the circles that I was moving in then to get where when they could come and be in our conference room and I can bring my director of development to the table, to bring the account manager, to bring the designer and the copywriters and we can put stuff up on the screen.

All of that can happen through Zoom today, but as far as that confidence building, just having an address is one step, I think there’s absolutely types of work that you need to at that point, I’m not sure kind of what the equivalent would be if those barriers were just erased, but you just needed to have a space for the types of clients that we were working with, just that they could see and come and realize this is the real shop.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think certainly in the earlier days, I started my business in 2008, some clients or potential clients, they really sort of frowned on, oh, you’re just doing this from home now everyone works from home, but certainly back then, I felt there was a much stronger bias, especially to try to get larger clients and larger budgets, they’re like, “I’m not giving you this money if you’re doing this at home,” they want, it’s almost like a social proof of business in some kind of way.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, no, totally.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you’ve been a design leader and a business leader for over 20 years now, and you’ve already kind of shared some thoughts about what you’d like to see from designers, but what are your thoughts on just the design community today? How do you see things?

Gus Granger:
It’s funny, as I keep looking at, whether it’s LinkedIn and different discussions that are going on at conferences and events, it’s like what we mean by design today is different than what we meant by design 10 years ago or even 20 years ago, and that I’ve come to realize, I’m like, all right, I’m kind of a brand and marketing designer where in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have carried that label, because even then I’m like, I will rewind back, I’m a graphic designer at my core, and I think I even mentioned that early on, and people are like, “Oh well that’s an old sounding term,” but we always have these labels, whether commercial artists, graphic artists, graphic designer, web designer, but in starting at the foundation of graphic designers, the way I was educated and being hyper passionate about conceptual thinking, typography, composition, understanding audience, adventure, discovery, being inventive and creating surprising and effective work, that in my experience design was kind of medium agnostic.

And so I’ve always had an allergy of, are you a graphic designer or are you a web designer? I’m like, stop, it’s all graphic design in my worldview, and I understand there are people that look at them very differently, but I feel like if you’ve got a masterful command of typography and you can understand a medium, that the world of creating a elegant website can be very similar process to creating an amazing book, but you need to understand what you’re working with, you need to understand your materials, you need to understand the people who need to collaborate in order to make that happen, not to say that web development’s the same as working with the printing press, but there are certain rules that you need to know how a book is going to function, what type of experience someone expects when they pick up a hardcover book versus a paperback book to be able to navigate that content elegantly.

And I think if those same muscles are put to place, the digital experience is the same, so I think things have become even more fragmented today, and that there’s… because we will say design and what will mean is UX design, which may not involve visual design at all, or just UI design using a component library, which is not the same thing as kind of the more commercial artist view of creating something from scratch that may be a step earlier in the process to be like, who is the person that’s actually creating that component library and deciding how that brand is going to show up in the product experience, and what is its relationship with the overall brand as a whole? Is there relationship between how the brand shows up in marketing and how it shows up in product?

But those that are kind of working with a preset component library that may be less involved with aesthetic decisions and more about flow and kind of using existing building blocks to create compelling experiences, it’s a different process entirely than staring at a blank page in the screen and be like, here’s brand X and here’s what they’re trying to solve for in the world, what should it look like? I’ve come through my view of design, my background of design, the version of design which gets me excited is the blank page, or perhaps it’s the existing page which is messed up and the client that comes in is like, “Help me make sense of this or make it better.”
But there’s a lot of design work that’s out there that I hesitate to say it because it almost seems like it would be controversial, it seems to be less creative, which I don’t understand as much, but which is not to say that it’s not a matter of problem-solving because I would have debates with one of my creative directors about design as art or not, and we can go back and forth until we’re blue in the face like, what do we mean by arts? And I’m like, look, we’re in a profession and our roots as commercial artists, and that the whole notion of us creating experiences that people want to engage with, that they feel connected with in a way which is an emotional type of experience, whether it’s bringing them joy or they’re attracted to it or it’s bringing them calm peace.

The skills that we bring to the table there are the same innate gifts, in my view and experience, that are at the core of an artist, and whenever I would review portfolios, I’m like, what can I see in this person’s aesthetic gifts? I’m like, how innate are they able to create compelling compositions? And it’s not just to be like, all right, I’m just going to go ahead and decide that this app needs to look like a Salvador Dolly thing because this is what inspires me today. But one of my favorite architects today is Zaha Hadid and just Google her work, it’s insane, these buildings are beautiful and arresting and shocking and very functional, but there’s a very different thing, you can’t tell me that there’s not artistry, or at least the way that I’m defining art and the way that team or that architect, she’s no longer with us, viewed designing spaces for her clients.

You can say the same thing to be like, all right, if she’s going to create a post office as opposed to someone’s like, “Look post office, look like a gray box, we’re going to put some tracked out Futura on the side, it’s going to be one story, it’s going to do this and it’s going to do the job,” those buildings are going to look completely different, but the cultural impact, the emotional experience of people going into Zaha Hadid post office is night and day to the gray box, and it’s like that’s the view of design that I hunger for, I don’t see as present in the digital space today. I think accessibility and user experience is definitely benefiting it from a bunch of artists anarchists going out there just creating a bunch of chaos, which was exemplified in the flash era, but there was a lot more beauty and discovery, I think, happening in the digital space that was there again, but it’s a whole other rant.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I completely agree, in terms of the kind of less creative, and I see what you mean about it could be controversial by saying that, but correct me if I’m wrong here, but I feel like when you say that it’s sort of like, I don’t know, there’s less kind of verve, there’s not that sort of spirit or enthusiasm, you mentioned Zaha Hadid, I’m thinking also of, and this is probably a bit of a stretch in terms of an analogy, but look at things like AI generated arts and how yes, you can input the right functions or whatever and it spits something out that looks good, but it doesn’t have that human nuance to it, it doesn’t have that sort of certain je ne sais quoi that would make it really, I wouldn’t necessarily even say attractive, because these things do look good, but it just doesn’t have that something, I’m not sure what the word for it is, but I know what you mean, I think, when you say that.

Gus Granger:
Yeah, well, or even in the instance of the AI generated art, I’ve seen some of it, which does have that je ne sais quoi, but it’s getting the prompt of to be influenced by a human being that created that, it’s still leveraging human ingenuity, it’s like a collage, a seamless collage, and that I can just go in there and be like, I want to see the Zaha Hadid Tesla truck, and then it’ll just spit out and be it’ll be this amazing thing and that okay, but I’m like, it’s still going to have this aesthetic and it’s going to also be inspired by what seems to be a proto fascist, anyway, I can start getting into it, Elon Musk read, we’ll back away from the Tesla discussion, technology monsters person.

Maurice Cherry:
I was just trying to maybe extrapolate a little bit on what you were sort of saying, I won’t say the lack of creativity, but I see what you mean about it possibly being less creative because it’s about, I don’t know, the output is just different, you’ve said before that creating great design is easiest when it’s infused with joy, so maybe that joy is not necessarily in the final product in the same way that it would be if a human did it, I know that there’s a lot of conversation around AI generated art, chat GPT and all these sorts of technologies that are mimicking what humans have created by hand, but it’s a really interesting time for seeing where technology can take design, but back to what I said before about what you mentioned with joy, have there been moments in your design career that have been particularly joyful?

Gus Granger:
Oh, absolutely, absolutely, and I think there are times that I look fondly at the times when we’ve got just a group of us and we’re just trying to, it may be my developers and writers and designers and we’re just at our magnet wall and we’ve just got layouts up and we’re just trying to figure out how to solve a particular problem and that there’s the joy part of it, and it’s like, I don’t mean to just to make it simple, be like, well, just somebody tell a joke and that work is going to get better, there’s the ability to have fun with people and to challenge each other is all that comes from a foundation of trust and that we’ve got good relationships with people, that we can now start to critique the work and riff off of each other and cut to the chase and be like, “You know what? This sucks and here’s why.”

And that we can kind of laugh about it like, “Yeah, yeah, I was trying to do this,” and da da, or, “This is amazing and it would be even better if we did this,” that there’s this kind of lens of bringing more candor to a conversation when you have a trusted group of collaborators where you can push and play and make it so people aren’t afraid to bring new ideas to the table because nothing is personal and it can be fun, and coming up, I hadn’t seen this replicated, nor I didn’t never really embraced it, but in one of my early jobs before I started my agency was at a studio called Group Barnet here in Dallas, and there was a brainstorm room and there was an entire shelf that was just full of hats, bunch of just silly stupid hats like biking hats and clown hats and policeman hats, ship captain hats.

There weren’t chairs in there, they were all beanbag chairs, right? And so people would need to sit on these beanbag chairs and oftentimes people would go and put on these silly hats, and it was a culture at the agency of it was family-like, and it was fun, but it was definitely served a business purpose and that it was seeding creativity and openness and not taking each other too seriously, and I think it also just kind of keeps you grounded when you’ve got a stupid clown hat on your head when you’re saying, “What if we did it this way?” So that’s the utility of it, and otherwise when we’re just kind of the opposite and we’re defensive or protective and we’re not sharing our work and we just kind of work in isolation and just present something when we feel like it’s perfect and honed and may not be as open to feedback, it’s just much more difficult to great work that way, in my mind.

And the opposite, it’s when you’re wanting to pursue experimentation that I want to be able to just go over to developers and be like, “What if we did this way?” And when the page loaded, all these images just exploded and here’s why and here’s why it would make sense, and I’m like, “That’s impossible,” to be like, “Well, look, here’s a link which did it,” and I’m like, “Ugh, that’s ridiculous, that can’t happen,” and they come back 10 minutes and then they figured it out, that’s the kind of stuff that has happened throughout whether my VSA days from the 70kft days to being at Cyxtera, that that’s the type of atmosphere that I find the most fun and interesting work kind of came out of it.

Just as a closing thought, and we bring that same energy to whether we’re working on an identity system for a juice bar or helping clients sell cloud computing, to we’re doing exhibition design for bringing boosting awareness of genocide, which it’s not to say we’re not taking it seriously, but this whole notion of building an atmosphere of trust and experimentation so that the team that you’ve surrounded yourself with, which are hopefully people that are there as your cheerleaders, can be there during critiques or while you’re working to push and cheer you on, so that’s that.

Maurice Cherry:
Something else that you do is you maintain an active presence in social justice efforts through a variety of nonprofits, and you’ve mentioned that you’ve focused on eliminating barriers for marginalized designers in the profession and empowering them for success, now, you’ve kind of spoken a little bit on both of these things earlier, but did you have any sort of more thoughts around either of those?

Gus Granger:
Yeah, and I think that’s important, and I continue to do work locally with the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, which is, I think that was a large relationship that we had in the 70kft days, and we were doing all of their exhibition design and worked on naming and identity work back then, but now I’m working with them on their marketing committee and on their new facility, and they’re doing important work here in north Texas to mentoring, whether working with the Adobe Design Circle and helping the scholarships for marginalized designers and mentoring the scholarship designees, other mentoring programs and on continuing relationships with mentees, as I tell all my mentees over the years and I was like, look, you’ve got me for life if you want me, because I think that’s where I’m like, I get the most satisfaction, out of seeing their careers just sore.

But I think when something more tactical and urgent is happening locally that might have gotten involved with political candidates and protest movements, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s like, look, how can we bring our skills to the table to make sure things are effective? And we kind of worked with a bunch of folks and the local resistance movement back in 2016 to oust the problematic congressman and was bringing my design skills to bear there in a way that made sense, I think we just have to find whatever’s possible, and I think in as well as within professional associations and mentioned, whether it’s online groups, whether I try to stay present with black design groups as well, which each had a bit in the past about AIGA and other groups that there’s just in the design profession period, it’s important for us to push.

And I try to do that where I think it’s important that we’re taking our talents and putting them to use, I’m like, yes, could I sit down and do a phone bank for my local congressman? Sure, am I going to be more effective by bringing my skills as a designer? Probably, and that I’m like, what unique skills are you blessed with in this life? What’s your highest and best use to make that particular cause come to fruition? And so to that part, whether you’re helping movements, that’s key, whether you’re helping talented designers to navigate early career challenges, pitfalls, advice, and I get such satisfaction out of that, and that’s a high level summary of the stuff that I’ve been up to.

Maurice Cherry:
What’s something that you’ve let go of that once meant the world to you?

Gus Granger:
We’ve talked a bit about it, but I think it was that agency, I talked a bit about the importance of mental health and how I prioritize starting my day with a ritual that’s going to kind of make sure that I’m in a good mood, that starting and growing my own agency was my dream job, that was my dream going back to college, and I did that and I grew it and I was very proud of it, and in the last chapters, I think from there was just enough things that just caught me off guard, clients that let you down, betrayals from people you thought you could trust, that it became such a burden and a drag that I was like, I’m not happy, and when you look around at all, even looking around at dozens of folks and I’m like, I’m the only person at this place that cannot quit their job.

Anyone else here can give their two weeks notice except for me, and it’s definitely the first world problem, right? I’m like, oh, you’ve got your own design agency and you’re sad, that was very much the reality and I realized it was something that in that moment I needed to let go of and I’m glad I did, and that it’s definitely something where it’s a lot of trust where a lot of people can get into, did all this success happen by chance? If I give it up or I’m going to be able to do it again? It gives you a lot of a key moment of just self-analysis of like, all right, it’s a giant leap of faith, if I take this change, is this next chapter going to be as rewarding and successful for me? And if I have to do it all over again, can I?

For me, it became important to do that, and that I found a way to make a change with how my team was doing work and to protect their jobs was important for me because I think there had been enough just challenges in the years prior to that that we’d gone through just things of having a business of that size and going through just firings and layoffs and things where it’s like business ebbs and flows, it’s like it’s just a different animal entirely and it just ate me up and I didn’t want to go, I just didn’t want to do anymore, and so letting that go that was probably the answer to that question.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like now at this stage of your career?

Gus Granger:
I’m still trying to figure that out, I’m quite happy working for myself again, there’s conversations kind of going with really interesting companies that have reached out to me about roles that are a surprisingly compelling fit for my background and passions that I would never have imagined before. But I look at it all, I’m like, what? One, I’m like, is it going to bring me joy?

But what’s key for that joy is knowing that I’m making some kind of positive impact, that I have space to make a positive impact on the world, that I have the ability to make a positive impact on my family and keep kids in college, one’s there, I’ve got two more on the way, to continue to be a good dad and to be a good husband and just to prepare for just a well-balanced life where we can just travel and spend time with friends and family and do what I love. Somewhere in the middle of that is a definition of it, but that’s very much what I’m trying to figure out because I spent most of my career focused on that agency, either preparing to start it and grow it from college, and then having done that, I don’t have that north star anymore, so I’m trying to figure that out and that’s kind of exciting.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I have to say there is a certain, I don’t know, exhilaration to not knowing what’s coming next in a way, there’s certainly, don’t get me wrong, stability’s great, the lore of having a stable paycheck and knowing where the work is coming from is good, but there’s just something really freeing and exhilarating about just not really knowing what’s coming up on the horizon, but I don’t know, to me it’s very empowering, so I get where you’re coming from there.

Gus Granger:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
To that end, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you like to be doing?

Gus Granger:
In my dream, I was just having a great conversation with this black-owned real estate developer in Portland, and she’s doing amazing work, and she just started this firm that is just focused on mission-based projects and affordable housing for the black community, and that is their whole focus, and I’m like, maybe something like that ends up being the goal, and I’ve mentioned all those things that I would want to have be part of that, but I’m like, that is kind of the fantasy, right? And that knowing that every aspect of my work life is helping improve society and the black community would be amazing, and if it ends up being a percentage or a portion of my time that’s going into that, that could be the case too, I think if I can unlock away to kind of have that be the main thing, that would be the fantasy, but in the meantime, I know I’m going to be heads down working hard, putting these kids through college and hopefully I having some fun along the way.

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

Gus Granger:
GusGranger.com, that is G-U-S-G-R-A-N-G-E-R.com, and that’s also my handle on the socials, so you can find me on Instagram, we’ll see if I’ll continue to be on Twitter, but it’s the same handle across the board, so you can find me, I’m pretty easy, if you find another Granger, it might be my dad, but he’s pretty cool if you want to talk to him.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Gus Granger, thank you so much for coming back on the show, of course, you’ve been on the show before, but I know we didn’t talk a lot about kind of, and it was something that we purposely wanted to avoid talking about, but that’s how we first met, you know what I’m talking about, I’m not going to mention it, but-

Gus Granger:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I just want to say thank you for being just such a positive influence and role model and mentor and everything, just the work that you’re doing across design and business, of course, is impressive, but even more so that you’re really about giving back to the community is something that I certainly look to and I hope a lot of other designers emulate throughout their career, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Gus Granger:
Well, Maurice, thank you, and I hope you keep this in here, but I want to thank you in the same regard for all the work that you’re doing, and I know I’ve been talking to you about this for a while, I’m like, this podcast is so essential, and I think back to that designer that was in design school that I’m like, I went through four years and I don’t think I’d been exposed to another black designer other than myself and maybe two others that were in my design program, but the whole notion of being able to be sent a link which has in-depth interviews with now hundreds of black designers, that is amazing, and I’m so glad that your work has been recognized, whether it’s with the Steven Heller Award by the Smithsonian, it is impressive and it’s well deserved and just kudos and I can’t wait to see what’s going to come next. Keep doing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, thank you, thank you so much, thank you.

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