Joseph Carter-Brown

Joseph Carter-Brown is a man of many titles. He’s a UX strategist. He’s a human-centered designer. And by day, he’s the global UX manager at Stanley Black & Decker, a Fortune 500 company that’s over 175 years old! Joseph’s versatility as a design leader extends far beyond titles, as you’ll definitely discover in this week’s interview.

We start off with a look at his work and his team, and he shares an anecdote from last year that put him on his current path to success. Joseph also talked to me about how he worked his way into a position at Apple thanks to Steve Jobs, his shift to UX after studying at Full Sail University, and speaks on his time with AIGA Baltimore and about how he wants to bridge the digital divide in Baltimore. Joseph is a prime example of someone who is using his skills to help build a more equitable future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m Joseph Carter-Brown. I am a user experience, service design and design strategy specialist. I’ve been in design for over 20 years. Started as a kid. I am currently the global UX manager for Stanley Black & Decker, and I’m leading a team of user experience designers, strategists, and researchers helping to bring user experience in the user-centered design focus toward our digital brand and overall design culture.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. We definitely will talk more about your work at Stanley Black & Decker just a little bit later. But right now, how has 2021 been treating you so far?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
2021 has actually treated me really well. I just bought a house about a few, well, two weeks ago now. So that was coming from a kid who had to be rather scrappy throughout childhood and growing up and get into an opportunity to say I can make that happen for myself was such an honor for me really. So far it’s been treating me really well.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Over this past year or so, have you picked up on any like new habits or behaviors about yourself?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I had this latent introversion that I’ve regained. It’s really funny because a lot of my work as we’ve talked about previously about with AIG Baltimore, and working in this often front facing space where I had to be in front of people, I got used to being an extrovert, and over the pandemic, it reminded me that I actually kind of just like small understated experiences, hiking, getting away from people, not being around a whole lot of people. It’s been a way of rekindling my love for maybe just myself in those small interactions.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I feel like everyone has gotten closer to their true self in some aspects because of this time, because we just had to spend so much time quarantined or isolated from other people.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I think it’s one of those things where I know when the pandemic starting I had, or especially when it really hit, my daughter’s birthday, my daughter’s 10th birthday was March 13th, 2020 and I had-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I had this whole amazing surprise trip for her. We were going to go somewhere we had never been. I designed a website for it. I did all of these things and then I had to cancel that over just the day before we were supposed to leave and it was supposed to happen. I had this new job opportunity lined up that got washed away. My girlfriend is a nurse and so I was nervous about her going into work. My ex-wife got sick with COVID actually. So I’m concerned about, is she going to be sick? I kind of had to take a step back and just sit and do a lot of reading and look at myself and say, “No matter what happens, who are you?” I had to ask myself that question and really go inside for a while and understand my values and myself as a person. So I think that was an important moment. Fortunately, everybody’s okay. Everybody’s so safe and healthy in all of that. But it was definitely a moment of reflection for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I bet. That’s a lot. Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, just more gray hairs on my head is it seems to [inaudible 00:08:55].

Maurice Cherry:
So let’s talk about your work at Stanley Black & Decker, which, I mean, in case people don’t know, that is a huge, huge business. Of course, you can probably infer from the name of the company. There’s two brands, Stanley Black & Decker. There’s like a dozen or so brands of consumer goods and manufacturing goods and stuff. The business has been around for over 150 years. You serve as their global UX manager. Tell me a bit about what you do.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it’s probably as daunting as it sounds. I am there to really help bring a structure to how they approach digital brand engagements. I have a team of about six or seven designers, strategists and researchers, and we’re currently working on really working to reshape the way user experience is done throughout the global brand. One of the things I find interesting is with this old, long in the tooth organization, a lot of their understanding of the digital space is also growing. So there’s a lot of teaching that we have to do, a lot of mindset shift that we have to do. So it’s a lot of work in helping teams internally understand how to collaborate because so much of it for so long has been about working to… People build their silos and people working in these very tight knit groups.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m kind of the kick in the door type of person like, “No, we bring everything together. We show our work. We show our dirt. We show our ugly and we just go and we work together and we build this together.” Sometimes that’s a little bit uncomfortable for people and especially for teams that are used to having this very tight-knit, close-fisted environment. So it’s a lot about really organizational transformation, as much as it’s about digital transformation within the organization. It feels like we’re kind of tackling both right now.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m glad that you mentioned that about kind of the work that you’re doing, focus on the global brand, because I was even thinking, as I was doing research for this interview, like where does UX come into a company like Stanley Black & Decker? I would imagine maybe for the actual websites or something, I’m not sure. I mean, when you say the global brand, can you talk about just what some of those touch points are?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. So one of the really tricky things that we’re dealing with is we’re a global brand. So we have to think about not just how say Black & Decker site is presented to someone in the US. We have to think about how it presents in Latin America, Germany, Asia, Australia, all of these places. So it really about understanding, dealing with cultural difference, cultural expectation, cultural norms. It has a lot to do with understanding just communication and setting proper expectations. It’s also about not just control, but flexibility and letting go, like where do you compromise and where do you let go of the reins and understand that you can’t do everything. So some of it’s about just creating guides and helping people move in the direction that you like them to be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But yeah, so a lot of our work is particularly around the website and the digital experience to start. But when I look at user experience, I like to call user experience the customer service of branding. It’s the thing that you have to do where you have to think about how every step of the way is managed, and especially now, I mean, the key touch points that we have are digital, right? All of us have probably been in our houses, at home and doing everything virtually. So the experience that you create in the digital space is so much more important now, but it’s been going that way for so long. So I think that it has a big role to play on the external end, and then on the internal end, I think that there’s the aspect of user experience or maybe an offshoot of it, which is called service design, which is an area where I tend to specialize, which is really about coordinating teams and internal components to make sure that what you’re creating is actually feasible for those externally.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of my favorite examples or illustrations of that is I used to always work with people, especially when I was in an agency, and everybody would come and say, there was a time where everybody would come and say, “We want a blog.” These companies are like, “We need to engage with people. We’re going to have a blog and then everybody’s going to come to our blog.” But then you start to dig in into it and you say, “Well, how are you going to support this blog?” It’s like, “Well, we’ll do a couple of posts a week.” “Well, who’s writing those posts?” “I’ll do it.” “Okay. Do you have the time to do that?” “Not really. I’ll make my assistant do it.” “Okay. Does your assistant know how to write?” “No, not really.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Service design is really about making sure that ensuring really, I would say an equitable user experience by making sure that you’re serving the internal components in a way that’s feasible, because it’s like if you’re going to start a process that you can actually support, or you’re not willing to put the resources up to support, then what’s going to happen is you’re going to put something out there that won’t support the people that you intend it for and you’re just going to fall short. So either divert your plan or put your money where your mouth is. I think that’s another of, important part that user experience plays with the service design discipline and something that I think we play as a role within Stanley Black & Decker is understanding feasibility and not just let’s create something and throw it out there and hope that users want to interact with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would say also just because of the types of deliverables, goods, et cetera that you make, because it works in so many different types of fields, in different parts of the country, different parts of the world, et cetera, there’s almost a expectation of that reliability anyway.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Oh, for sure. I think that really important part of it is that experience extends from the product that you make that’s tangible to just, again, those intangible interactions that you have. That’s why, like I said, I think it’s the customer service of branding. If I need to reach out to customer service, if I need to register a product, if I need to do any of these things, if you hinder my process any way throughout it, I’m going to get annoyed. I’m someone who’s a stickler for poor customer service. I mean, I’ve grown up in a service environment. My family was service-oriented. I worked for Apple and that was all about customer service. So I’ve just grown up about service. So when I have bad customer service, when I see bad, just things that aren’t thoughtful, I tend to get a little bit frustrated. So I try to put that into the work that I do as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does an average day look like for you? I mean, you mentioned you have this team of researchers and strategists, but how many people are reporting to you? Do you have a lot of meetings? How does an average day work?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. We tend to have a whole lot of meetings and that can be a little bit daunting at times. You got to kind of block out your calendar to make sure that you make some time for yourself. On an average day, so I have six reports, four direct reports, and then two other members on my team who also kind of filter up to me. So in total, my entire team, including myself, is seven people with two of them being in the strategist research realm and the rest really being more on design, development, or even engineering side of things. On a given day, it might be batting a number of meetings and working on strategies for some particular projects that are working on being launched. Sometimes it’s just kind of creating communications because so much of what we do, and I have to often remind my team that there’s a part of what we do, which is selling. It’s not just about creating the deliverable and it’s not just about getting it done, but it’s about selling to other executives within the company why the work we’re doing is valuable.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So one of the main things here is that it’s been… My team, in fact, I started in September of 2020, and my team really started maybe a month or two before me and then I came in to lead the team. So it’s still relatively new, but a lot of my day to day is really just working on testing plans, research plans, deliverable plans for visual designs and website launch projects that we’re working on, kind of looking at what’s on the horizon and trying to see what a little bit past the horizon to set a plan, making sure… It’s kind of like being a coach in a lot of ways, making sure all of the pieces are in the right place so that right in front of your face it can be handled, but also having the other pieces in place looking down the line to see what might be coming and then making a plan for that. So sometimes I like to call it building the plane while you’re flying it, but that’s a lot of what my days are like.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I mean, I can imagine that’s a lot to sort of juggle even with not that many reports. I mean, it sort of trickles down because of how large your organization is.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I mean, and there’s so many different stakeholders that you have to take into account. So a lot of times, I’ll try to make sure I’m having temperature checks, even today we had our team meeting and I had just a temperatures are like, “How’s everybody feeling? Where are you frustrated? Where do you need help? Where can I be providing…” Sometimes it’s kind of like the player-coach idea even. Sometimes it’s like, all right, I need to stop looking so high level, jump down in the weeds with the rest of the team and just knock some things out. Sometimes it’s like, okay, let me take a step back, see what’s on the horizon, help set up a plan, put pieces together. Sometimes it’s working with other leaders throughout the organization, just kind of understand where their concerns are, where their focus is, and then help set a plan for, okay, this is how we’re going to kind of help support you. There’s definitely a lot to juggle.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you’ve said you’ve only been there since September. So you started fairly recently. I bring that up because there was an incident last year that happened that sort of brought you into this new role. Can you talk about what happened?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, so it was a really interesting thing that happened. I was working for a publishing company, and when the pandemic hit, like I mentioned, there was another job opportunity that kind of got nuked because of the pandemic. At the time, I’d grown a little bit leery of some of the practices, just the way the organization was treating people. As I kind of set and watched again, really had to do that introspection of who am, I would do I believe in, I started noticing that… We were publishing a site, it was a financial publishing firm, and we had a new site that if you imagine who your common financial investor type might be who has a lot of money and is trying to figure out ways to make more money, you can probably imagine they’re a little more conservative, a little more right leaning. I’m someone who believes that, hey, people can have their voice as long as you’re not challenging anyone or my humanity, then you get to have your views.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
We had a site that I’d kind of build a strategy around that was geared a little bit more to write conservative views. I noticed that over the time it was getting a little bit more… The editors were getting a little bit more sensationalist, which was something that I told them ethically I didn’t agree with early on. As I kind of watched the pandemic unfold and I started watching the conversations around it, and there was this long thread in April into may about the adverse and disproportionate effects of the pandemic on black people, brown people and underrepresented groups in general, I started noticing that this news site never mentioned any of that. So I went, “Well, this is kind of strange.” There’s been a lot of conversation around this. Why wouldn’t you mention this?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept my eye on it and in some of our team meetings, I was planning to bring it up, but I didn’t get the opportunity because I had to miss one and some different things happened. But in missing one of those and having to skip a couple, around the time just before our next ones, the Arbery killing had happened.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, let me go check in and see how they’re talking about it,” and there was no mention of it. I go, “Well, this guy’s name doesn’t show up. Why wouldn’t this be… This is news. Why aren’t you talking about this?” Then around the same time, there was the first mention of the disproportionate effects of the pandemic was labeled as people are getting worse effected in blue states than red states. I go, “Well, that’s a really disgusting way to talk about people, talk about humans and kind of not talk about the… I’m going to talk about the race disparity and the systematic racism that provides the reason for some of this, but you can talk about blue versus red as a way to dehumanize.” So Ahmaud Arbery happened. Then there was the, what was it, Amy Cooper situation that happened with the woman calling-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, in Central Park, yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Cooper situation that happened with those [crosstalk 00:23:02].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. In Central Park? Yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Right. So that happened. We had Brianna Taylor started to get brought up and no words about any of these and I’m going, “There’s so many reasons to talk about this.” Then, of course, there was George Floyd and at this point, steam is coming out of my ears and I’m going, “There’s no way you missed this one, right? No way.” They never talked about it until that Friday after when there were some riots and protests got a little more violent. The first mention of it was, was the headline that said “Black man’s death while in police custody sparks riots arson and looting.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was when I just banged on the desk and said, “Come on, guys. This can’t be the way you’re doing it. You’re leaving me no option here.” So, in one of our next team meetings, the next week, I asked them and I just brought it up, straight up and explained it the way I just explained it to you and said, “Well, what’s wrong here?” First, got a lot of mealy-mouth responses of like, “Oh, well we just didn’t know how to explain it and so many of our readers are racist and we don’t want our advertisers to think that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. So at that point, my heels were dug in and I’m a pretty stubborn person when I want to be, so I was just like, “We’re having this conversation.” Our organization was rather small. I was one of only two Black people and the other Black person in the organization, she spoke up and said, “Yeah, I’ve actually noticed this too and I’m uncomfortable with it.” There was a lot of dismissing of the ideas, going, “Oh, you just don’t get it. You don’t understand. Oh, well, who cares? This isn’t a big deal. You’re just angry. You’re just this, that and the other.” Never was there a moment where somebody said, “Hey, how about you help us here? How can we fill these blind spots?” I’m going, “You’re clearly just not valuing the voices.” So, like I said, that was of that moment where I really had to look at myself and I said, “Well, I make these websites. I’m the catalyst that makes this whole thing go.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I said, “One more minute of time to this organization is supporting this kind of White supremacist culture and racist, if you’re not overtly racist, you’re aiding and abetting racists within your readership and you’re making a comfortable space for them. So I said, “I can’t do that.” So the next day I just said, “I’m out. I can’t do it anymore. Effective immediately, I’m gone,” and this was beginning of June. So, unfortunately, like I said, there were some things that happened from a just personal/moral standing that made me a little bit questionable about them. So, unfortunately, I was saving as much money as I could and I had enough in the nest to cushion myself for a little while, but yeah, it was definitely a crazy moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, props to you for not only standing up in that situation, but also being able to walk away from it, especially, during such a unpredictable time. You definitely upgraded, so that’s a good thing.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Thank you. Again, it was a scary moment, but the thing is it really also brought to mind for me was it made me really sad because this was an organization that even though I was part of one of the smaller divisions, it was a actually, rather big organization, about 1600 employees in the Baltimore area. They have multiple divisions and a lot of different things that are happening and it just made me sad for the people who didn’t have that choice, who didn’t have the cushion or the opportunity, the privilege, to say, “I can step back on my laurels,” and they kind of had the grinning bear it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I thought about all of the Black and Brown, LGBTQ people and all of these different things, women who just have to deal with many of the sexist views that are getting put out there, because you got to survive and it’s like, I can’t blame you, but it just really made me kind of sad that people, we still have to deal with that type of thing. I hate to say, we still have to, because I feel like that’s such a cliche thing to say, but yeah, it just made me really sad that that was a thing that I had to fight over and then leave a job over. It couldn’t have been a situation where they say, “Huh, you know what? Let us at least reflect. Let us be honest about it. Let us be open about it.” It was more of like, “Eh, too bad, so sad.” I was even told, “We work for the mob, get over it.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Well, I guess, in a way, that is sort of honest. They’re not covering it up with a black square on Instagram or anything. They’re just letting you know right out, flat out. Wow. Let’s turn the page from that. Now, I know you grew up here in Atlanta, so tell me, what it was like for you growing up here and being exposed to art and design and everything?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I moved from Baltimore when I was about nine or 10 and came to Atlanta. Atlanta was a culture shock for me. Baltimore has this reputation or this nickname of Smalltimore. You have a lot of small little communities and you can interact with a lot of different cultures and a lot of different environments and I really loved a lot of that with within Baltimore. Even though Baltimore has kind of a racist history with a number of things that happened and I think I had rather diverse group of friends I remember as a kid and classmates and different things like that. Coming into Atlanta, it was one of those things where you really saw the way things were separated. We moved just before the Olympics came, so it was ’91, ’92 and there was still the conversation of like the Techwood community in Atlanta getting, basically, a really heavy conversation around gentrification where they moved a whole group of people to make way for the Olympic village. They wanted to, basically, get rid of the undesirables and my family was in community activism.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
My dad was a musician, but also a very active in Black rights and just speaking up for people. If you are familiar with Hosea Williams, Hosea Williams was like my grandfather. I really look at him in that light. We always were doing Hosea’s Feed the Hungry, Feed the Homeless. We were always doing different things around that and spent a lot of time around him and with him my dad worked with Curtis Mayfield, so I spent some time [crosstalk 00:29:46] with him. So it was an interesting thing to come in and be in this environment where I didn’t talk like the other other Black kids. I didn’t have the same type of accent. I didn’t have all of those types of beings. So it was also interesting because I also had to deal a lot with identity in terms of how people perceived me. A lot of Black kids going, “Oh, why don’t you talk so White?’ I was just like, “”No, this is how I talk. This is just me. I’m not trying to be anything. I have zero interest in being anything other than myself, but this is just how I talk.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Having to go to a school in Sandy Springs, in fact, and deal with overtly racist, attitudes and being called the N-word in class and the kid basically getting sent to the principal for a little bit and coming right back with no extra conversation about it. When my dad had asked the principal why there was no further conversation, he just says, “Ah, Black kids, you got to punish. White kids, you just give them a look and they’re good.” So there were so many little things and even just the idea of not getting that opportunity to be recognized for my abilities, having a teacher who I felt like I clashed a lot with, I didn’t respond to really. Yeah, I really didn’t have any response to the point where I was missing work and doing all those things, to having a new teacher come in, a substitute, for a little while who really said, “Oh, actually you’re pretty good at math. Why are you doing this math class? Why are you doing the remedial math when you should actually be doing advanced math?”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Then going, “Oh, he actually does know something,” and just those feelings of being ostracized in so many spaces which really led me to being homeschooled. While that was a challenge, it was difficult adjusting to that. I was, what, 10, 11, going, “Oh, I don’t have to go to school today? I guess I can just hang out and watch cartoons now, right?” To having to learn, “Oh, wait, I got to go and get it on my own. I got to figure this out,” and that was actually how I got into design. I was a tinkerer. I like to call myself a hacker, in that sense, in the sense of being a tinkerer. I like to take apart electronics and try and put them back together to see if I can get them working again. I like to just mess with things and see what I could figure out about it, see what the underpinnings of things were.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I get an old computer from a thrift store and take it apart and see if I can get it working again. But I was also really interested in journalism. Probably when I was about 14 or 15, I was super into sports in general, but I was really heavily into it then and especially basketball. I wrote these five or six, maybe more, articles of just original content for myself and I designed it in Microsoft Publisher at the time, just on my family’s a old computer and was really proud of it, printed it out as this newsletter. My dad wanted to share it with everybody and I wanted to print out a new copy of it after he had given all of them away. When I went to open it, the file corrupted and I lost all of my work.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, and again, being very service-oriented, the first thing I said to myself was, “Never, again. I’m going to figure out how to not have this happen ever again.” So it really just sent me down this rabbit hole of everything I could learn about computers at that point. I started reading every little thing I could about the inner workings of computers and then it just kind of bubbled up. At that point it was the early stages of the web, really, and I was getting online and I think there was an opportunity. GeoCities was a thing and it was like, “Well, you can create your own website.” So I said, “All right, I’ll do that,” and started messing around with it, but the little Wizywig system and it wasn’t really anything to me and it was very limited. So I said, “Well, what’s this Advance tab?” And it just gave me a blank screen.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went, “Well, this is cool. This is kind of what I’m looking at. This It’s an opportunity.” So I started learning HTML and code and just absorbing everything I could, picking up every book. My dad always taught me, “If you can read it, you can learn it.” So I was just like, “Well, let me go and learn everything I can about web design now and coding, HTML and CSS and Java and JavaScript, XML, and all of these different things and what does this do?” I ended up building some websites and I was like, “Well, this should probably look good. This is not enough, just HTML and at the time, CSS was barely a speck. So I was like, “Well, let me learn everything. Let me figure out how to make it look good.” My mom was really a catalyst for me. She worked at Kinko’s and this is Kinko’s still had a computer services department, so I would get in really good with the computer services guys. A lot of them were nerds. They loved computers, so they loved that I liked tinkering with stuff.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So they would show me little tricks and ways of working in the command line and then the more design-oriented guys were like, “Let me show you this program. We call it Photoshop.” I started learning how to make things in Photoshop. They had CDs on Illustrator and Photoshop training. So I would just sit and absorb everything I could from that and really just taught myself Photoshop and Illustrator. It went from there. I learned everything I could about everything computers and I thought learning Photoshop, maybe a designer, I’d learn it the hard way. That was not the case.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I realized I didn’t know what DPI or PPI was and I was trying to print something and it kept coming out really small and I’m like, “But on my screen, it’s so big. It was like, “Well, that’s because the resolution is off.” But that really pushed me down this line. I was also a huge lover of Apple and that was really where I found my love of branding. It was seeing something that connected with me where it wasn’t just this rote memory. It was about a connection and it was about something that made me feel like I had value. I had somebody talking to me and when they were talking to the weird ones and I really got into learning everything I could about Apple, again, immersing myself in that. We talked a little bit about the Art Institute of Atlanta and there was a center right across from that in Northside where there’s this office building and it had an Apple logo on it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had this Apple Market Center and they did free seminars and so I just started going to those. I’m 15, 16 years old. I’d go to the Art Institute with my sister. She’s seven years older than me and so I’d go to the school with her and I walk over to the Apple Market Center and hang out with these business owners and learn as much as I could about new software and new products and I started learning all of that. Then I’d go over to the school and I’d get in really good with the tech guys and help them rebuild the networks and they’d let me use the computers. I’d sit in classes and nobody knew I wasn’t a student, so that was my way of stealing my education for a little bit. So it was this really unorthodox path that I took and I can keep going on and on, but I’ve told you more than you need to know.

Maurice Cherry:
But back in the day, that’s how you had to learn it. There weren’t really university programs or things like that. You kind of picked up a little bit from a book or you reverse engineered something by viewing source or you picked things up here and there and that cobbled together into how you learned how to use the web and build the web back then. I remember those times very vividly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It definitely was a lot about, again, that hacker mentality, like taking it apart and deconstructing it and trying to rebuild it, seeing if you took this one piece and put it over here, what would happen and what’s the response you’d get? I think that was what I really loved about a lot of the design and what I still love about design as part of that, some of the user experience stuff is, I like to call it ‘the science of art,’ in a lot of ways. It’s like that you take a hypothesis and you iterate off of it, you test it, see what happens and you adjust your test and see what reaction you get from that and I just love those types of things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm, nice. Now you attended Full Sail University, but before that, you mentioned this Apple training center, but you actually got your first job at Apple. Is that right?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Yeah. My first job was at Apple. I was 18. I opened the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall, in fact. I probably borderline, stalker energy in that time, but I was so infatuated with Steve Jobs. He was someone who, when you saw the way he talked with so much passion and I just saw the vision that he brought to things and, again, that experience. It was something that just resonated with me and then I just read so much about his story and his struggles. He was someone that I saw as maybe a person that I could emulate, in some ways, or even just someone that I could have. I felt like if he could do it, I could do it. Obviously, it wasn’t like he was like super poor, but he also went through a lot of hardship in life.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
He had to go through a lot to get to where he was. He got kicked out of Apple early on and had to go through this whole journey and he had this triumph that came back to Apple, because I was always just inspired by him as a person in his story. I read so much on, again, the growth and birth of Silicon Valley, which also included him in those stories. I remember where I mentioned the bordering stalker energy was like, “I want to reach out to him. I want to make contact with him. I got to send him an email.” So I searched everywhere to see if I could find his email. What was it? Think I was going to the Apple Market Center. I met a few Apple employees and someone had given me their card and I realized the naming convention for their email addresses. So I was like, “Well, if this is how your email is patterned, maybe his email is patterned the same way.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I sent an email to Sjobs@apple. I think the first time just emailed and said, “Hey, is this a person?’ I got no response and then I sent another email and I said, “Hey, look, if this is actually Steve Jobs, I just want to thank you because I’m a homeschool kid and the work and creative in education has really inspired me. It’s helped me find what I want to do in life. I didn’t know where I was going and now I feel like I have had this path. So I’m really appreciative of what you’ve done with the company and the focus you brought, because it’s really helped give me a direction.” So, and I was, like I said, 15 or 16 at the time and he responded. He said, “Thanks,” and that was all he said.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, for me, it was like a ping. It was like [crosstalk 00:41:24] So I said, “Well, there’s someone there.” So then I just went off and then this was when they were working on the Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my gosh.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was following all of the development of Mac OS X and I emailed him and I’m like, “Hey Steve, this would be a great feature to include in Mac OS X.

Maurice Cherry:
This was a wild story. I’m sorry, I just have to interject. Keep going, Keep going, though, keep going.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I would send him little emails and I’d be like, “Hey, what about this feature? What if you added spring loaded folders to this thing?” I just started giving them all these ideas. He would never respond, but every now and then I would see one of those ideas pop up in a build and I’d like to take credit for it, but it was when they had announced that they were opening Apple stores and I was super excited for it. I was about 17 and I said, “Well, there’s surely going to be a store announced for Atlanta. Why wouldn’t there be?” When they announced the first 10, 11 stores, they had all of these stores, LA, Washington, DC, so on and so forth, but none on the roadmap for Atlanta. So I sent him this really angry email and I said, “Hey, I’m really disappointed that Apple does not have a plan for a store in Atlanta. If you’re saying that your goal for Apple is to double your market share, because at the time Apple was what, two-and-a-half percent market share and you want to double it from two-and-a-half to 5%?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
The fact that you don’t have Atlanta on your list of stores means that you’re not that serious about this idea because Atlanta has a huge creative community. It’s got one of the busiest airports in the country, in the world, if anything, a huge tourist community, a huge creative community, all of the markets and verticals that are within Apple’s range of market. So for you not to have a store on the pipeline here means that you must not be that serious and especially as someone who really loves these computers, I just want to have some access to them. So I hope that you all change your course and you decide to open a store in Atlanta. So a few hours go by and I get an email from a recruiter and she says, Dear Joseph, Mr. Jobs forwarded your email over to me. Please send your resume and cover letter at your earliest convenience. Again, I’m a 17-year-old kid and I’m like, “A who? A resume and a what?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I went and had to develop that really quickly and sent an email. At this time they actually didn’t even have a store on the pipeline. Again, that stalker energy, one of the ways you would know where Apple’s roadmap was, is you would look at their jobs page and they would put out, “We’re looking for employees in this place,” and people would go, “Oh, that must be a store.” So there was no openings in Atlanta for anything like that. Then, probably about six months later there was a thing where they had openings for a store or they had employee calls in Atlanta I was reaching out to the recruiter and she reached out and she was like, “Hey, it’s going to be slow, but we got your information.” I think she was just kind of being like, “Cool out, kid,” but yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So next thing I know I was getting a call and interviewing with the recruiter at 17 and just about to turn 18. The next thing I know in April of 2002, I was going into the training as the one of only two full-time Mac specialists to open the Apple store at Lenox Square Mall in come I think May, or I think it was about May was when we opened the store and it was all thanks to sending an email to Steve jobs. I was actually kind of sad when he died, just for obvious reasons, but a week prior, I had thought about him. I looked at where I had gone from that point and I said, “I should email him and say, ‘Hey, you probably didn’t think anything of sending this email over. You probably thought you were just getting me out of your hair, but you really kind of changed a lot for me.'” So, but yeah, that’s the Apple story.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And that was from your first job? Wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Actually, outside of working as a dishwasher in a [crosstalk 00:45:42] restaurant as under the table [crosstalk 00:45:46] my dad, I was 14, but yes, my first legitimate job.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That is quite a story. Wow. The fact that he even responded back and was forwarding your emails and everything, it just goes to show you, you have to be persistent. Nowadays, I guess that would be a bit stalkery, but-

Maurice Cherry:
… days, I guess that kind of would be a bit stalkery, but back then I don’t know how many people were really using email in that way, like they are now. But wow. That’s something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Again, it goes back to the idea of what I like to call a stealing shots. And sometimes you just got to find that sliver of opportunity and shoot and you might make it, you might miss it, but you got to shoot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So while you were at Apple, is that when you started going to full sale or was it after?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
No, it was actually, well after that.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I branded myself as an anti-traditionalist for a long time. I think it was the homeschool [inaudible 00:46:43] and at the time of being homeschooled… This was before homeschooling got, I guess you could say popular. At the time people didn’t think… I would tell them I was homeschooled and they just were like, “Oh, so you’re just dumb,” or whatever. And so there was a lot of stigma around it and I was always like, okay, I’m going to buck the trend. I tend to try and buck trends. And so I started working at Apple and I was like, well, I’ve learned all of this stuff. I used to read business books, I used to do this, that and the other. I was like, “Well, I could figure it out. I’ll do it on my own.”

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I just kind of kept trying to do it, I guess you could say the hard way, but it was also cool. You know what I mean? I had an opportunity just from the knowledge and the, I guess the value that I’d shown even at Apple and things like that. I taught at The Creative Circus in Atlanta, taught some design classes and so forth. I didn’t even have a degree really. So I just kind of did my own thing for a really long time. And it wasn’t until 2012 that I attended full sail. And it was really era in which after the great recession, I worked at a newspaper prior. And at the time I started up a small clothing company with some friends, and we ran that for about seven years, from 2007 to 2014.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But in around 2008, 2009, I had gotten laid off from a job at a newspaper in the ad department because it was a newspaper. So I lost that job. And it was also again around the economic downturn. And so I was this guy who felt confident in my abilities. I felt like, hey, I can figure anything out. You can put anything in front of me and I will tackle it and I will figure it out. But I was now this guy without a degree in environment where there were people who had 10 years experience and a degree, and they had all of this stuff behind them and they were also in the market.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I just kind of found it where I was really struggling to get a lot of opportunities or get a lot of second looks. And I’d also had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder or a complex even about again. Then you hear a lot of the way people, again, talk bad about being homeschooled. I didn’t have formal training. I didn’t have all this. So part of me was like, well, can I do it? Can I figure it out? If I’m tested, how will I respond? And do I have the foundation?

Maurice Cherry:
You kind of felt like you had something to prove in a way to yourself.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I needed to prove it to myself more than anything that I could just follow through with something and finish it. And so, yeah, I entered into full sales, online graphic design program and had done that from 2012 and then graduated in 2015.

Maurice Cherry:
How was the program? I know that as a, I think as a for-profit school full sale kind of tends to get left out of conversations when people talk about design slash art schools to go to, to really sort of get into the industry. But I mean full sale places a lot of people in the creative fields.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. Full sale was interesting for me. And I think that you do see some of that for-profit mentality come in where there is a bit of a what some people might call a degree factory mindset that is there in the sense that, hey, if you are willing to give them your money, they will take it. But if you are willing to hold them accountable for taking your money, you will also get a lot of value out of that. And for me, it was one of those things where again, I was doing the online program and I think that I succeeded because I’d already had this scrappy mentality. I was already used to figuring things out and going and finding my way. And so when I went to school, it was also, I was always kind of like against the idea of student loans and all of that, especially where I had seen people who had been saddled with all this debt and didn’t know what they were doing in life, or didn’t know, had felt like they wasted their time.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I was like, I’m not wasting my time. If I’m paying for this, I’m getting my money’s worth. And so I kind of went in with this attitude that like, I’m paying you are going to give me the same treatment you give your students in person. And I think for people who have gone there in person, they got a great experience. I saw a lot of people who went there online and they didn’t have that mentality, or they didn’t know how to go out and just dig and be scrappy for what they want it. And they kind of just fell through. Some of them fell off. Some of them were ending their school in some ways graduating and I’m looking at it going, oh, that work is not that great.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But like I said, that was the degree factory of it. But like I said, I went in and I had a goal. I knew what I wanted out of it and I said, “I’m going to kind of make you teach me and do what I need you to do because I’m paying you this money.” And actually I had some great interactions with teachers. I learned a lot, I got a lot out of it, but I think it’s really all about what you make it. And I think it was, but I think that’s with any school, right. It’s what you make it. And I think they were good for what I wanted to get out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how… I think school in general can be like that, but particularly those for-profit schools so for graduate school, I went to a for-profit university and then later also taught at the for-profit university. I went to Keller Graduate School of Management and taught at the [inaudible 00:52:23]. And it’s interesting I think one sort of the perception of course, that people have about for-profit universities and what that means about the value of the education, but then to be on the other side of it and being an instructor there, I definitely get what you mean about the online students and you needing to really have that scrappy mentality to get it done because the online instructors do not care. They are, most of them are literally following a script to go through the course.

Maurice Cherry:
They’re teaching in a very abstract way in that most of these classes will have some type of a discussion forum. And so you may have to have a participation requirement where you speak to students three times a week, five times a week, et cetera. It’s not really the same as giving a lecture because the lecture is often times have already been made for the course. You’re just the instructor. You’re not really teaching it. I guess I might be giving away some secrets here, but like, you’re not really teaching it. You don’t even get a chance to make the tests or change the tests. When I taught design at the [inaudible 00:53:29] I was teaching design to business students. It was like a BIS course. And this was maybe 2011, 2012, something like that, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
And I was surprised that they were still teaching students how to make webpages using tables. And I had to take it all the way up to the dean to say, you are setting students up for failure. If they take this course and they think they’re going to make webpages out of tables and get a job out in the market. And the dean was sort of like, oh, they’re business students. It doesn’t matter. I’m like it does matter. It matters that they’re paying for this and we’re deliberately teaching them old information. I really had to lobby to make it happen. And then once they said, no, I just changed it myself and started teaching more CSS and things like that. And I don’t know necessarily if the students appreciated it. I ended up getting fired. So it wasn’t necessarily probably the best thing on my end, but like at least I wanted to make sure that students were getting what they paid for in terms of proper information.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And I think you rather get caught trying.

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. And so I think [inaudible 00:54:38] good on you on that. And again, I think that was how I approached it in terms of being a student, which was I had the teacher’s email address. I had some kind of messenger option. I might’ve had, sometimes I had a phone number. So if I didn’t have the information I needed, I would have… I was always about building community. So I even built out a online, a Facebook community for some of the… Especially the students that I saw who kind of gave a damn. I said, “Hey, you seem like you’re going to be someone that I want to be connected to. Let’s have this group where we help each other.” But I saw other people who were like, oh, I can’t get this. I don’t know what to do. And I’m like, well, go ask the teacher like, “Oh, I can’t talk to the teacher. I can’t find them.” Well, okay, well try something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
[inaudible 00:55:25] figure it out. I would call the teacher. I would email them. I would message them. I would call my student advisor and say, “Hey, I need to talk to this teacher.” I would be a pain in their butt until they reached out to me because I was like this is… If I were in campus, I would be able to walk up to you and talk to you. But since I can’t do it, this is what we have to do now. So either take me seriously or I will make you take me seriously.

Maurice Cherry:
For me, I would have loved if you would have been that kind of student because I can tell you, we get all the instructor in you never hear from the students, ever, unless it’s them trying to weasel their way out of some excuse or if they got caught, I would catch so many students plagiarizing stuff, which you would think would not be that common in a course about web design, but like they would take tests and some of the tests would have essay questions. And it’s like, you can tell they just copied and pasted this from some companies about page because the response makes no sense in relation to the question.

Maurice Cherry:
And it’s like I don’t even have to run this through Turnitin to know that you didn’t write this. Where are you getting this from? So the fact that you were that proactive as a student, I hope that your professors and instructors appreciated that because I can tell you from the other side, I would have loved that. It would kill me to see students not do well. And I could tell them come see me during office hours. Let me know if you have any questions and I’m blue in the face and they do nothing and then fail the course. And then they want to get mad at me and leave me a two-star review. [crosstalk 00:56:58]. It’s wild. So yeah.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that one of the things that I learned there probably more than anything was it was one of those things where I look back at it and so I was valedictorian of my class and things like that. And I kind of looked at that with a little bit of like, eh, who cares? It’s about the work, as a designer is about the work. And I remember when I first started maybe my first couple quarters, I was doing the work that I knew would get me a passing grade. I’m a competitive person. I want to do the best, I want to be the best, I don’t like losing, those types of things. And so there was this moment when I first started, again, I knew Photoshop illustrated all those tools, like the back of my hand.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So we would get projects. I understood the coursework. So I would do it well enough to get an A, but I didn’t necessarily come out of it learning anything. And I remember toward the end of maybe my second quarter or so, I had to kind of look at myself and I said, you’re about to pay a lot of money to basically learn the same things you already know, is that really worth it? So I said, okay, so now my new model went because again that competitive aspect of me was like I want to be valedictorian. And they also had this, forget what the award was, but it was like you had the best quality of work. And I was like, I wanted both of those. And so I was like really trying to aim for that. And I was like, but you know what really, I want to learn as much as I can out of this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I adopted this mentality where [inaudible 00:58:34] I’m going to try and fail. I was like, I’m going to do things that are so far out of my comfort zone. I’m going to go way off of what I know and what I know how to do well. And if I get a good grade awesome. But if I fail, I at least learn. And I kind of went at it with that approach. I ended up getting even better grades and coming out with more fulfilling work and ended up getting both the awards that I was kind of put on… That I was trying to cheat my way to in a way but also kind of gave me that idea of… I think prior to that, I was doing a lot of things in a safe manner. And I was trying to just, in some ways in a survival mode. I had been in such a survival mode all my life, where I just wanted to do enough to make sure I could go to sleep somewhere and wake up somewhere and eat something.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If that’s what I got, that was good. And when I went into and embraced this idea of you know what, I have another slogan, which I don’t… Profanity, I’m not going to use it, but F S U [inaudible 00:59:36] F up is the term I like to use where it’s like, if I don’t know what I’m doing, instead of freezing, I’m just going to go in and go out in a blaze of glory. And if I fail, okay, but you’re at least going to be like, man, he did it in a way that nobody can look away from. And I found that that’s kind of paid off more than it has hurt me.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s something that I’ve brought up here on the show before about how black designers kind of really need to have that space to fail. Especially if you’re approaching the design industry through a more, I guess you could say traditional routes, like if you went to a design school and then from there you started working at a product design company or a tech company or advertising agency or a branding agency or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
The constraints are so narrow that there’s not really any space for you to fail. I wouldn’t even necessarily say fail, we’re talking about that certainly in the guise of experimentation, but like everything you do has to work, everything has to succeed. And I think while it’s great to have that track record, sort of like you were saying, you were kind of just getting by. It wasn’t until you really were able to break out of that space that you were able to do your best work and it’s rough that the industry unfortunately doesn’t really allow for those sorts of spaces. I would say mostly for black designers, but I think of designers probably across the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. I definitely think it’s glaring for black designers, but I think that you see that in a lot of spaces in general. Again, I’m a sports fan. I’ve noticed where black quarterbacks tend to get criticized more harshly where it’s a guy who is an average quarterback, average black quarterback will get less chances than an average white quarterback.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I’ve seen that. And I’ve noticed that even in professional spaces where, yeah, both as a design leader and as a, I guess for lack of a better way of putting it, a design follower where I was looking for guidance and I was looking for how to be a professional, where I was looking for mentorship and I didn’t always get it. And I’ve noticed that even in some of my peers who… There’s two sides of it. I think as a young black boy, my dad, my mom, everybody really, you tell me if you had the same experience where you kind of told like, hey, you’re black, you got one shot. They are waiting for you to mess up, don’t screw up because they’re just waiting for it because you will be the stereotype who fits the profile. Don’t fit the profile.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I had that complex, but then if we think about studies that are around how teachers, for instance, police black bodies and they enforce punishment on black children more harshly than white children. Even to my I think, my story about growing up in school and kind of being told the same thing. You see it at all these walks of life and I experienced it as, again, as a professional who wanted to do a lot of things. And I was even in one of my old companies, I was being put out there. I was the person who was really able to speak to business owners because I understood business and I could translate what design was to a business person. And I could translate what design was to a developer. And I could speak all of these languages.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And I was one of the only people in this organization, in fact, maybe the only person who could do that in a way that was effective, but I was still getting paid like a junior designer. I was still getting… But when they would take me into these meetings they would say, here’s our senior designer, Joseph Carter-Brown, but then I was getting paid as a, as a junior designer. And when I said, hey, look, I’m barely making ends meet. And I was helping to transform how the organization approached design. They didn’t understand user experience. They weren’t thinking about design and measuring design. They were just developing and hoping design fell in afterward. And I’m saying, hey, let’s build up design [inaudible 01:03:40] helping the company win awards and doing all these things. But I’m still getting paid as a junior designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was one of the lower paid designers there. And when I spoke up and said, “Hey, I would like some, I would like you to give me a challenge to be who I believe I can be.” It was like, “Oh, well, remember this one moment where you slipped up. Yeah. That’s why we’re not going to help you out here.” Yeah or be like, hey, we need you to jump this hurdle. And then I’m the type of person where you tell me something once and I’m going to do it and you don’t have to tell me again. So I was like, you gave me a hurdle. I’m going to jump in there. I’m going to clear it every time. But then when I say, hey, I cleared that hurdle. They go, oh, but you didn’t clear that hurdle. And I’m like, well, you never told me that was a hurdle.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And it was like the moving of the goalpost and all of these little bangs. So I felt that. And then when I went into a design leadership space and I had a black woman who was reporting to me and I had people coming and going, oh, well, she’s not doing what she needs to do. And she’s screwing up here, she messed this up and she messed that up and I’m going… And I’m having conversations with her saying, hey, I’m hearing these things and she’s going, nobody told me about this. I didn’t know I messed that up. I thought everything was okay. And I’m going, oh, well, who’s providing you mentorship. And it’s no one. And I’m going to them like, well, you guys can’t expect her to be doing things perfectly if you’re not showing her how to be there.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I’m trying to work with these people and I’ve seen it where I’ve seen other black reports under me coming in and having this fear of pushing themselves or pushing forward and they’re asking, well… Before they move, they’re going, am I getting it right? And then it’s just like, no, just go. You just need to go and run and if you slip, cool, just get back up and keep moving. But it’s so heightened and there’s such a magnification of like, do not screw up that it feels like you can’t even… It’s like that in every creative space. We’re all creatives, I think.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
But I definitely think for black people is you have this… You’re dealing with this history of if you screw up, everybody’s going to say, yeah, that’s what we expected. And if you screw up… It’s kind of like the saying, where’s what working twice as hard to get half as far. I like to say that we have twice the expectation in half the time. And I think that’s one of the key things that I see is like we expect like black designers, black creatives to be twice as good in half the time or else it’s a negative mark on your character in your professionalism.

Maurice Cherry:
You spoke a word there. Wow. Knowing all of this, this is probably an obvious question, but what do you do to make sure that that’s fostered that feeling of experimentation and such, or I would say even the space to make mistakes in that way is fostered on your teams.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I try to speak to it. I’m someone that… I like to say that I have a bit of black privilege and I used to joke to a buddy of mine. I’d be like you don’t realize how many spaces you’ll get access to when you’re a black person who who speaks proper. I’ve met so many racist white who think that they can speak to me in certain ways or they can say things they think that I agree with them because of the way I taught. But it also gives you this ability to kind of, to speak truth to power in a way that you don’t always see room for. So I just tend to speak to it. And I think one of the great things about Stanley Black and Decker actually is when I joined there… Because of my experience with my last company, I asked them about how they talk about equity and inclusion and to their credit for a hundred plus year old organization, they have a lot of conversations about this.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
They encourage these hard conversations. So one of the first things I did with my team was I got us all together. And my team is made up of black, white, queer, men, women, so forth. And I brought them all. And I had even the person that I report to in this meeting. And I said, let’s talk about what your identity means to you. What pain points, what do you bring? What baggage do you bring with you? How do you perceive yourself in this space? And I try to have those hard conversations. I talk to different people and I would say, hey, again, I speak straight to it. As a black man sometimes I freak out. If I have a mishap, I give myself a hard time and it scares me because this is the baggage I’m bringing with me.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
And so I say, hey, I need you to make some room and I need you to let me know where failure is on your scale and what room I have for failure. And I relay that over to my team and I say, hey, fail, fail fast, get up, make a plan and keep moving. And I try to encourage that and I even take one of the [inaudible 01:08:26] on my team, who’s a black man. And I’ve had this direct conversation with him. And I said, look man, I deal with this in a different way than you do. But we know what this experience is like. And in any way I can provide that psychological security, I want to at least provide that so that you can grow to be your best self and not trying to be who you think everybody else wants you to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow. I noticed kind of from just what you’re talking about here, we skipped the little bits because I want to focus on this shift because we talked about your time at full sale. Of course, we’ve talked about the work…

Maurice Cherry:
… shift, because we talked about your time at Full Sail. Of course, we’ve talked about the work you’re doing at Stanley Black & Decker. There was some time there in the middle that you were in Atlanta and then eventually, you moved back to the DMV area and you were doing a lot of graphic design work, web design work, et cetera, and you took this shift in 2016 to doing more UX. What prompted that shift?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It was actually going to Full Sail. Like I said, I started Full Sail in 2012. At the time I was also doing a lot of freelance work. Again, I had been laid off from a company. I was also running a small clothing company by the name of Rogue Squirrel. Me and three partners were doing screen printing, and going to shows, and selling merchandise, and we were doing branding and things like that. I was the web designer, as well as the business person and all the things, like the Jamaicans in In Living Color. I was doing all [crosstalk 01:09:57].

Joseph Carter-Brown:
When I went to school, I had to reduce a lot of things. I stopped doing freelance for a while to focus on school. I worked part-time at a few different places. I always approached everything like everything was design. In fact, the talk I did at the AIGA Design Conference was called, It’s Just Fricking Design. It was about how design in all of these areas are basically the same. But when I was at Full Sail, like I said, I stopped doing a lot of web work and freelance work to focus on school. Around the time I was getting close to graduating, I started to get back into the flow of things and doing web work and so forth. It was around that time that there was a whole lot of conversation, a lot of, you saw the word or the term UX being put around.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
So I said, “Well, I guess I need to go learn UX coding now. I guess I got to go learn how to code in UX.” I didn’t know what people were talking about. I started reading about it and it was like, oh, you think about the user and you do blah, blah, blah. And I went, “That’s what I already do. That’s how I already approach design. I don’t think about this for myself. I think about it for other people. I look at why they need this thing and I try to advocate for them.” I do X, Y, Z. And so I was like, “This is basically what I’ve already done. This is already what I’m doing.” So I just kept going in that direction. It made logical sense to me that that was just the route that you went in design, because it’s like, if you’re not thinking about who you’re making it for, then what are you doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you’re not talking to the business to understand what are their goals or even if it’s not a business, it’s a community organization, it’s a hospital, whatever it is, you’re not thinking about what it is, what problem they need to solve, it’s like, well, what are you doing? To me, it was just the natural thing. And as someone who was, again, a techie, a business person, a web developer, a graphic designer, I really loved the process and the logical and the puzzle of it, like detective work. Figuring out where that thread is that other people don’t see. And figuring out how to pull that out. So to me, it was like user experience, and especially some of the service design stuff, was a natural conclusion of the work I had been doing since I was a kid, really, because it blended all of the things that I was passionate about without having to… I never viewed myself as a traditional graphic designer.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I’m not the greatest drawer. Sometimes it takes me a minute to find the idea. But if you immerse me in having empathy for the person and thinking about how I make the best thing for someone, I wouldn’t put too many people’s ideas ahead of mine. To me, that was just the natural thing. So when I had an opportunity, I was working as a developer/web designer, I said, “Well, I’m just going to make this what I want it to be.” Again, I just started advocating, saying, “Well, we got to think about how this measure. We got to think about the user. We got to do this.” And I just kept pushing in that direction.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. As I’m listening to your story and as you’re saying all this, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you’ve also done a lot of work with AIGA, specifically the Baltimore Chapter. Talk to me about how you got started with them.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I got involved in AIGA after I graduated, or around the time I graduated at Full Sail. I had always heard about AIGA as an organization. It was always like, hey, you network. You got to get out there. Again, as someone who was now about to graduate with student debt, I’m like, “I need to make some money. I need to get a job.” Really, to start, it was like going into AIGA, it was like I wanted to find a job. I wanted to make some connections in the design community, because I was doing so much freelance stuff. I was living a little further out outside of Baltimore at the time. I didn’t have a lot of connections and so forth. It was just a way to get connected to the community. But when I got in there, I think, again, I’m a service person. I love helping people. I love figuring out ways to build things and create systems and so forth. It was just natural that I started getting close to the board.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If I would show up to an event early, I’m like, “All right, well, I’ll help y’all up the tables.” And it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to be hanging out later. I’m going to help you break down tables.” That was just how I started. It evolved into me really needing to find my identity as well as a designer. Because again, I didn’t know where I fit. Again, I wasn’t a graphic designer. I wasn’t fully a web developer. I wasn’t always the business person. I had all of these, but I had areas that I could fill in. I just wanted to find how I fit and who I was as a designer. That gave me a space to really hone my leadership skill. I’ve actually talked with people within AIGA about this a lot, that I think that sometimes they do a disservice to themselves by not embracing themselves, the organization, as a leadership incubator. Because it, more than anything, it seemed like that type of space for me, where it was like I got a chance to take all of these things and learn how to lead with the skills that I had gathered.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
It had given me a bit of, again, a bit of that experimentation space. It gave me a safe space to try things and to test things out. I got involved with the AIGA Baltimore Chapter. It was at the time, like I said, it was about an hour outside of Baltimore. It was an excuse to come back home, to be near water. I love being near water. So it was like, “Hey, I’m going to go to the Harbor. I’m going to go visit my grandmother. I’m going to do this and I’ll go to an event.” I just kept going deeper and deeper. I started as the Programming Chair, developing events, workshops and different ways of reaching out to the community. I moved into Programming Director and then eventually Vice-President. And then President of the chapter. And really, my time there was just again, doing the thing that design did for me, which was gave me access.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I just used it as a space to provide access, because Baltimore has a huge digital divide. I was like, well, how can I provide the platform that we had to lift the voice of the people in the community and use the resources we have? Whether it was Adobe partnerships or IBM partnerships, to bring those into the community and inform people who wouldn’t normally have access to it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a really good way to think about AIGA, as a leadership incubator. That’s a good way to think about it. Different chapters in different cities are always different. Folks that have listened to this show for any length, know how I feel about the Atlanta Chapter. I always will tell people that AIGA is only as strong as its weakest chapter. Certainly there are some that do really great work in terms of outreach to the community and other types of programs and things of that nature. I think the organization, even now, it’s what? It’s over a hundred year old organization. Even now in this time where we’re so distanced in terms of being able to meet up and things like that, the organization is, I feel it’s still trying to find its way.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s, of course, having missteps along the way, as I think any organization is. But I still root for AIGA. I’m not a member, as folks know. I still root for them. I want them to succeed. I want them to do well, because I do see the impact that it has in the community. And the impact that it can have on designers if they really fall into the right space.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I agree one hundred percent. I’m the same way. As much maligned as it has been over the past few years, and some people who are close to me who have had some public falling outs and so forth with it and it hurt me and saddened me to see those things happen. At the same time, I don’t know that I would be where I am without the opportunity in AIGA. I still have people within the organization and around the organization, close to the organization that I consider very good and close friends and great collaborators. It was a great space. I definitely don’t want to see it go anywhere. But I want to see it grow and really build its voice. I think that with AIGA Baltimore, the motto that I left the organization with, the chapter with was, we’re not AIGA Baltimore, we’re Baltimore’s AIGA.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
That was the way we really approached it, is like we went out into the community and we asked people what they wanted. We said, “Hey, how do we bring you what you need? How do we provide something for the city? How do we support other organizations?” And it was like we were the cheerleaders, is the way I really started to think of it. We’re this big organization. We will get the windfall of things. We don’t need to go out there trying to grub for money. People are going to come to us anyway. We will help other people, who are smaller, build their voice. We will be the platform that they build their voice on. We’ll do this. I think that idea of AIGA as this incubator space, I think it’s so stuck in like… I think there are a lot of people who want to say, “Hey, we need traditional graphic design and this to be the thing that we are.” But it’s like, we’re moving into such an era now, where it’s so much about the experience. It’s so much about the connections that you make.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
If you can be a connector, that is more of a benefit than being an artifact maker. I think AIGA, hopefully, will embrace that and figure that out and push itself as a place that has now the cachet to provide that access. Like I said, they have all of these tools and resources. Get involved in communities. Somebody once said to me at an event, and it really made me think critically about it and thus, about that access point, they were like, “It’s expensive to be a designer.” Yeah, it is! I was like, well, how can I make it a little cheaper for somebody? Because again, I had to steal every shot I had early on. I had to fricking steal zip disks sometimes and fonts and all of those things. It was all in an effort to just be something that I felt like I could be.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
There are so many kids who don’t get that opportunity. They’d never even know what the edges of the universe might be. They never explore that. And that’s going back to the idea of that experimentation space and then providing that access. If AIGA could provide that, I think how much change could they make for equity in the design community that we know we don’t have?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to accomplish this year? Of course, you’re at this new position that you’re working with. Now, you’re probably not as involved with AIGA Baltimore, because there’s a new president there now. But what do you want to do for this year? Is there anything on your to-do list?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Yeah. On my to-do list this year, I took a break from doing a lot of speaking engagements. I was actually really thankful that AIGA, speaking of them, reached out to me to speak at the Design Conference at the end of the year. For me, it’s about getting back out there as a bit of a thought leader, sharing my experiences and doing more workshops and helping to build more strategy, growing, just continuing to grow my skillset. But also just continue to expand the conversation around what design is and how we use it as a tool for good. The place I always go back to is, how can I use my opportunity to make opportunity for someone else? Whether it’s getting more involved in community organizations. I’m really interested in something that’s been again, stewing in my mind recently, as I get a little more time, hopefully, is to get involved in supporting opportunities to help bridge that digital divide that’s in the city.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I think that’s something that’s glaring so heavily, because of what’s out there with COVID and how it changed things. I’m thinking about a lot of those things. But ultimately, I’m just working on getting my feet fully implanted or cemented in this space, helping to really do a lot of organizational transformation within Stanley Black & Decker and then continue to really broaden myself in and put myself a little more out there in that space so that I can use that to propel other voices.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we think even more into the future, where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Joseph Carter-Brown:
In the next five years I really want to get into helping communities build equitable spaces for themselves. I’d love to do more in the civic design space, helping to bridge communication gaps between communities and cities or states, local municipalities and businesses to help provide systems that are again, sustainable and feasible for the people and again, equitable for the people within those communities. Ultimately, that’s the thing I want to start doing. Another area for me is really diving into the mental health space, is something that I think that there’s been so much stigma around. I’m happy that I’ve pulled, I won’t say pulled back on it, but I’ve seen that there’s been a lot more conversations. So it’s made me a little more hardened that it’s not as big a thing to have to tackle completely. But I definitely have a real passion for the conversation around mental health, especially in Black and Brown communities.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
I actually started a small event series within AIGA Baltimore called, Well Aware, where we started having these open and more vulnerable conversations. In fact, before COVID, that was part of my trajectory, is I was going to come back to the board and help foster that type of conversation again. I think I have a lot of different things, as you can probably tell. But I think that those two areas, helping communities build spaces that allow them to take advantage and take ownership of their own mental health and the systems that are there for them, so that they’re more equitable and in alignment with what is needed is an area that I think will be really important.

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

Joseph Carter-Brown:
You can find me, I’m mostly on social media more than anything lately, at abrowncreates on Instagram, as well as on Twitter. On LinkedIn, Joseph Carter-Brown. I’m always happy to connect with people. And then on my website, anthonybrowncreates.com. So those are the key places that you can find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Joseph Carter-Brown, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. The stories that you’ve told about how you have really progressed in this industry and really put your own stamp on it, being in the game for over 20 years and all the things that you talked about, it’s so clear to me that you have a real passion for this community. Not just for design, but for the community around design. And to be able to help people to see that this can be a space that you can really grow and thrive in, I think is something that is super important and something that you definitely have been able to show through your actions, through your words and through your deeds. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Joseph Carter-Brown:
Well, thank you. It’s been an honor and I really appreciate you having me on here.

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program and the Common Experience are excited to announce the State of Black Design Conference, presented by IBM, April 9-10.

The theme of the conference is “Black Design: Past. Present. Future,” and the event will bring together aspiring designers with academic and industry professionals for networking opportunities, career development workshops, and important panel discussions with leaders in the field.

If you are a company looking to diversify your workforce, or a designer of color looking for your next role, be sure to attend the State of Black Design Conference. Recruiters have until April 5 to register.

Get your ticket today at https://txstate.edu/blackdesign, and follow the event online on Instagram or Twitter.

The State of Black Design Conference is presented by IBM, with additional sponsorship from Adobe, Civilla, AIGA, Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the School of Art and Design.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

David Jon Walker

Let’s start off Black History Month with some education, shall we?

Meet David Jon Walker, owner of the graphic design studio Rhealistic, and a design professor at Austin Peay State University in Nashville, TN.

Our conversation started off with a brief look back at 2020, and from there, David spoke on adapting to teaching design during this socially distant time. He also talked about growing up in Nashville, discovering design during college at Tennessee State University, and shared some of the goals he wants to accomplish this year. I’m really glad there are educators like David out there to help guide the next generation of designers!

Bennie F. Johnson

For our 375th episode, I had the opportunity to sit down with Bennie F. Johnson, the new executive director of AIGA, the professional organization for design. As the first Black executive director in AIGA’s 100+ year history, Bennie is taking on a huge responsibility. When I asked him how he felt about this, he gave me two words: “boldly hopeful!”

Bennie talked about what attracted him to this role, and how he’s managed to grow into it during this tumultuous year. We also discussed a number of other topics, including AIGA and today’s modern designer, diversity and inclusion, as well as some of this year’s recent public exits from members. Bennie is working hard on building (and rebuilding) AIGA, and I’m glad we are having this conversation on Revision Path!

What does the “middle” of a designer’s career look like? Does the “middle” exist outside of a corporate company’s career ladder? I examine these questions and more with this week’s guest, the one and only Chanel James. As a designer for EAB, Chanel works on production and design and for a number of different projects, all with the goal of making education smarter and our communities stronger.

Chanel talked about what attracted her to work for EAB, and also spoke on her work with AIGA DC on their board of directors. We also discussed the South and design, how she acquired a love for illustration from a popular kid’s television show, and yes, we went into the mid-career designer topic I mentioned earlier. Chanel lives by the motto “make it pretty”, and no matter her role or profession, she definitely brings the skills and experience to the table that make her motto a fact!

Full Transcript

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

Chanel James: Hi. My name is Chanel James. I’m an In House Designer at a company called EAB, which is like a best practices research, education firm. We essentially help schools, provide schools with research, and best practices to better the experience for students in higher ed, and otherwise.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. How long have you been at EAB?

Chanel James: I’m also at my two year mark, I’ll be at two years in February. It’s been a really awesome two years, I’ve learned and grown a lot while I’ve been here, I’ve touched a lot of different projects. It’s in house, but it can sometimes feel like an agency, which is exciting in that way. We get the same projects, but they change almost each year, so that’s exciting for me.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. What attracted you to working for them?

Chanel James: To say that I kind of got to back up a little bit, after graduating I went to go work for a consulting firm, which was not my vibe, not anything I enjoyed doing. Prior to that I was working in house for a nonprofit, still in the education realm and I loved that, it felt like a family, almost felt like school in the sense where I was learning as I was doing projects. But, the other place was not anywhere in the realm of what I wanted to continue doing.

Chanel James: I came across EAB, I met someone at an AIGA event in 2017 who worked here, and I looked up their work and I was like, “Oh, this is something I think I can get with.” I love the culture, like how the culture looks and stuff. I applied, and thankfully I got it, and the rest was history from there. Yeah, I was really attracted to, I’m a big one on workplace culture and balance, work/life balance because work takes up 85% of our lives essentially. And if you don’t enjoy it while you’re there, like if you don’t enjoy it, that’s like most of your life you’re not enjoying.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: I try to focus on that.

Maurice Cherry: What is the culture like there?

Chanel James: Very supportive. People here understand that you have like, people know that you have families, and you have life outside of the walls of EAB. PTO is taken seriously, that’s really hard when it comes to being in anything with design, often times people like, “Oh, overnight. Oh, we need this tomorrow.” But here if you’re like, five o’clock comes they’re like, “Oh, we understand. I’ll get it from you sometime midday tomorrow,” type thing. It’s nice to have like, I mean there are times like right now it’s like busy season, so things are kind of like we’ve got to get it done, but there’s still boundaries. I love how there are boundaries with work/life, and home life. I think that’s my biggest thing, it’s like why I love this company so much.

Maurice Cherry: So far what’s kind of been the most challenging thing that you’ve encountered while working there? It can be whether it’s just the general work culture, or in the job specifically working with a client, anything like that.

Chanel James: When I first started here it was, it’s not the most diverse place just in terms of actual diversity. There are not many people of color. They’re working towards that, but I think that was my biggest struggle when I first started coming from my back … you know, I went to George Mason University, I graduated from there, which is all about diversity. You know, celebrating people’s differences, and so there were always different types of people. But when I started on my team, my manager is a black woman, but then that’s it. Everyone else is white, which is okay, but I found myself not feeling like I fit in quite well, or wanting to do things the way other people do things.

Chanel James: I’m a very, I consider myself a very colorful black woman. I like wearing scarves, I have natural hair, my hair is like a big piece of my identity. Coming into a space where I don’t see anybody else who looks like me, dresses like me, talks like me, it’s tough because you don’t feel validated. And so, you kind of have to break out of that. It’s a mind game almost, you’ve got to remember that you can celebrate who you are even though there aren’t other people who look like you in the room. But that still takes practice, and it’s tough. Often times people leave places because they’re like, “I don’t see anybody here who looks like me, I’m going to dip out.” But I’m really proud of myself that I saw it through while I’ve been here because it’s gotten a lot better for me, but it’s still tough. I think we all, all designer’s kind of feel the same thing.

Chanel James: You’re usually like the only designer in a space, but when you’re the only designer, and the only black person or person of color in general it’s tough, it’s hard.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I’ve been in situations like that certainly where you end up being the, I don’t want to say the token, that’s not really the best way to put it. But, you end up being the only one kind of by default, and so it takes really a strong sense of self to know that you’re supposed to be here, you’re here for a reason, because imposter syndrome can really set in fairly quickly.

Chanel James: And it set in really hard for me, and I think it was something I had to get over in college too because I came from, so I grew up in Richmond Virginia. Which, whoever is from Virginia in general knows that Richmond is a, it’s like a predominantly black city. I grew up in like an all black elementary school, all black middle school, all black high school. Because that’s the way counties are set up, and we know that gentrification, redlining, all of the histories behind that, why certain neighborhoods are more black than others.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: But, I got into my college which is in Northern Virginia, and that’s an entirely different space to be in. There are streetlights that are constantly on. I know that it’s a small detail, but it was something that … it was small, but it impacted me because I was like, “Wow, these people got streetlights, they got sidewalks, they’re encouraged to be outside, the houses look all nice and clean.” This is where I always pictured my … I’m not saying I grew up in the hood, but when you grow up in areas that are predominantly black, things are different.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: That’s just how it is, it’s just different.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: College for me was a little bit of a culture shock because it was beautiful, the campus was beautiful. Again, predominantly white, so I had to find my community while I was there. I was like, “Where do I belong?” Then I started meeting not just black, but African people so I was like, “Wow, then what am I?” Then my identity started like, I started having this identity crisis. I’m like, “Well, people are starting to say they’re from this country. Oh, I’m from Ghana, I’m from Nigeria, I’m from Germany,” people at Mason were very big about repping their countries. Then people would ask where I was from and I’m like, “America? Virginia?” I feel like I really had to find myself getting into college. That’s why I say my hair is my biggest part of my identity, because during that time, freshman year, I shaved my head. I cut all my hair off.

Maurice Cherry: Oh wow.

Chanel James: Went natural, and I decided, I was like, “This is going to be my thesis while I’m here. Let’s talk about the identity of black Americans,” and things like that. Now, did that end up being my actual thesis in senior year? No, but it was a big part of who I was. People knew me for my different hairstyles, my art was kind of centered around my hair, I always brought up some type … because again, I was the only black person in my classes, it was like one or two of us. That college was like the first time that I was the only person who looked like me in classrooms and things like that, and that took a lot of personality shifting on my part.

Chanel James: And I thought for some reason that when I graduated, things would change. I would go back into spaces where I’m like, “Oh, there’s the black boss, black CEO, or Spanish CEO,” you know? Different type of people, but I was wrong. I mean, so far everywhere I went, it’s been like … or everyplace I’ve worked at so far has been not too many people of color in general. I don’t really know why yet, I’m still trying to figure that out.

Maurice Cherry: When you look back at your past experiences, is that the main thing that stands out to you is the diversity of the teams that you’ve been on?

Chanel James: Yeah, I think so. Now, sometimes it can reflect the experience I have with working. When I first started at EAB I was not confident at all. I knew I was talented, people told me I’m talented, but I felt like I was doing everything wrong. We have a lot of processes here, and we’re very organized, we’re a very process driven team. When someone came to me and told me, “Oh, this is wrong.” Or, “This isn’t how we do things.” I would get discouraged because I’m like, “Ugh, I did it wrong again.” I would focus only on what I did wrong. On top of the fact that I was the only black person, so I was like-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … “I’m being looked at differently because if I get it wrong, then that reflects not only on me, but everyone.” You know?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and that’s such an unfair-

Chanel James: Burden’s a good word.

Maurice Cherry: … Yeah, it’s an unfair burden to even have on your mind. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not just messing up for me, I’m messing up for all black people.”

Chanel James: Right? [crosstalk 00:10:29].

Maurice Cherry: That’s, ugh, I hate that.

Chanel James: Yeah, and I started finding myself wanting to find spaces where there were other people who looked like me, or who thought like me.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: I was still pretty hesitant to be my full self around other than my boss whose black, I think it was just me and her going into like having our biweekly check ins. I kind of, like I was able to unfold a little bit. I’m like, “Girl, let me tell you about this week.” Or, [inaudible 00:11:01]. “Oh, did you see Black Panther? How did you like that?” Type thing.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: But when I’m in this, I had to … it was a huge challenge for me to call out things. I’m like, “Guys, we shouldn’t be doing …” It’s still a challenge, because you don’t want to be that person.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Like again, I’m black, but do I have to call out the things that might offend people of color?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: Or, do I seem like I’m whining a little bit? It goes back to the point of validation. Sometimes you don’t feel validated when you’re in spaces when you’re the only one who looks like you.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and I mean I think companies should realize that, that’s sort of like, or that should be seen as an advantage, or a cultural advantage in some way. You’re being able to see something that perhaps not everyone else is seeing because of the homogeneity of the team, you know?

Chanel James: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the things that ended up happening for me to really feel like myself here was the fact that I found, we have employee resource groups, which I think most companies have. But, it’s groups that are for veterans, for parents, for just different groups of people to celebrate themselves, and things like that. We have the group called Mosaic, and I found, it was like two other black women on my team, some director level women, some entry level women, and men. And I was able to kind of find more of myself in them whenever I felt like I was running into an issue at work, or I wasn’t confident. I’d run up to one of their desks, I’m like, “Ugh, I can’t believe this,” type thing.

Chanel James: They would kind of help me feel a little bit better about whatever situation I was going through.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Now, I notice that all of the black people come to my desk during the day. They’ll come by, “Hey Chanel, hey girl.” It’s kind of become like we have a network, a system. I hate to say it, I think everyone has some type of Slack group, or group chat.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah.

Chanel James: Like a black … I mean you don’t name it that, but you kind of treat it like a black Slack, just going, “Hey-”

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … “Did y’all see this in the news, pop culture?” Things that you can talk about freely without feeling judged in a sense. Finding that community here was really important for me, but that took a while. Prior to that I started going to Meetups. AIGA’s been a really big part of my identity too, so I in 2018 applied to sit on the board of the DC, AIGA DC chapter, and I ended up getting it. I started off as a Program Coordinator, and now I’m Woman Lead. And that-

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Chanel James: … Yeah, thank you. That’s been a really big part of my identity as well, because I am able to create spaces, find other young designers, even like non designers who are just looking for a community, and help build that sense of community for them. Just to help them push through the end of the work week. We create programs that I think build people up, and I think that’s why-

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Chanel James: … I’m such a big fan.

Maurice Cherry: Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I’m curious to know, you mentioned growing up sort of in the DMV area earlier, was design, and art, and tech, were those a big part of your upbringing? Were you exposed to them early?

Chanel James: Yes, yes, and no, I’m just going to say yes.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Chanel James: Not design specifically because I think we get that … a lot of people growing up would be like, “Oh, design, computer.” I’m like, “I’m not a computer whiz.” But, let’s see. I had a speech impediment growing up, like when I was really young. I took speech classes in elementary school, it was so bad that my parents sometimes didn’t even understand what I was saying, it was like only my big … I have two older sisters.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: One of my sisters who I roomed with would have to translate for me. I watched Blue’s Clue’s a lot, and that taught me how to take basic shapes and build these complex forms, right? I would illustrate sometimes to communicate, and then I started becoming more inspired by, you know how you go into black homes, you go on family reunions and things like that, and you realize everyone has the same piece of art?

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: I think I was also pretty taken back about that, so my mom introduced me … not introduced me, but showed me some pieces by Jacob Lawrence who was, anything in the Harlem Renaissance I was a huge nerd for. I hate to bring him up, but Bill Cosby, Little Bill, that cartoon.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: Those pieces of works really inspired me growing up. Then, I got into middle school, I was introduced to animating. But not using any Adobe programs, I think we just used like iMovie and the Paint app. I can’t tell you what exactly we used, but it was frame by frame. My art teacher Mr. [Epps 00:16:24], really saw something in me, and so he encouraged me to keep doing these digital illustrations. Which again, I didn’t connect that to design because no one was using that terminology around me back then. I was really inspired by doing that, art has always been a really big part of my life, to the point where I applied to the Center for the Arts High School in my area but I didn’t get in. Which crushed me, but I had a pep talk by my mom. She’s like, “No, you can do it, la, la, la. Just keep going to the regular high school, make things happen for yourself.”

Chanel James: I think my parents both encouraged me in art, but my mom told me I had to pair it with something. She’s like, “If you’re going to be an artist, you have to make it profitable, so go work for a company …” again, she’s describing graphic design, but she’s not using the terms graphic design. She’s just kind of like, “You can work for a company and make maybe advertising, and things like that.” I’m like, “Okay yeah, I can do that.”

Chanel James: I ended up senior year applying to VCU Arts, which again, I didn’t get into. My world was crushed again, my validation was crushed again and I was like, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” Found George Mason, applied there, and got in. That’s when, I think it was in one of my entry level design classes, someone … they started teaching us about design, and Bauhaus, and all the histories. That is when I started, like I was introduced to the programs, and I just kept practicing.

Chanel James: I think the biggest turning point for me was meeting my professor Reese Quinones, who walked in the room, and it was the first time I saw a black professor walk into a room up to that point. I think this was my sophomore year, and I was shook. I was just kind of like, “Oh my gosh, I have a black professor.” And she was so talented. She spoke with … Now, she’s Puerto Rican but just looking at her you’re like, “Oh, she’s black.” You know? It’s black, it’s Puerto Rican, we’re all the same thing.

Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Chanel James: But, she spoke with such passion about what she did. She would build things, and it was almost like watching a movie. She’s like, “Here, we can just take this shape here, add some transparency here, align here, and boom.” I’m like, “How did you do that? I want to be just like you.” She inspired me so much that I would sit and practice on weekends, just copying things that were in the media and things like that, going to museums, and just trying to understand …

Chanel James: Going to museums and just trying to understand why I liked what I liked, and stuff like that. So I think, yeah, that was my biggest introduction to design. But growing up I’ve always been a little Chanel artist. That never changed to me.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. When did you sort of get the sense that this was something that you could do for a career? Because it sounds like George Mason was a time that really was formative in shaping the fact that you kind of could do this-

Chanel James: Full time.

Maurice Cherry: Just as a scale. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chanel James: Yeah. Let’s see. I was able to sign up as like different school groups that we… I was in fashion society and I’m not a fashionista but they wanted me to make some of their flyers and social media ads and things like that-

Maurice Cherry: You were just saying you, you have the colorful scarves and everything [crosstalk 00:19:55] not a fashionista.

Chanel James: [crosstalk 00:19:56] to be colorful and do your own thing. But I don’t think I’m an influencer, [crosstalk 00:20:05] more stylish than I am but I would do things for them. And eventually some people from there would be like, “oh actually,” some girls would be like, “hey, I need a logo for this. Do you think you can do it?” I’m like, “yeah I can.” In my head I’m like, no I can’t. I don’t know how to do anything. And I would just kind of go for it. Open up Illustrator, which was at that time was like my best friend and put some texts and things together. Now, looking back on it, some of those things I did was, I mean I was just starting out so it wasn’t the best stuff, but that’s when I started doing things for profit and then if one person heard from another person that, oh yeah Chanel’s the graphic designer. In Black Mason, people would know me as the graphic designer.

Chanel James: So because our community was so small, you had maybe three designers who you’d be like, or three artists in a sense who would kind of do things for the black programming and things like that. And I also ended up getting a job on campus working with our housing department as a graphic designer, which was I think a pretty, that helped me figure out how to work on a team. It was kind of set up in house where we would be doing things for just housing and things like that. We’d create illustrative posters for our campus residence fairs and things for, what’s it called, freshmen move in was a really big campaign that we would have to create marketing materials, signage, flyers and all of these sorts of collateral pieces was when I started building that skillset of time management, sending things to print and things like that.

Chanel James: So that molded me a lot. By the time I finished that role there, I think I was able to intern with my mentor who was Risa [Kanyonez 00:22:15], the professor who I was drooling over [inaudible 00:22:21] I interned at her company and then ended up contracting for a little while and I’m going down the line of my timeline, but that’s essentially how I started, realized how to make a profit. People just kept referring me by word of mouth.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Now you graduated in 2017. You’ve been working here in the industry for a few years and we spoke about this a little bit before we started recording about the notion of kind of being a mid level slash mid career designer, I suppose. Where do you see yourself, like right now we’re recording this 2019, where do you see yourself in the design industry at this level?

Chanel James: I see myself, I don’t know, I’m in the middle of it. I don’t see myself as a expert by any means. Right. And I said this before, but I also don’t see myself as… I see myself as a [inaudible 00:23:18] I don’t, it’s so hard because I’m still trying to figure that out essentially. And I think a lot of us mid level designers are just still trying to figure that out. I am a part of a lot of things, mainly because of my job, AIGA, I do freelance and I use all of these different avenues and tools and people and volunteering and things like that so that I can say, yeah, like I’ve worked on, I know how to put a team together. I know how to run a program, I know how to ask for donations and things like that. But I haven’t been doing it as long as other people, so I get nervous to say, yes refer me for this or see me as an expert. You don’t have to use the word expert, if you’re not using the word expert, what else do you use?

Maurice Cherry: Right. It’s something where it feels like the, it’s the mid part that is kind of I think a little bit trippy because certainly when you see entry level positions, I see entry level positions that require as much as five years experience. That is not entry level if you’ve got five years of experience under your belt. But in the same vein, what is the middle of a designer’s career at this stage in the game because the tech is changing. The roles are changing. I mean 10 years ago there weren’t product designers. Everyone was a web designer or a graphic designer, so the roles are changing, the structures are changing within companies. What if you are a really strong individual contributor but you don’t want to go into managing a team or managing people? Where do you go from there? It’s a lot of sort of nebulous nebulousness in the middle of the design kind of career because I think even the ones that are the experts, I feel like they, I don’t know, it’s tough to say.

Chanel James: It’s a-

Maurice Cherry: I certainly. No sorry go ahead.

Chanel James: I was going to say you’re really just looking at the time of how long I’ve been doing this or if I’ve been doing this too long, have I refreshed up my skills? How long has it been since I’ve learned the latest, newest thing about this topic. And I also think with being mid level, you’re trying to move away from the negative notion that comes with being new or being labeled as new, labeled as entry because a lot of people who I’ve… Even this summer I was able to mentor two amazing individuals for our marketing department, but they both expressed to me how weird they felt, how much negativity came with the word intern, came with the word new, came with the word college grad or college student. Because people kind of brush you off into thinking that you’re not, oh, she’s not skilled or she doesn’t have, but because I mean they both were Black women. I think that sometimes young White people can get away with being new, but also being something that people gravitate towards as experts or go to’s in that sense. I mean look at-

Maurice Cherry: They’re a fresh new voice-

Chanel James: A fresh new voice. Look at, what’s his name? Facebook dude. What’s his name, the CEO.

Maurice Cherry: Mark Zuckerberg.

Chanel James: Mark, yeah. He was this college level, new, wet behind the ears guy and then like, hey, I want this app. Him and his other dudes are like… I’m sorry I’m using such basic terminology, but [inaudible 00:27:08] But when new people come up with an idea, sometimes it’s like, oh, they’re so ski… Yeah, let’s give them a chance. But I feel like as a person of color, if you’re coming in as new, young and of color, it can be really hard for people to take you seriously. It can be so hard for people to take, you unless you have a bunch of awards behind your name. You, oh, I interned at Google, I interned at Facebook. I got into the center for the arts at my high school. I went to VCUarts and because I didn’t have those names, I didn’t start having many titles behind my name until a year or two ago, it made me feel like I didn’t have much of a space in the industry to give advice or to really just kind of be seen as a person in the industry. I was still like a student of the industry, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry: That makes sense. I’ll tell you a secret, even, and this is just not only from people who I’ve had on the show, but also speaking from personal experience, even when you get to that level of having the awards and the accolades and all that stuff, guess what? People still don’t take you seriously. It doesn’t really get, I don’t want to say it doesn’t get that much better. You sort of have a little bit of an advantage depending on the communities that you’re speaking to. But I run into some of the same issues of credibility at this stage in my career as I did 10 years.

Chanel James: Why do you think that is? What issues of credibility come up? Like who would-

Maurice Cherry: I mean, how real can we get? I mean…

Chanel James: For me, I started listening to this podcast when I started this job, actually before I started this. Every day when I was at the job that wasn’t for me, to be very frank, I was very unhappy. I would listen to this podcast Revision Path every day, I would go back and I would listen to all… Though, this is maybe like summer of 2017 because I felt so inspired by all of the individuals who looked like me who came from places like me, who, they almost seemed like, I was like, okay, they have these accolades and they have these medals, these badges, they are taken seriously in these spaces. Even when people spoke about their struggles of getting to where they were, they still got to where they were.

Chanel James: So that pushed me and knowing that you’re the voice behind it, and knowing all… Of course we can list a bunch of things about Maurice Cherry and all the things that he’s done for the community in the task, I know you were on the task force many years ago, things like that [crosstalk 00:30:00] I met Jacinda. Jacinda was a really big part of pushing me back in like 2017 or 2016 so that community, right? I’m like, oh you guys made it, you are it. But to hear you say like, “ah no, we’re still trying.” It’s interesting.

Maurice Cherry: I might be telling some secrets here, but I feel like some of us, and I’m not speaking for everyone, some of us try to do a good job of obscuring that. I think from those that are coming up because we don’t want you to have that baggage. We don’t want you to come into it knowing like, oh, you can even still get this far and still run into issues because the hope is that the work that we’re doing clears the path, makes it easier for the next generation. I wouldn’t even say next generation. I mean it’s not like we’re that far apart, but I mean it makes the road easier by walking it. So that’s the hope, is to just not talk about all the negative stuff that happens and just try to focus on the more positive things to be that inspiration because it can be, there are still a lot of isms out there and I’m not just talking about the isms that have cropped up, I’d say even more vibrantly because of our current political system. But I mean racism is still very much a thing. Sexism is still very much a thing. Other isms-

Chanel James: Ageism yeah.

Maurice Cherry: Homophobia, et cetera. Ageism, yes. Even location. I mean, I’m in Atlanta and I get so many sort of small microaggressions about being from the South. Or being in the South and doing tech and design-

Chanel James: I understand.

Maurice Cherry: Like if I’m not in New York or if I’m not in an LA, these capitals?

Chanel James: Where are you? What are you doing?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, yeah. It’s like, oh, Atlanta. Okay.

Chanel James: But at least in Atlanta, I mean, sorry to change the subject a little bit, but Tyler Perry, the studio, I feel like, I don’t know, Atlanta is on the come up with a lot of things.

Maurice Cherry: It is on the come up of a lot of things. I think particularly as it relates to entertainment. I would even say as it relates to tech, but it certainly doesn’t get the same level of, I think-

Chanel James: Respect.

Maurice Cherry: Oh absolutely not. It doesn’t get the same level of respect at all as like what’s happening in California or what’s happening in New York, Georgia still, because you know what ends up happening, I mean Atlanta is still very much a blue dot in a red state if we’re talking politically. So there are political issues which crop up that will overshadow a lot of other good things that are happening here. Like for example, the abortion heartbeat bill from earlier this year, that came up and then people from Hollywood wanted to boycott Georgia, boycott Atlanta really. And Atlanta is, because we’re that like blue dot in the red state, we get the brunt of that. It’s very much a different world once you leave Atlanta in terms of being in Georgia. So to that effect there are a lot of things that happen here that oftentimes will just get overlooked because it doesn’t come in the, I guess in the right package. I don’t know. It’s an odd thing-

Chanel James: I mean and that sucks too because I’m still pretty young. I mean, it doesn’t even matter about age, but essentially I have time to go anywhere. I have time to explore everything. But when I think about, I’m like, okay, so where can I go? What’s next after this? DC is hot and happening. There’s always jobs, there’s always things going on. But do I want to live in DC forever? Probably not. Absolutely not. And I’m like, do I want to move back home to Richmond? Probably not. There’s no jobs. I don’t consider jobs there.

Chanel James: And so then I’m like, oh, I don’t want to move to New York. I don’t want to be that girl. I don’t want to be that person right now. Who knows what’s going to happen in like two or three years. But when I think about Midwest and things like that, South, what’s happening in the South, you’re right. I mean other than Atlanta, because I think about different companies and things like that’s there. I don’t see myself in many other places and then it just puts me back on like, well, let me see what’s happening here in DC, which is unfortunate because I feel like there’s so many amazing things that each city can bring in terms of design life and culture.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. You have to really kind of work hard to make and carve out whatever that space looks like. I remember when I was 29, 30, I was really trying to move out of Atlanta hardcore. I was like, this is not working. My career has hit a plateau. Well, at that point, let’s say I was 29, 30, I had started my studio. I had just finished up this political campaign that I was working on and so things were kind of on an uptick, but I still felt like I was hitting a wall and I was like, I am not going to get better in my career until I leave and go to New York.

Maurice Cherry: So I had a friend of mine in New York who was sending me all these apartment listings and everything and I mean, long story short, I didn’t move to New York, but I ended up finding a way to make it work here, which is not to say that I gave up, but certainly I just couldn’t, I personally couldn’t see myself in New York. I mean I’m a Southern boy through and through. I know that about me and I mean I’ve visited New York a ton of times. New York is just, I wouldn’t vibe with the city. Like that’s just not how my whole, my energy would not vibe with New York. So I was like, I can’t do New York. I can visit, but I can’t live there.

Chanel James: Same. And I’m from New Jersey originally. All my family’s in New Jersey. And before that, Alabama. So, I mean, I never lived in Alabama, but my family has. And so I also am the same way about like the North. I’m like, no, thank you. But I think that that’s also another thing with being a mid level designer. You mentioned how you saw yourself somewhere and you tried to go for… So when you’re in the middle of it, I’m going to call it in the middle of it, you’re essentially looking at multiple roads in front of you and you’re like, my actions right now can affect where I am by the time I’m 30 or by the time I’m 35 and things like that. I just turned 24 so I’m always cautious and thinking of what’s going to happen if I do jump job, do find another… Should I try to work abroad for a few years like some of the other people you’ve interviewed?

Chanel James: I listened to some people who are moving to China and going to Germany, I’m like, maybe I should try, is that something I should try to do before I’m X amount of years old? Or maybe I should, I don’t have a family. I have no ties to anything. So I’m like, I should do this, or maybe I should do this. I’m looking at all of these different paths that I can take and it can sometimes be really overwhelming. And I think that’s the other part about being in the middle of your career because you’re not quite sure what can happen and what can change. And that’s with life in general, obviously, but it’s a bigger thing when you’re looking at like all of your idols and the people you look up to. You’re like, okay, I see that they made this decision, but what’s going to be right for me type thing so.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I think, I mean that involves a lot of introspection. It involves really sitting down with yourself and saying, or answering the question, what does success look like for me? What is the space? And this is.

Maurice Cherry: What is the space, and this is something that we actually explored at Black in Design this past weekend, but there was one of the things about how do we carve out a space for wellness and for joy. Because I mean certainly in America, I mean we black folks in America, we know what the deal is in terms of how we’re perceived by society, treated by society and law enforcement, incarceration, a number of different things that are set up to go against us as just basic human beings. Does that change if we move overseas? Maybe. I think certainly from the folks I’ve talked to on the show, it’s a trade off.

Chanel James: Right.

Maurice Cherry: You certainly gain some things, but you lose other things. I remember I was talking to Douglas Turner, I think he was episode 107 or something like that. He lived in Iceland for a number of years and he was talking about how the Icelandic society is very tribal in that, everyone kind of knows each other and he’s the only black man in Iceland.[laughter]

Maurice Cherry: And saying how for him it didn’t feel like racism really existed there.

Chanel James: Right.

Maurice Cherry: Which I thought was interesting considering he’d be one of the few people of color there. And then coming back to the States and seeing how it was different. Another interview with Qa’id Jacobs, who’s a UX designer in Amsterdam. Originally from, I think he’s from Jersey, New York. He’s originally from the Northeast U.S. But him and his family are in Amsterdam and we actually had a two part episode. The first part was, Hey, you know, you’re out there in Amsterdam, what’s it like working out there, et cetera. And then we recorded the second episode right after Trump was elected and it was a pretty heavy episode. I think it’s episode 179, but I remember cause it came right at the end of 2016. We had this conversation like, well do you think you would come back?

Maurice Cherry: Now given the state of how things are, what would that look like? And I know, now I’ve been talking to several people who are really seriously considering moving abroad; moving to another country; going to Ghana or going to.

Maurice Cherry: Isaac Hayes, who I interviewed a couple of months ago, is in China right now with his family. A friend of mine right now is currently going through Thailand.

Chanel James: Wow.

Maurice Cherry: Just coworking. He says it’s like a black coworking space in Thailand in Chiang Mai.

Chanel James: What? Where? How?

Maurice Cherry: I have a passport. [laughter] We can go. We need to make this happen. If we need to start doing Black Design ex-pac trips, we can make that happen. I think about that a lot as just the industry is changing, the wages that the world is changing and what does that mean for like our safety and our sanctity. Not just as practitioners of this craft in this industry, but just as people in this world. It’s heavy stuff. It’s a lot of heavy stuff cause especially when I think about what is it that is stopping black designers from becoming leaders of design? Clearly we’re out there and we’ve had a couple of them on the show, but it’s very few and far in between. Even even.

Chanel James: Oh no, I’m sorry, go ahead. No, go, keep going.

Maurice Cherry: I was going to say even some of the projects that I’ve done, most recently, the literary anthology I did, Recognize, is about trying to set up what does the next generation look like because yeah, we have the big names now. And I’m not singling them out, but we have Debbie Millman, we have Stefan Seigmaster, Polisher. We have these big names, but they’re not going to live forever.

Chanel James: No that’s.

Maurice Cherry: What does the next generation of design criticism, design thought, design leadership look like for this industry? Cause a lot of people from around the world do take their cues from what’s happening in design in America. So if we’re putting forth this monolithic, monocultural view of what design is based on the people that are practicing it, then where does that leave us?

Chanel James: Right. And I think on that note, with who the next leaders are for me, my focus used to be so much on who’s already there. Right. I’m looking at, for me, some of my idols, Diane Holton, who I used to fangirl over all the time and now I work alongside her. We’re both on the same programming team for AIGA. When I was looking at these large names in my eyes, I’m like, well they’re already there. That’s when I switched my thought process a little bit to who’s alongside me. Who’s with me right now? Who’s doing amazing work? Who’s doing amazing things, who’s probably going to be the next big thing in terms of our industry. I don’t know if like you listen to this quote that Issa Ray, who I also stan. She said instead of networking up, network across.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Chanel James: We just had our DC design week a few weeks ago and I was able to create a program; an event around my friend Bria Taylor. She does these amazing, she started out as a designer.

Chanel James: She’s still a designer, but she designs these kick ass looking cakes. It’s called Killer Cakes and she is so talented to the point where I’m like you need to have your own show on TLC or something or wherever they’re doing the baking things nowadays. [laughter] I was using my leadership role at AIG. On our chapter board, I was able to create a program that sold out, oversold out actually around her speaking about her process, her story, what she does, and then selling had her make a little bit extra money by doing a pop up shop with brownies and cakes and things like that. And I was like, that’s what I feel like we mid level designers should be trying to do. Instead of step on each other.

Chanel James: Use each other to build each other up. Refer each other for projects that we can’t take instead of just letting the project fall through. Telling each other about, Hey Bria is having an event happening on Saturday, or Simone’s having an event tomorrow. Building a network within ourselves and then that eventually the eyes are going to start turning on us and it’s like, Oh these, this is what this person is doing in the industry. And then that’s when the shift happens. Some people still can have a competitive mindset of, Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this opportunity. Oh, I’m not going to tell you about this stuff. And then it can be even harder than what it already is. I had a friend recently tell me about the Add Color Conference.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. They’re like a conference and an award show.

Chanel James: Right. But there’s also an opportunity some type of fellowship opportunity. I don’t know, I’m going to say fellowship, but it’s a really cool opportunity for young people who are creatives to, or in the marketing. Some people worked at Facebook and things like that, who get mentored for a week gets to take these classes, gets to take back these it’s like workshopping and things like that. And then they get sponsored to go to the award show and meet some of the leaders in that industry and things like that. My friend could’ve kept it a secret and be like, Oh, I’m going to apply when that time comes. But she instead shared that information with me and was like, yeah, you should also do. I see you also in this space able to do that. And I think that type of mindset is important for where we are in our careers right now because it’s the only way that we’ll be seen.

Maurice Cherry: No, I agree. I think so there’s two examples when you talk about that networking across. One is this sort of, and sorry, I don’t know if anyone has written about this. This may be a free idea if there are any journalists that are listening, but over the past five years there’s been this emergence of are you familiar with the Brack Pack? Does that name sound familiar?

Chanel James: No, not at all.

Maurice Cherry: So the Brack Pack was a group of actors in the eighties and nineties that all ended up starring in the same similar types of movies as Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, Patrick Dempsey, Rob Lowe, some folks like this. They all were friends, but then they also were in all these movies together and stuff like that. The name sort of comes from the Rat Pack, which were a group of musicians in the 50s and 60s. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Dean Martin, couple of other folks.

Maurice Cherry: But now I feel like there was this emergence of a black path in a way. Where it’s like Issa Ray, who you mentioned earlier. Melina Mitsui SKUs, Quinta Brunson. I’m thinking of people that have started on the web and have moved up into larger areas of media and they all work.

Chanel James: Together.

Maurice Cherry: With and across each other together in a really interesting way because you see them in each other’s projects and you’re like, okay, they’re working together. That sort of thing. I also see that honestly in the podcasting world too. Are you familiar with The Read?

Chanel James: Yes, absolutely. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: So The Read, there’s a number of shows that are in the same orbit of The Read, but they’re all friends. There’s The Friend Zone with Hey Fran, Hey and Dustin and Asante. There’s Getting Grown with Jane and Kia. There’s Jade and XD, and they all are friends, but they all have their own separate shows and platforms. But they all cross pollinate [chuckle] with each other. And I’m like, that is so dope. I would love to see what a black sort of design collective of some sort will look like if we were doing that. [inaudible 00:48:34] What could we accomplish and put out in the world with that sort of thing?

Chanel James: Right. I talk about that all the time with some of my friends. I have a friend in New York, Tavis Northam, who is a designer, director, photographer, and we are always collaborating on projects and then he came out with this indie short called Bakari about this runaway slave. And I created the poster for it. He’s always referring me all the time. I’m referring him. Same with, Oh man, it’s so funny. I can’t believe I’m printing your name, but some of my friends who actually went to Black and Design, I’m the same way with them and I think, that that emergence is already kind of happening. When you look on certain channels on Instagram, certain things popping up. People are creating a lot. There’s a lot of things like Well Read Black Girl. I don’t know if that

Maurice Cherry: Oh yeah, yeah, I’m familiar with that.

Chanel James: Things like that; platforms like that that are black creatives also on Instagram. Things that you can hashtag and tag. It’s a feed that you can kind of scroll through that is getting larger and larger by the month where you’re seeing people support each other. I gained a lot of my followers I think by my different hat. I always hashtag in on my art on Instagram and then I get people messaging me, deeming me, and all of a sudden I have a whole network of new friends who are enjoying the same things like type arts and things like that as I am. So yeah, I think that’s cool and it’s really important.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I would really like to see more of that; working together, collaborating on projects and things like that. I mean I even try to help out where I can. Certainly, for people who I’ve had on the show. If there is something they’re interested in, I try to make those connections. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.

Chanel James: To be honest I’m not afraid. For a long time I would write notes from the PI. The different episodes that really inspired me and I would message, I would go on in LinkedIn or wherever they said at the end of the show to talk to them. I would message and be like, Hey, my name is Chanel. You really inspired me with this thing that you said. Just wanted to let you know that effected me. One girl who you interviewed, I think she was from Boston. Her name started with a D and I’m blanking on exactly what it was, but maybe last year I reached out to her on Instagram and we actually ended up becoming like, I’m not going to say friend friends, but like IgE friends and I would comment on her work and stuff like that. But she was, I think she was also my age. So I was super excited to hear her story and hear her process and hear how what she was able to do after school.

Maurice Cherry: In Boston? I’m trying to think who that is.

Chanel James: Okay. Boston. Maybe Connecticut? She [inaudible] but I don’t think she went to [inaudible].

Maurice Cherry: Oh! Daniqua Rambert her name.

Chanel James: Deniqua. Yes.

Maurice Cherry: She goes by Willow now, but yeah.

Chanel James: Oh Okay. She definitely was a big inspiration to me and I think I caught her off guard when I messaged her. [laughter] I was like, hey girl. [laughter] I’m a fan! She was probably like, who is this girl? I mean, she seemed cool with it. I was cool with it. I know. [laughter].

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well when you look at, I mean we’re coming up at not just the end of a year, but the end of a decade right now. What do you see yourself doing in the next five years? Like it’s 2025 what is Chanel James working on?

Chanel James: Wow. Okay. So I definitely wrote out my five year plan.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. [laughter].

Chanel James: This was actually on my five year plan. So Pat on the back for me for making a revision path. [laughter] I’d say I don’t ever say where I am because I don’t like jinxing it. I say how I feel and what I’m doing for other people. So I’m financially able to support myself and my family. Me and my parents. [chuckle] And I am continuing to create spaces for specifically black and brown youth to enter specifically the design realm; a creative space to encourage them to be creative and educating them on what design is and looks like. I think that’s my biggest hope for myself on these next couple of years. Especially entering the new decade is to introduce design as a possibility to more people; young people of color and older people of color. Because you can always switch careers and just create spaces where they able to be there, their fullest self.

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

Chanel James: So I am on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn and not Facebook. LinkedIn. You can find me on Instagram at Chanel Niari, C H A N E L N Y R E and on Twitter at Chanel_Niari and there’s also my website, chaneljames.com.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Chanel James, I want to thank you for coming on the show and not just sharing your story, but also really for first of all, really illuminating conversation. I love being able to really talk and go into these sorts of issues around identity, and the industry, and motivation, and all that sort of stuff and I hope that others that listen to it will get inspired too. I feel like there’s a lot of folks that are in the middle, but the thing is the middle is very vast as we sort of discussed. It can be a few years in to a decade or more. There’s a big gap there where a lot of us are in the middle of it, as you put it earlier and I’m just really glad to be able to talk about these things with you. Glad you’re able to mark this off your five year plan. But this was really, really great. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

Chanel James: Yeah, no, thanks for having me. And I encourage anyone to, if you felt inspired by this, to reach out. I’m always excited to chat and network with people. Let’s make this, what did you call it? Black Pack. [laughter] Let’s make it happen. Let’s make it real. So thanks so much for Maurice, for having me on the show.

Facebook Design is a proud sponsor of Revision Path. The Facebook Design community is designing for human needs at unprecedented scale. Across Facebook’s family of apps and new product platforms, multi-disciplinary teams come together to create, build and shape communication experiences in service of the essential, universal human need for connection. To learn more, please visit facebook.design.

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Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Maurice Cherry and edited by Brittani Brown. 

I knew about Aricka Lewis through our mutual volunteer work through AIGA, so I’m really glad we had a chance to talk so I could learn more about her!

Aricka is a senior UX designer at Ad Hoc, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas, so our conversation began talking about the ins and outs of her work, as well as what it feels like teaching at her alma mater. We also spoke a bit about design communities in non-urban metropolitan areas and other designers who influence her, plus I learned about Aricka’s vocal stylings with the band The Honey Collective. According to Aricka, designers shouldn’t be afraid to put themselves out there, and I think this interview really drives that point home!

Full Transcript

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

Aricka Lewis: I am Aricka Lewis. I’m a senior UX designer at a company called Ad Hoc, it’s a government agency. And then I also am an adjunct professor for the School of Art at the University of Arkansas.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Talk to me a little bit about the work you do as a UX designer at Ad Hoc.

Aricka Lewis: Sure. So this is a new role for me. I’ve been there just a little over maybe a month and a half at this point, but my focus right now is on making sure veterans have access to all of the benefits that they can receive from the federal government. Right now, a lot of that information is spread across the internet and there are a lot of predatory companies that will charge veterans to learn about that access.

Aricka Lewis: And so it’s part of my job to understand what those avenues are, and consolidating them in one place, so that they are easy access, especially for those who might not have the ability, physically or mentally or emotionally, to take up the space to go out and look for it. So it’s really rewarding work. Definitely difficult at times. But I kind of like that it’s difficult, because it creates an empathy and awareness within me that I wasn’t fully aware of before I started.

Maurice Cherry: That’s not even something I consider when I think about UX roles as it relates to veterans. That’s an interesting thing. What’s kind of a regular day like for you?

Aricka Lewis: Oh, a regular day. It depends. So, let me think about that. I would say that it normally starts out with me researching and understanding veteran behaviors on the internet, because what we’re doing on va.gov is a lot of consolidation of a lot of other sites. It’s a lot of research on my part to go out and figure out what all is there.

Aricka Lewis: And it’s a lot of actually talking to veterans, which is a really, really cool thing for me, having come from an enterprise background previously, to actually be able to talk directly to the folks that are using the products. So a lot of researching, a lot of talking with them to understand how to put that stuff together. And then luckily, VA has a really extensive design system and it’s public. All of the VA repos on GitHub are public as well.

Aricka Lewis: So, just really cool stuff to learn about in that aspect of research, and then just putting it all together and testing. We work obviously, maybe not obviously, but we work in two week sprint cycles. So each sprint is a little bit different. But for the most part, there’s that research and validation with veterans or some format like that, each sprint.

Maurice Cherry: What does veteran behavior look like online? I’m curious, as much of that as you can sort of dive into. I’m curious about…

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, it’s actually interesting and I don’t know if it’s because of the military training, but veterans are really, really efficient. They want to get in and out. So they will oftentimes find a lot of really strange workarounds or shortcuts on websites.

Aricka Lewis: And so a lot of my work is me understanding like, okay, this isn’t the flow that I would have assumed, but would be the way that you would do this thing. But they’re just very, very efficient in the way that they use the internet, no matter really what age they are, they will find what they’re looking for no matter how. So, that’s been really interesting, for sure.

Maurice Cherry: What would you say has kind of been the biggest challenge so far with this role? Because you’re fairly new there, right?

Aricka Lewis: Yes. So the biggest challenge for me, especially being new, is just understanding how to talk to people who have seen a lot more than I will probably have ever seen in my life. And it’s really tough sometimes, but really worthwhile.

Aricka Lewis: And so I wouldn’t say design specifically is challenging, but more so personally in line with the empathetic thinking that comes with design. It can be challenging, for sure.

Maurice Cherry: I remember this was a while ago, I met someone who, he had a podcast where he would interview basically, elderly people. He will interview people I think maybe 60 and up or 70 and up. It was called The Greatest Generation, I believe. And I remember he mentioned sort of a similar thing with talking with them, it’s like how do you ask questions to someone who has experienced so much in life, so you don’t come off sounding stupid or ill-informed or anything like that? Do you find that the veterans are pretty amicable though?

Aricka Lewis: Oh, absolutely. I think especially because I’m working on something that will honestly make their lives a lot easier, they’re more than willing to talk and be open and honest about it. So oftentimes, they’re thanking me for even talking with them about this thing that they didn’t really consider a human being behind.

Aricka Lewis: So that’s nice, and personally pretty rewarding.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Now, earlier this year you were at RevUnit, which I think that’s where I first heard about you. What was that experience like?

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, so I was at RevUnit for maybe three and a half years or so. I think that’s right. And they focus primarily on enterprise applications and products. And so a lot of what I was doing was for large companies like Walmart, Zappos, H-E-B if you’re Texan, and some others. And so it was a lot of working with data, data visualization, and large numbers of people using really targeted and focused products.

Aricka Lewis: For example, I worked on a note taking app for employees of Walmart, so they can basically do their work a little bit quicker and easier and it’s digitized versus having to write them in notepads, like they were doing before. And it impacted hundreds of thousands of people. So the scale of work was definitely quite large at RevUnit.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. Now, you’re in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We talked about that a little bit before we, started recording. Is that where you grew up too?

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, so I moved to Fayetteville when I was eight, I want to say seven or eight. My family is from lower Southeastern Arkansas, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. And my mom actually moved here to go to law school. So I’ve been here for almost 20 years.

Maurice Cherry: Wow. Was design and tech a big part of your world growing up? Were you exposed to it pretty early?

Aricka Lewis: No, not at all. So a lot of my family members are teachers. As I mentioned, my mom is an attorney, so a lot of academia, which I think I’m fortunate in that aspect. And because of that, I think my family members were really exploratory in the way that we were able to learn. So although we didn’t talk about design or maybe art as a career focus, there was a lot of creativity and problem solving in the way that we, I’m saying we, like me and my cousins, grew up when we were younger.

Maurice Cherry: I would imagine probably a lot of analysis too.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: How did you first kind of get into UX? Like how did you know this was something that you could turn into a career?

Aricka Lewis: It’s kind of a roundabout way, which I’m sure everybody says, since it’s such a new kind of industry. But I had a traditional, if you will, design job out of college for a couple months. And then I moved into e-commerce and when I was working in e-commerce I realized that I was, I didn’t know the term at the time, but iterating my designs based on the behavior. So click through rates and how much revenue was generated depending on which ad was being shown, and what banners were shown and things like that.

Aricka Lewis: And so pretty early on, I gained an interest in how people were reacting to the way in which I was designing. So I started working on the daily UI challenge. I’m sure you’ve probably heard of that or something very similar. And from there, I just decided, this is a field of design that I didn’t learn about in school. I want to take some more time and learn about it.

Aricka Lewis: So I took a junior UI job at RevUnit, the technology agency here in, it’s in Bentonville, Arkansas, but not too far from me. And it just went on from there. I was doing UI for a while and then realized, oh, user behavior is actually like a thing that I can focus on. So I moved into UX and user experience and understanding how people could navigate through the designs that I was creating.

Maurice Cherry: And you went to the University of Arkansas, is that right?

Aricka Lewis: Yup.

Maurice Cherry: What was their design program like?

Aricka Lewis: So the design program, when I was there, it was less than fantastic. I don’t want to put anybody on blast seeing as how I worked there. It’s changed a lot since I graduated. But when I was there, they didn’t have a graphic design program. It was like a, what is it? A bachelor of art in visual emphasis and visual design or something along those lines.

Aricka Lewis: And so really, it was a lot of art history classes and painting classes. And then I think I actually took four actual graphic design classes to graduate. I didn’t learn a whole lot by way of what I could do with design. But I did learn the principles of design, which I think have just still been foundational in my career.

Maurice Cherry: And now as you were there and you were going through the program, do you feel like they were really preparing you for the world out there as a designer in the job market?

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, I do. I’m fortunate, because the instructors that I had, a lot of them had been working, I don’t want to say in the real world, but in the real world outside of academia before teaching. And so it was nice to have them give us real world experience. And then they did have a professional development class too, where we would go to different agencies in the area and talk with people and understand like, okay, I went to design school, but I’m actually like a marketing agent now. Or, I’m actually, I’m the creative director at a tech company now or whatever it might be.

Aricka Lewis: So they did expose us to different types of jobs within the creative industry.

Maurice Cherry: Okay. And just a few years after you graduated, you also teach there. You mentioned before that you’re an educator. What is that feeling like? I can only imagine like you were just there as a student and now you have students.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, it’s really bizarre, because I guess I can call him my colleague now, but he teaches the same class that I teach, but he was my instructor when I was there. So it’s definitely interesting to say the least. It also kind of keeps me on my toes because it forces me to be sharp in the things that have kind of become second nature. I think in order to teach, you really have to know what you’re talking about.

Aricka Lewis: I think sometimes it can be muscle memory to just execute work, but to teach people and to have them understand it, I think is a whole other beast that I’ve gained a great appreciation for educators, than I’ve ever had before.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I would even say also, the other challenge that comes with that is that the stuff that you’re teaching is also sort of constantly changing and shifting. Can you talk about like some of the courses that you’re teaching?

Aricka Lewis: Yeah. So I teach the UX course and it’s interesting, because like you mentioned, it does change quite often, just the field in general. And so moving into it, students are used to having this very well laid out design brief or syllabus of the products that they’re going to do from their professor.

Aricka Lewis: But in this instance, in this class, I had been talking with a developer in the area who had an idea for an app. I was like, well, I’ve got this class and we can kind of see what we come up with throughout the course of the semester, using the design product lifecycle as a guide for how we’re going to move.

Aricka Lewis: Students are definitely not used to that, and I think it’s put them in an uncomfortable position, but one of growth and not necessarily something that’s undesirable. So that’s been interesting to seem, for sure.

Maurice Cherry: What’s it been like being a young faculty member? Do you find that students take you seriously or is it the opposite?

Aricka Lewis: They’re really respectful and I don’t know if it’s just the generation of people, but they’re just really, really nice. I couldn’t ask for a better group of students to have. It’s weird, because I don’t consider myself that much older than them. I think my students were born in maybe 1999 or 2000. I was born 1993, but I feel like the generational gap is a little bit different between them.

Aricka Lewis: So sometimes I still feel old, but I know that I’m not old. I saw one of my students wearing Air Force 1s and I tried to make a reference about how I still had mine from like 2006, and she was just like, that’s weird. But for the most part, they’re really respectful and I really enjoy having them.

Maurice Cherry: Are there any challenges that you face from them? I mean, aside from I guess just the fact that you are in the same generation sort of, but what are you… I’m just curious to know about like what current design students are going through, because there’s so many different choices for them now, and there’s so much information out there for them to get, whether it’s in the classroom, out the classroom, et cetera.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, these students, so they have classes like human centered design now, which was something that, it was starting up when I was there, but it wasn’t as fleshed out as it is now. Obviously, they’re still really into illustration and type and things like that too. But it’s been really cool to see students have such an interest in research as a design practice and human behavior.

Aricka Lewis: And outside of that, they’re just really, really talented. They are coming for my wig. I’m surprised. There’s sophomores and juniors who are doing incredible, incredible work. I think they also have this just awareness of social responsibility and they take that into account into their work.

Aricka Lewis: For example, we were doing user surveys, and I think someone put gender as an option on the survey and they were questioning if it was relevant to the survey data, and was it going to be relevant in our research? It’s just those questions that I wouldn’t have even thought to ask when I was 19 or 20 or whatever age in college. But it’s really, really cool to see how they’re thinking about environmental and social impact of their work.

Maurice Cherry: Interesting. I just came back from the Black in Design Conference not too long ago, and that was one of the things that they were talking about as they spoke on spaces, about carving out sort of these spaces where you can use your design work in a way that can have a social impact in that way.

Maurice Cherry: Other than what you’ve mentioned, are there other things that your students teach you?

Aricka Lewis: They have definitely taught me patience and they’ve taught me how to be clear and direct. I think-

Aricka Lewis: … how to be clear and direct. I think, oftentimes, a lot of us, but I focus, or I suffer from imposter syndrome quite a bit, and so they’ve really taught me how to be confident in the work that I know that I know how to do and how to communicate directly and clearly so that someone who doesn’t understand those things can clearly understand them.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Nice. Now you’re still pretty early in your career from what I’m picking up here. Have there been any resources or mentors or anyone that has really helped you out along the way, any organizations maybe that have helped you out along the way?

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, so these are two separate things, but organization-wise, I joined AIGA when I was in college to go to one of their portfolio reviews, and this is before we had a chapter here in Northwest Arkansas, but I joined it, the Kansas City chapter because it’s close, about three hours away from me, to do a student portfolio review, and I just met a lot of just connections and people that had so many different backgrounds in design or in tech that gave me really valuable feedback or even just advice, and I still have a lot of those connections to this day. I think through AIGA, I’ve learned, or I’ve met a lot of different people over the years who’ve also become mentors.

Aricka Lewis: One person specifically, she’s not a member of AIGA, but her name is Lisa Baskett. She started at RevUnit a little bit after I did, but she’s like the most amazing designer/researcher I’ve ever met ever. She quickly became a mentor of mine when I was at RevUnit pretty early on in my career there. She helped mold where I wanted to grow and develop. I’ve kind of, for a while, I was mirroring how she was working, what she was doing so that I could kind of become as good as her. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I really looked up to her, and I still do, still talk to her all the time, but I think if she didn’t start there, I wouldn’t have known as much as I did early on about user research and user experience.

Maurice Cherry: What’s the design scene like in Fayetteville? I didn’t even know that Fayetteville would have had an active AIGA chapter or even AIGA group of people

Aricka Lewis: It’s interesting because there’s always been quite a few really good designers in the Northwest Arkansas area. There just was never a community to bring them all together. A group of I guess colleagues or friends of mine started the AIGA chapter here in Northwest Arkansas in the end of 2016, early 2017. I think that kind of encourage folks to start coming out and engaging as a group as a whole. There are a lot of little underground DIY scenes in the area, and so having kind of one meeting space for everyone to come together was a really, really great first step.

Aricka Lewis: Additionally, there’s a lot of companies here like Walmart and Tyson and J. B. Hunt that employ a lot of UX designers as they move into that ecommerce or whatever-you-want-to-call-it field, and they’re starting to kind of become tech companies internally within the organizations, and so a lot of their designers started coming to our events as well. The design community has really grown here, and our membership base grew wildly thanks to a lot of the companies here that provide jobs for them.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. I’ve always just been curious about that with small towns because we hear so much from Silicon Valley, San Francisco, LA, and New York about all the great design things there, but there’s tons of cities and communities between those extremes that you really just don’t hear about what’s going on in smaller towns. I relayed this story before we started recording about going to Raleigh-Durham a few years ago and noticing what a vibrant scene they had there, which I honestly would not have known unless I had went there. I didn’t know that the need and the drive was so strong in Fayetteville to start your own chapter and really start putting things together.

Aricka Lewis: There’s surprisingly… maybe not surprising. Not surprisingly to me, but maybe to others. There are a lot of small design agencies here as well. Some do work for the larger companies and some don’t, but there’s a really, really big design scene here, and I say big obviously per square mile maybe, I don’t know, but for it to be a small area, it really is growing, and more and more agencies are popping up, which is really, really great to see.

Maurice Cherry: Nice. Nice. Now what… Tell me some more about the work you’re doing with the AIGA. You mentioned this chapter, but you’re also doing something else with the task force, D&I task force.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, so my role has kind of evolved over time. I started out as a programming director and am now a VP of inclusion and initiatives for the chapter. Recently, within the last couple of years, we had the AIGI D&I, the national D&I task force had a meeting here in Arkansas where we invited all of the members of the task force plus all of the D&I representatives from each of the chapters nationally to come to Northwest Arkansas where we just talked about the initiative as a whole and how chapters locally can impact their community and how we can diversify AIGA’s membership because it’s well-known that aid is not very diverse, and so how can we help facilitate the work to make space for those who are not represented in our membership.

Aricka Lewis: It was really, really cool to see. I was happy to have everyone come see Arkansas and make their own opinion instead of just reading what you learn in the news or whatever it might be. It was great to have them come and actually witness Arkansas for themselves.

Maurice Cherry: What do you think is the single most important skill that a designer needs these days? It can be a technical skill. It can be a soft skill. What do you think in your experience?

Aricka Lewis: The single most important skill that a designer should have. I think… Hmm. That’s a good question. I’m trying to figure out how to word it. I might stumble for a second. The ability to analyze problems, and I know that seems super vague and buzzwordy, but I say that because I think oftentimes designers like to jump to a solution or something they think they like or something that they’ve used before, and they want to apply it to the same situation, but I think the ability to really dive into a problem, understand who’s being impacted by it, what the impact is, and why it matters, why it’s important is highly valuable and I think even more important than just designing a solution because if you just go out and throw something out there, it could just… it couldn’t be the right thing or it could, but I think being able to understand either if it’s a user or if it’s just a blanket problem that might affect a lot of different people, those are important things to know.

Maurice Cherry: And I would say there’s so many UX designers out there now, which is really why I ask this question, whether it’s through a formal program like what you’re teaching or through something like general assembly or even self-taught courses, I feel like the number of UX designers over the years has steadily just been increasing. I think the part that you mentioned there about really being able to analyze problems, that’s something that is super important for any designer to know, whether it’s putting it together your portfolio, it’s not just enough to have a bunch of pretty images. You should have something which explains the choices behind why you designed it this way. That is, I think, will help set you apart from a lot of other people.

Aricka Lewis: I think being able to talk about your work is also valuable, so not only being able to show that you do good work, but talk about how you got there and your process. That’s something that I’m trying to get my students to do right now.

Maurice Cherry: When did you realize that you kind of had to put yourself out there in this way in order to kind of start making things happen?

Aricka Lewis: This is kind of sad, but I had a really, really tough client meeting when I was first starting out doing some UI work, and I couldn’t articulate why I had made the decisions that I had made. I started crying, and it was so embarrassing because I just couldn’t, I don’t know, I couldn’t talk about my work. I think it was because I was paralyzing myself and I was afraid of failure and I was afraid to put myself out there and just say, “This is why I did this, and I think it’s the right thing,” so instead I just didn’t say anything.

Aricka Lewis: I didn’t want to put myself in that position again, and so I learned from that. The next time I had a client meeting where I had to present my work, I was more confident in talking about my process and the method in which I got there and why I did what I did. It may not have been the right solution, but I was applauded for, I keep saying it, putting myself out there, but I was applauded for just being open to hearing feedback and for including people in that process. It really does impact more people than just yourself if you are the face of that confidence and that opportunity.

Maurice Cherry: Absolutely. What do you wish you really would have known about, I guess, the design world when you first started?

Aricka Lewis: If I’m being honest, I wish I would’ve known how not diverse it is. That was a really hard thing to go through when I first started. I’m in a sorority, and I was just used to seeing a sea of different faces in college, and so when I went into the workforce, it was jarring, and I was not expecting that. I definitely wish that I was… I don’t know how you become more prepared for that, but it would’ve just been nice to know. I was kind of blinded by it, and I want to say it’s because I didn’t have any professors of color when it came to my art career.

Maurice Cherry: Interesting. Now here you are as a professor of color, I mean, not teaching art, but teaching UX, so at least your students kind of have that to look up to as a possibility model.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. That’s part of the reason that I agreed to do it because I was a little like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe they’re me. I feel like I don’t have enough experience under my belt,” but in reality, this experience that I have I think is just as valuable as someone who’s been in the field for 20 years who might not experience the same type of workforce that I do. I was willing to put myself out there so that that visibility is there for students who were like me and wanted to get into design but maybe didn’t see someone else who looked like them.

Maurice Cherry: Who are some of your influences? What drives you to continue with this work?

Aricka Lewis: I would say… so someone else asked me this question recently, and funny enough, I said you.

Maurice Cherry: Me? Oh.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah. I think that… so surprised, this is The Maurice Show now. No, I’m just kidding. I said you were one of my influences because you have put yourself out there in so many different avenues and have started a lot of different projects that, big or small, impacted a lot of people, and I think that’s important work, so definitely you, and then my professor who sparked something in me as far as social impact and social, I guess, justice go, Marty Maxwell Lane. She’s a big influence of mine. She does a lot of community work in the area, and now she is on the National Board of Directors for AIGA.

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Aricka Lewis: Again, just people who are not afraid to just get out there and do stuff, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Maurice Cherry: It’s interesting… I mean, first of all, I’m very flattered for you to say that. I’m a little taken back by that, but it’s interesting because, I mean, the one good thing that I will say about technology that has really helped with making projects like these is that it’s helped to democratize ideas, so anyone can have an idea, that’s great, but it’s just about what you’re able to do with it. Oh, my god, who did I speak to recently? I believe I was speaking to Ari Melenciano recently, and she said something that really clicked with me about how at first when she was trying to learn how to code, it was very difficult for her, but then once she got past the learning curve, she realized that you were just like putting pieces together.

Maurice Cherry: I think for me, when it’s come to making projects, I’ll know what it is I want to make, and it helps me to break it down into those components to know like, “Oh, these are the pieces that I need in order to do the thing.” For example, the recent anthology that I just published with the InVision, RECOGNIZE, that was something where, well, one, we received the grant from InVision, which was great, and I was like, “Okay, this is cool,” but then it came down to, “Well, how do I put all this together? Like yes, I want a submission process, so I got to put a website together.”

Maurice Cherry: I used a service called Persona, which is from the folks at Cargo Collective. It’s really great, really great for making little really small but artfully-designed websites so I don’t have to do a lot of code. It’s almost like Squarespace in a way, but it’s a little bit cooler, I think. But I knew I had to put together this website so I put it together, and then I knew I had to have these are the rules and things like that. I would say everything for RECOGNIZE came together in about three or four hours. That was really just a sense of like putting the pieces together because I knew that one part of the project I wouldn’t be able to do until I was able to get the website up because once I have the website up, then I can mark it, “Okay, we’re going to start taking submissions,” set up a really quick Google form, boom, submissions done. Submissions come in, then I know, “Okay, I have to work with an editor.” I work with the editor with InVision. We’re going back and forth on choosing the pieces. It’s done.

Maurice Cherry: I mean, even the people of InVision will tell you this. I had everything regimented out in like two-week blocks from March 1st to September 30th where I was like, “This is how it’s going to go. We’re going to publish by this date. It’s ample time. We can do this,” and it got done. It was great. Now, when I think next year, like, “Oh, I want to do this again,” it’s even easier to start from because I’ve already kind of put those little blocks together, and the learning curve is much simpler. Now it’s just, “Okay, when do I start and what is the theme going to be?” and then I can just put it out there in that way.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, absolutely. You’ve set that foundation. It’s easier to keep going from there.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aricka Lewis: Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: We have a question here. This is from a mutual friend of ours, Regine, who has also been a guest on the show. She brings up the fact that you’re a musician.

Aricka Lewis: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: She wants me to ask you if the music that you make or create has an impact on your designs.

Aricka Lewis: That’s funny, so shameless plug: I’m in a band called The Honey Collective. It’s a jazz, kind of indie jazz band. It’s really good.

Maurice Cherry: Nice.

Aricka Lewis: I would say that… So growing up, jazz has always had an influence on me just because I grew up singing jazz and musical theater, and I think show posters were always something that I was exposed to, and so my default, and even when I started doing UI, my default was just to make it look like a show poster or like a gig poster in some way.

Maurice Cherry: Oh, interesting.

Aricka Lewis: Even in school, if I think back on my work, I’m like, “Oh, that does look a lot like… ” like I think of Paula Scher’s work that she did for… My mind, I’m blanking. What’s the theater? Anyway-

Maurice Cherry: Lincoln Theatre?

Aricka Lewis: I think… In New York.

Maurice Cherry: The Jazz Theater.

Aricka Lewis: Anyhoo.

Maurice Cherry: The Kennedy Center.

Aricka Lewis: Yes.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Aricka Lewis: They’re just like jazz poster/music influence work, so that’s interesting. I don’t know if the music that I make inspires my work now, but freelance-wise, if I’m doing something just for fun or if there’s like a local exhibition or something, I think it definitely has an influence on my print work.

Maurice Cherry: That’s so interesting that it’s like gig posters and stuff. I think I saw this at an interview or I read this somewhere something about how older designers… Well, I won’t say older. We’ll say designers that have gotten their start maybe in the 2000s, like early to mid 2000s, a lot of the things that they were pulling from for inspiration were things like CD covers and album covers and gig posters and things like that because they were trying to replicate something on the web that they saw in Prince, whereas now, “Oh, you know what? I heard this on a podcast now that I’m thinking about it. Duh.” “I heard it on the Wireframe Podcast from Gimlet and Adobe,” but modern designers… we’ll say product designers from the 2010s to now, for-

Maurice Cherry: … designers, we’ll say like product designers from the 2010s to now for example, they are inspired by other websites. And so what ends up happening is that a lot of websites look the same in terms of structure because the inspiration is another website that pulled from that structure. So like, you know how you’ll go to a lot of websites and you see what hero image, a big headline, three column, then a big parallax slider or something like that. It all tends to end up looking the same. You can just sort of slot the content in and out and there’s nothing that’s really super, super unique about it. That really got me to thinking, because when I started designing, certainly, and this was back in ye olden days of table based web design, a lot of that was built off print design.

Maurice Cherry: We would design something in Dream… No, we would design something in Photoshop and then we would slice, we would make slices, because Photoshop could export an image that you’ve sliced, it can export it with the HTML. Photoshop in a way could make websites by itself. This is, I mean Dreamweaver was around, but I think this was like a, I don’t know, way to do conceptual sort of stuff. You had a lot of people that would make these really splashy looking print design things, but then it’s all chopped up into tables and cells and stuff like that. So when you go to the page, it all loads in a weird way.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And then you’ve got one little section in the middle that maybe has text in there, but when I think about what the design looked like of things during that time, it was a lot more innovative and out there because the web was like this open canvas that you could really do what you wanted to do with it. I mean, now it’s the same way, but I find a lot of sites tend to end up looking very much the same.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, and that’s interesting because I feel like people before, there were these standard looking websites, the way that people used websites was a lot different too. I think that because design started looking similar, the behavior and reaction to that is similar as well. So we talk about standard user behavior, but I wonder if that would be different if we drew inspiration from other things than just websites that looked the same. You know?

Maurice Cherry: I think so. I really think so. Yeah, wow. So grew up with Jazz and everything, I grew up with Jazz too. I played in a Jazz band in high school. I played in my, well, it was the local community college had a Jazz band and I had started out… God, this was in another interview. Was this in the… This might’ve been in the same interview I mentioned before with Adi, where I had mentioned that I learned how to play music from video games.

Aricka Lewis: Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry: I was really inspired by, we had gotten a Super Nintendo and I was inspired by the game Final Fantasy II.

Aricka Lewis: Oh, the music is beautiful from that game.

Maurice Cherry: Final Fantasy II. Yeah, oh my God. [inaudible 00:39:08] but yeah, Final Fantasy II in the US, Final Fantasy IV in Japan, but I mean, I loved the characters and got into the story, but the music was just so good and I was like, what is this music and why is it making me feel things? I had a little like, I don’t know, I got this little tape recorder thing I got from Family Dollar or something, and I would hold it up to the TV while it’s recording and then take the song and go to my little Casio 32 key keyboard and try to write out the music for it, and that’s how I learned how to play music.

Aricka Lewis: That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry: My mom saw that and was like, “Oh, you should… You know, have you learn an instrument or something.” She wanted me to play, I think she wanted me to learn how to play piano, but I just never got the coordination for it. The instrument I ended up settling on, well not settling, but the instrument I ended up learning was the trombone and I played that all through middle school, all through high school, all through college. Played it out of college in a couple of pick up bands and stuff around the city.

Maurice Cherry: I haven’t picked up a trombone in years. I know it’s like riding a bike, it’s sort of like you don’t forget it, but it’s amazing how much music has been an impact on my design, because one thing that I would do a lot when I was just trying to learn how to do Photoshop is try to recreate album covers and CD covers, and try to make this weird effect or anything like that. I don’t know, music, I empathize a lot with any musician that is also a designer. So props to that.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: Do you have a dream project or anything that you’d really love to work on one day?

Aricka Lewis: Oh, a dream project. Yes. So, for a while I was really into researching welfare and the actual demographic for welfare and who receives federal funding and why. I’ve always been interested in getting some kind of grant to do a big exhibition, like a bunch of posters on it’s not who you think it is. That’s all I have right now, but I’ve just had this idea of festering in my head, so maybe I’ll report back in a couple of years and something will come of it. But that’s definitely a dream of mine, is to inform the general public on actual government regulation and behavior versus what we think we know. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: What are you most excited about at the moment? Anything in particular?

Aricka Lewis: I am most excited about, like work-related or just anything?

Maurice Cherry: Just anything.

Aricka Lewis: Anything in general?

Maurice Cherry: Yeah.

Aricka Lewis: Okay. Well, this is not related to design, but we just started a new D&D campaign with my group of friends.

Maurice Cherry: Okay.

Aricka Lewis: And it’s really good, so I’m excited to keep playing it. I’m also, I’m actually really excited about the work that I’m doing with Ad Hoc. I am super new, so I’m just excited to settle in and kind of figure out my niche, my niche, and where I as a person will fit into the whole picture. I’m still finding my way. So that’s something to look forward to.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Now, we’re coming up on not just the end of the year, but also the end of the decade. I mean, we’ll be in 2020 very, very soon. When you look at the next five years, what’s in store for you? What do you want to be doing?

Aricka Lewis: In the next five years, I hope that I’ll still be doing some sort of impactful work and creative problem solving. Maybe it’s not UX, maybe it is, but I want to make sure that I can use my design process and design thinking mindset in a way that will have real impact on real people. I know that’s vague, but maybe it’s in policy creation or policy change, or whatever it might be, but I’m definitely interested in maintaining my work with just helping people for the sake of helping them.

Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I don’t think that’s a vague thing. I mentioned earlier before about coming back from the Black in Design Conference. That’s a lot of what that whole conference is about, like I know when I first went to it in 2015 I was trying to get people to go and they were like, “Oh, but they’re not going to be talking about Photoshop, or they’re not going to be talking about Sketch.” And I’m like, “It’s Black in Design. When is this ever going to happen again? Let’s just go and just see what it’s like.” Over the three times that I’ve went, because they have it every other year, I am consistently inspired and blown away by just how people are taking their design knowledge and applying it in so many different ways.

Maurice Cherry: Now granted, the Harvard Graduate School mostly deals with architecture, landscape design, stuff like that. More concrete, I would say, applications of design than UX or something like that. But when you see how people are just extrapolating, some of the very same skills that you’re using, interviewing, researching, making decisions and stuff like that for much larger scale projects, it is, it’s fascinating. There’s this woman, she gave the closing keynote, Deanna Van Buren, and she’s talking about how she used her design knowledge or how she uses her design knowledge to help out basically to stop the cycle of recidivism for incarceration.

Aricka Lewis: Wow.

Maurice Cherry: So I mean, it manifests itself in a number of different ways, like making modular housing for people that are inside of the prisons or for halfway houses or things like that. Even seeing how they can repurpose structures in the community that once had, like an old jail or something like that, and repurposing it into a welding school or a peacemaking center. So then something which in the community was maybe this blight is now a source of restorative justice in a way. It is so… And the good thing about it is they, well one, they stream all the things, but you can also go online and watch past sessions. So I’m able to go back and re-watch stuff and follow the work.

Maurice Cherry: If you ever get a chance to go, the next one’s going to be in 2021, which already sounds super far away, but it is such an inspiring conference just to see how people are using their work, using their design skills in many varied ways. And then just the networking, because there is all kinds of people that are there. There’s students, there’s educators, there’s just a whole bunch of people there. It’s a really great time. I recommend to everyone who I have on the show to go, because it’s just, to me, I feel like it’s one of the few events that I feel affirmed as both a designer and a black person, and they make sure that your blackness is centered first. It’s called Black in Design, it’s not like the Design Black Conference or whatever.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah.

Maurice Cherry: And there’s been other events that have popped up that are similar to that. Afrotectopia is one of them. Data for Black Lives, which also takes place in Cambridge where Black in Design does. There’s Blacks in AI, there’s Bitcon, which I think takes place in Minneapolis. Of course there’s Afro Tech, which a lot of people know about. So it’s amazing that there’s all these kind of events and spaces now that are not just about I think the practical applications, which is good, but also it’s for inspiration and for fellowship. I like that those spaces are now being carved out for us to fellowship.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, absolutely.

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

Aricka Lewis: Well, I have Instagram and Twitter. My handle is the same everywhere. It’s ArickaCL, A-R-I-C-K-A, C-L. I also have a Instagram where I practice the ukulele if you care to watch me practice music pretty poorly. It’s called Practice Today. And I have a website which is ArickaCL.com.

Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well, Aricka Lewis, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show.

Aricka Lewis: Thank you for having me.

Maurice Cherry: Well, yeah, and I just, I mean I try to have people that come on at all different levels of their career.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry: I’ve certainly had people before who I’ve asked on and they’re like, “No, I’m not…” Oh, this is so funny. I was at Black in Design and there was this guy I’ve been trying to get on the show for years and he’s like, “I’m not ready.” I’m like, “You are teaching work at MIT Media Lab.” He was like, “Yeah, but you know, we in trouble right now.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I get it.” But I try to have people at all levels just to, one, show that there’s people out there that are doing this just like you, but also I think it’s really good to be able to go back, you know, like when you’re in the future, go back and listen to who was that person back then and what was I working on, and do I still have those same hopes and dreams and wishes for what I want to do?

Maurice Cherry: So hopefully I think people will really connect with this. I mean, you know, by all means please share it with your students, but yeah, I think this was a really great episode and it was really great getting a chance to talk with you. So thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Aricka Lewis: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

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Revision Path is a Glitch Media Network podcast, and is produced by Maurice Cherry and edited by Brittani Brown.