Nakita M. Pope

We have all had to change things up in one way or other over the past few years. But if you’re like this week’s return guest, Nakita M. Pope, there’s power in pivoting! (You might remember her from my recent talk with Jordan Taylor, or from our 2016 interview.)

Our conversation started with catching up on what’s happened over the past few years, and Nakita spoke about some of her recent projects, including launching a business course and a subscription box turned online community — Bella Boss! We also talked about her work as a design educator, the recent closing of The Creative Circus, being awarded as an AIGA Fellow, and she shared how her passion projects have impacted her career. Nakita’s love for community and giving back really shines, and I think you’ll get really inspired by this interview!

Bella Boss

Branding Chicks

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Nakita M. Pope:
Hi, I’m Nakita Pope. I am a designer, creative director, studio owner, and professor. I’m the chief chick at Branding Chicks, which is a boutique branding agency here in Atlanta, Georgia. And I specialize in brand strategy and brand development for women owned businesses and femme focused brands.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, the year has been a little bit of a whirlwind. I was just talking to someone the other day and telling them that during the pandemic, everybody, well, a lot of people kind of slowed down. Everything got a little bit slower. The pace wasn’t as rigorous. For me, everything sped up a little bit. It was super busy. And so I feel like 2022 has been about wrapping up that kind of frenzied level of work and of coming back to center a little bit. So it’s been some ups and downs, but it’s been a good year. I can’t complain. It’s been a great year.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you want to try to accomplish this year, before the end of the year?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, get some rest. That is my goal by the end of this year. I am wrapping up some things right now, and that’s my goal is to take this last quarter of the year, I don’t know if it’ll be the whole quarter, but I definitely want to take some time at the end of this year to just sort of recenter myself and get some rest.

I’m always doing so many things at once. I kind of like it that way, as a creative, it keeps me from being bored. But I’m starting to realize that it’s been a very long time since I stopped everything. And so I’m looking forward to taking some space to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Good. Definitely, take that space now before, say, oh, I guess before the winter really starts. But it kind of feels like any time between Thanksgiving and New Years is sort of a down period for everybody. You know what I mean?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So-

Nakita M. Pope:
That’s true.

Maurice Cherry:
… hopefully, you’ll get a chance to get some of that rest. I think we all probably need that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, indeed. Indeed, more than we think.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk about Branding Chicks. Now, you’ve been in business now for what, over 12 years, now, right?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s been a while. It went by so fast. That sounds crazy, 12 years.

Maurice Cherry:
How has your business changed since we last talked? That was back in 2016. How has your business changed?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s changed quite a bit. A lot of it has stayed the same, but so much of it has changed. I think part of what has changed… Well, I’ll start with something that’s stayed the same. So one of the things that stayed the same is I kind of always worked remotely, because I have sort of a niche sort of brand. I feel like I end up working with people all over. And so it’s not specific to Atlanta, necessarily. And so that was always kind of how I worked. But now since the pandemic and all that stuff, I find that it’s expanding even more, because other people are now looking outside of their geographic locations even more.

And understanding that they can do really robust and deep work with people, even if they’re not necessarily in the same place or able to meet face to face. So I feel like that has both stayed the same and also changed. I feel that I’ve also been able to work with some amazing organizations that are doing really great work that I feel really strongly about, personally. I’ve been able to do some deeper dives with some brands, and do some larger projects with some of those brands. And to me that’s growth, to allow me to do more of what I want to be doing, and more of where I feel that I can have the best impact. That’s how I measure success. So in that space, I’m really happy with the direction that things are going in.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you seen a change in the market with respect to the things clients are looking for? Have things shifted or changed during the pandemic?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, yeah. I think some of it, from a brand strategy standpoint, I’m noticing more and more that organizations and companies are starting to understand that even if they were already committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, they are looking to build that and bake that into their brands a bit more. Which I love to see, because that’s something I’m passionate about as well. And I know that in some cases we see companies doing that, and we’re not sure if it’s going to stick.

But from my perspective, when I see companies that come to me for that and they are looking at the foundational parts of their brand and their brand personality and their core values and things like that, if they’re baking it into those things, then I find that they are more deeply passionate about it and more committed to it. So I see a lot of that happening on my end, which, like I said, I’m really happy to see. And it allows me to work in some of those spaces that I work in outside of my business, also, in my business. So it gives me a chance to bring some of that knowledge in, and also, help people build brands that they feel like really represents them in every way. So I see a lot of that shifting.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you first see that shift? I’m curious.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think 2020. I think when George Floyd happened, and so much of the conversation got so much louder. A lot of us have been talking about this for a long time, working in this space for a long time, both at the front lines and behind the scenes trying to make some of these things happen. But I think overarchingly after the nationwide, worldwide conversation got so much louder, I think that some of these companies are realizing that they need to change their ways. And/or if they were already committed to it, then they need to be even more vocal about their commitment. So I feel like that was the catalyst for a lot of it, to be honest.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man, it’s all over the place. Most days I am working on client work. Two days a week, I’m usually teaching as a professor. But other than that, some days I’m also consulting or I might have a public speaking engagement or doing things like this, doing a podcast interview. So it really varies quite a bit from day-to-day. But I kind of like that, it keeps me from being bored, and it gives me a chance to dive deeper into the things that I care about and the spaces that I work in a lot of different ways. It’s all connected. It doesn’t feel disjointed to me. It’s all connected in some way, but it gives me a chance to touch it in different ways.

And they all feed each other. So all the things that I learned with my client engagements brings me into the consulting with other clients. All of those experiences I can bring to my students, and give them a more robust education about how we work with clients and things that I’m working on, and what the industry looks like and all that stuff. And when I’m doing industry stuff, then I learn some other things and then bring it back to some of those other things. So I feel like it’s all connected, but it does allow me to have a different day, every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, has the pandemic changed business for you in any way? I know we talked about sort of have you seen a change in the market, but since the pandemic has started, has that shifted how you do business?

Nakita M. Pope:
Not particularly, to be honest. I think just in terms of my processes and my creative process and stuff, that hasn’t changed very much. Like I said, I think more people are willing to work remotely. So that’s changed a little bit of the opportunities that I’ve been getting and people that are reaching out to work with me. I think from a logistical standpoint, I think more people want to be on video these days.

Like I said, I’ve worked with people all over the country for a while now, and most times people were completely fine with just a phone call. But now that everybody’s kind of been forced to work remotely, I think that video calls are now the go-to instead of the phone call. So from a logistical standpoint, that is something that I’ve seen that’s changed. Which I don’t mind most times, but it is definitely interesting to see a shift in that. But then I saw the uptick in it and then I saw the fatigue that came from it.

So now I’ve gone back to giving people a choice, “Listen, you don’t have to be on video if you don’t want to. Let me know what works best for you. I don’t want to make it more uncomfortable for you or make it more of a heavy lift to have this meeting.” So I try to be respectful of that too.

Maurice Cherry:
I say that also when I have meetings, I actually have two separate booking links, one is for phone, one is for Zoom. And I’ll only give the Zoom to people that I like. People that I want to see, I’m like, “You can get the Zoom call.” If you just hit me up out the blue and want something, a phone call is fine. It’s the same information. So I get what you’re saying though about having that option though. Because even I think with the fact that everybody’s getting on video, folks still have not really gotten used to it. We’re-

Nakita M. Pope:
No.

Maurice Cherry:
… what, two something years in and people are still like, “Oh, sorry about the background,” or the lighting is bad or whatever. And I’m not expecting studio quality video here-

Nakita M. Pope:
No, right.

Maurice Cherry:
… even though we are very much in the future. I’m not expecting that. But I don’t know, sometimes it’s different. Plus, there’s all these different video platforms. There’s Zoom, there’s Google Meet, there’s WebEx. What else do I have installed? I have BlueJeans. I have Teams. I’m like, Just pick up the phone.

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s too much.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, just pick up the phone. It’s the same information. It’s the same information.

Nakita M. Pope:
I’m going to have to steal that one. I might have two separate links too, now. Because mine was already set up, just the default was phone. And then I realized that all the instructions said, “I will give you a call at that time,” after they book. But I still get emails, “I didn’t ever see a link to a video call.” And I’m like, “That’s because it wasn’t really supposed to be one.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, they’ll say, “I didn’t see a link.” Or sometimes what’ll happen with people is they’ll say, “Oh, well I’m in the car going somewhere and I’m not going to be…” Just call me. Just call me.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it’s fine.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s fine.

Nakita M. Pope:
It really is.

Maurice Cherry:
The phone still works. It did not go away in the pandemic. It still works. I see that one thing that you’re offering now is a course. You’re offering a course called Building a Business Brand. Talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
That was something that I did in collaboration with Small Business Invoicing Company. And they were looking to just build a library of resources for their small business audience. And so I was able to do that with them and it was really great. It was a series. I think there were three modules. But we just talked about the benefits and the value of being able to build a brand for your business. Whether you’re creative or not, regardless of what type of business you have, I think most of us start a business because we’re really passionate about what it is that we do. We’re passionate about whatever that skill set is, whatever product or service that we are putting out there in the world. And so that tends to be for most people where your area of expertise is.

But that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily an expert at being able to brand yourself or market yourself. Even creatives that are in these spaces every day struggle with that, because it’s hard to figure out what your personal brand is or your business brand is. Sometimes it takes having some help from outside. But we just talked about the fundamentals of that, and how much of a difference it can make to distinguish you in your category.

I hear all the time where some people are getting ready to start new businesses or they come to me and they’re like, “I’m starting a business that’s this, fill in the blank. And people are telling me that I shouldn’t start a business in this, because it’s oversaturated and there’s already so many people doing that thing.” And I was like, “Well, that’s really where branding comes in. The fact that you can establish a personality or some value-add or some way of talking about your product or service that’s different from everybody else is what’s going to stand out.” So it was really kind of built around that and it was super fun.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you thought about expanding into doing other courses?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, for sure. I’ve done lots of workshops here and there before, both under the umbrella of other organizations, and some independent ones on my own. And I don’t know when I’m going to tackle this, because like I said, I’m trying to take a little bit of a break, but I’m looking at, one of the things that I see is that, for me, I really care so much about what it is that I do. And teaching is something that’s really close to my heart.

So I’m always looking like, what do people need? What is it that people are struggling with? Or where can I have the most impact? And one of the things I see, especially for designers is that, and not just designers, actually people that are in marketing, for instance, some people who have design backgrounds or even people that are in coming from sales, often I hear people, “I want to talk about brand strategy. I want to get into that, but I have no idea how to make that transition.”

And for designers, especially going from strictly the visual identity and the creative side of things to talking heavily about strategy sometimes is a challenge. And it’s not because they’re not already doing it. Because that was my situation, in retrospect, I realized that I was always a strategic designer. That was always a big part of my process. But I didn’t necessarily put it out there. I didn’t explain all of my process to my clients necessarily. I didn’t build it into my proposals. It just wasn’t at the forefront. But it was there underneath all the time. Before I designed anything, I did all the research. I looked at their competitors, I did all these things. But I realized that for most designers, it’s hard to make that transition, because they don’t know how to reposition themselves in the market in that way.

And they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know what they need to know to be able to take those parts that they may already be doing, and be able to go deeper with that and really make it a big part of their practice. And because that’s part of the process that I really love, I’ve always been looking at how can I do more of this? And then of course at some point I had that fork in the road, where I had to decide, am I going to position myself in this way? Or am I just going to make this a bigger part of my design process?

And so when I started Branding Chicks, that was the pivot for me to decide that I was going to make brand strategies the thing that I led with. And I still do a lot of design for my clients, but I also am now in a place where, probably, about half of my clients, I’m only doing strategy for, I’m not necessarily creating any deliverables on the design side. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds.

Maurice Cherry:
And I feel like we’ve started to see designers probably over the past maybe four or five years, start to lean more into that strategy. Because it’s been pushed a lot to say-

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
… “Yes, you can know how to do design, you can know the programs and the tools and the methods, but until you’re able to apply that in a business sense, then that’s when you’ll become truly effective.” Douglas Davis, who we both know, has a whole book about it. So it’s something that we’re starting to see a lot of designers try to go into. The thing with the courses, though, I’m really interested about, because I feel like courses are something that, and I’m dating myself here, I’m thinking way back to 2010, probably, even a little bit earlier than that, but do you remember CreativeLive? Does that sound familiar to you?

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, I do.

Maurice Cherry:
CreativeLive used to do these multi-day courses with entrepreneurs would come in and they would teach. And I mean for the time it was pretty novel. I actually don’t even know what CreativeLive is doing now. But I know that something that is pushed on a lot of entrepreneurs, it’s like, “Oh, take the knowledge that put it into a course, and then sell the course.” Which is always an option, but are your clients going to be the same people that you want to sell your course to? It feels like it opens up a separate revenue stream, potentially. But then unless you’re just not a great salesman, that’s skills you have to tap into.

I tried to do courses when I had my studio, and even though I’ve taught before, I was like, “I don’t want to sell the course.” It didn’t feel right for me to sell the course. And I know that people do, this was actually a little bit before Skillshare, but people would do Skillshare and things like that. I taught at Mediabistro and I sort of did my courses that way. And it was easy because it was just like you had a PowerPoint, you had a microphone, you spoke all through the lessons and stuff like that.
And it works, but it did add on, for me at least, it just added on this extra dimension of sales that I have to do. And I’m like, “It’s not worth it. For the money that I’m getting from it, it’s not worth it for me trying to hustle on these courses. I’ll just get some more clients.”

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, I totally get that. And I agree with you. I don’t think that any of the courses that I’ve done previously or the one that I’m going to be doing about brand strategy isn’t really targeted towards clients. It’s much more targeted to other creative professionals more than anything else. So I look at it as a form of professional development, I mean, because I did the one that you’re talking about in partnership with someone else, that was meant to be an evergreen course, so it was fully recorded and all that kind of stuff. And so they’ll have it for a while and their audiences can access it whenever.

The way that I’m approaching my brand strategy course is I’m looking at it as sort of a masterclass. I want it to be hands-on and I want it to be small and I want it to be in real time, because I enjoy that part of teaching. And I feel like there’s so much so to learn, there’s so much to share, and there’s so many questions that people always have that this is born out of my day-to-day, and people that ask me these questions or they send me emails and those kind of things. So I’m looking at how can I help them in real time? I want to answer your question, not a general question like yours. I want to answer your question.

So I feel like, for me, I’m looking at sort of a masterclass kind of thing more than an evergreen, pre-recorded course. I think there’s a lot of value in those as well, but I don’t know if that’s what I really want to do. I just like the hands-on so much more, so that’s the way that I’m looking at it. Yeah,

Maurice Cherry:
I gotcha. So while we’re talking about teaching, I have to ask you about The Creative Circus. The Creative Circus is where you’ve taught for, how long have you been teaching there?

Nakita M. Pope:
I think this is my 13th year.

Maurice Cherry:
13 years. It’s closing its doors. Jordan Taylor, who I had on a couple of episodes ago, we talked about that. How do you feel about it?

Nakita M. Pope:
It’s a set of mixed in motions. It really is. Other than some workshops here and there and some guest lectures and things like that, this has been my most continuous experience with teaching and it’s something that I truly love. So it’s always going to be something I truly love. I’ve seen so many talented people come through those doors, and it’s such an amazing alumni network. And so many people, I’m still connected to both that are still in the building, people that are graduates, former instructors, and things like that. So it’s a mixed set of emotions.

I’m excited about what my next chapter looks like. I know that frees up some mental and emotional space, and also some time to do some other things. So in some ways I’m excited about that, but I’m going to miss that place. I’m going to miss my students. So it’s definitely been some emotional times, up and down, over the last six months or so.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at that time, because you not only were there as a teacher, but you were advising, especially along DEI and stuff like that, what feelings in particular come to mind? Are there any sort of memories that you have specifically about your time there?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, so many. I think the things that stand out most to me is, as a teacher, the thing that you want the most is to watch someone’s light bulb go off. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I get it now.” And I’ve seen that happen over the years in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s about a course that I’m teaching, sometimes it’s about the DEI training that I might be doing, or it might just be those life conversations that I have with my students. I just love connecting with the students more than anything else.

So many of those moments are the ones that I hold close where they trusted me to tell me something about their lives or to ask for advice. I was able to help them with something that really made a difference for them in their professional careers or their academic careers. Those are the things that I’m going to keep close to my heart, because those are the things that let me know that I was having impact and made it all worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
When you step back and just look at, I guess, Atlanta as, I don’t know, I guess you could say a design education city, I feel like over, I’d say maybe the past 20 or so years, I mean, we had Atlanta College of Art, and then that went away. Now, there’s The Creative Circus that’s going away. I’ve heard there’s been some changes at The Portfolio center, which I think it’s now just called Miami Ad School, I believe.

Nakita M. Pope:
Mm-hmm. It is.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you feel about just the state of design education in the city? I mean, I feel like we’ve had these specialized colleges for a while that taught them, and then over the years they’ve sort of changed and went away in some way.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, lots of changes over the years. I think some of it… Well, one of the things, like you said, this is definitely a design education city. When I was on the board with AIGA, I was running the education committee, and we have seven design programs in metro Atlanta. That is unheard of for even most other metropolitan cities. So even the more niche schools that you’re talking about, there’s still, Georgia State has design programs, Georgia Tech has design programs, University of Georgia, which we kind of still count. There’s other schools as well that have designed programs even outside of The Portfolio School, and more specialized schools and things like that.

So it was just such a breadth of education in that space. I think that some of the changes are good. I think some of them are going to have some ripple effects. I think one of the things that has always been a struggle, and I think with the changes in the programs it’s going to add to it, is that even though so many people have been educated in design here in the city or around the city, they tend to not stay in the community for their professional pursuits.

They get their education in this space and then they move to another place. Which nothing is wrong with that, but that has been part of the challenge is trying to retain that talent here. Because I think sometimes, especially for those students who might move into the city specifically to go to school, they don’t necessarily always have time while they’re in school to dive into the creative communities here in a real way. So they only see the little bubble that’s created for them by their programs. So they don’t necessarily get a chance to see all that’s available and what the real Atlanta creative community looks like. So when it’s time for them to look for a job, they don’t always consider staying.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like there’s an ongoing trend in Atlanta about not being able to retain, or I would say appreciate creative talent.

Nakita M. Pope:
Nope.

Maurice Cherry:
Not just in design, I’m thinking specifically about music, but music, art, design, I feel like that’s an ongoing thing, where, and I mean we’re speaking of the city as it’s a person, but I don’t know if the city appreciates what it has and what it cultivates here to the point where people would want to stay here. There’s been several musicians that have blown up elsewhere, but when they were here in Atlanta, nobody would give them a chance. I’ve certainly had folks on the show who were from Atlanta, and they may have gotten their education here, but they had to go elsewhere to find opportunities or to do big things.

I’ve had other Atlanta folks that are, I would say, other educators and other business folks to ask, like, “Why do you think that’s the case? What is it about Atlanta that’s not making these people want to stay? Is it the workforce?” I would imagine there are other factors, just cost of living and traffic and stuff like that. But I even think about when I was in my 20s, I definitely, at one point. Wanted to leave. I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling.” This is well before I started Revision Path. But I was like, “I feel like I’ve hit a ceiling in my career. I don’t know where else I can go from here, unless I move away.” Maybe that’s what plays into it. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Nakita M. Pope:
I think there’s a lot of factors. I think some of them, you’ve already tapped into. The other side of it, my experience is a little different from yours. I came here for grad school. I came here to go to Portfolio Center, which is now Miami Ad School. And I was going to finish my two years and I was going to just leave it open. Where do I end up? I don’t know. But everything is wide open for me. And so by the time I graduated, I was actually looking at moving to Seattle, but I graduated in the middle of a recession. So I shot my book all over the country, and people are like, “We love your work, but we’re on a hiring freeze. We’re not hiring anyone.”

So that meant that I ended up staying here. I mean, it took me a little longer to find a job and all those things. So I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just stay here for a while.” And so I ended up getting my first design job here. And I think, honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for me. The other thing I’m aware of is that my situation also isn’t everybody else’s, is that because I’m independent and I’ve been independent for so long, I never really went through the process of trying to move up in a creative agency completely.

I worked in agencies. I worked in in-house. I’ve done a lot of those things, but on the short term, or I did them for a little while. And so I did a lot of that moving around in the beginning. But for the last 12 years, I’ve worked for myself. And so for all of the things that come along with being an independent creative, and there are many, both positive and negative, I think one of the biggest positives, and I can say this in hindsight now, is that there is no ceiling when you’re on your own. When you’re on your own, you create your own path, for better or for worse. You might make some mistakes. Whatever those things look like, you’re on your own. So I feel like, for me, I don’t know if I’d have been able to do all of the things that are available to me now had I stayed in a traditional agency environment for my entire career.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Nakita M. Pope:
And I don’t know if that’s the truth for everyone else. I know other people have taken that path and it’s worked out extremely well for them. I don’t know if it would’ve for me, and it’s hard for me to know, because I don’t have the opportunity to do both. I did some in the beginning, and now I’m here, and I think everybody’s path is their own.

But I do think about that often. What would that have looked like? And would I have gotten to a place where I was like, okay, like you said, I have to move away if I’m going to move up, or I have to go do this if I’m going to move up or whatever those things look like? So I think it’s different for everybody, but the landscape of what it looks like for different people and what your personal commitments are, and what kind of lifestyle you want to live and all those things really play into whether this is a good fit for you or not.

But on the flip side, I do think that Atlanta is a lot of creatives here. And I do feel like it’s a very supportive, creative community. So I don’t know, like you said, if the city itself does everything that it can, but I feel like once you find your people here, I feel like that network is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
I agree. I agree 100%. Once you get into that niche and you find those folks, you find your tribe, your people, whatever you want to call it, there’s no limit to the things that you can even work on. And to speak to what you said earlier, I did have to leave. I had to leave where I was AT&T, strike out on my own, and then that’s when I started to really… Well, first of all, I could never have pictured staying AT&T. There are people who I used to work with back then in 2008 that are still there. God bless them, because it couldn’t be me, could not be me. I say that to say, though, I mean, everyone has their path, for some folks staying in that very comfortable, crucible of being a production designer, if that’s what they want to do, that’s what they want to do.

I just knew that I could do better than where I was at. And this is not a slight on the people that are still there, but I could do better. And I just didn’t know, when I think about Atlanta in 2008, I mean this is pre SCAD. This is pre a lot of larger tech companies setting up offices in such here.

Nakita M. Pope:
True.

Maurice Cherry:
This is pre Uber and Lyft. I was like, “I don’t have a car. Where am I going to find a good job? I got to catch MARTA somewhere, it’s wild.” So now I think the city is definitely different in that aspect. We do attract a lot of people that want to come here for, I think, just creative art stuff in general, not just for maybe design. But over the past 10 years, we’ve really blown up with television and entertainment.

Nakita M. Pope:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
And that opens up a lot of roles in the creative space. So the environment here has just gotten a lot more rich since then.

Nakita M. Pope:
Agree. Agree, wholeheartedly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now speaking of the sort of Atlanta community, you mentioned AIGA. I just want to congratulate you on your recent AIGA Fellow Award.

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you. Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, talk to me about that.

Nakita M. Pope:
Such a great honor. AIGA, for those of you out there that don’t know, it’s sort of the national body of professional organization for designers. And so we’ve got chapters all over the country. The Atlanta chapter has been active for a really long time. And each chapter has the opportunity to award fellow awards to people in their community that they feel have really moved forward the area of design or made impact on the local, regional, and national level.

And I think our chapter has honored 32 people, possibly. No, 16 people. It’s a very short list, so I was honored for 2021. We just had the celebration a couple months ago, because of the pandemic and everything. But I was given the honor in 2021. So that was a magical moment for me. It gave me an opportunity to really celebrate my community and celebrate all the things that I’ve been able to do and touch, and people that I’ve been able to meet in this community. So it was really a great night.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I’m glad that the community has come around you to recognize all of the great work that you’ve been doing, and to have their support for you. So that’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yeah, it was a great honor. It was a great honor.

Maurice Cherry:
And now speaking of other projects, I see that you have this project called the Bella Boss Box. How did you come up with the idea for doing a subscription box?

Nakita M. Pope:
So we talked about having your people. I feel like, I don’t know about you, but my friends are the ones that always get me into stuff, especially my creative friends. They’re the ones that call you with a bright idea and be like, “So this is what I’m thinking.” So it was kind of similar to that. One of my good friends, Nekeidra Taylor, and actually we met through a client. A client of mine introduced me to her because she was like, “I think you guys should meet.” And so this was years ago. And so we’ve been friends and professional colleagues for a while.

She’s in public relations. And so during the pandemic, we hadn’t done our normal check-ins or have coffee here and there, kind of thing. And so we finally had a check-in call, and we were just catching up and talking. And we just ended up talking about our journeys as entrepreneurs and what the pandemic had been like and our support systems and things like that. And the fact that without those support systems, we wouldn’t have been able to do half of the things that we’ve been able to do.

And so from that conversation, we started thinking about what must it be like for people, especially women, who are starting businesses or running businesses who don’t have that support system. I think that I’ve been lucky, personally, because of my network and people who’ve introduced me to other people or just friends of mine who I’ve been friends with for a long time, but who are now also business owners as well. And even if your friends and your family support you in what you’re doing, and sometimes they won’t, sometimes they just won’t understand.

But even if they do, if they’ve never done it before, they still don’t know what it’s actually like. And so sometimes it helps to have someone that you can pick up the phone and call and ask a question, and feel like it’s a safe space to ask a question. Or to just vent and be like, “Look, I’m about to go work at Popeye’s.” That used to be mine when I was really frustrated with being an entrepreneur. I’m like, “Yep, I’ll just go and work at Popeye’s. I like chicken. It’ll be fine.”

And you need those people that you can call and say that, and they totally get it. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to do anything. They’re just like, “Oh, it’s that day, huh? Mm-hmm. So what happened?” And so that’s kind of how it was born. We talked about it and she’s like, “No, I think you should do…” We talked about a subscription box. How could we build a community of women that would be able to connect with each other in that way? So we came up with the idea for a subscription box, and I was like, That would be really cool.” And she’s like, “You should definitely do it.” And I’m like, I should do it. Why, I got to do it?”

And so she’s like, “I don’t have time to do it.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not doing it if you’re not doing it.” And then next thing I know, we’re setting up an actual call to talk about it. And that was October 2020. And so we planned this whole thing and launched the whole thing during the pandemic. We launched in April 2021. We hadn’t seen each other in person until March 2021. So this was all done on Zoom, during the pandemic. Even though she lives here, we were still kind of staying away from everybody and stuff. So it was kind of crazy.

But it’s been awesome. I feel like we’ve connected with some really amazing women all over the country who have a multitude of different types of businesses and things like that. And then just this summer we decided that we were going to pivot a little bit. The subscription box was going really well. As a designer, it was awesome. It gave me an opportunity to create things specifically for that community. We had a zine. I was designing products for the boxes, and I did all the branding for the boxes themselves, and all that stuff. And she’s in PR. She did a lot of the writing and things like that. So we really were a good fit to compliment each other.

But this summer we looked at everything and kind of like we tried to have those moments where we stop everything and start working on the business instead of in it. And okay, where are we? And where do we want to be? And we felt like the community part of it wasn’t getting as much shine as we really wanted. That was why we built this thing in the first place, so we decided to take a break and regroup and relaunch just the community.

So we’re still kind of working on that. We’re taking a break. She’s busy. I’m busy. We both have separate businesses on top of this one. So we’ve decided to just take a break for a little while, really get grounded in what we want, and then relaunch again. Preferably, we want to do an online community so that we have a chance to provide deeper relationships for the women that are our subscribers. So that’s what we really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you’re pivoting from the subscription box to an online community. So just sort taking that notion and deepening it, I guess.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because I think what we heard from our subscribers was that they love the items in the box, and they love so much of that stuff and the magazine and all those things, but they really love the idea of being exposed to other women who were doing amazing things and hearing about people’s businesses. And we would do this series called Respect on Our Name. So we would do interviews with black women entrepreneurs on Instagram. So people really responded to those kind of things a little bit more than the items in the box. And so much of the stuff in the box was also about providing resources and information. So we felt like we could wrap that all up and also bring the community to a higher level if we pivoted a little bit. So that’s what we’re looking at doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you interviewed me back in 2018 for Design Observer, and during that interview you had asked me how passion projects have impacted my career. Now I want to flip the script and ask you that question. How have your passion projects impacted your career?

Nakita M. Pope:
Lots of different ways. I think Bella Boss is definitely one of those passion projects. I probably would’ve done that even if it wasn’t a business. That’s just something I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about seeing Black women shine and succeed and women in general. And I think running a business has been such an adventure for me in so many ways. And I think that I know what it’s like even when you have support. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you don’t have support. So I always try to be that support or give people resources wherever I can. So I think Bella Boss is definitely something I would consider to be a passion project.

Mentoring is another passion of mine. Almost everything that I’ve done has come from something that holds a special place in my heart. Teaching is just more of mentorship for me. So mentorship and teaching are very much tied together. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I used to be terrified of public speaking. But the thing that shifted public speaking for me was looking at it as a bigger classroom. And because I love teaching so much, I’m like, “Well, you just get a chance to share knowledge with more people.”

So I feel like those aspects of my career have come out of the passion of wanting to share with other people. Branding is so much about being creative and solving problems and all those kinds of things. And I think all of those things are core to my personality and core to the things that I care about.

One of the stories that I love the most about when I was a kid is that my mom told me that I used to love puzzles. And so she would buy me all these different puzzles. So because I had so many, I got to a point where I would literally dump all the pieces out in the middle of the floor and solve them all at one time. And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I do every day. Mm-hmm. That’s pretty much the life that I’ve built for myself.” So when I think about things like that, I feel like all the things that I care about or that’s fun for me, or that’s interesting for me has been the foundation of every single thing that I do every day.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you built your confidence over the years as a creative professional? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a very long time. That longevity obviously has to come from somewhere. What fuels you as a creative professional?

Nakita M. Pope:
I try not to stop learning. As a teacher, I feel like you have to learn all the time. But even outside of that, I think I’ve always been naturally curious. And so for me, I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more. I want to talk to all the people that know the things that I don’t know. I want that, that’s what feeds me. And so I feel like confidence for me comes from knowledge and it comes from experience. And sometimes you have one without the other or vice versa, and then sometimes you have both. And I think over the years, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I possibly can on a day-to-day basis. And because of the years behind me, now I have the experience as well. But in the beginning, I didn’t have all the experience. I just had the knowledge and I had the willingness to learn.

And I think, if nothing else, I feel like those are the two things that has allowed me to grow the most and to be willing to take a chance. I can’t stress that enough. So many of the things that I’ve been able to do or that I’ve done that I can look back and be the most proud of are the things that terrified me in the beginning. If it doesn’t make me want to vomit a little bit when I say yes to it, then it is probably not going to make me grow. And so going back to our previous conversation just about being an independent and how that looks so different for me, I think the flexibility to try a bunch of new things and different things and to take on new challenges, I’ve had the flexibility to do that for the last 12 years, and I’ve taken full advantage of that.

If someone comes to me and says, “Hey, I really think you should do this thing.” And I’m like, “I’ve never done that thing before. I don’t know much about that thing. Let me go learn some more about that thing and then decide.” And then if I decide, “Well, it’s going to be a challenge, but I’m going to do it anyway.” I feel like that’s where all the growth comes from. And those are the things that have allowed me to be more confident. Not just because of what I already know, but because of the fact that I’m willing to take a chance and willing to take on the challenge.

I know that I’ve done that before and I didn’t die. And I made some mistakes, but most of the time it went pretty well. I’m like, that just gives me more confidence to do it again to something that’s unknown that I’ve never done before. I was just like, “Okay, I did that. Everything was fine. Okay, let’s try it again.” So I think so much of that is just taking chances too.

Maurice Cherry:
Whose work are you inspired by right now?

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, quite a few people. Some of them are visual, of course, and then some of them are just community-based kind of things. I love what Kenny Thacker is doing with a 100 Roses from Concrete in the advertising industry. I think the programming that they’re putting together and the resources that they’re providing for young Black people are just amazing.

Visually, I am a big fan of Bisa Butler and her work, and right now I just can’t get enough of it. My best friend bought me one of her coffee table books for Christmas, and it’s like one of my prize possessions right now. But I get inspiration from so many different places and I’m like discovering new people every day, truly every day. That’s why I tell my students all the time that I use social media as a curation tool.

So I usually don’t care how many people follow me, but on any of my platforms, if you go look at them, I probably follow three times more people than follow me, because I’m just like, “Ooh, I want to see what this person is doing.” “Ooh, what is this person doing?” Ooh, I didn’t know about this artist. Let me follow them.” Or, “Ooh, that agency’s doing that. Let me follow them.” So I’m just like, “I just want all that good stuff coming in my feed when I log it on.” So I find new stuff and new people and new agencies and organizations and artists all the time. And that’s part of what feeds my creative process too.

Maurice Cherry:
What haven’t you done yet that you want to do?

Nakita M. Pope:
I want to travel the world. I do travel. I don’t travel as much as I would like to, but I would like to hit the majority of the countries before I leave this Earth, so that’s one thing. Another is I need to finish my book. I think the last time I was on with you, I might have talked about my book and it has been sitting in a dark closet for a long time. I did the first draft of it, and then I just kind of let it go. In retrospect, I think I might’ve just gotten scared and was like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I definitely want to revisit it. I’m going to pick it up again. I still feel like the subject matter is important. I think it’s still relevant and I still want to do it.

It’s a book about branding, and I just feel like there’s not enough resources out there that make it plain what branding really is. And I think especially for entrepreneurs who are trying to build a brand and don’t know what that means, or even for individuals who are trying to build a brand for themselves and don’t know how to do that, I think that there’s a lot of insight, hopefully, that I can provide. So I definitely want to tackle that and get it back up and running. I just hate that I didn’t finish it, so it’s got to get finished.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think if you go back and take a look at it, especially with all the knowledge you’ve gained now, you’ll probably see some things in there that you can update, that you can maybe add to-

Nakita M. Pope:
For sure.

Maurice Cherry:
… or something. So take your-

Nakita M. Pope:
Definite change.

Maurice Cherry:
… time with it. Take your time with it. I mean, the thing with books, I mean, I’m finding this out myself as I’m working on a book, which I guess is a sort a scoop. I mean by the time this comes out, people will know that I’m working on a book about Revision Path. But-

Nakita M. Pope:
Ooh, I’m excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’ve been working on a book about Revision Path and it has been a journey. Because at first I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to do it about the show or whatever.” And I was talking to my editor and he is like, “No, you have to go deeper.” And I’m like, “There’s not really that much to it. I wanted to do the show, and I did the show.” He’s like, “No, you have to go, go back further. Where did the seed start?” And it’s taken me all the way back to my childhood. It’s like a therapy session-

Nakita M. Pope:
I love it.

Maurice Cherry:
… trying to get through this book. I mean, I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I’m still working on… Well, one, I’m working on the proposal, but then just even all of the thought to go into how I’m going to approach the story and talk about it and everything, it’ll be good when it comes out. It’ll be sort of parts autobiography part about the show, but-

Nakita M. Pope:
Oh, man. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
… it’s a lot. It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
Yes, it is.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a lot.

Nakita M. Pope:
It is a lot. And I think it is a major undertaking. So I feel like even when I started it several years ago, I told myself that even being willing to take on a project that big, is a victory, period.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah-

Nakita M. Pope:
Full stop.

Maurice Cherry:
… absolutely. Absolutely.

Nakita M. Pope:
Regardless of what happens after that, that is a victory.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
To be honest, I’m kind of leaving it up to the universe a little bit. I think part of this break that I’m taking is just about getting some rest and giving myself a chance to take a break and be able to hear my own voice about what I want next. The benefit of all the work and the thing, the people that I’ve been connected to and done stuff with and collaborated with, it’s such a blessing that I have several opportunities to do things next, but I want to make sure that I make the right move. I want to make sure that what I’m doing next is going to be fulfilling, that it’s going to allow me to grow, because that’s always something that I want. I never want to stop growing. So I’m really taking a break just so that I can hear my own voice and decide what’s next.

But also I’m taking my hands off of it a little bit and sort of letting things unfold the way that they should unfold. I think sometimes, and I’ve had to learn this the hard way, because sometimes I just want to plan everything, but so often when we try to make plans, the plans that we make are coming from our perspective. You can’t plan something that you don’t know about to some degree. But I think that sometimes you need to let there be some divine intervention, some universe to step in, because sometimes the things that we think we want next isn’t big enough, because we can’t see it yet.

And so I feel like I don’t know what it is, but in my heart, I feel like that’s where I am. I’m at that kind of space where it’s time for something big, but I don’t know what that thing is, yet. So I’m just going to center myself and take some time and figure out what that is. Branding Chicks, of course, will still be part of the equation, at least for now, but I feel like there’s so much more to do and so many more people to have fun with and create with. So I’m excited about whatever it ends up being, to be honest. I just don’t know all of what it is yet.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I think that’s a good place to be though. To know that you have this possibility or all these possibilities ahead of you and just be excited for what that could be. That’s a great place to be, because a lot of folks are stuck if they don’t know what or whatever they think might be coming next is just more of the same thing. So to have that, I guess, opportunity to dream in that way, that’s priceless. That’s great.

Nakita M. Pope:
You have to believe it first. That’s what believing really is, right? If it was already concrete and set in stone, then you don’t have to believe in it. It’s just there. So sometimes you have to just believe that it’s going to be great and that it’s coming and that it’s yours, and that you’re going to have what you’re supposed to have, period. I believe that. So I don’t know all of what that’s going to look like. I don’t know all the details, but I do believe that I’m going to have what I’m supposed to have and I think it’s going to be good.

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

Nakita M. Pope:
You can check us out at brandingchicks.com. That’s where you can find all of my work there. And Bella Boss is bellabossbox.com. The site is on hiatus right now while we pivot, but you can still find us there. And also on social media, you can check out Branding Chicks, both on Instagram and Facebook, and for Bella Boss Box, also on Instagram, Facebook, and I don’t think we’re on Twitter, no, but Facebook and Instagram.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, Sounds good. Well, Nakita Pope, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I feel like every time that I see you, and I know that you and I haven’t seen each other in a while, because of-

Nakita M. Pope:
I know.

Maurice Cherry:
… the pandemic, but every time I see you, you are such a just bright light of just like energy and positivity. And I know that the Atlanta community, of course, knows this, that’s why you have that AIGA Fellow Award. But when I think of somebody that is always such a positive, just, influence in the design community locally and otherwise, I think of you. So I’m just-

Nakita M. Pope:
Thank you very much.

Maurice Cherry:
… so glad that you’re still doing your thing. I’m excited to see what you come up with next. And thank you for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Nakita M. Pope:
Absolutely. Thank you. Thank you so much for that. And thank you for always supporting me. And I love these conversations, whether they happen on the podcast or not, where we’re just catching up. So thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Shawn Alexander Allen

Games are an integral part of our society, and not I’m not just talking about Nintendo, Xbox, or PlayStation. Games are culture, and this week’s guest — Shawn Alexander Allen — has dedicated himself to getting people to think about games as more than just a leisure activity.

Shawn and his family recently moved to Atlanta, so he spoke about getting adjusted to the new location and getting into a groove with work through his studio, NuChallenger. We also talked about his critically acclaimed video game, Treachery in Beatdown City, and Shawn shared his origin story of growing up in NYC, working at Rockstar Games, and a lot more. Shawn is ready for a revolution, and I’m interested to see what he has in store for the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Hey, my name is Shawn Alexander Allen and I currently make video games for a living, I guess. I make a lot of things, but video games are basically what my company does.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going so far?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, it’s been a wild year. A lot of stuff from the last two years just all hit in 2022. One thing being COVID, the thing that we’ve been trying to run away from. My wife and I got it from my kid at daycare and we have a lot of my wife’s… A lot of our family lives down here. We’ve been basically in a bunker in this house looking at people through windows and gates and once we got COVID, it was post vaccine for us. I don’t know, it pulled the bandaid off a little bit. So we go to family gatherings more and we go out more. And I’ve been traveling again, going to games conferences and stuff. Definitely with masks. I think I’m still being treated like I’m crazy by a lot of people. Even doctor’s offices where no one’s wearing masks, but still wearing masks.

And then on a better level… I mean, that was really good for mental health actually was being able to get out, see, just go back to games events, go to new games events, hang out with people who I’ve gotten to know better over the last two years on the internet. And finally getting to see each other in person. I got to see my business partner in person, actually both of my business partners meet one of them in person for the first time and see my other business partner who I’ve known for 26 years, got to come stay with me in Atlanta. That also leads to the fact that after two years of negotiation, we were able to get investment in my company, NuChallenger, which allowed me to leave my day job. And so I’ve just been able to focus a lot more on things that I love and less on corporate game development.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s jump into NuChallenger. Talk to me about your studio and talk to me about the game Treachery in Beatdown City. I know they’re pretty closely linked.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
For NuChallenger, we like to say that… We say we making publish dope games and comp culture and I think younger me, I don’t actually know what younger me would’ve wanted out of a games company, but as I get older, I started working on this game Treachery in Beatdown City 10-ish years ago, maybe earlier, and just in my thoughts trying to do an indie dev thing even probably 12 years is where my brain started really thinking about it. And so the purpose was games, but then I started looking at the industry and I started looking at just the world and… I don’t know, having more space in my brain, being able to getting to meet Saul Williams’ poet who I love person and talking to him about video games because he’s interested in that and he’s doing a comic book and all this other stuff and talking to comedians who like video games and they’re interested in it.

And all these people that I really respect in other art forms, all being interested in what I do. A very formative conversation was when Saul introduced me to Vernon Reid, one of the best guitarists in the world, Living Colour. And he’s like, “This is Shawn, he’s a game designer with the most enthusiasm.” And I’m like, “You’re Saul, one of the greatest poets of the planet and you’re Vernon Reid, one of the greatest guitarists, but also secretly a heavy sci-fi nerd.” And the fact that we could then talk about video games after that really gave me this… A lot of these folks that I meet don’t know what it takes to make video games and I don’t know what it takes to make what they do. And I’ve wanted to make music and I write poetry from time to time and have been discouraged from doing it and doing more as an adult.

And comedy is something I love. And these are all Black art forms that there’s been a whole lot of innovation in. And so what I want to do is be able to work with people from all these groups. So I think about even with Treachery in Beatdown City, one of the thing that came out before the game was a rap single for that we dropped with our launch trailer with Open Mike Eagle, like a rapper who started loving in 2015. We met at the Highline in Manhattan where Vernon Reid was actually funny enough, that was the second time I saw him in person. He was at a rap show again, that was… I kept looking at these intersections of interests and then getting to talk to Mike over years and being like, “Oh, Mike really likes video games.” And it was like, “Okay. Cool. Let’s see about making just a cool track that’s like, it’s a track, it’s about a game.”

Game is about more than just games because the last decade has shown me that who I am as a person isn’t just as someone who plays video games. It’s a lot of things. It’s a game that deals with fascist police and stealing elections and all sorts of things. And so let’s make a song about that and then let’s release that song and let’s do cool things that are transmedia I think is very important. And something that was really big in the [inaudible 00:09:08] and kind of died off, but you saw a Black Panther, they put out a Kendrick Lamar album with it and everybody loved both. So that’s what we want to do with our studio. It’s being led definitely by games because I don’t think I want to make movies and there’s no shame on just a people that are just game studios, but that’s just not all that we do.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, tell me more about Treachery in Beatdown City.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, Treachery in Beatdown City, so I’m from New York and originally biracial kid who grew up with a white mom looking different in a lot of different neighborhoods, always being harassed by people for that difference, being random person on the street, cops, whatever. And always having a lot of personal anxiety around the city in general, but also loving the city tremendously. I love New York. I love New York more than a lot of people do. There was a line from the last Black man in San Francisco where the main character says… Because people are saying, “I hate San Francisco” or something, and he says, “You can’t hate a city unless you love it.” And I feel that way about New York. Growing up in the city and growing up through one billionaire mayor that ran for three terms. One of them dubiously legally, fairly illegally. Or another mayor who threatened to kill the other mayor basically.

New York’s just a wild place. A lot of cultures from there, a lot of cool stuff’s from there. A lot of really bad stuff on corruptions there. So all in all, to say beat them up have always felt very interesting to me because they were always based in a Japanese retelling of post apocalyptic New York and other media around there. And we wanted to make our own game that was the New Yorker telling of post apocalyptic New York, which is now post Cold War New York essentially. And then, yeah, doing a funny… What if the president gets kidnapped? Except now it’s based on a Black president and it’s no longer complete fiction that there’s a Black person as president. You get to fight these weird stand-ins for… Well, a lot of people that are just on the streets. The people that would shout at you, ask to touch your hair, all sorts of things.

You get to fight those people. It’s like this catharsis that we always wanted to have. And also at the same time, again, loving comedy. I’ve loved Key & Peele for a very long time since both of them were on Mad TV even. And so their humor bled into the scheme. We call it a dark comedy tactical brawler in that it innovates a lot on the fighting stuff, but it also, it’s dark humor, it’s funny, but it’s also… It’s not really uplifting in a lot of ways. And that’s also my way of being a comedy writer when I don’t have time to do standup because I’m working on a game for 15 hours a day or more.

Maurice Cherry:
No, I know that’s been the main game that you’ve worked on through the studio. Are there any sort of other projects that you’ve been working on through the studio?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. So Treachery in Beatdown City, yeah, it started full-time, full-time when I was finally able to work on it. Because I used to work at Rockstar Games. That was my first job in the industry. Then I moved into Treachery in Beatdown City in July of 2012. And then over the last two years I’ve been pitching projects and pitching projects, pitching the idea of the studio just as a Black led studio that does cool culture working with the things I was saying, working with people from creators from other art forms. And so we have a two or three projects that are in various stages, but nothing that can really be talked about.

One thing is that everything that we talk while we do is NuChallenger’s mission is to definitely focus on the oppressed and also focus on being able to subvert that oppression and also just to fight back. And one of the projects we’re working on, I can just cryptically say it’ll deal with boxing and I’m very excited about it because I love boxing games. I know lots of people do and I would love to make a really unique, but cool boxing game that makes a lot of Fight Night fans happy. Makes people who like stories happy as well.

Maurice Cherry:
Boxing game would be pretty cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
There’s not enough. I stumbled on in the Punch-Out!! manual they talk about the dude who’s with him said-

Maurice Cherry:
Doc Louis?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Doc Louis, yeah. And they have a one sentence thing about how he was a champion or around the champion circuit in the ’50s and I stopped and I was like, “Wait, wait, we need to know more about that.” That really actually started making me think about just wanting to… Because, yeah, I love Punch-Out!!, I love Fight Night. Up until a certain point where the controls… Like Fight Night around three was I think the height of the games for me personally.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I know we could definitely go more into video games and I want to definitely touch on your time at Rockstar because that sounds super interesting. But I’m curious, when you’re coming up with a new game, what does that process look like?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s strange. It’s interesting because it’s a… Process is I think always different. 10 years ago I did not know what I was doing at all. And I think I had been working on this project. Actually 10 years ago, earlier in 2012, I had actually put out two smaller games with teams that were two to four people and those games were made in a weekend each, because they have these Gamejam things that are 48 hours, they could be six months long. Also, I worked on a few month long, Gamejam also once upon a time. But it really all depends who you have, what resources you have in those instances because in a Gamejam setting, you’re just writing down stuff on a board and seeing what sticks and doing… I mean, I think in any game thing you want to have brainstorming, but when we are working on Treachery in Beatdown City, it was like I want to make a beat them up and playing a lot of beat them ups, writing down the things that I like, the things I didn’t like.

Taking those things, putting them together, then trying to make something, make a prototype, fail, continue going. I think that’s always something that no matter what you’re doing with your games, you always want to try to get something that you can play to see if it’s the idea that you have is working. You obviously don’t want to polish something too much because if you work for months on something that you could get in within a week and in months later you’ve polished the thing before implementing it and then you implement it and it sucks, then you get it rid of it or you keep it because you sunken cost fallacy, you then are like, “Well, we got to keep it because we spent three months on it.” Yeah, it’s just all over the place. Right now, I’m sitting in Miro for one project just dragging art onto it because we’re creating just a massive vision board of games, movies, people, our art styles, all sorts of things just to… And then I also cut together a hype reel that basically folks what we want the game to feel like.

And that would be something to stay internal and it would just get people hyped internally and say, “Oh, this is what you want to do. So we’re working towards this.” I don’t know, every studio I think has their own ways of doing it. I’m always trying to learn. The next projects we’re working on are the first time I’ll be working on a bigger project for myself. And when I worked at Rockstar, I never got to start those games ever because they were already in process when they were handed to me. And when I worked at MLB, which I worked at for six months, a lot of stuff was usually in progress or they were such short deadlines that it’s hard to even tell somebody like, “Hey, here’s how you make a video game in three months”, that where you already have existing tech and have to staple stuff over it. It changes constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like though, at least part of that beginning process is just setting the mood, setting the motif for the game. Because it sounds like, as you were saying, you’re like dragging stuff in the mirror. It sounds like you’re making a mood board almost.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. It’s something that a friend of mine who’s designing a game, he’s designing a lot of it in Muro actually. And so that’s a new thing that I learned this year. I’m learning to model my stuff after studios that are successful. I have a whiteboard in the corner. Yeah, I mean, my whole thing right now is I’m working to try to get small bits of the game put together and then we’re going to put them all together when we know that they’re working. Especially when you’re trying to pitch a project, it’s all about de-risking.

It’s like getting a good piece of concept art ahead of time could be better than even getting a broken build because if you could sell the game then you can make the game and that’s the… I don’t know, there’s a chicken and egg issue sometimes. And that’s actually been something that the games issue’s been trying to fix is that people need money to make prototypes, but they don’t want to give money to make prototypes. So that’s something that’s new. But yeah. And so for me, yeah, I’m just learning because I have these several projects and they’re all have different paths ahead of them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m really curious about what the process is like because I know that we’ve got listeners that probably have thought about making their own video games. We’ve had other video game designers that have been on the show. I’ve even had ideas for video games, but I feel like it does involve probably a lot of programming. I mean, are you doing the programming as well or do you have a team to do that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I’m right now working with a team of folks doing programming. I’ve wanted to program, but it always puts me to sleep every time I try to learn anything. The most I really know is I can code html in notepad. That’s the most code I really know.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No, I was just curious on what that whole process looks like. I’ve had an idea in my mind for a long time, probably much longer than it needs to be for… I’ve had a fighting game idea, but I’ve also recently started with a role playing game idea and I saw this artist, this guy he used to work for Buzzfeed, his name is… Oh, it’s escaping me. No, his name is Adam Ellis. He started this on Instagram where he was making these character sketches for essentially a role playing game that never existed. He made these characters and these debuff items and bosses and all this sort of stuff, right? And then turned around and turned it into a book.

So the book is sort of a strategy guide, it’s called Fever Knights, but the game doesn’t exist. And I got the book, I was like, this is really cool. I really like how he sets the setting and the characters and the story progression or as much of a story as you can probably piece together from all those elements. But it’s not a game, it’s a game that doesn’t exist. But I feel like it has the elements that could become a game. I don’t know if it ever will be a game, but I just thought that was really cool.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, the ways that I’ve been able to actually do anything is the first “lines of code” for Treachery in Beatdown City was, I was getting frustrated because the person who ended up becoming the lead programmer in the game, we were just not working for any money at the time and I kept being like, “So when are you going to start putting stuff in the game?” And one day I just said, “Screw it.” And I booted up Game Maker because this was 10-ish years ago and I just put a Sprite in and you can get a Sprite walking around and animating pretty quickly in Game Maker. So if you have ideas, that’s a thing you can definitely do. I had to do a ton of UI design, all those things and that was the last bit I ever did also because as soon as I did that, it got a fire under his butt to start.

I said, “Oh, if I don’t start on this, then Shawn is going to just keep going without me.” And I’m like, “That is absolutely not true because I would fall asleep, I think I would die under pressure of trying to code and do all the art in a fighting game.” I’ve seen fighting games from all sorts of levels. There’s a really good that requires. I mean, there’s a… How I think double helix pitched killer instinct to Microsoft when they wanted to make the New Killer Instinct. They had just made one character that could play against themselves with barely any animation and they had to, but they did have to do probably a lot of code to make sure that everything felt good. They focused purely on feel. It was all gray models for on gray backgrounds. And then the hard part comes from then building out all the characters, but getting that little prototype that they had was fun.

So that was why Microsoft was like, “Oh, cool, you were able to get the feeling of killer instinct, but with 3D models.” So we want to do that. That there’s a famous story for Street Fighter 4 actually, where it used to not have 2D hip boxes and the team was confused why it didn’t feel good and they put it in 2D hip boxes and the whole game felt better. But it took hiring people who knew better to, so even big companies can forget how to do things. Yeah, like I said, everything comes from different paths. I feel like how did you start your game from 10 different teams? You’ll get 10 different answers.

Maurice Cherry:
So the process is still… I don’t know, it feels a little mysterious in that way then because everyone’s working from their own base of experience it sounds like.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah. I mean, even a lot of video game stuff is, it’s what I always talking about how information dissemination is one of the keys to unlocking the problems of there being not enough Black and other underinvested in peoples in the games industry is that there’s no information on how to do a lot of things out there. I worked at MLB, I grew into a producer role there that I was hired to do because they just needed somebody to manage some stuff and also help out with a various other things. But I’m a game designer first and foremost. I ended up becoming a designer producer, but my job was always producer and I asked, we had four or five producers and I asked all of them what being a producer was and none of them could answer be the same way. And I’m like, “We all have the same job apparently.”

But some people would be like, “Oh, a producer, good producer plays the game all the time and gives no to the team.” And some producer’s like, “No, you really got to be good about the time.” And even in Japan, the term producer is different than it is in America. So there’s game planner, there’s game director, there’s like all these words that might mean something slightly different depending. I’ve had people explain job postings to me as being not as complicated as they list them. And someone tells me, “Yeah, you should apply even if you don’t have this skill.” And then I’d interview for their… Like, “Yeah, but you don’t have that thing that we asked you for.” I was like, “What is going on here?” So there is a lot of mystery there and that’s I think a key thing that we need to figure out. Because you know what a best boy is, what a key grip is, what a director on a movie is, what executive producers are like.

Executive producers don’t really have any weigh in on the final edit the editor does. Usually those are discrete things, but in the industry the executive producer could walk over to you and be like, I want this to be different. Yeah, I think we need more definition, more transparency. Everything’s just in opaque soup over here.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. You mentioned when talking about Treachery in Beatdown City, that you are from New York. You grew up in New York and I see that you went to SVA and you majored in graphic design, dynamic media and 3D rendering in animation. How was your time there? Do you feel like it sort of prepped you for getting working into video games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yes and no. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be in games. I was working on comics, I’d been working on comics my whole life. I always was interested in music, but music always seemed to be a dead end where… I don’t know, I just couldn’t figure out how to get in or I couldn’t figure out how to get over my own stage fright to try to, I played piano as a kid and then didn’t get a right scholarship, so then I just stopped doing it. And comics sustained me through high school. But I remember a career person asking me, “What are you going to do in five years?” And I was like 15. I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.” And they were like, “Well, what happens if you don’t do that?” And I was like, “I’m going to be working on games.”

And so it just locked it in my brain. And so then I guess spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make games. And again, the information thing there… I mean, it was a lot harder to do back then. There weren’t Unity and Game Maker and Construct and Scratch. There’s so many engines that you could just pick up and go make something with. Now all you had back then was RPG maker on PlayStation and I ain’t known a PlayStation until a PS2 in 2000. So going into SVA… Something about SVA, I think I’ve been doing art my whole life because I wanted to. And then I hit SVA and with all those, I clashed heavily with the pretentious art weirdos that I had a couple of friends there. But also I lived very close to school. I was very depressed from all my friends from high school going away to school elsewhere, everybody basic, like I went to Brooklyn Tech with 5,000 kids.

So my graduating class was like 1,500 people, 12,00 people, 1500 people. I think I legitimately knew 100 to 200 of those people and most of them all went away. It’s a school. And so even one of my best friends from eighth grade also went to school at in Albany, New York. So I was like, “Ah, I’m all alone.” The girlfriend that I followed to SVA, that’s why I actually went to SVA was because she got accepted. She got actually told that Brett just didn’t want her and that her work wasn’t good. It was wild. So she went to SVA, I was like, “I’ll do web design.” So then I was like, “I’ll go to graphic design, I guess I don’t know what I want to do.” And when I got into SVA, my creativity tanked. I stopped wanting to do anything creative whatsoever. And 2002 I finally got a job at the EB Games I’d been hanging out at and I’ve actually found hanging out at that store once all my friends left, I needed friends so I would be on message boards play like…

It’s how I started playing Fire Pro Wrestling on the Dreamcast because it was an import. And I really got obsessed with that game, which actually then that game in turn helped me want to make video games because they actually would mod that game to make it in English, to give people new moves, all sorts of stuff. It was really cool. It was something that I was like, “Oh, you can do this even on a console.” And just being at this game store meant I was always talking about game stuff and it made me think about the games that I played.

And so then I thought, “Oh, maybe I could get into games as a writer. So I started, I just kept writing and writing and writing until I started finally writing about what I liked about the games didn’t like from… Which was from divorced from aesthetics, which was a bad idea at the time. But I was just like, “Do I like this part of the game? Do I not like this part of the game?” I was trying to ignore art and stuff like that, which again is hilarious since I’m an artist. But that’s actually what got me more into wanting to make games, was talking to people about it daily, talking to customers about games, going home and then writing about them. That’s what kept me living the idea of wanting to make games because art school made me want to not be an artist anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve heard that sentiment from folks before, not just specifically about SVA but about other art schools in general. They had all this promise and then there was something about the structure or the regiment or the attitude or the discrimination or whatever about the particular school that just sucked it out of them. That’s what it sounds like. Sounds like that’s what happened to you.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Yeah, I think also just working, I had to work… I mean 2004, the first two years of school graphic design was a bust and I wanted to do animation, but computer animation was like, they talked about how sophomore year, which would be my 2004 because it would be my fourth year in school. But they basically made me go back a year. It actually made me go back two years in terms of what I had to learn to relearn a bunch of stuff for foundation year. And then the sophomore year they were like, “Yeah, you’re going to have to take two majors on and figure out which one you want.” Dynamic and 3D. So they said most people would just quit the school during that year. And this was a thing they told you in the interview and it was just like, “Yeah, you really did give me way too much work.”

Classes are supposed to be three credits each so that you’d have five classes for 15 credits. In computer art they made you take three, two credit classes so that you had six credits and then a no credit class. So four classes to fit into two space of two classes to just jam. But that means you still have an extra six hours a week of class you have an extra six hours a week or 12 hours or more of homework. Yeah, just so when I’d be done working, I just want to play video games. I didn’t want to do schoolwork, I just wanted to watch wrestling and stuff like that. I’d hang out with friends because also not being able to see people at school, not being able to have friends there, it was not being on a campus I think really was detrimental. But I also couldn’t afford living at SVA and I lived 10 blocks away so couldn’t justify it.

Maurice Cherry:
How did you get your start at Rockstar? Did that happen while you were at SVA or afterwards?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That was interesting because I was eyeing jobs in my last year at school and there was a lot of stuff at a lot of different companies and I was like, “Oh cool”, but I have this mental blocker where I can’t apply for something until I know I will have the space for it. And so I waited until I graduated to start applying and everything had disappeared and then I was like, “Oh no, I’m going to be stuck as an assistant manager at GameStop.” And because the games industry in New York is very small. I had a partner who had a kid, had my mom. I didn’t want to move outside because outside, I had never really lived outside the city so I didn’t know how to drive. I was like, I don’t know how to find a games job and I’m not going to go move to somewhere with no skills or whatever to just go try to work somewhere.

So that summer I just kept refreshing all the websites. I saw PR job at Rockstar and I applied to it. I had two interviews and then nothing. And I kept asking, “Hey, what’s going on?” And the guy, the first interview guy actually was like, “Yeah, I don’t know either. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” Turned out the whole department fell apart. I found this out after I was hired because of something that the global PR guy had said who actually he quit then that’s why I couldn’t get hired because the person who was supposed to hire me quit. So then Game Capture or Gameplay Capture showed up as I kept refreshing through the summer in September of 2007. And I think GTA four had just been delayed. It was supposed to come out in the fall and it had been delayed to the spring and they needed some folks to work on their trailers and they needed to fill that role quickly.

And I guess that’s where I’ll say the SVA thing did come in contact because I did actually have a decent thesis. I had to jury rig together this 2D slash 3D thesis, which just showed good camera use. And that was something that I think I just had inherently. Anyway, my teachers were all like, “How do you know how to do this? Other people don’t really do it this well.” So I don’t know if Rockstar got me there, but I don’t know if SVA got me to Rockstar. But it got me to make the thesis and I sent Rockstar storyboards that I had made for my… Actually because I had gotten failed in a class and I had to redo a thesis class. So I had two thesises that I had completely storyboarded out. So being able to hand over all the storyboards, the scripts that I had written, all sorts of stuff that apparently got me my job.

I interviewed for… I found out my salary at GameStop. The guy came because I was a few blocks away from Rockstar and he was able to just come down and be like, “Hey, we want to hire you, we just need to talk money.” So then within a week and a half even, I think I was working at Rockstar.

Maurice Cherry:
And so if you could sum up that time, I know you were there for a good while, but I mean you helped with launching a lot of games. There are GTA 4, GTA 5, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, LA… I’m reading from your bio, if you could sum up that experience in a couple of words, how would you say it was for you?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, definitely complicated. I always say I wouldn’t have stayed there if there wasn’t anything good, but the amount of work you have to do wasn’t tense. It was within two weeks of me working there that I was working seven days a week for a while. But I learned a lot. I didn’t necessarily learn again things towards making my own video games, but I learned how to manage people better. I got to watch movies to learn better cinematography because there was a lot of good stuff there.

Also good friends, it’s really cool to see those games from the inside out and know how that stuff. So if I ever get to make a AAA game at that level again, I’ll be like, “Ah, I’m ready for this, because I’ve already worked on cut scenes of stuff that are 3D, big stuff.” But it did help me, my trajectory also working at Rockstar, having Rockstar games cards, people are in awe of you for working there. Got me to have a conversation with Method Man at an E3 where he really actually, he bought a copy from Madden of Madden from me at EB Games one time and then many years later he had a show at E3. It was right after Red Dead came out and we got to talk about Red Dead Redemption, which is cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Now I had first learned about you from your Kickstarter campaign that you did for Treachery in Beatdown City back in 2014. I’d love to just know, I know you’ve had the genesis for the idea around that time, but I guess what drove you to start a Kickstarter campaign to try to get it off the ground?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
So the initial development of the game was built fairly off of either free time or severance/unemployment to be able to pay my bills. Because I’ve never existed in a space where I could just not pay myself. I needed to contribute something. Having gone to school and having student loans and everything and also having grown up in poverty, I didn’t have… Savings wasn’t a thing. My mom could not support me. I had been supporting my mom through my job at EB Games. Any job basically. Even after I moved out, I was still paying into internet. I got my mom internet, I got my mom, new computers, et cetera, et cetera because she could not afford any of that stuff. So I never had that luxury. That’s one of those things you hear about indie games where they’re like, “Ah man. And that person just worked for five years and then they put out the game and it was like, yeah, that need money to do that from somewhere.”

And again, I was living with my former partner and her kid, so we all had mouths to feed still. And so leaving Rockstar, it was good because I was able to leave with some package that with some money and some unemployment because I could never just quit and leave with nothing. And then I had this PlayStation Mobile contract that there was an interest there that they had this where they were putting some money into alternative indies, I guess people who had alternative backgrounds in games. Because having a AAA background and then from Rockstar and then having this idea for this interesting beat him up was something they were interested in. It wasn’t a lot of money they would give you, but it was something. And so that kicked in as my unemployment kicked out and after the six months and I was able to pay the programmer who was able to buy his own computer so that we could work together, which was a game changer in and of itself.

You know, don’t think about the resources that you need. One of the game jams that we were at, we had to share a computer and that made it really hard to make a game when you had to keep handing each other the computer. So yeah, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources. And PlayStation Mobile in 2014 we could tell was going belly up. I don’t know, there’s a lot of strife internally from what I could tell. And we knew New York just isn’t a place where games are made a lot of times. It depends, it comes and goes. But I don’t think I could have gotten a job in the games industry as again, a designer, non programmer. I’d have to find somebody who wanted to just hire me specifically for that.

So we had been working on this game for a while and yeah, end of December 2013, I was like, “What am I going to do?” I was really scared actually. And so I was like, “Yeah, we’re going to do a Kickstarter.” So I started getting to work and it was a few months of work to get the Kickstarter ready. The launch went really badly in that I didn’t know they needed to vet your page.

I sent it in and then they were like, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” And I was like, “Oh no.” So it threw off what your 30-day trajectory looks like. It was not even going to end during the week anymore. It’s not going to end on a Saturday, which is not a good idea. I was very naive and I thought I’d built up enough of a fan base following of the game that and just of myself as a person in the games industry that we’d be able to be successful. But nothing went right. We weren’t able to get videos recorded in time, we weren’t able to. And I honestly should have just waited another month or so. But I was desperate. I was, again, coming from poverty, you come from a money is just constantly dripping away mindset. So I was just like, I need this money as soon as possible. And so I launched and you can tell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to say, I know that the campaign wasn’t successful, but I mean the way that you… And I understand where you’re talking about it, I launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 that flopped hard. So I completely understand. I think also though just the climate around crowdfunding was not as, what’s the word? I guess prevalent as it is now. When I started mine in 2011, a lot of people had no idea what Kickstarter was, what crowdfunding was, why should I give you money, that sort of thing. And I thought that I had a audience behind me that would be able to support what I was trying to do with my campaign and it just flopped. So I know what that’s like. I know exactly what it is to go through that whole thing. You did end up starting another Kickstarter campaign, but I’m curious when it fell through, what was going through your mind? What drove you to keep continuing working on the game?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m actually trying to remember. In video games, there were actually a bunch of successful Kickstarters. That was why we were like, “Ah, this is a place that we could go to.” That was one of the burgeoning sides of it. People in my direct family still did not know how Kickstarter worked obviously, but you could see making millions of dollars on Kickstarter and I wasn’t looking for that. But I think why I saw it as a possible path out and when it failed. So the last day, two days, Kickstarter were hilarious. Like I said, it got bumped to Saturday. That weekend was Game Developers Conference that year, so starting on the Monday. So it was failing on the Saturday before the Monday and the Friday before that. I never missed a plane. I missed my flight to San Francisco at 8:00 AM. I had to sit in JFK for 12 hours.

I was basically… Because I wasn’t sleeping well that time either. So I basically just went to sleep in my lap and waited for my flight to finally show up. I think I went and found some food at some point and because I was fairly broke back then, I really would. I try to leverage my friend base to try to find somewhere to stay the first night or two before an event kicked off. So I didn’t actually have anywhere to stay that night when I got to San Francisco. But when I landed in San Francisco and it was at night and a friend of mine was like, “Hey, you can come stay at my brother-in-law’s apartment.” It ended up being in a basement that had no cell reception. So it was actually perfect because I’d have to go outside to check what the internet was doing, what the Kickstarter was doing.

So I just had resided that it was going to end and I just turned on Archer on Netflix, on an Xbox and I went to sleep and I woke up and it was over. But it was really good to be there at Game Developers Conference because literally the next day there’s this website, unwinnable.com where they write about games and they have all sorts of amazing great games writers there. I had written for them a couple of times. They write about personal stuff. Sometimes they just write cool music of the year lists and stuff.

But they used to rent a house for Game Developers Conference so that they could bring a bunch of writers and charge them based on how much they could pay. This is before Airbnb really. And I got to stay there the day, I think the Saturday after Saturday night after. Yeah, that was awesome because I got to just talk to these people who were like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know about this game was on Kickstarter, et cetera, et cetera, cetera.” I just was around all these people were like, “Oh, this sounds amazing. What are you going to do?” People all very, very uplifting, very positive. It was the exact right place to be when something didn’t succeed because I had so much support.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it sounds like it. That’s good. No, I feel like we’ve seen in the media over the past couple of years that game development can be a hostile environment. Do you have any thoughts about that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I mean, yeah, my thoughts mostly are that my wife used to work in non-profit stuff and I’ve seen her abused as much as I was. In terms of time and what people expect of you, it’s more benign. I don’t know, I think all industries suck. I always say like, “Well, let’s look at the CG industry and how they farm it out to non-US countries a lot of time and then don’t credit them and stiff them on money and stuff.” The games industry’s definitely got a lot of bad parts. It’s got a lot of good parts. A lot of people want to keep focusing on the bad things and I mean there there’s tons of hostility. It’s absolutely true and that’s why I don’t give up. And I’m always trying to mentor folks on the side, introduce people, tell people who did a thing so that they can avoid that person.

I’ve been the victim of a lot of more, I guess insidious toxicity or just people smiling to your face and stabbing you in the back. People just not wanting to work with you after they screwed you over rather than them act or if you just complain about things, people not liking that. There’s definitely an air of toxic positivity, which I think needs to be talked about a lot more because I don’t know, there’s an uroboros of people being like, “Why is the games industry, why are fans so toxic?” And then the industry, you look at 30 years of the industry being like, if you don’t have the best form of hardware, then you’re nothing. It’s just like why you think, I think it’s up to climate change. It’s up to the big companies to really put money in to fix a lot of the stuff. I just try to do as best as I can by the people that I work with.

Maurice Cherry:
Ultimately, what do you want to accomplish as a game developer? Do you have a bigger goal or a bigger message?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I’m an artist, so game development is the thing I use to do stuff. But yeah, I mean, I don’t know, Treachery in Beatdown City is about how far will rich people go to take control over things. And it’s a very timely thing. Every piece will be different. I mean, I also put out a little Twitter art piece a while ago that was being Black in America and it was using Mega Man Sprites, which evoked an interesting response from a lot of people on the internet. A lot of people being like, “Wow.” And a lot of other people being like, “Well then they should just act right” and you see people showing up on themselves. Basically what I make is does exist to provoke a response a lot of the time, one way or the other. But again, I’ve released music with people.

I release board games, big video games, small video games. I think it’s just who I am. It’s how I think the term NuChallenger is funny that I stumble on it because I feel like my existence in the games industry is a challenge to the games industry. It’s funny that EAAS was challenge everything and I’m like, we’re one of the biggest companies in the industry. You don’t challenge a whole lot of things clearly because you keep making the same matting game every year. Everything we do is going to be different, but definitely feel like something we’re doing.

There was an article a long time ago that was looking for the Spike Lee of games and I don’t think the article understood what the Spike Lee of games was. They were just seemingly looking for a Black person making video games. And I’m like, Spike Lee went and had to hustle a ton of people for money to make Malcolm X the movie. And it’s a huge epic that has its flaws. It’s an amazing, amazing movie that I’m so happy it exists. He’s also made stuff that I don’t ever want to see again, like BlacKkKlansman and because of its weird propaganda thing. So he’s an artist. He’s entitled to make Project to Project. That’s how I think of myself and what we want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
So you don’t think of yourself as a Spike Lee of games?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I say I’m the Malcolm X of games.

Maurice Cherry:
Unpack that a little bit. What do you mean by that?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Well, I mean, I don’t know. I think of a lot of things, but I mean I provoke response from the games industry a lot. I mean, again, I’ve been fighting this fight. I think about having written that thing about having written a talk, how Urban Black and Latino cultures the next frontier of indie games nine years ago, taking months of researching and educating a ton of people in the industry about how it’s very strange that if hip-hop was in parallel with video games and it’s a very technical art, especially from the production standpoint, it doesn’t make any sense. Actually other than that video games were so insular that it told people that they were not welcome basically to be in it. My whole thing is, and I provoke responses to people. I say things that are uncomfortable to people’s faces. I’m trying to make the games industry better.

I’m trying to bring Black people together to make a bigger space for them so that people aren’t always expecting Black people to make sad games about blackness. I don’t know, I just want Black folks to be free in the games industry. That’s a very important thing to me. I don’t know about Spike Lee’s intentions for movies. I know that NYU likes to parade him around. They’re like, “See, we have a successful Black person who came from our program”, I’m like, “Where are all the other Black directors?” I think of myself more along the… I want to work with Jordan Peele one day. I like Boots Riley. When I saw Sorry To Bother You, I was like, “Ah, this is along what I like to do. Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t say I’m the Spike Lee again, but the Malcolm X or the Stokely Carmichael are more what I try to go for.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I was just curious. That’s a powerful comparison. So I was just curious to know where that came from. For people who are listening to this who want to get into developing games, what would you recommend to them?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
It’s always hard because I feel like every time I give people advice, they just want to hear advice to hear. They are hoping that the thing that they’re doing is the thing that’s right. And then they just move on. I’ve told so many parents how to do things for their kids and then they never do anything games. Well, I mean, I’d say don’t be afraid because I mean, it’s just like, don’t take every game tutorial thing with, take a lot of them with a grain of salt. Don’t sit in your head for too long. A lot of times I think trying to take a small game and just modify it. Can you turn a deck of cards into fighting game or something for the game? Corporate Vandals I worked on, it was like, can you take Tic tac toe and make that a graffiti tag warfare game?

Basically turf warfare game. And it doesn’t take, It’s really hard because people always tell me that I seem to have a knack for these things. And again, I guess the thing that really got me to the point that I’m at is I played a lot of games and I wrote down analysis about what I liked and did not. I feel like an opinion on things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. And don’t be afraid to be really harsh on big games because I feel like people tend to let big games off the hook more. And I’m like, we don’t say Transformers is the pinnacle of movies. And that’s what we say for video games a lot of time.

The biggest flashiest thing that makes absolutely no sense at the end of the day. And it’s maybe a little ugly from an arts perspective, art design perspective, we’re like, “Oh man, that gets a 10.” And you’re like, “What?” So look at that stuff. Look at that stuff. Look at small games, big games. See what overlaps, see what doesn’t. I would say also read Rise of the Videogame Zinesters by Anna Anthropy. I really like that book a lot. And she’s just very, very smart game designer.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into game development?

Shawn Alexander Allen:
That’s always a hard one because like I said earlier, when I was a teenager, I decided this is what I was doing. Everyone tried to talk me out of it. It was weird. I don’t know. As an artist, every time I try to think about my life without making video games, I’d come up with a blank. Because when I was working on my comics, the reason why I wanted to make games was because I wanted to have this old comic when I was 15 that I really wanted to turn into a thing where you could make real meaningful choices and then have these sprawling side things. And I had another game like that too, where I wanted to basically turn Crono, make Chrono Trigger, but make it 10 times as big. I always had these ideas about telling stories that go off in these different branching narratives, and as I make games now, I really love the mechanics of them.I mean, I think I wanted to make movies, but I had to work at a game company to learn that I liked movies. Strangely enough, I stopped liking comics. I don’t know, my brain just doesn’t have the attention for them anymore. I don’t know why. The only comic I could read was, what was it? The Understanding Comics is the best comic that I can read. And it’s funny because it’s about comics and it’s about sequential storytelling, but I can’t read, I get bored of them. Even short comics very quickly nowadays. Even ones that I loved since I was a kid. So it’s really hard. That’s one of the, as someone on a funding landscape and seeing people saying, “Oh, X, Y, and Z is going to replace, X is going to make it really hard to do this, or people only want these types of games, or these people only want that and it’s going to make it hard”, puts me in a weird place.

And that’s why I’m also very protective about the games industry as well, because I look at it as a place where art converges, I mean, I want to do hobbies when I am no longer doing a lot of this stuff in my free time. I was actually trying to gear up to do standup few years ago and then COVID happened. I’ve been trying to had a guitar for a while that I’m trying to learn. I want do those things, but I actually think I want to do those things and just practice them without the need to make money off of them. Because making video games for money be being a thing that I love tremendously for money and having to sell that art is very distressing in and of self. But yeah, I don’t know. The path is, I hated graphic design. I mean, I love graphic design as an idea, but I hated it from a, I don’t know if I could sell it because it changes so often. I guess I do apps, I have a bunch of app, I have a bunch of things, designs that I’d like to do. I’d really like to make a good dating app. But it also comes from game design.

Maurice Cherry:
Well that’s where the dating apps are getting their behaviors from. I

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Think we need to onboard people in general for everything Twitter needs to onboard people. We need to have a little quest that you go on that’s slightly hidden from the user so that they can somehow be tripped into learning that people are people on the internet and that they can’t just be shouting at women that decide not to answer their texts and hiding messages. I don’t know. All sorts of things that, as someone who met my partner on OkCupid, after a lot of digging through in A/B testing, profile pictures and length and this and that, and just figuring out what actually made people interested in me on a very quick interface. I want to make that better for other people. That’s what I would do, I guess.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Really hoping that we’re done with the project that I’m pitching now. I would like to be done with that before the next five years. So in the next four years I’d like to be done with that and have that in the world while making the other project that I’ve also been pitching. Those are the key things. I’d like to just be at home more or rather, I work from home so I’d rather be not. Because right now I’m just in this time space where I’m doing this update to treasury and beat Town city. So it’s taking a lot of my time and I’d like to just be able to spend more time with my kid and my wife and hopefully have more of a feeling of Atlanta as a city since I’ve only been here for about less than two years now and just vibing out with musicians, maybe doing some music, doing some standup. I don’t know. I just want to be able to be more creative and free I guess, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, Atlanta’s a good city for that. I mean in, I think you told me you were in Marietta, right? Yeah, yeah. Got to get out the suburbs, come into the city. Yeah. Yeah.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Tickets to see Qualey Chris at 529, October. Him in push a fee like three days apart. So it’s going to be, so two different experiences. I’m trying to go in as much as possible. It’s exciting. But yeah, that’s also the other thing is working all the time keeps me out here. I need to learn how to drive. We might need to buy another car because the car right now basically takes the baby to and from daycare, takes us to doctor’s appointments and does grocery shopping and I can’t drive to the city while my kid needs to be picked up. Right. We’ll see. Yeah.

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

Shawn Alexander Allen:
I have a site, it’s a nuchallenger.com, N-U-C-H-A-L-L-E-N-G-E-R.com, where I’m trying to post stuff about the games. We’d love to update that more. beatdowncity.com is Treachery in Beatdown City. Twitter, ShawnDoubleA, S-H-A-W-N-D-O-U-B-L-E-A. That’s where I just am on at beatdown_City on Twitter is where I do a lot of corporate ship posting. It’s funny. I like it because I can actually be free there and post dumb fighting gay memes and stuff that I find funny that I don’t feel uncomfortable posting to my eclectic group of artists and game important people.

I don’t know. I have a strange Twitter following that. I’m like, Why do you follow me on Twitter? And I don’t want to lose everybody. And also I’ve just been bullied so much over saying anything about being Black in games that I just stop arguing on that side. But I’m trying to get more things like this going like a podcast. I’m trying to, I want to work on a book at some point because I think it’ll be important. I’m going to try to put out some video content too, because people keep telling me that I should be talking about more of these things and I’m just like, yeah, Time is the key limit there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, Shawn Alexander Allen, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I mean, one, just sharing your story of how you got into games and about the story with building treachery and Beat Down City. It sounds like this is something that of course you’re really super committed to, of course doing this through your studio. So I’ll be excited to see what comes next from you, what comes in the future. I know you mentioned before we were recording that there’s a big update for Treachery in Beatdown City coming, so I’ll make sure that we put links down in the show notes for the games and everything so people can check that out. But thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Shawn Alexander Allen:
Thank you very much.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Whitney Robinson

Maternal healthcare has always been in a precarious place here in the United States, but thanks to this week’s guest, Whitney Robinson, we just might be on our way to solving it in our lifetime. She brings her skills as a product designer and builder of things — as well as a mom — to help transform maternal health for Black women.

Our conversation began with a look at her current project, The Renée, and we talked about how work and life have changed for her over the past couple of years. She also spoke about growing up in North Carolina and attending Duke University, turning side gigs into full-time work, and shared how she measures success at this stage of her life. Whitney is a prime example of how you too can use your skills for the greater good!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Whitney Robinson:
Hi, I’m Whitney Robinson. I’m a product manager/designer of things.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going for you so far?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m struggling a little bit with managing homeschooling. I have four kids. Projects… I know. And they’re homeschooled. I’m a new homeschooling parent. And then the things that we heard about in the news. Like the power dynamics that have shifted in homes as women and have become more of caretakers. And so it’s just a lot and trying not to be a statistic and all that kind of stuff. So I do feel like there’s been quite a bit of pushing for me this year. But I will say too, that I’ve definitely, this has been the year that I’ve realized I’m doing too much, and how do I do less, and doing less is okay. Yeah. So the year has been just kind of push and pull and just kind of realizing what I need to let go, where I need to just let the ebb and flow of life do its thing.

Maurice Cherry:
How is that process going, like learning to let go?

Whitney Robinson:
I raised by baby boomers, you don’t let go. You keep pushing, you keep going, you keep doing it. You have to have all the grades and the check marks. And so the letting go has been really hard, but I’m thinking more about, I’m thinking about what is my impression on my children. What does that look like? And I want them to let stuff go. I’m telling them all the time, just let it go. And so it feels real hypocritical when I realize, but I’m all over here and I’m stressed or I’m trying not to be stressed because I am holding on to this little bit of money for this one thing. Then I’m like, “Just let that go. It’ll free your mind up to do all the other things you do.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I can tell it’s a struggle. I mean, in general, I think it’s a struggle for a lot of people, but from your position, I can see also how it’s definitely a struggle when you have sort of homeschooling on top of that too.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I’m learning that too. And there’s a reason why, there’s so many shifts happening right now, especially around our culture as people, and even the homeschooling. I come from people who are like, your kids, aren’t going to learn … A school building is the best place for them. And I’m kind of countering that. Like, oh, what does that mean? I can’t educate my kids or I have to assume that it has to be someone else? And I do see both sides, but I’m mirroring, I’m doing a lot of mirroring and I’m just … Anyway, this has been a very hyper intensive inner inspection time for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are your children?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah, there is that. So eight, seven, five and two.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Whitney Robinson:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a dynamic range. I mean, you’ve got certainly the oldest, that would be, I guess, let’s see. Eight, you’re kind of fourth grade I think, something like that.

Whitney Robinson:
Third. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Third, fourth grade.

Whitney Robinson:
Homeschooling them means grades are a thing, but you are teaching them higher levels because you’re one on one so much. But I think if they were in a school system, it’d be third grade, second grade, kindergarten and preschool, or not even, maybe daycare or something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It’s a thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any other big plans you’re trying to accomplish this year?

Whitney Robinson:
So I’m new to the West End and it’s the Blackest place I’ve … Well, Durham was Black, but that’s not Black anymore. That’s where I’m from. That’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been in Durham most of my life, but this is probably the Blackest place I’ve lived in a very long time. So moving here was one big move. And then the next thing I want to do, I mean, I’m in tech and I just feel like I need to have a super opposite outlet. And so I’ve been asking around for a space to rent to have a plant shop with knick-knacks from estate sales of Black home where people come, sit, chill and just be. No airs. It just feels good. Smells good. That kind of vibe. That’s what I’m trying to do. I would love to do it in the West End if possible. So we’ll see.

Maurice Cherry:
The West End is, oh God, the West End is such an interesting neighborhood in Atlanta. One, just because of the history. But it’s also one of the few neighborhoods that hasn’t been, I guess, completely gentrified yet.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I hear.

Maurice Cherry:
When you think of like Cabbagetown, Reynoldstown, especially if you’re thinking Bankhead, which is now all, quote unquote, west midtown for the most part, the West End has largely managed to keep its, I want to say Blackness, but we’ll just say it’s managed to keep its idiosyncrasies. There’re certain things about the neighborhood, certainly, which I think in the next five years will change. I think the mall is probably going to be the biggest change. I think it’s already been bought out by developers or something, but I feel like that’s going to be the next. Once the mall changes, that’s going to change the whole neighborhood. Because I remember living in the West End when they put those condos up on, well, now it’s called Lowry, but it used to be called Ashby, but they put these big, huge condos up, I want to say maybe about 15 years ago or something.
And I remember when they first went up and I was like, “There is nobody that’s going to pay $200,000 to live in the West End. That is ridiculous. That will never happen.” And people moved there, which surprised me because I’m like, that CVS wasn’t even there. There was nothing there. I think the CVS came when the condos came, but I was like, “There’s what? Hong Kong City.” There used to be a place on the corner called Gut Busters. I think Gut Busters then became something else. Now it’s Mangos. Whatever. Nothing on that corner seems to live very long. Mangos for some reason seems to be an outlier. But there’s nothing about that downtown West End area that really screams high commerce, right?

Whitney Robinson:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially not that would support a kind of, quote unqoute, live, work, play condo space that was built there. And I remember they had all these little shops right there in the lobby and then I just saw them all close down and I just saw all the prices going lower and lower, and lower. I don’t know who lives over there now, but I feel like the West End has largely kind of kept most of the neighborhood pretty Black. Although I think if you go maybe two or three streets back, like People Street back there, there’s $500,000 houses back there. It’s wild.

Whitney Robinson:
So the houses on, and again, I’m new. So I’ve learned that the houses on People Street are kind of highly sought after and being right here at the park, we’ve noticed just the change in a year. It’s a weird conversation too, because we also, I use this lightly, but we are changing the pricing of the houses even around us because we bought into the neighborhood when things are kind of high. But what we’ve heard is that too people were like, “Oh you all are Black. Oh thank God.” It’s been like, okay, good. People won’t get mad at us because we know that us moving in, that change something. We are aware of that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What are your work days kind of looking like right now?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m a flower child. So I kind of do things how they come at me. I can pivot very quickly. And that’s what my work days look like. Because the kids are here, I tend to do some instruction with them until about noon. And then I will jump on a call or two. I have some consulting clients right now. And so I will work with them. I’ll do some of my side projects, but the kids are always in the mix. So if people are like, “What’s going on in the background?” It’s, “Hey, I’m homeschooling. I have kids around me constantly.” So my workdays have really forced me to be, it’s like I’m not in a cubicle and I’m not in a very quiet space. So has really forced me to be very focused in those moments that I have quiet time. But also teaching my kids to be respectful of other people doing stuff. You can’t just run around and rip and run all day.
So often while I’m working too, I’m watching them from my window because they’re outside a lot. And so like, “Okay, you all go outside.” So I’m very much a hybrid pivoting type person. I’m moving around. I don’t have one place I sit in. I’m on the front porch. I’m in the yard taking meetings. I’m all over the place. But not in a bad way. It actually really works for me. And I try to shut down by the time I pick the kids up from orchestra. And so by then it’s like, whatever. And then at night sometimes I’ll do a little bit of work, but I try to really just, I try to shut my brain down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that that skill of being that flexible is something we’ve all really picked up. I mean, one, during the pandemic because of remote work, but we’ve also just had to pick it up because now we have to do so many things from one place. Like home is now the office, is now the gym, is now the schoolhouse, is now a number of different things. So it sounds like that’s a skill though that you’re kind of acutely aware of and you’re able to tap into it.

Whitney Robinson:
It’s one of the skills that I sell in my consulting. I mean, who better than to do disaster reliefs on the drop of a dime than someone like me. I can think through a lot of things coming at me at once. And I really enjoy that though. If it was too buttoned up, it would feel boring to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about The Renée. Tell me about The Renée.

Whitney Robinson:
I love The Renée. Not just because it’s mine, but because it’s solving a really big juicy problem in the world. We talk about tech. There are so many first world problems in tech. And so The Renée really centered around, and it started as an experiment. Why are we still having conversations around Black maternal mortality? Really I’d had four kids at that point and just became a [inaudible 00:12:50], had no idea. And so at the top of 2019, I said, “I’m a product manager. I know how to solve things quickly. So why aren’t we doing the same in maternal health?” To me, it just felt real ashy. What’s going on? Are people just talking about it to then move on until it becomes hot topic again? So anyway, what I would typically do with my team, I did a bit of, I guess, lack of a better term, user experience research.
I went to people who were directly connected to the problem and I started hosting jam sessions. And so everyone in the room for the most part identified as, I mean, you had to be Black to get in the room, but identified as Black women who had experienced pregnancy some way, somehow, whatever that is. Five to seven people. And really it was, I would facilitate a co-design session. People would share stories, collaboratively they would identify pain points, joy points, solve them, create for them. I mean, absolutely beautiful. So that gave me goosebumps for many reasons because that first one which happened in Durham was not what I thought it would be. I thought, “Oh, something very tech enabled is going to come out of this.” But actually what came out of it was very spiritual and human. And so I stepped away from that like, “I bet the system ain’t seeing us at all, if this is the type of solutions that we want.” Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Whitney Robinson:
And so The Renée just became this tour of jam sessions. I don’t go into a place unless I’m invited. Not because I’m so cool, but because I didn’t want it to feel like this outside reaching in approach to looking or having this conversation with locals. Like, oh, here’s this person from Durham coming to tell us what we need to do. I didn’t want it to be that way. So everything about The Renée and the jam sessions have been, I guess, lack of a better term, asset informed. We understand trauma is in this space. So everything looks and feels good. So we wouldn’t host them in a conference room. It had to be a vibey spot. It could be in someone’s house. Everything is very lean and the overhead is very low. But the impact of these jam sessions were very actionable insight into what Black women were experiencing and asking for.
So I went around the country doing this right before the pandemic. I had a queue, there was some press. Fast Company wrote about, it said something like, who is this UX girl or UX person, I forget what they wrote, having hackathons within maternal health. And then that’s when my project blew up. And so I had a queue of maybe 16 places. We could go into country. We could go in towns. We could go in cities. People were just saying, “Hey, I just want you to come to Milwaukee.” And so it goes on the list. Sure. And so we went around doing those. Pandemic, obviously ended it. So I did a few virtual ones. My last really, well, the one that most people probably know is I did one with Stacey Abrams.
And then kind of decided that I definitely hit a point of saturation. Meaning, I was just hearing the same thing over and over again. And then it became, what is The Renée? Which is what you’re asking me. So I decided, we operate as this lab, almost research and development. We have our ear to our people. We know how to listen and facilitate these kind of spaces, but we can also create what they’re asking for. We can make products or services, or experiences, art installations. We can do whatever for what people are asking for. And so that’s The Renée. It’s kind of a vibe.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you describe it like that. I mean, first of all, if there’s anyone that knows how to make a way out of no way, out of any way, it’s Black women. Point blank period. And I love that you refer to The Renée as a lab. It’s a space for discovery, for experimentation, for fleshing out hypotheses and things like this. You’re not explicitly calling it a company or something that may have specific deliverables. I love that it’s a lab. It’s a place to experiment.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely. And we don’t talk disparate. I know I mentioned disparities, but that was how I kind of came to like, “Whoa, this is a problem.” But we don’t do like, oh, you all going to just die. We hear that so much. That is actually a tool that can be used against us. That goes into, again, why we don’t, everything we do feels … I tell people if you think about the Soul Train and what it did for our people in its time, that’s what I want The Renée to be. Is that people can look to us as this kind of cultural boom within maternal health, because maternal health sounds boring. It doesn’t sound sexy at all.
But what if The Renée has an impacts like Soul Train and kind of creates these offsprings all over the country? There were many Soul Trains, even in my hometown. And it’s just putting out Black culture in maternal health. And that’s why I get goose bumps when I talk about this because I don’t know everything. And even though I’m a mother of four, I’ve learned very quickly that my experience, I’ve had home births, my experience is very unique to me. And watching people design and experience with strangers, shows why it’s important for Black folks to be at the helm of their healthcare. Is just, is a different vibe than traditional healthcare or the system.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. No, absolutely. I mean, and I’m speaking broadly here for Black people in the United States. I imagine this may be different in other countries where listers might be at. But here in the US, I mean, Black people do kind of have this mistrust of the medical system of healthcare. Whether you think about something like Henrietta Lacks or you think about, honestly, even Serena Williams. We’re talking right around the time where she’s speaking of retiring and she’s been very public about the issues that she’s had to go through with her health, with having her daughter and everything. And social media has also really helped to elevate a lot of experiences of Black women, Black people in general, but Black women specifically around healthcare issues and how we are different, Black women are different, Black people are different. Even now to the point where you’re just starting to see Black medical illustrations. It’s 2022.

Whitney Robinson:
That’s what I’m saying. And this is a crazy laugh. Not a funny. For me, I have skin in the game. [inaudible 00:20:08] children that I can either say, “Oh well pray and I hope that the system you enter into will be better.” Now, I’m a believer in prayer. But I mean, I can’t sit and I personally, Whitney, I believe this is connected to my life’s work. I feel very uncomfortable waiting or hoping that someone else will fix this thing. And it’s also why I say to people, I’m not interested in dismantling what’s out there right now. Because even if I was told, hey, let’s say, I don’t know. The president was like, “Whitney, you’re now over healthcare. Change it.” My feedback would be, “Yeah. But it’s still going to have essence of the experimentation on my people.” The conversations we’re having right now are because the system was absolutely designed to do what it’s doing.
And that’s why it’s working the way it’s working. I would love, Black people can, and I’ve seen it, design their own, quote unquote, system. And I don’t even know if we know what that looks like, because it feels like it would be a daunting task. But I have seen it happen in small spaces. I mean, no oversight, no red tape. Oh, Whitney, we need grants. None of that. Give good food. Make people feel welcome, warm, see them as human and give them space to share. You’d be amazed at the commonalities from one part of the US to the other. It’s so hard to talk about without being in it and watching it happen to say, wow, this is the connectedness of Black folks. It’s really beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
How has The Renée changed since you founded it? You mentioned you’ve shifted to these virtual sessions, but are there other ways that it’s changed?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. So I actually, like I said, it was just an experiment to see what would happen. There have been so many iterations of it. So the jam sessions led to, I created a web application using no-code tools because who has the time. One of the things I heard a lot was support. Support how, no matter where I birth, how I birth. If we can feel supported, it’s a game changer. And so I learned from all of these conversations what a good support system looks like. So we put our web application out in the world for people to use to answer what Black women were asking for. I want to feel supported and I want to know how to build good support systems. Another thing that has changed, especially during the pandemic as healthcare has definitely changed. A lot of virtual things have come to the forefront. Quite a few university based hospital systems have reached out to us to say, hey, help us solve our Black problem and tokenize.
And I know it’s a thing. And so I never saw that coming. I did not. I really went into this thinking like, “Oh, purely, this will be some kind of tech thing.” Not maybe totally tech, but did not see the opportunity to actually work with healthcare systems. So I’ve collaborated with MIT, UCSF and a wearable technology company, and have had conversations with Penn, Duke, several. And so what it has, now I’m on edge a little bit because when you put something out there, very optimistic about what Black folks can do, when these kind of players are coming in, your delivery has to be buttoned up and so sharp. Going back to beginning of our conversation, that’s not very buttoned up, is not really my style. But I am having to think about, you know what? I want to be as big as Google.
I want whole municipalities and employers and whatever, who are like, we really are invested in seeing our Black mothers and Black parents have better experiences, help us to create whatever we need to internally to do that. I want The Renée to do that. So I think during these last couple of years, especially, I’ve gotten a bigger picture. I want to think about the future and not just the present. I want to think, what do I see? How do we see a Black design and led maternal space in the future? And what does it look like to then build based on what we see in the future?

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s go more into that. What does design within kind of maternal healthcare, reproductive justice, what does that look like? Paint a picture?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. It looks slow. By slow I mean, it’s not really built on efficiency. And so we’re in a system right now that is graded, we’re not in a system, but healthcare in many ways. So I have to be clear. I’m not a medical provider, but just working in the system and with people in the system and having conversations. We’re looking at a system that is built on efficiency and their bottom line, whereas where we’re going will feel more like tender, loving care. It will feel like, oh, you just spent two hours with me to talk about my dog and now we can get into my healthcare. People want to feel the connection and the recall, and the consistency with providers. So for instance, one of the challenges in kind of, I guess, traditional maternal health is that you may not always have the same doctor, but when you’re talking to Black folks and what feels safe, it’s a consistency of care.
It’s oh, I’ve had this person kind of walk with me throughout a process. I think we will begin to look more like the midwifery. Honestly, we talk about, oh, we want to go back to the good old days, but this is a space that I do think the future probably will look more like what we used to do. So that’s why I said slow. It will feel consistent like what a midwife would do. They are your person. Your appointments are hours long. You can call, text whenever you need to. They come to you. It feels like a whole wraparound care. It is high touch. The success is you having a good experience. Your outcome sometimes you can’t gauge. But what if success is the experience of the person? And that’s what I believe Black folks are asking for. I want you to care about not just saving me and my child. I want you to care about my experience throughout, from beginning to end. Think of it as a flow. All of the touch points in between are intentional. So that’s where we’re going and that’s what I want to help build.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, just hearing you talk about this sounds, I can’t quite put it into words. It’s a very warm feeling. That’s what you want to have. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re sick or something, you want that kind of convalescent sort of care. And I think certainly our current system doesn’t work that way. It’s very cold and in efficient in many ways. We’re not even talking about insurance and stuff. But yeah, I like that slow, I guess, feeling or that slow experience that you mentioned. It’s more about, I guess, taking the time, building that rapport and making sure that people have a good experience. It’s not just about the care. It’s about the experience with the care also.

Whitney Robinson:
Definitely. And I do think it’s colorful. Just think about, again, going into a hospital or something, very harsh, bright lights, white walls, white lab coats. When I was having my first home birth, my grandmother told me, “That’s beneath you as a Black educated woman to do that.” But she was born at home. So this is an intergenerational conversation also, because let’s be honest, there’s a little bit of keeping up with the Joneses that happened to us. Oh, white women are doing this so we should do this or they’re saying it’s safe and so that’s the safest place for us. And then there’s this spiral.
And so my grandmother saying that to me, with all of her sass made me realize too, oh, this is not just one sided. Like, oh we can’t just look at hospitals and the providers, but this is generational. So many of the conversations too around birth experiences of older generations were covered in shame. And so those things were not shared. And so this new, or this system that is going back to really the things that granny midwives and doulas do constantly, it’s a part of their service, we are basically going to that. That’s what I would love to see because I believe, I’m banking on that being the care that people are asking for, that people want.

Maurice Cherry:
What other kinds of projects are you working on? You have The Renée, before we started recording, you mentioned you’re also doing something called Product Groove as well. What other projects are you working on?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. Just know, I grew up on funk. My first concert was James Brown. It is a very heavy thread in my life the way I was raised by my parents. And so Product Groove really, I wish someone could do an imagery of a record for it. The imagery in my mind is we have so many, I have worked with so many first time or non-technical founders of color specifically who have an idea and they go and hire a dev shop. And then by the time they hire me, I’m like, “Ooh Lord. You about to have to refinance your whole house just to pivot.” So Product Groove is just a natural kind of iteration of the work that I’ve been doing with founders and companies. I love to just focus on non-technical and first time founders of color and helping them build strategy.
So it’s a support coaching product strategy type thing. I mean, to be corny, it’s helping you get into a groove. It’s helping you understand like, who’s your customer? And I have an idea, but should I really build something on it or is it just good for me? That happens a lot. People will discover a problem, but really they just, they’re the only one that cares about it. I want to help founders not make costly mistakes. And so it will be in cohort style, group sessions couple times a month. And I’m definitely asking people, I ask people to be committed to it financially and with their time, because what I am really good at is helping people build strategy, roadmaps, understand their people, understand research, things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s kind of switch up a little bit, switch gears here. I want to learn more about kind of your origin story. Some of which I know because we’ve actually had your sister on the show before, but we can talk about that. But tell me about where you grew up and what was your childhood like?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I grew up in the country in the sticks when the neighbors, you couldn’t see them. I grew up playing outside all day, which is why I raised my kids the same way. No matter the weather, they’re outside. So I explored a lot. I was bored a lot. My sisters were my best friends and too because my mom was like, “You go to school, you come home.” That’s it. And so my parents played records all the time. People came to our house for drinks. So I just remember growing up, it was a very funky environment. And so my parents being very stylish people with high standards and also just really hard workers. I didn’t think of myself in lack and that’s not even just monetary. I knew that I could think through anything. I wasn’t taught to fist fight or anything.
I was taught, if you can think through this, you can get through it, period. So I went to a very rural country high school in North Carolina and then I ended up at Duke. Actually let me back up. I ended up at Carnegie Mellon for pre-college, two pre-college programs. I think that’s when I realized, Ooh you a nerd. I was doing gaming and stuff back in, I don’t know, 20, God, before I went to college. So early 2000. And then went to Duke, which was a shock. It was a culture shock to me.

Maurice Cherry:
How so?

Whitney Robinson:
I was top of my class in high school, but I came to Duke feeling like the bottom. And imagine a place where there’s an academic rigor and not that many Black folks. And then I chose computer science, so I was the only, only, only, only. I always said that if I went back to Duke and I gave feedback, I would, maybe it’s in the past and just let it go. But there was so much kind of leaving, so much of the work was team based and computer science and I was left out sometimes. People would just be meeting and not let me know. I was reprimanded for things and I was like, “Wait, how are you all doing that?” But I tried so, so, so, so hard. So would I do Duke again? Yes. But I think I would realize there is a fight in me that I did not realize.
But the good thing about Duke is I actually started in VR and I built … Duke had this six sided cube called the die and you enter it in and you are in an immersive space. So I started doing game design and character and asset design, and 3D. And that was fun. And so I created a simulation. Of course, it was a runway with a dude in an afro and bell bottoms. It was just a thread in my life. But you walked in and you saw this guy walk away from you. He turned around, he came back, his clothes changed. And so Duke really did though push some of the envelope for me when it came to the way that I approached things. The look and feel, and the vibe. I also walked around with an afro. I was one of the only people that was wearing a natural and I wore bell bottoms. I was just a nerdy person.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, was that uncommon on Duke’s campus?

Whitney Robinson:
I think so, because I think, especially in the Black population, I think people came from so many other cities, like New York, Atlanta. I’m a Southern girl raised in the sticks. And so I do think there was a bit of difference. I don’t think it was, people were pointing at me or making me feel bad about it. But I do think I kind of [inaudible 00:36:14].

Maurice Cherry:
You just felt different. Yeah.

Whitney Robinson:
I felt different. Yeah. I think I brought a different type of energy.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I felt that way when I went to Morehouse. I too am from the sticks. I’m from Selma, Alabama. And when I first got to Morehouse, I did a pre-college thing too the summer before graduation. And it was so funny that that summer because, first of all, I couldn’t leave Selma fast enough. I was like, “Oh, it starts in June. I graduate at late May. Let’s go.” I was ready to go. There was that aspect of it. But also I graduated top of my class in high school and then I get to Morehouse and it’s like meeting, at least in my program, meeting 20 other people that are just me, at least in that way, where they were top of their class where they’re at and now they come here and it’s from all over the country. In some cases, I don’t think it was in our program.
It was maybe in an adjacent program because they put us in a dorm with, I think, two other programs. So we all kind of co-mingled with each other. But there were people there from other countries that I had only heard about in school. I had never known about meeting people from the Virgin islands or from a country in Africa or from Haiti, but they were there and it’s like, “Oh, I’m learning about you all in person,” and stuff like that. I know what you mean about that kind of weird country [inaudible 00:37:38]. I had an afro in college. And what was interesting for me is I came in, and because Morehouse is a all male school, my mom is a seamstress and my grandmother is a seamstress. So they taught me how to sew and do everything from a really early age. So when I came in already knowing how to wash clothes, how to iron, how to fix a button, how to sew a hole in a sock.
That was a weird opportunity for me to get to know other people in the program because something would happen and they would know what to do. “Oh, I got a hole in my sock. Oh I lost a button.” I will say, “Oh I can sew that back on.” “Oh, you don’t know how to iron. I can do that. I can show you how to do that.” Or they wash all their clothes and they all come out pink or something like that.
I was like, “Oh no, you got to separate. You can’t put the whole box of laundry detergent in there. You have to just put a scoop or something.” Teaching them how to read the tags on the laundry. And they’re like, “How do you know this stuff?” I’m like, “You all didn’t take home-ec?” They didn’t take home-ec. But it ended up that sort of weakness, I guess, at least what I perceived as a weakness ended up being a strength. Because then I ended up getting to know other people and I felt like I was more supposed to be there as opposed to just kind of landing there because of my grade. You know what I mean?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I do know what you mean. I mean, when I graduated, woo, I had a sigh relief because I just felt like I graduated by the skin of my teeth. But now years, years later, almost 15 years later after graduation, the thing that Duke does get you is in the door. It’s almost like you sacrifice your mental health to get to the door. And for me it feels like the tech world, there are some people that graduated with me that were early Facebook. We were those people. And so I think went from tech bro culture for me to tech bro culture. I really knew how to navigate it when I graduated.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve held a number of product roles at some pretty well known tech companies. You were at Abstract for a while. You were at Hire Runner, just to name two of them. But you’ve also kind of always had your own entrepreneurial ventures on the side as well. You had Freshly Given, you had Charles & Whitney. Why was it important to kind of always have something on the side like that?

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I like to think about, anytime I took a full-time gig, that was the side.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Whitney Robinson:
The reason why I say that is because I am an entrepreneur at my heart and sometimes my husband and I are like, “Okay, look, we got to pay some bills around here. We have one, two, three, four kids. Just get a job.” So he or I would do that. We bounced and done that over the years. Yeah. But the thread, again, has always been, I mean, if you look at my LinkedIn, I’ve basically worked for myself for the majority of my career and have jumped on other teams or consulted with other teams throughout that time. Freshly Given was the only one that was way left field. That was a leather, I found discarded leather in a country town in North Carolina and decided, why would people throw away leather? What if we can reintroduce leather back into commerce? And so that was that project and that lasted for a while. And that was really fun until I started having kids. One day, I’ll pick it back up.

Maurice Cherry:
It kind of will always be there.

Whitney Robinson:
It’ll always be there. And that’s why I’m like, we talked about this at the beginning. That’s why I’m becoming more okay with letting stuff go knowing that life is short, but there’s also this long game. I get up in five years and maybe I’ll do it even better or maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ll be picking it back up and I put it down for whatever reason and that’s okay too.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good thing about having the freedom to do that. But also it just adds to your overall body of work. You’ve done this thing, you’ve done it for a certain amount of years and you’ve decided not to do it anymore. And people may feel some kind of way about it. But if you want to pick it up later, you can. And if you don’t, you don’t, because you know that you have the capacity to always come up with something new.

Whitney Robinson:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How have you sort of built your confidence over the years as a creative professional?

Whitney Robinson:
A lot of talking to myself in the mirror, honestly. A lot of prayer. A lot of realizing that people have been here before. I have to be careful, and maybe other millennials can relate, I have to be careful because we do live in a time where people are, “Oh I have an idea. I’m putting it out there. I’m making millions of dollars. You all can do that too.” It is okay for just in my confidence to realize, Whitney, oh, you’re wrong. That’s okay. Or again, people have done this before. It sounds cliche, but you stand on the shoulders of so many people who are now cheering you on. When you feel like you’re the only person doing something, for me, it feels like, woo, daunting. But when I look at myself as a byproduct of generations of people, then I’m really arriving on the same equipped.
I’m not lacking. I’m not a disparity. I’m not what other folks say I am, other folks who don’t identify like me or whatever. I am who all these folks who came before me said I am. I am the combination of their work and their prayers and their rest or their lack thereof. I have to have those moments with myself because I do it a lot as a mother too. Oh, you’re just not doing it well. That’s the craziest thing to think that as a mother I’m not doing well when I give it, I don’t want to give it my all because then I’ll be burned out. But I give it a really good effort daily. And so yeah, it’s those moments where I realize, ooh Whitney, you doing okay. You good.

Maurice Cherry:
That just gave me goosebumps talking about that kind of, I show up on the scene prepared, that just gave me goosebumps, because you’re right. I mean, so much of what we do is, at least I think now as adults working now, it is the byproduct of our parents, our grandparents, other people in our community praying for us, pushing us on, supporting us. We have what we need to succeed. And so even sometimes when that imposter syndrome can creep up, it’s just good to sort of have that, to know that, you have that conviction that you know that you’re prepared. Oh God, ooh, that really got to me.

Whitney Robinson:
I do think that as we have a lot of conversations about being woke and the things that were pressed upon us about ourselves that were not true when we first arrived in the US, how much of that is this continual thread in our lives. And again, that’s why I like to look at that and say, ooh, who told you that you aren’t supposed to be here? Who told you that? Think about where that came from and keep moving forward.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated to move forward these days?

Whitney Robinson:
I’m really, really excited about the future. When I look at my kids and I see even their ability to create very beautiful things. My children love snakes. I am very afraid of snakes, but they love snakes. They pick them up in our yard now that they know how to identify them. And they just fiddling. Imagine, it’s great. They are frolicking with snakes all the time. I only have one girl and the rest of them are boys and even, you may have an assumption that she would be … She’s a ringleader. So I’m really optimistic about it because I can defer my fear so that these little folks can pass me.
At just the age that they are right now, they’re already doing more than I could even possibly think I would be doing. I have an opportunity, not only to raise a generation of people, but in my quiet time, I do see us winning. I see Black people winning and I do like the shifts around our bodies, our minds, our culture that we are collectively happening. Because these are the things we look back on and say, oh, that generation of people did what we are living, we are able to do now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s funny, I talk about that sometimes with my friends about, we’ll say we don’t really feel like sometimes we’re adults or we’re kind of adulting or whatever. And it’s like, we are the adults now. We are the ones that are doing … It’s funny. I think about, and I don’t mean this in a lofty way, but just to kind of use the show as an example. When Revision Path got put into the Smithsonian in 2019, I was dumbfounded that it happened, partially because I had been working so hard. I had really been working on it since 2015. That’s a whole other story. But it happened and then the very next day at work, my boss, he was the CEO of the startup I was working at, this white dude, just gave me the worst professional dressing down I’ve had in my career.
I was just at the top of, I was like, “I feel like I reached a career high and now you’re like, oh, let me shoot him down to this point.” And it was funny because in the time that it happened, initially I didn’t even really celebrate it. It happened in June or July, I think of 2019 and I never really got a chance to celebrate it. And then I went to Harvard in October for the Black in Design Conference that they have there every other year. And that felt like my victory lab going to that. And so many people that had seen me work on this throughout the years and had seen me do it that were just like, “You’re doing a good job. Congratulations. How can we help out?” That sort of thing.
That’s just a night and day kind of experience. I don’t know if what I said even related to what you just said, but for some reason when you mentioned that, that came to mind right away of … And I’m not just me, but more so we are now in the point where we are making the history, we’re doing the historical things. And it may seem like a day to day thing, but people are going to look back on what we’ve done in 2070 and be like, “Wow, this kind of stuff was happening back then.” So that sort of, it helps me to think that the work that I’m doing is not in a vacuum and that it’s part of a continuum.

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. And I like to call them cornerstones. I think that those moments, whether they’re great or not, are cornerstones for our lives. And by cornerstone, I mean they often have some kind of inflection point and that is, but then collectively your entire life. For you, for instance, Maurice, your entire life is a cornerstone in the history of this country, your family. And so I think that if we look at it that way, it’s the day to day nuances you realize are collectively coming together to do a thing. And even just, like one of the things I am working on right now related to The Renée is around, is this kind of photo journalistic tour of the south capturing Black women in spaces of thriving so that our cornerstone during this pandemic, especially is that they were dying more. But you see these people in, I don’t know, Alabama are thriving and they Black. These are the things that I do think about in my life for these ups and downs.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage of where you’re at in your career and in life, how do you define success?

Whitney Robinson:
That is ever changing but I would say, yes, right now, if it reduces my stress levels, it is successful. So if I don’t have an adverse reaction to it, so meaning I feel real good about it. Not that it’s easy, but it doesn’t feel like it’s weighing heavy on me unnecessarily, then I consider that success. So at this point, even projects that I join or people that I help. If I get that initial inkling of, hmm, girl, this ain’t it. I walk away and that feels like success. It’s listening and acting immediately without the fear of, oh, but don’t you need that? Or what if? I am not a fearful person and so I need to remember that my angle in life is, again, that I’m not behind the eight ball. That I am a person who will attract many opportunities, but not all of them are for me. And the things that are successful or lead to success for me are the things that create a space where Whitney can live and feel free within myself, within my community, within my family, all of those things.

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

Whitney Robinson:
I want still be in the maternal health space for sure. And by then in five years, actually the analogy that I tell people, going back to the Soul Train, if we get to the place where people see the pregnancy and everything at the beginning and the end as a Soul Train line, and we’re all supporting each other as one person goes down, that’s what I want. If our narrative shift gets to that point, oh my God, that would be incredible. But I want to continue to be in this maternal health space. I want providers, folks to look at us as a force. And so I’m sticking with this for a while. I want it to be creative. I want to dibble and dabble in the arts and be creative. Do new things that people just did not expect could come out of this space for us. So that’s five years. That’s what my career … I want The Renée to be my full-time, full-time

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

Whitney Robinson:
Yeah. I’m obviously on LinkedIn, which is Whitney Robinson. Right now I have red lips and an afro on my profile pick. And then The Renée. And you can email me about anything at The Renée because I absolutely love email, but The Renée is the, so T-H-E, -renee, that’s R-E-N-E-E, .com. And you could find me at whitney@the-renee.com, but the website is the-renee.com.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Whitney Robinson, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Since we’ve connected back in, what was that? 2018, 2018 when we met at XOXO, I’ve always felt like you’ve had this, there’s this presence about you. And I think people have to maybe, I hope they can feel it from the interview, but certainly when I first met you in person, you have this presence that like the ancestors are walking with you in everything that you’re doing. And even this work that you’re doing around maternal healthcare, hearing you talk about it with such passion and conviction. I’m so excited to see what you do in the future with this. I want to walk with you as you make this happen, because I really feel like you are on the right side of something here. And I hope that people, when they listen to this interview, they can feel that because I certainly do. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Whitney Robinson:
Thank you for those words. And I am very appreciative of this opportunity.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Jordan Taylor

If I had to give an award for “Most Chill Revision Path Guest”, Jordan Taylor would win the prize with no competition. But don’t let the relaxed vibes fool you, because his skills as a designer and creator are anything but laid-back. And even better, he has roots here in Atlanta. Keep listening to learn more about this hometown hero!

We started off talking about his recent move to NYC, and he gave a peek behind the curtain of being a designer at the world-famous design firm Pentagram. From there, Jordan talked about growing up and attending college in Atlanta (taught by past Revision Path guest Nakita M. Pope!) We also touched on a few other topics, including Atlanta’s design scene, and what Jordan wants to see more of from the larger design community. Jordan is a uniquely talented, and I think we’re going to see a lot more of his work in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Jordan Taylor:
I’m Jordan Taylor. I’m a graphic designer at Pentagram. I work on a lot of different projects, mostly branding, but a fair share of editorial and motion design, a few websites here and there.

Maurice Cherry:
How has the year been going so far?

Jordan Taylor:
My year has been pretty great. I recently moved to a new place for the first time. I’m now living out in Brooklyn, New York. I moved up here for work and it’s been a chance to go on new adventures, see different things, meet new people. It’s been pretty interesting. A lot of changes.

Maurice Cherry:
When you sort of look at the year in general where we’re at now, we’re recording this right now in mid August. Is there anything that you want to accomplish before the year ends?

Jordan Taylor:
Oh, I’d say that right now I’m in a place where I’m trying to figure out what my next thing is. One of the things I really want to accomplish for the years over is starting to make those steps toward whatever that looks like, whether it’s an expression of self or new business endeavors. Just starting to really get back into more self-activated things. You know how they say you are always going to need to fall a couple times when you’re on your journey somewhere. I’m ready to start taking those baby’s first steps toward whatever new horizon I’m heading toward. I feel like I’m in that kind of place.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Now, you’re at Pentagram, which is a extremely, extremely well known design consultancy. Talk to me about that.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. Pentagram is so many things. I’m there now. I’ve been working there coming up on two years in September. When I started, it was as a remote position. I started as an intern, but I was working from home still down in Atlanta. The journey there was just so unexpected. I just didn’t think that it was a place I was going to get to. When I started really diving into design, you get introduced to different ways of doing things and what brand design looks like and who the kind of designers to know are. You find out about different names and you end up finding out about Pentagram.
It just is a crazy experience to walk in there and actually see these people in person and not from even a crowd for some sort of forum that they’re putting on. It’s been really interesting just even beyond the partners, you have all the people working there on the different teams and you find out how a team works and how they approach projects and different ways that people think. It’s like a big incubator. It is really been… The way I got there was so much so of just putting my head down because it was the middle of the pandemic and just trying to get to the best place I could after leaving school.
So in a way, I don’t always fully take it in, but in those moments that I do, it just really hits me and it’s like, “Oh, I’m actually in here every day,” if that makes sense. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of just like air of ridiculousness to me. It’s actually worked out to this level.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like it’s hard to put into words. I mean, I’m listening to you stabber to talk about it. But I mean, I can imagine you’ve got such design heavyweights like Michael Beirut and Paula Scher and Eddie Opara whom we’ve had on the show episode 234 if people want to check that out. But I can imagine having that much, I guess, the weight of it all is probably a lot to think about from your perspective.

Jordan Taylor:
And then at the same time I still have work to do every day. I still have four or five projects to work on. So it’s a balancing act. You try to make yourself known and get to know people. But at the same time, you’re still trying to keep the main thing, the main thing, and I guess do the work that got you there.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve done that. I mean, you’ve done the work that got you there. It’s not like you just walked in off the street into Pentagram. Like you said, you had your head down working and we’ll get more into your background or your story, but you deserve to be there.

Jordan Taylor:
Absolutely. Yeah. I say all these things about how it feels to be there, but I don’t think I ever really felt I didn’t belong, maybe just that I didn’t expect for anybody to actually figure that out, if that makes sense.

Maurice Cherry:
What does a typical day look like for you at Pentagram?

Jordan Taylor:
A typical day for me when I first started there as an intern, one of the big things that I was really aware of was that I was probably not going to understand how anything worked. So I would reach out to my mentors, one of which was Louis Mikolay. He used to work at Collins. Now he’s at Apple. I reached out to John Ferguson and McCoy Smith. I just asked them, “You all are professionals. You all are in this design world. How do you actually keep track of all the things that you’re supposed to do in the day? How do you know how much time to allocate to a project? If you got multiple projects going on, how do you know when to start the day or when to end the day?” Because it was working from home and starting out. Everything was a little too soft for me.
Long story short, I got into making to-do list to start the day or sometimes I make one to fill out the whole week. If I knew what the week had, coming ahead of me. After that, it really depends on the day to day what point I’m at in the week. But I’ll usually try and get the smaller projects out of the way or the little things, or just check my emails and make sure that nobody is kind of hitting me with a curve ball before I really get my day started.
And from there, I collaborate with my team to make sure that I know what their expectations are for the day. And then it’s working things out. If I am on a magazine project like Netflix Queue, it may be a lot of concept. And so it’ll be like, “We’re building a deck to introduce to the client. And then from there you might break away from that side of it and go to the print side and you’re coming up with different concepts and directions.”
So you’re doing a lot of art directing, but then right after that, I might have to create animation assets for a branding project where we’re trying to activate the brand for a presentation. So it’s a lot of flipping switches is what I call it. It’s a lot of flip this on, flip that off, go over here, do this. And then you just end up at 6:00.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s the day.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You, I guess, touched on some of the projects you’re working on. You mentioned this magazine, Netflix Queue. What kind of other projects and stuff are you working on?

Jordan Taylor:
The projects I’m working on right now, I can’t really speak about. Some other projects I have worked on before, we did a wonderful rebrand for a college out in Pennsylvania who that was transitioning into university status called Moravian university. I worked on tech brand who was building out a whole kind of workspace system along the blockchain. So you really had ownership of your information called Skiff. I also work on the ACLU magazine that comes out twice a year. So it’s a wide range. And then there’s things that I help out with in spots here or there.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’re doing print projects, digital projects, kind of a little bit of everything, it sounds like.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. A lot of flipping those switches and within those, the Netflix magazine has a digital arm and a print arm. So I’m on both of those.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Sometimes we might have to create a cover animation for the website and then you also have to create print stories. I mean, build out those assets. So your vision for the brand in all these different formats and it’s all happening at the same time. Whereas with the ACLU magazine is strictly print, but it involves a lot of art directions.
So I’m commissioning illustrators. I’m commissioning photographers. I mean, we’re like staying on the pulse of what’s going on with the Supreme Court to find out what their rulings are going to be before the next issue. And then with something like Moravian, you just got old fashioned branding. So you’re building out color systems and typography and things like that.
I mean, it sounds exciting to be able to use your skills to bounce from project to project in that way. One of the last big creative projects I worked on actually was also a print and digital magazine for my former employer, because I just got laid off. But for my former employer, I was putting together a print and digital magazine. The first issue is out. Actually the second issue was ready the day they laid our whole team off. So I don’t know if the second issue will even see the light of day, even though it’s literally at the printer on the shelf. Don’t know if anyone’s ever going to see it.

Jordan Taylor:
Sounds like Limited edition.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And the third issue we were in the middle of working on, which was actually going to be on Web3 stuff. We commissioned illustrators. We had all the same things you were mentioning, writers, all that kind of stuff. Don’t know if that one is ever going to happen. I love the magazine thing because it was my first time ever working on something like that. I would love to do more things like that.
It just seems like two things with Pentagram. One, you get to work on so many different types of projects. And two, I guess, because Pentagram just has this like… To me, maybe not to other people, but to me it has this untouchable… I don’t want to say cult status because its name happens to be Pentagram, but it’s one of those things like, “No, don’t apply to us. We will choose you to work for us.” Like that sort of thing. I don’t know if that’s just part of the mystique of Pentagram, but I like that.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. I mean, I conflict on that. So a bit of how I actually ended up finding the position, I had joined Where are the Black Designers slack channel. [inaudible 00:14:28]

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Mitzi.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. One of the project managers at Pentagram posted the opening and I was like, “Oh, this is crazy. I don’t even know they did this.” And the week went along and I was like, “Oh, should I do it, should I not?” I applied through there, but that’s not usually how it happens and it’s something that Pentagram is trying to get better about is like casting a wider net and bringing in more perspectives.
I don’t know. The idea of that exclusivity, it creates the mystique you know, but I feel like in a world where we’re starting to just keep reconsidering these ideas of diversity and inclusion, when you’re at the top and you think you know what’s best, you don’t really allow anyone else to come in from the outside and influence and keep you there, you’re just moving off of… I don’t know. I feel like it makes it easier for you to lose sight of what’s actually going on around you if you’re not actually interacting with the people, so to speak.

Maurice Cherry:
I get what you’re saying. I totally get that because I think a lot of agencies probably have that same sort of problem. Yes, they want to have a level of exclusivity with the work, but I guess they don’t want to appear like they’re for everybody I suppose.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. It’s a tough balance, which I get. Look, just as a person who felt like they were on the outside, looking in and very much based on what I have come to find out just being in the workplace is not a common way of finding out about openings there. I just would hate to for the other person who’s in that same position and just wasn’t on the slack channel that day or that week.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. They just missed out.

Jordan Taylor:
And they’re just as good as I am. I just think about stuff like that and I’m like, “Oh, it conflicts me a lot.”

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit. I want you to remain conflicted in the interview, but because this is about you and about your skill. Like I said, you deserve to be there certainly. Let’s switch gears here. Let’s talk about you. Tell me where you grew up.

Jordan Taylor:
I grew up 30 miles east straight down Act 20 from Atlanta, Georgia in Lithonia. It’s a Black suburb. It’s a pretty decent place to live. It was a lot quieter until Atlanta’s always constantly growing and expanding. So people started moving out there a lot more. But I was out there since I was two years old, like ’96 and then I moved out of the Atlanta area last October.
I spent a long time out there, just deep in that culture, moving around town, making friends. I was a part of the Atlanta public schools system throughout with a little bit of DeKalb County Schools in elementary. I feel like a country bumpkin sometimes being in New York now. But I feel like my experience in my kind of neck of the woods was just so interesting. I just got to see so many different things and so many different ways to live out my Blackness, I guess. My whole family is from the Atlanta area. So it just was a really warm, just loving experience the whole time. I miss it a lot. I think about it every day.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you grew up in Atlanta during a time. I mean that to me feels like peak Atlanta like the Olympics Freaknik ’96, that whole time. I came to Atlanta in ’99. So right after that. But I’m from Alabama, I’m from Selma, so I’m not that far from Atlanta. I’m roughly about three hours. We would always come to Atlanta, honestly, every summer or every time, I don’t know, our class did well on the SATs or something. It was always like, “We’re going to Six Flags. We’re going to Six Flags.”
So I’ve always been in and around Atlanta and then finally moved here when I was 18. But I know exactly that feeling that you’re talking about. And it’s something that I’m sort of exploring a little bit, because I’m working on a book proposal. And as I’m working through it, there’s such a positive thread of Blackness throughout Atlanta that I don’t think a lot of people really get.
I think people see Atlanta, they see the entertainments, they see the music. They see, “Oh, it’s a really Black city.” But it’s a warmth, I think that a lot of people don’t really understand unless you’re either from there or you’ve really lived there for a long time. I mean, I feel like I got it a little bit just from visiting so much, but certainly my formative years and my teens… Not even my teens, but really my late teens and my 20s in Atlanta is just irreplaceable. It’s hard to put that feeling into words about the… It’s not even so much of a positive Blackness, but as much as every example of excellence that you see around you is Black.

Jordan Taylor:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
I think sometimes that can be hard even for other Black people to see depending on where they grew up. But Atlanta really sort fosters that and it’s not in any sort of weird supernatural extraordinary way. It’s like excellence is just all around you.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. A very casual Blackness.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s such a good way to put it, a very casual Blackness. That’s such a good way to put it.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. For me, people are constantly on this notion of Blackness is not a monolith. That’s what I mean, what we’re both talking about with that casual Blackness. I wouldn’t put myself in a certain frame. I always talk to my friends like we all played sports, but we all like anime. We all ended up doing different jobs. I have friends who were in the arts, but I also have friends who are paramedics, and I also have friends who are party promoters.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no division.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, there’s no division.

Maurice Cherry:
I a hundred percent know exactly what you mean. I mean, I went to Morehouse, so I absolutely know of what that division can definitely look like. But yeah, man, I mean, you grew up here in a great, great [inaudible 00:20:49]. I can tell why you miss it. I can definitely tell why. Was art and design kind of a big part of you growing up here?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say it was, but it was more from a sense of… It was something that I was just always interested in. You get older and you look back on your life and you realize you were doing things the whole time that were preparing you for something you didn’t even know you were preparing yourself for. So it wasn’t more so that design or the arts was constantly around me.
Nobody in my family is like a designer. My mom is a school counselor. My dad works at the EPA. It was just constantly something that I was interested in. I watched a lot of TV, a lot of Cartoon Network, a lot of Nickelodeon, a lot of Disney, a lot of anime, a lot of Toonami. Those kind of things are what introduced me into the arts and made me appreciate art a lot more.
So I think the first thing I ever tried to draw was Goku on one of my school notepads. And from there, I kept drawing and drawing and doodling. But it wasn’t something that I really embraced as something that would ever be a part of my future. It was more so just something that I enjoyed and it was an outlet for me. It helped me express something that I really cared about. And then I got opportunities later on in high school to express those things in different ways. I knew I had that drawing talent and my mom would put me into these art programs over the summer to learn more about the technical side.
I did one in old Fort Worth at this summer camp where we had to choose a discipline. So I went with the drawing one, because it was the one that I was the best at. I got those things, but it was never something that I thought that I was actually ever going to be doing with my life. When I was about to graduate high school, I planned on doing engineering. Focusing on that is part of my college curriculum. Because like I said, I was preparing myself for things that I didn’t actually know were available to me. I was like, “Okay, well I’m good at math and science, but I also want to create things.”
I didn’t know how to express that completely. So my dad was working at the EPA. I was like, “Oh, he’s an engineer. Maybe I’ll be an engineer and maybe I’ll get to tinker on things or build something one day. But it wasn’t something that I was fully embracing. I definitely went to the high museum way more during my college days than I ever did during grade school.

Maurice Cherry:
But it sounds like your parents though, at least supported you in that, I guess you could say at that point was a hobby, was you really liking art and drawing. They didn’t try to dissuade you from it.

Jordan Taylor:
No, they never dissuade me from anything. I think I get a lot of my laid back kind of attitude from them because they’re very much… They were very much always, as long as I handled what I was supposed to be doing at school or whatever, then they would let me do whatever I wanted to in the peripheries. They never really tried to shut me down from anything and I always appreciate them for that.

Maurice Cherry:
So you ended up going to Georgia State University. And Atlanta’s got some well known design schools here. I mean, let’s see. If you were… I’m trying to think was it… No, Atlanta College of Art wasn’t around during that time. But I mean, we had Art Institute of Atlanta. I think SCAD was just maybe starting to have their campus here. I don’t recall. But there’s also things like the Portfolio Center, et cetera. I don’t know if Georgia State really is ever in that conversation of great design schools or curriculums in the city. How was your time there?

Jordan Taylor:
I really enjoyed my time there. So my introduction to Georgia State came a bit later in college. I transferred there. I first off went to Fort Valley State University. It’s a HBCU like an hour south of Macon, I think, near Warner Robins.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep, I’m familiar.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. Oh, you know about Fort valley?

Maurice Cherry:
I know about Fort Valley.

Jordan Taylor:
That was where I went because I thought I was going to be engineers. My mom was like, “Okay, go to this agricultural school. They have an engineering program. You can do that.” And while I was there, I found out more about graphic design. I would hear about it here and there on the internet, but I didn’t know how it worked. I found out what Adobe was. I was like, “Okay. Well, my laptop is not good enough to do any of that kind of stuff.”
But I ended up taking an elective my second year there and it was for graphic design. I think our first project was that we had to create a fake brand and then we had to make envelopes for the brand. Our teacher taught us how to use the blend tool. We could use the blend tool if we wanted to, but otherwise we had to just come up with something else. Long story short, I got an A in the class and I was like, “Wait a minute. I just made something and it felt like art.” I got an A and I don’t really want to be an electrical engineer. That’s fourth floor.
I called my mom right before I was about to go back home because the semester ended and I was like, “Hey, I looked it up. Georgia State has graphic design program.” Because I think I looked into all those other schools, but like I said, my mom never stifled me from anything, but she always made me very aware of what she could and couldn’t do. So I knew she wasn’t about to pay for me to go to SCAD.
I called her, I was like, “Hey, I got an A in this graphic design class. I want to transfer up to Georgia State.” I’m going to major in it. They have a program up there. She was like, “Wait a second. It is the first semester. Could you at least finish the next semester and make sure you want to do this?” I was like, “No, I got to go.”
But she made me finish that next semester. I spent that whole semester in my free time learning how to use illustrator. When I finally started, I was so eager. I started taking classes at Georgia State over the summer because I wanted to get in there because I couldn’t use my laptop. I was using the school stuff at Fort Valley to design. I was like, “Okay, I don’t want to spend a whole summer not working on this because I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know how good any of these people in these classes are about to be when I start.”
So I spent that whole summer in the Georgia State computer lab, just working on Illustrator. Photoshop, I was kind of like, “Ah, there’s kind of too many different ways to do things on there. I’m just going to keep doing Illustrator.” I mean, I had a great time in Georgia State’s graphic design program. I would say to anyone that’s thinking about it based on our conversation right now that it really helped cement a lot of the basics and a lot of the fundamentals of what design is, how do you approach it? What does it mean to create a creative identity?
I took a lot of the introductory classes because it’s broken up into two different sections. So you take the intro classes and then you have to go through a portfolio review to get to the final stage and actually graduate with a design degree.
I didn’t make it to that second part because I was missing a project. I learned so much from the experience that I knew I could design. They even said it. They were like, “Some people might not make it. That doesn’t mean you’re not good.” There’s plenty of people that don’t make it. Because there’s so particular and they have such a hard cutoff in terms of the numbers because of the size of the program right now.
They really encouraged you to keep going and that’s what I did. I was like, “I know what I’m doing. I know how to build a brand. I know how to use Illustrator and Photoshop. I made all these projects. I didn’t do all this for no reason.” So I just stuck to it after that and stayed in contact with all my teachers from all my introductory classes because they continued to keep their doors open for me. I would definitely recommend it.
Anybody thinking about going to SCAD or those other art schools, I would say to look into Georgia State because their program is really great and they really supported me the entire time.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, it sounds like they really kind of helped prepare you to get out there and be a designer. Even though, as you said, you didn’t go through and do the project portion of it, but you still came out with enough know-how to know how to be a designer.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you enrolled at The Creative Circus a couple of years after you graduated from Georgia State. What made you do that?

Jordan Taylor:
I enrolled there because after I didn’t make it to the second portion of the design program, I continued to work. I started trying to find different outlets for what I could do. So I was like, “Okay. I’m not in the program.” So I would do things for people here and there. I got a intern position at the APEX Museum, which was right down the street from the Georgia State campus. It’s a Black history museum. They really gave me a great chance to try and do my things in actual application and step with their own identity.
There was just something in the back of my head, as I kept learning about design and learning about Eddie Opara, and Michael Beirut, and Paula Scher and those kind of people. There was something beyond that, that I didn’t really know how to do yet. So along with those other things that I was doing in terms of working, I was also trying to meet more people that were also designing.
So I joined the AIGA student chapter in Atlanta and I ended up meeting one of the teachers at The Creative Circus because the meeting I went to was at The Creative Circus. So I got to see little bits and pieces before I walked into our meeting space. I was like, “Hey, is this an art school?” Because I didn’t even know what it was. It was like off a Cheshire Bridge off of a back street.
She was like, “Yeah, this is an art school.” I was like, “Do you all have a design program?” And she was like, “Yeah, we have a design program.” It was a Nakita Pope.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Nakita. Love Nakita. She’s been on the show before.

Jordan Taylor:
She’s like, “Yeah, we have a design program. I’m actually one of the instructors for it. If you ever want to come back, I’ll give you a tour. You can sit in on one of my classes.” She let me walk around for a bit before I had to leave. And they have all the work on the walls from previous students’ projects. I saw that stuff and I was like, “I don’t know how to do any of this.” I was like, “I thought I was good at it and I don’t know how to do any of this. But if they know how to do this, I think I can figure it out.”
Long story short, I talked to my mom. I was like, “Hey, thinking about going back to school. It’s going to cost yada, yada, yada.” She’s like, “Wait a minute. [inaudible 00:32:11] stick with me.” That took some discussing because my parents had already paid for four years of school. So I went there. It did what I expected it to… It took me to a whole nother level in terms of understanding. What it really helped me with was concepting, being able to build an idea and then flush it out graphically in a multitude of ways.
So what I learned from Georgia State in my introductory classes was that what makes a good logo, how to pick out typography, things like that like the building blocks. And then when I got to The Creative Circus, they really pushed those different levels of self expression and leaving no stone unturned when you’re trying to tell the story of something. So it all came together to put together the picture.

Maurice Cherry:
And for folks that don’t know or haven’t heard of The Creative Circus, it’s this private for-profit college recently closed its doors, which is such a big loss to the Atlanta design community. I hope they come back one day, but The Creative Circus and Nakita Pope who you mentioned as an instructor there. I think I’ve been there a couple of times. I know, I remember seeing, I think it was Douglas Davis had given a talk there when he was doing his book tour for his book about creative strategy and the business of design.
Nakita and Douglas knew each other because they both went to Hampton. Although, I don’t know if they went at the same time or not, but yeah, The Creative Circus, great, great resource to the city. Sad that it’s closed. But no, it sounds like you got what you needed from there. And you also have interned at a few places in Atlanta. You mentioned Apex over on Auburn Avenue. You interned at the Mammal Gallery, which is downtown Atlanta. You interned at MetroFresh Uptown. These are three somewhat different types of design experiences, it seems like. What did each of those places really teach you?

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, they were so interesting looking back on them. It was very much, I was still in that phase of trying to scrounge together different experiences any way I could. I was out of college and I just had to dive into things that I was interested in. I was like, “I love my people. Let’s go to the Apex.” I was like the Mammal Gallery back then. I’m not even sure if the Mammal Gallery is still open, but they used to put on concerts where they would bring in these underground performers or these emerging artists. I was really into that because that was the mix tape era and SoundCloud era.
So I was like, “Hey, I love this place. Let me ask if they need a graphic designer.” Because everybody needs a graphic designer. And then with MetroFresh Uptown, that was taking something that I needed and trying to bring something that I wanted into it.
So I got the job because I needed a job because I was working. At The Creative Circus, I made it past the first quarter and it was time for me to try and figure out how to keep paying to be there. I’d done a lot of food service jobs. I picked that one up because I had heard about… I don’t even remember how I heard about the opening, but I’m not going to dwell on that. And because I was working at a new location for them, I was like, “Hey, do you all need signage? Do you need somebody to draw murals? Do you need somebody to make pamphlets for you to pass out in this office building? I could do all that stuff.” And it worked out from there.
But it prepared me for what I would do like the next internship that I was in for a really long time because it gave me a chance to be a part of something and know what the identity was and how to bring that out in that graphic language.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And that other place that you’re talking about, that’s Atlanta Contemporary. You were there for pretty much, almost five years. That’s a really long time. Talk to me about what that experience was like.

Jordan Taylor:
I love the Atlantic contemporary. I talk about the place all the time. For anybody who’s listening and is in the Atlanta area, it’s free every day. I think they’re only closed on Sundays. They might be closed on Mondays now, but they’re definitely closed on Sundays. It’s a contemporary art space, but it’s also an art center. So they do a lot of events where they bring in the community and they have children’s events. They do weddings, all that kind of stuff.
But it was that kind of last step in finding things that I was interested in. I was like, okay. So I worked at a Black history museum. I’ve done things for music space. I’ve done things for restaurants. What else am I interested in? If I could ever get a job at a museum, that would be really cool. I was like if I could ever actually make graphics for something based in the arts, that would be incredible.
So I went around to all the spots that you can think of. I went to the High Museum, I went to MOCA, I went to the Atlanta History Center. I was just Googling these places and then I would spend the day and go to them. And eventually, I went to the Atlanta contemporary. I was like, “Oh, do you all have any openings?” They were like, “No, we already have a graphic design.” I was like, “Oh well, okay. Do you do internships?” They were like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Do the interns do any graphic design?” They said, “No.” I was like, “Well, if I intern, could I do some graphic design?” And they were like-

Maurice Cherry:
You were trying. You were trying to get in there.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. And they were like, “I mean, maybe. Sure.” So I just took those opportunities wherever I could get them. It was a chance for me to interact with the community because people would come in for different exhibit exhibition openings and people would have the artist talks there and things. They had a whole pavilion in the back where they housed certain artists within their studios. So I got to interact with there. That was cool.
But then here and there, if they had an event, they were like, “Hey, Jordan. Could you make some signage? Hey, Jordan, could you make a flyer? Hey Jordan, could you do the vinyl descriptions for the artwork this month?” It would trickle in slowly. I built up a rapport with everybody that I was capable of doing these things. And then it turned into a full time position after that. When I got that chance to do that because the previous graphic designer had actually moved to New York because I had been there so long, I recommended different ways of going about how they express themselves with their social assets and things like that.
I was like, “Hey, I feel like this could speak a lot more clearly to what you all actually have going on here.” It’s so interesting and fun here. I think that this could be expressed a different way. So it was a chance for me to build a proposal. And then from there, it really bled into a lot of things. I was creating their monthly social posts. I was creating special animated assets whenever they had a special event going on.
I was doing their event graphics. I was doing the way finding within the museum, or within the art space, excuse me. And then I was also still doing the vinyl descriptors for the exhibitions also. And then I even got to help with one of the art pieces one time. They had this mantra that they wanted to put on the wall, but the guy walked in with just… It typed out from a typewriter on a piece of paper and he was like, “I wanted to look exactly like this, but on the wall.”
I was like, “Well, aren’t you the artist? You don’t know how to do that? But that was a chance to really collaborate with the artist and get their vision across, but then also I had to collaborate with the more practical people, the vinyl makers and figure out how I could create his vision and make it sense to them as the go between. So it was a lot.
I mean, I met a lot of incredible people. Just an invaluable experience. It pops back up every time I’m trying to do something. Earlier when I talked about flipping those switches, that was the first place where I really had to flip switches. I might animate, but I might be doing social stuff, but I might be making a visitor’s brochure.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like you really spread your wings there creatively. You got to do a lot of different things.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, because of the nature of the space as a contemporary art space, it was very open to new ways of doing things or new approaches. They had their shareholders or their investors that you had to run things by in the final round. But all in all, it was very, like you said, a great experience to spread my wings and figure things out on the fly.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re currently in New York. Of course, that’s for work for Pentagram. But I’m curious when you think of your time here as a designer in Atlanta, what was the design community and scene for you? How would you describe it maybe to someone outside of Atlanta?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say the design scene here… Or in Atlanta. I’m not there anymore. It’s a lot broader than you think it is. There’s a lot of incredible people just kind of like… You got to get in there, but once you get in there, there’s a lot of amazing people out there doing their thing, making their way. What makes it different from what I’ve encountered so far up here in New York, New York is very much a design city. It’s like, “Oh, the subway system and this and that.”
But in Atlanta, what I really liked about the community out there is everyone was very much so making a way for themselves and finding their pocket or their niche and figuring things out. And the community comes together for different things like AIGA events and stuff. I would say the a G is a good way to find out what people are doing and find your group or what you’re most interested in. But everyone out there was being really resourceful or everyone out there had found their groove. They knew how to work it through all the ups and downs. One of my mentors, his name was Joe Price.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know Joe.

Jordan Taylor:
You know Joe?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jordan Taylor:
Great. He was freelance, but he had been freelancing for so long when I met him. He just was constantly like… He’s so good at rolling with the punches. Even during the pandemic, he just knew how to figure things out. But at the same time, because it’s such a more kind of non-mainstream thing to be a designer, I guess, he’s so quirky. I don’t think he thinks he is. Joe has pet squirrels in his workspace. It’s a little nook in his backyard. Just full of different design ephemera just all over the place. Just stacks of books on books, on books. It’s really incredible. I think it’s pretty great, but you got to get in there.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Jordan Taylor:
You’re not just going to get swept up in it, you got to get into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Joe gave me the coolest piece of, I guess, design swag or ephemera that I’ve ever gotten from anyone. But I mean, I’ve been to conferences and I’ve talked to people all around the world. This was years and years ago. No one else has ever given me anything this cool. You’re going to laugh at this. It’s a beverage koozie like you put on cans.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. But it’s a paper bag. You see folks on the corner get a 40 or whatever and they’re drinking it right out the paper bag, it’s a paper bag koozie. And it’s actually a bag like you put the can like a regular 12-ounce can. You put it in the bag, and it’s got his logo on it. It is the coolest thing I have ever gotten from any designer anywhere. And I’ve gotten posters, books, figurines.
And the thing is, I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know where Joe got those from. I don’t know where he got those printed, the website of the bottom of it no longer exists, but I still have it. It’s in my silverware drawer, in my kitchen. It is the one coolest piece of design thing I ever got. It’s just a paper bag koozie. It’s paper bag on the outside, but it’s insulated on the inside. You just put a drink in it and then you feel like you’re drinking out of a paper bag. It’s the coolest thing.
No, that sounds amazing. I never heard that. I’m going to have to ask him about it because that sounds incredible. It’s all crinkled and you put a paper bag and it’s like… All that.

Maurice Cherry:
And from a distance, someone will think you’re just drinking out a small paper bag or something, but no, it’s a beverage koozie. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. Did you feel like there were any sort of particular challenges that you had to face here as a designer that you might not be facing in New York?

Jordan Taylor:
I think the main one is just that… Like I said, it’s not a super… It’s just not as popular of a career path, I guess in Atlanta. So when it came time for me to find a career path or find a job or a gig, it was a little difficult. I found myself ending up at the same spots whenever I would try and find different avenues. The amount of times that I applied to Turner Broadcasting, it would shock and appall you. I applied to play so many times throughout college.
After college, I was constantly Adult Swim, Cartoon Network, TNT, blah, blah, blah. It was so many times. And then as I got more into the design community, I found out more about different places that were available or even design shops like Matchstick and so forth. But I just think that there just aren’t as many options as there might be up in New York.
But like I said, when you meet more people in the community, everyone has figured out their way and found their kind of niche and how to move and the space. But for me starting out, it was a little… There wasn’t as much of a depth of options as I thought they were going to be.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you ever get an interview with Turner?

Jordan Taylor:
No. I never got past the video interview part. I did the submitted questionnaire and then one time I got to do a video interview, but never actually got to go there in person and sit down with anybody.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ve got a line in your bio that says your approach to design is similar to one of your patented long walks around town. What does that mean?

Jordan Taylor:
Okay. It’s not like long walks on the beach type of thing. It’s actually a connection.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Yeah, unpack that for me.

Jordan Taylor:
Like I said, when I moved back to Atlanta after Fort Valley and I decided to become a designer, I would have to go into the city. So for five years I was going into the city every day from my house in Lithonia. So I was taking public transit. I was taking MARTA every day. I would get on the bus. This might be too granular for your wide audience, but I would go to Indian Creek and then I would take the train into the city. And then I would either have to walk or take another bus wherever else I was going.
So doing that constantly is what I mean by those patented long walks. And what I mean when I say that my design is similar to those is that if you spend enough time on the ground, just walking everywhere, you’re going to see some interesting things. You’re going to appreciate more of what’s going on around you because you’re transitioning from a more forest area because there’s so many trees in the Atlanta area to like you go through the urban areas and you’re passing by restaurants, you’re passing by clubs, you’re passing by all these different things.
You see a lot of weird stuff. You see a lot of interesting things. You might see some not so great things. But it all leaves an impact. I think that’s what I mean when I say it’s my patented long walks on the beach. So things might get a little weird. I might try and take some interesting left turns here or there, but it’s all for the sake of giving that impact.
I want you to feel like you’re actually a part of the journey. I want you to feel like a story is being told to you. I want you to feel like there’s a lot of meaning and purpose behind what’s going on here. Because I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t have that sense of purpose to get up, leave my house and go do all these different things every day.
When I was going to find my different internships, I walked there. When I was going to school at The Creative Circus, I walked there. And by walking, I mean it included public transit, but my feet were on the ground. I was like-

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Jordan Taylor:
… back and forth. It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s got a lot of purpose behind it. I feel like that’s how I design.

Maurice Cherry:
As you started saying that, for some reason that just reminded me of the first verse of Elevators from Outkast where you’re talking about taking MARTA through the hood, trying to find the hookup caught the 86 Lithonia headed to Decatur.

Jordan Taylor:
I rode to 86. That was my bus.

Maurice Cherry:
My bus was the 13 because I went to Morehouse and I was living in the west… Oh, well, I wasn’t living in the west end when I was at Morehouse, unless it was on campus. But I used to live in Buckhead in the Darlington before the Darlington got run down and now it’s like multimillion dollar condos or whatever. It used to be the 23, now it’s the 110. But I take the 23 to Art Center. I take Art Center to Five Points. I take the 13 from there. And it puts you off at the strip of Fair Street and Brawley, James P Brawley, which is the Clark Atlanta strip. That was class every day. I remember it finally. I have not ridden the 13 in years, but I remember that very fondly.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. I feel same way. Whenever I go back home and I see that bus when I go visit my mom or whatever, it’s a very funny feeling. Just like, oh, that used to be my life. I spent plenty of days running that thing down.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, me too. Running down to 13. People that are not in Atlanta don’t know this, but the buses are terrible. There’s only a few that are fairly reliable. The 13 is pretty reliable. The 23, which is now the 110. The six to Emory is pretty reliable. I would imagine the 86 is probably pretty reliable too, but a lot of in-town buses, good luck. If you miss it, you’re waiting 30, 40 minutes for the next bus. It’s ridiculous.

Jordan Taylor:
No, absolutely. I mean, the 86, it came, but I wouldn’t say it’s super reliable because I would have to show up 10 minutes early or I’m going to be an hour late because like you said, it might show up on time. It might show up 10 minutes early. It might show up 10 minutes late. But either way, if you miss it, you’re waiting another 40 minutes until the next one. No, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember taking the 23 and sometimes what happened is… I don’t know if this happened on the 86, but the driver would get out and go into McDonald’s and get something to eat. Just leave the bus, people on the bus waiting to get where they got to go, but they got to get a McGriddle. They got to get their food and come… You better not be mad about it either because they’ll put you out.

Jordan Taylor:
No, thanks. But my bus driver would always… Well, it didn’t happen all the time, but he stopped. I had a few bus drivers stop and get out and walk and go get some chicken wings and they come back. They would walk to the gas station.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep. Oh, man. That’s a very particular just Atlanta transit thing that, that’s funny. I think about that and I just get a warm feeling like nostalgia.

Jordan Taylor:
But like I said, it’s ridiculous. It just is Atlanta. It just is that journey.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given about design?

Jordan Taylor:
I would say for where I’m at right now, the best advice I was given was not too long ago. I was talking to Eddie Opara, just trying to take advantage of the situation I’m in. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got to meet this man.” I was like, “Okay.” We just had a conversation. I told him where I was at like where I was talking about earlier, how I feel like I’m just in this space where I’m trying to figure out what’s next. What do I want to keep doing? Or how do I keep moving forward? What he told me was that what you got to do as a designer is kind of figure out what your voice.
You spend all this time learning the building blocks, learning the technical things like, “Oh, how do I use After Effects? How do I use InDesign?” And all this kind of stuff. But sometimes you can get lost in that and not realize that you have a way of expressing yourself. You have a voice. I feel like I do those things, but I don’t have my own world that I built out a vision for how people just immediately are like, “Oh, Jordan made this. This speaks to his sensibilities.” I’m very much more so in the production stage of where I’m at right now.
So I think that was something that, “Oh, was really helpful to me.” He was talking about how you have to pick what means the most to you. Is it about paying it forward in which case maybe you do a lot more kind of teaching or instructing? Or is it about expressing the essence of what we do. In that case, you might do a lot more forums and TED talk type things.
But it was really helpful just figuring out what means the most to you and how do you make that known to people? What is your identity as a designer?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good advice.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Next time you talk to Eddie, tell him I said what’s up.

Jordan Taylor:
Okay. Yeah. I should see him soon, so I’ll tell him.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Jordan Taylor:
I think what keeps me the most motivated is just… I know there’s so much more coming. There are a myriad of things that have gotten me to this point like the music I love, the artwork I love. I’m constantly making mood boards on Are.na or Pinterest of things that I think other people are doing and that are cool and they push me forward. But I think the things that keeps me the most hopeful for what’s coming in the future is that I know I have a place and I know that I’m in control of it ultimately. I just have to keep going forward and seeing what’s next, looking for those new opportunities.

Maurice Cherry:
What more do you want to see from the design community? I feel like you are at this very unique place as not only just a young designer, but also a young designer at a place that has such a storied reputation, I would say. What do you want to see more of from the design community?

Jordan Taylor:
I want to see more of Black people. I want to see more of me, more of us. I just want to see more of it. I think that we’re such a creative people. Our influence is so ridiculous. I think that when you think about that in the grand scope, the statistics around how many people of color are like, or how many Black people are designing is so disproportionately low when I’m thinking about the kind of impact we have on the sway of things in the American culture.
I think that also something that I want to see more of is just based on my background and I guess a little bit of just being around my mom all the time. I want to see more people designing at earlier ages. I want that kind of stuff introduced to kids earlier and earlier. I think with the onset of the internet and TikTok and all those kind of things, I think it’s becoming a little more standardized at earlier ages and younger and younger kids are getting into it.
But I did a talk for my mom’s elementary school a few months ago, just introducing them to what design is and the amount of feedback I got from not only the kids, but the teachers that didn’t know that it was an option and were just so blown away about the possibility of what design is and what it can do. I think that just needs to continue happening.

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

Jordan Taylor:
In the next five years, I want to be doing more work that speaks to who I am. I wanted to speak to my interests. I wanted to impact the people that I care about the most. I wanted to continue to be as proud of my work as I am right now. I feel like I’m really proud of what I do, but it also isn’t a hundred percent mine. So I think that’s where I see myself in five years. Just really taking more ownership of my designs and applying them to what means most to me.

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

Jordan Taylor:
You can find me on Instagram, @jiggyjordan. It’s J-I-G-G-Y-J-O-R-D. I have a website. It’s a keywordjord. K-E-Y-W-O-R-D-J-O-R-D. Other than that… I mean, I have an Are.na page. I enjoy that a lot. I’ve been really getting into that. Do you use Are.na at all?

Maurice Cherry:
This was back in 2019, 2020, I worked with a designer, this really cool student named Perjohn. We used to work at Glitch together. He kind of turned me on to Are.na at first, because he was using it kind of as a sketchbook of sorts. I’ve never used it outside of that though. What is it like?

Jordan Taylor:
So to me it’s a cooler Pinterest. I find a lot of design inspiration on there visually, but I see all kind of people doing different things on here. I’ve seen entire mood boards that are just full of random ideas. I’ve seen tons of people making video references, motion references, entire mood boards that are just free type faces. I mean, I enjoy it a lot. It’s a little grungy and underground, but that speaks to the stuff I like.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ll have to check it out. What’s your name on Are.na?

Jordan Taylor:
It’s just Jordan Taylor. I think that’s the best way to find me on here. That’s the other thing. It’s a little hard to discover people on this thing, but I’ll message you. And if anybody else has any trouble finding me, they can let me know, I guess, on Instagram or something.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Jordan Taylor, I want to thank you so so much for coming on the show. I really wanted to have a young Atlanta designer on the show. I know you’re not in Atlanta anymore, but I think just your story of quiet perseverance and drive from growing up to going to school and even pursuing these internships, I think that’s something that a lot of people out here need to see, because I think we see enough of the alternative, which is I went to this fancy art school and now I went to this fancy agency or whatever.
I think people see enough of the alternative and don’t see the folks out here that they’re quietly grinding. And I get the sense that you’ve really been quietly grinding, building your portfolio, improving your skills. And that’s gotten to where you are now at Pentagram of all places.
I can’t wait to see what you do in five years, man. I’m really going to be keeping an eye out for you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Jordan Taylor:
Oh yeah. Thank you so much. I mean, this has been incredible. I appreciate it.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Chip Gross

Atlanta is a city known for many things: the food, the music, the culture. The traffic! But I don’t know if Atlanta’s really ever been seen as a design city like one would see New York or Chicago. That reputation is rapidly changing though, and that’s thanks to Chip Gross. Chip is the managing director for Work & Co’s newest office in Atlanta, and with over 20 years of experience under his belt, he’s helping the city be recognized as a destination for design talent.

We started off talking about his new position, including how it differs from his past roles, as well as the challenges of setting up a new office during a pandemic. Chip also spoke about growing up throughout New England and attending UPenn, starting his career in Chicago, and then moving to Atlanta for grad school. We also talked about Chip’s experiences at IBM, iXL, Brighthouse, and AKQA, and how those prepared him for what he’s doing now. Chip has put in the work and now it’s time for him to take center stage!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Chip Gross:
I’m Chip Gross. I’m the Atlanta Managing Director for Work & Co.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, how has 2022 been going for you so far? I know you started off this year … Mentioning Work & Co, you started off with some pretty big news.

Chip Gross:
Right. Yeah. No, it’s been a really dynamic time and really exciting at the same perspective. I mean, starting off in January, I guess I decided to make a bit of a change and join Work & Co as we were making a decision to come into Atlanta and establish a space and a studio here. And from there, the excitement has been palpable. The response has been really positive. I think Atlanta in many ways has been awaiting more opportunities to have a company that focuses on digital product design. So it’s been nothing but good news and hopefully more good news as we roll through more of the year. But it’s been a lot of fun so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was curious when I heard about Work & Co opening an office down here, I mean, I was excited first of all, but then also curious. Why set up a presence here in Atlanta? Because as people may or may not know, it’s headquartered in Brooklyn, but you’ve got offices all over the world. What about Atlanta was significant enough for Work & Co to say we want an office here?

Chip Gross:
Well, I think there’s a few different reasons for us to look at Atlanta as a place that we wanted to put a space or a studio. One of them is … You’ll see from the different places that we’re located, because we’ve got eight offices globally. That includes, like you mentioned, Brooklyn.We’ve got Portland. We announced LA at the same time we announced Atlanta. And then we also have Copenhagen, Belgrade, and we also have Rio and San Paulo. So one of the things that I think is a unifying factor around the places that we put our studios, our offices is we want to be a place where we can find really great talent. And Atlanta’s a place that I think has been underrepresented for a long time in terms of the experienced digital talent that exists here. And having previously been involved in establishing a studio in Atlanta have no doubt that there’s a lot of really great designers and technologists and product managers that have been looking for an opportunity to work for a company like ours.

Chip Gross:
And then in addition, I think one of the other aspects of where we put offices is also in many ways not looking at where we can build collections of clients, but actually where we can also build an amplified culture. So whether it’s Copenhagen or Brooklyn or Portland or LA, in many ways these are centers of culture. And Atlanta is very much in that same perspective. I mean, we literally have a sitcom named after us that’s been getting a lot of people really excited about what Atlanta’s about. I mean, we’re the cradle of the civil rights movement. All the social activism around that. We’ve got this outsized impact on music and media. And all those things we feel like are a really rich kind of collection of advantages that I think are really uniquely Atlanta. And yeah, we have, being in Atlanta, this saying about Atlanta influencing everything, and we really do take that to heart. And we think Atlanta is a perfect place for us to position a studio and have a presence.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been so far adjusting to this new role, especially with not just coming into the company, but also establishing an office here during a pandemic?

Chip Gross:
It’s been different from other times when we’ve … Or at least when I’ve been involved in doing this type of a new studio implementation. I think in many ways we’ve seen this as an opportunity to think about what does it really mean to create a post pandemic studio. And think about creating an environment in a place where people don’t necessarily have to be, but they want to be. And creating an environment where people are excited to come and collaborate. Because you can kind of see as I’m talking I really struggle with even calling it an office. And I really think about this more in terms of creating a space for all of our different team members to be able to collaborate together. And I really lean more heavily in calling it a studio because it’s a place of creation.

Chip Gross:
So whether you’re creating a design or you’re creating a collection of code, we want to create a place where people feel that they can come and be part of something bigger and also do it in a way that also creates impact, not just for the companies that we’re working with, but also the communities that we’re established within. And also being in Atlanta, I think we want to make sure that we’re building a studio that also looks and feels like Atlanta, that really does amplify and build off of all the rich culture and diversity and capability that’s here. And I think that’s a really powerful thing for us to be able to tap and one of the things that gets me really excited when I think about the possibilities here.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s dig into that a little bit more. Talk to me more about your work at Work & Co as managing director. What does an average day look like for you, with your team, with your direct reports, et cetera?

Chip Gross:
Yeah. Well, it’s still early days for us and we’re still in the process of building more of the team. But I guess if there is an average day, because so much of it is defined by what’s happening in the course of a particular set of projects that we may be involved in. Because we’re establishing ourselves with … I mean, we’ve been in the Atlanta market for the last two years so we’ve had people that have been here, but now starting to figure out where we physically want be located within the city. We’re in the process of finding that right place for us to have a physical location. Right now we’re pretty close to some space in the west Midtown area. And we have been looking at that area because it’s a very dynamic and vibrant part of the city.

Chip Gross:
It’s in close proximity to all of these great academic institutions, whether it be Georgia Tech, Georgia State, it’s not too far from Emory. We also have close proximity to the Atlanta University Center. So as we want to become part of the broader Atlanta community, it really gives us a really nice foothold there. So on any day, we’re in the process of vetting and looking at possible locations to build out the studio. In many cases, we’re doing interviews and trying to find more great team members to bring on to the Atlanta team. There’s been a lot of really great interest and excitement from the business community here to learn more about Work & Co and the work that we do and the types of digital product capability that we can bring. So a day for me could be sitting down with a candidate and talking to them about all the potential that we have and the things that we’re trying to bring into the market. It could be sitting down and talking with potential clients. Also ensuring that our team also has a chance to get together and build some of that culture and community that we really think is going to be critical.

Chip Gross:
So I guess for lack of a better way to describe it, in some ways it’s unpredictable, but in many ways it’s helping to help us drive this objective of having a really strong presence and even more visibility within the Atlanta community.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So the Atlanta office is hiring. Okay. That’s-

Chip Gross:
It definitely is hiring. We have been hiring. So if there are folks that are interested in getting involved in a company that very singularly is focused on digital product design and development, Work & Co is a great place to look at.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And of course, for folks who are probably regular listeners of the show, they know that Work & Co also has posted many positions on our job board. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to expand that to include the Atlanta office as well. I know this isn’t your first time leading a studio. You were a studio lead at AKQA. Before Work & Co you were managing director at BrightHouse.

Chip Gross:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at those two and then look at what you’re doing now, what makes Work & Co a different experience?

Chip Gross:
Well, in many ways, what excited me about Work & Co is the fact that we’re very singularly focused on digital product design and development. I mean, when you think about even our name, Work & Co, the intent behind the name is focusing on the work that you do and the company you keep. So when we talk about the work, it really is focused on a company that doesn’t do or try to do everything across the spectrum of digital advertising and other dimensions of the digital ecosystem. We really are focused on designing and building and shipping products that we think will transform companies and by extension the world. The founding of Work & Co is very much built on this premise of stripping away things that we felt were not necessarily critical in the aim of doing this work of designing and building digital products.

Chip Gross:
So the co side of it, in terms of the company, was really intentionally developed so that we could ensure that we have the right tools and the right abilities to help create the right environment for creativity to flourish. And you’ll see that even … If you come in and you work with Work & Co you’ll see that we’ve really tried to ensure that we don’t have people focused on things that take them away from the time it takes to really do the type of level of digital product work that we do. We don’t do, for example, time sheets. We’ve been doing this long enough for nine years now, where we’ve got a really definite and definitive methodology for how we do the work. So we’re able to have teams that are dedicated to a particular project and don’t spread ourselves across three or four things at once where we’re not able to have everybody really focused on what’s most critical to developing this particular product for this particular client.

Chip Gross:
And I think a lot of the work that we’ve been able to produce really speaks for itself, whether it’s building an omnichannel experience for Ikea and helping them figure out what their first eCommerce app should look like, whether it’s working with Apple and thinking about what’s the in-store experience. And when you think about what today at Apple is, a lot of that was conceptualized by Work & Co. And then we’ve also obviously spent time working with a wide range of clients in helping them to develop products that we think are game changers and able to help transform the ways that they deliver their services to their users.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned some pretty big names there. I’m curious, how do you approach a new project? Like say a client, they go to Work & Co’s website, they email you. What does that process look like to get started with a project?

Chip Gross:
One of the things that I would definitely say is having been at a number of different digital shops, one of the things I’ve been really impressed with the process at Work & Co is it really does begin with understanding is this work that we think is going to be shippable. Because as you saw when we talked about kind of the importance of the work side of things, not only want to design and think about how we can create beautiful and dynamic and amazing digital products, but we also want to make sure that they’re ones that actually come and live in the world. So when we talk about shipping, over the nine years that we’ve been in existence, we’ve shipped over 300 different products. So the beginning of our process is really trying to understand, is this going to be meaningful work? Are our teams going to be excited about engaging on this work?

Chip Gross:
Is it going to be work that’s meaningful and is going to have impact? And it doesn’t always necessarily mean it’s going to be the most lucrative work for Work & Co every time. We’ve done work with Planned Parenthood. We did a chat bot that was ranked as one of the hundred top innovations the year that we developed it with Planned Parenthood. We’ve done work with … We just released breastcancer.org. We’ve thought about what are the things that are important for us to be able to invest our team’s time in? And candidly, in the business development process, we generally have a pretty solid stream of work that’s coming in. Whether it’s just through, like you mentioned, the email channels or we have past clients that refer us for work that they think might be worthwhile for us to take a look at.

Chip Gross:
In some cases, it’s a friend of a friend of a friend that knows the type of work that we do. But many cases, we have a lot more work to vet than we end up actually doing, because we really want to be thoughtful and purposeful about the work that we decide to actually proceed with. So once we get to that point, we want to make sure that we shepherd the work through the company and the same level of care, ensuring that whether it’s something that’s going to be starting with strategy and working itself into design and then potentially into development. We get all the different stakeholders involved, looking at the work, making sure that we’re asking the right questions and then building out a scope with product management leading it so that the people that are actually delivering the work are the people that are actually scoping the work, which in other agencies that I’ve worked in hasn’t always been the case and in some cases it’s really led to some problematic projects as a result.

Chip Gross:
So again, because we’re so singularly focused in developing digital product and shipping it, we’re able to be really, really thoughtful and intentional about how we actually move the work into the company. And we build the right team that’s going to really be passionate and excited about the work. And then we also make sure that we’re working collaboratively with the client as we do the work. So we have a saying within Work & Co that we do prototypes and not presentations. And the ways that we actually create and concept the work is through the process of creation and iteration. So we’re not going away thinking about what this could be, and then coming back to the client and showing them something that’s in process. They’re actually working with us in some cases in the Figma files. Seeing it evolve and become this conceptual product and then eventually a detailed design product. And then eventually a product that goes out and lives in the world and helps them be transformative and engaging with their users as a result.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like even with all of that that you mentioned, it’s super important to have something like that here in Atlanta. And we’ll get more into your background, but I know just from starting out here as a designer and working my way in different companies and stuff, I don’t know, the Atlanta design scene has been different from what you may see in New York or Silicon Valley in terms of that level of focus, not necessarily I would say on product, but certainly not in the ways that you’ve just described it with Work & Co. It almost seems to be a bit more, I don’t want to say transactional. Actually the word that I’m looking for is behind. It feels a little like Atlanta sometimes … And I’m making a gross generalization here from my vantage point, but sometimes it has felt a little behind. And I’ve heard this even from other Atlanta design professionals I’ve had on the show, from friends of mine and colleagues are just like, Atlanta is not there yet in terms of it being a design city like where you would have that sort of variety, maybe with, like I said, Silicon Valley or New York City or something.

Chip Gross:
I would actually disagree with that hypothesis because I think in many ways Atlanta has been very much … And I’m talking into the context of digital product design and development. Yeah. We’ve had a number of agencies here and in some cases, what I think gets overshadowed is there’s a lot of great campaign work and there’s a number of more traditional advertising agencies that have been above the radar. But for as long as I’ve been in Atlanta and in this space, I think there’s been a lot of really great work that gets developed or designed in Atlanta, but maybe it’s out of an agency that is primarily based in another geography. So a lot of the talent in Atlanta, candidly, doesn’t get the same shine that it might get in another city like Chicago or New York or Silicon Valley, just because the work is kind of used coming out of those places, when in many cases, some of the design or the development work is actually happening in Atlanta.

Chip Gross:
So that’s another reason why for us having a actual studio space here will really allow us to showcase and amplify the Work & Co level work that can be done and produced out of Atlanta and also contribute to the work that we’re doing across all of our different geographies. I mean, again, one of the reasons that we’re here is because we think and we’ve seen so much talent that doesn’t necessarily get a chance to engage on work that happens in Copenhagen, for example, or work that may also take flight initially in Rio de Janeiro or San Paulo. So in many ways, we really do believe that making this connection between the level of work that Work & Co does with the level of talent that we know exists in Atlanta, we think is very much a marriage made in heaven.

Maurice Cherry:
Atlanta talent does not necessarily get the same shine. I totally agree with that. Again, I’m basing it off of my viewpoint of, again, like I said, you’ve been here and you’ve certainly seen much more in the creative community, but I definitely have felt it. I’m not disagreeing with you from what you’re saying, because I do know that there are several people that may have started out here as design students or started out as designers and then they just felt the opportunity wasn’t here so they had to go somewhere else. Or they go somewhere else and do well and then now Atlanta wants to claim that in some kind of way. It’s an interesting kind of thing, but I hope that with Work & Co being here, they’ll help to really bolster what you said earlier about the creative community here.

Chip Gross:
I think so. And I think the secret is definitely getting out. I mean, you hear about a new company every week that’s decided to build a presence in Atlanta. Whether it’s Nike or Airbnb, BlackRock or Visa. I mean, all these companies are now coming to the realization that Atlanta really does have something attractive and unique and diverse and something that they can’t necessarily find as easily in other parts of the country or albeit the world.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of which, let’s talk about where you grew up, which was not Atlanta. You’re originally from Delaware. Talk to me about growing up there.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. It’s not a place that a lot of people necessarily claim to be from. Shout out Joe Biden and Aubrey Plaza as two other Delawareans. But yeah, I mean, I was originally born in Delaware and grew up in Delaware for about the first nine years of my life. My dad actually worked for a insurance company. So as a result, we moved around a good bit. But Delaware was really interesting just because during the time that I was there, Delaware was going through a bit of a awakening itself. And one of the most, I guess, formative experiences that I had was when I was in elementary school and Carter had gone through the process of the busing between suburban and urban areas. And I actually … My family had moved from the downtown area of Delaware into the suburbs. And then I actually had the unique experience of being one of the few black students who actually was living in more of a suburban area, but was being bused into an urban area to help bring better sense of diversity to the in town schools.

Chip Gross:
And it was a really amazing experience and I think it really helped underscore and gave me some perspective on just some of the disparities that exist between both sides of it. Whether folks that were living in the urban communities or even the folks that were living in suburban areas that just didn’t have the same level of awareness of what it meant to be different. And also the importance of being able to have an appreciation for navigating different types of environments. Whether you were a black student in a white environment or a white student in a black environment, it was a tremendously eyeopening experience and I think something that also gave me a lot of desire to always try and find common ground as I grew up and lived in different places over time. So after the nine years in Delaware, I moved from Delaware to New Jersey, a fairly rural area of New Jersey. Spent a few years there.

Chip Gross:
Then my parents actually moved from New Jersey to Baltimore, and I had a different experience there when I lived in the suburbs of Baltimore. Then we actually moved from Baltimore to New York City. That was the beginning of high school for me. New York in the mid ’80s was a pretty interesting place to spend time. I think that was another just opportunity for me just to see the importance of diversity and living among a community that was comprised of everything from white Catholics to Dominicans, to Puerto Ricans, to Haitians, Jamaicans. It really gave me a love of that type of environment. And then ironically, my parents moved from New York City to the western suburbs of Chicago. And if anyone out there knows what Naperville and Lyle are like as part of DuPage County, I think it’s probably … At the time when I moved there, it was like 95 or 97% white.

Chip Gross:
So I almost went into culture shock going from Stuyvesant Town, lower east side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Chicago in an environment where I was literally … I think I was maybe one of two African Americans in my senior class. I don’t think there were any black females in my senior class. That was definitely a very interesting period of time. And I think I learned how to deal with a good bit of solitude, but also learned to stand up for myself. I think it helped me develop a certain level and awareness of self that I wouldn’t have otherwise had if I had remained in one place my entire life.

Maurice Cherry:
So your family kind of did the whole New England tour. Would have thrown in Connecticut, you’d had the tri-state area pretty much.

Chip Gross:
Just about, yeah. And then of course, after high school I actually went to Philly. So I think I decided that Chicago was great, but it was nice to get back on the east coast.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Talk to me about your time in Philadelphia. You were at the University of Pennsylvania.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. Yeah. That was another formative experience for me, because if you remember … And I guess I’m dating myself. Yeah. I was there in the late ’80s going into the early ’90s so there was this whole kind of black African American awakening. We were dealing with everything from the Rodney King incidents with the LAPD and we had some protests related to that. While I was there, some of my classmates and I actually started a African American newspaper. So I had a chance to get involved in the creation of media and helping to create a voice for the black community at Penn. One of the first times I think we got a chance as an African American organization to celebrate Kwanza. And it was just a chance for us to really kind of say we’re here and we’re a vibrant part of the community.

Chip Gross:
I remember going to dances and listening to Public Enemy and all of the great beginnings of hip hop music and rap that in many ways were a signifier for just the importance of culture during that period of time. Yeah. I think also being at Penn, it also gave me a lot more confidence knowing that I could definitely hold my own with the best and the brightest, so to speak within the university and also had a chance to just develop some really great friendships that I have to this day. So it was a really great experience and opportunity for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I bet it was fun too, wasn’t it?

Chip Gross:
It was a blast. I mean, I probably don’t want to incriminate myself on this-

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no.

Chip Gross:
Podcast. But we had a phenomenal time and I don’t think I would’ve changed anything about that time at Penn. It was a really great time.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, after you graduated from Penn, you were working at Hewett as a consultant, which eventually is what brought you down here to Atlanta, right?

Chip Gross:
Exactly. Yeah. And I mean, to give the listeners context, coming out in the early ’90s, there was no worldwide web. So at the time when I went to work for Hewett, I actually kind of stumbled into the technology side of things because Hewett was basically a consultancy that helped companies set up and establish benefits and managed 401k plans. And they had actually had a solution that was mainframe based and they were migrating it to a client server environment. And in the process of getting involved in that, I really became that much more enamored and interested in technology. That’s what kind of peaked my interest in wanting to … Even though I had focused in economics at Penn, I always had kind of a love of technology. I mean, when I was younger, I played around with Atari game systems and Commodore 64s and all of that just started to become not much more interesting to me. So there was an opportunity to actually go from Chicago where I was working to Atlanta, because that’s where they were migrating this new technology system. And never been to the south, had always heard good things about Atlanta and decided that’s where I wanted to go ahead and try to see what Atlanta was like. And ironically, I came down here and just never left.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you came down here in culturally what I think just had to be such a rich time. I mean, you mentioned everything that was going on in Philly, but then you come down here to Atlanta and I’m not just talking about Freaknik, although Freaknik is I guess part of the cultural ambiance of the ’90s in Atlanta. But even to just step back and look at where black America was during that time. I mean, we mentioned music. New Jack swing, hiphop, et cetera. But then also the LA riots. And this is a time, as you mentioned, before the internet. How did you feel as a black man navigating through the world at that time?

Chip Gross:
I mean, as a black man in Atlanta, it was just such a welcoming environment to be quite honest. I mean, I don’t know if everybody has the same feeling. But whenever you’re somewhere else and you fly into Atlanta, the minute you get off the plane and you walk into the terminal, you can just feel the embrace of blackness throughout the airport. And I think that just extends to the city. As an African American, Atlanta really is in many ways that proverbial Mecca, because the city is … Depending on where you draw the boundaries, whether it’s the city proper or the metro Atlanta area, it’s majority black or just about majority black. Just the amount of culture and just the sense of belonging is really something that you just don’t get in other cities to the same dimension that you get in Atlanta.

Chip Gross:
So being able to come down here … And again, the context of Atlanta, this was right as the Olympics were happening. So the world was really focused on Atlanta. There had been an amazing amount of investment in building up the city, preparing for all of these people descending on it from all across the world. You mentioned all of the different cultural aspects of Atlanta were also at play. For me again, it was just another validation of the importance of being in an environment and a community that’s supportive and really embraces you. That’s one of the reasons why I think I’ve stayed so long and that I’ve grown a family here is it really helps to give you a sense of a support system. And it just gives you a sense of love and inclusion that I just don’t think you necessarily find as much in other places, especially as a person of color.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s very true. I mean, back pre pandemic when I would travel for the show or I would travel for work, nothing to me was more comforting than flying back into Atlanta, coming into the airport. And then you’re taking the elevator up to baggage claim and you see the black girl with her arms stretched out in a hug. I hear they put her back. I know they took it down for a while because they put up this digital screen, but I heard that they put her back up there. But it’s just like this embrace like welcome home. And so many people I have talked to that don’t live here do not understand. They’re like, Atlanta’s this, Atlanta’s that, Atlanta’s a party city, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m like, I feel so at home and comfortable in myself and in my culture in Atlanta than anywhere else. I mean, granted, I’ve been here for a long time, but there’s a comfort here that lets you know this is where you can always come home.

Chip Gross:
Yeah. It’s palpable. I mean you really do feel it as you move throughout the city. And I think that’s one of the reasons why there is so many transplants to Atlanta because when people come down and they get a feel for that aspect of Southern hospitality, but also that sense of you can be from a lot of other places but still feel at home in Atlanta. And I think it’s something that a lot of people really connect to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now it’s 1995. You’re in Atlanta. You’re about to get your MBA from Emory. Tell me about that time.

Chip Gross:
For me, one of the things I realized as I was working with Hewett was that in order for me to, I think reach my fuller potential, whether I was going to focus on business or technology, was to go and invest and get the MBA. Because I really think it gave me a better and deeper appreciation of what it means to not only build and run businesses, but also all the skills that you need to become a really good leader and be able to help work across different types of teens and groups. I mean, MBA classes are generally case based. So you’re always getting an appreciation of what it means to work as a team. And I think that’s actually experience that has really helped me as I’ve worked through different agencies and when I’ve been on the client side. It’s that ability to kind of cross over and build strong relationships as well as be able to think about not only what’s a great product experience, but also what’s the broader ecosystem that these products need to live within and having an appreciation for how something’s going to generate revenue, how something’s actually going to functionally work and operate. Understanding what it means to, if you’re working on a FinTech project, understand all the different dimensions of managing assets and dealing with financial systems and cash management, all those underlying processes.

Chip Gross:
So for me, I think the value of the MBA was really just being able to understand how businesses work, how you build the best teams, how you develop the greatest ways of people being able to build really great products as a result. Because they’re inspired and they’re also investing in the importance of culture and collaboration. So that took me over to Emory to go and go through the MBA program. It’s something, again, was another formative experience for me and I think it gave me some of the resilience I needed to have as we were starting to reach the beginning of the 2000s and the world was starting to get a better appreciation for what the web and digital actually meant.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a really peak time when the worldwide web was starting to really kind of become something that is more and more commonplace. I mean, I remember I was in high school going into college right around that time. Actually in 2000 I was in college. But I was in college during that time in undergrad and I remember I was studying at Morehouse. I was studying computer science. And I was telling my advisor that I wanted to be a web designer because I had been reverse engineering websites since I was in high school, trying to teach myself HTML and figure it out. And I really wanted to pursue that. And at the time, I mean, again, this is 2000, I didn’t know that there was a difference between web design and studying computer science. I thought, well, it’s all on the computer.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s all on the computer. It’s the same thing, right? And I remember him telling me vividly that, “The internet is just a fad. If this is what you want to do, we don’t do that here. We study programming for mainframes.” And all this sort of stuff. And I ended up switching my major to math after that. But it’s really hard I think now, especially in 2022, to realize that 20 something years ago, the internet was such a completely different place than what it is now. I mean, the way that technology has grown and changed and evolved the world. But back then, it really was something that not a lot of people really knew about and were doing. But at this time you were working with an interactive agency, right? You were working at iXL.

Chip Gross:
And actually even before then. I mean, when I came out of business school, I actually went to IBM. I went into the management consulting side of it. But very quickly thereafter, we kind of evolved into this whole question of what is e-business and what does the web mean in the context of helping companies engage digitally? And it was a fun time because IBM was willing to invest in an internal agency that they call the Arts Cafe for those who remember that time in IBM. And it was kind of this place where we had these quirky designers. And I think at one point we had a three legged dog that was in the studio and we worked on things like the Masters and the Grammys. It was a really great time of exploration, beginning to think about what it meant to create websites and presence on the web.

Chip Gross:
And then starting to think about, well, not only doing brochureware and marketing on the web, but how do you actually create wholesale businesses where you then start to get into eCommerce and all the different ways that digital evolved out of that? So for me, being at IBM was a great entry into this whole area of digital e-business and it also gave me an appreciation for what it means to actually build product at scale and build things that have global implications. And you have to think about language and you have to think about the impact of launching products and different geographies with different rules and regulations. And it was the thing that really got me excited and passionate about digital.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Brochureware. I have not heard that term in forever. Wow.

Chip Gross:
Good reason for that. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. No, but to your point, I mean eCommerce and so many things now that we completely take for granted over the web were just such new things. Like companies trying to figure out how can I conduct business on the internet? Because before … I don’t know. Maybe before the 2000s, the internet was essentially a library for the most part. It was basically for research. You would find different university websites or you just find encyclopedias or things like that. It did not have a lot of entertainment value. I know that there were brands that were starting to figure it out because then also you’ve got technology like Shockwave and Real Player that we’re starting to bring media into this space. It’s funny. When I do presentations, I have this slide and it shows, I think it’s like a Pepsi world from 1999. And it shows the full matrixy experience but then it has something on the bottom that’s like to take the slow lane. If you have less than a 56.6 kilobit modem or something like that, take the slow lane. And people were like, “What does that mean?” Because everything now is like the fast lane with broadband and stuff. But the internet was just such a interesting place. And companies were really trying to figure out how can I be a part of it in some sort of way?

Chip Gross:
Oh, for sure. And I think that’s where you started to see the birth of different digital companies. A lot of them were really driven by who was actually footing the bill. Because you’d have the very technical consultancies that would engage with the CIO or the CTO. And then you’d have the traditional advertising agencies that might be engaging with the CMO. And as a result, you started to see your usual suspects start to move into digital advertising and experience at the very minimal level. And then you also had kind of the C-suite. The CEO and the chief strategy officer who might be engaging with a consultancy like a McKenzie or a BCG or a Bain and then starting to come into digital, trying to determine, okay, well strategically where’s the value that digital can bring. And I think that’s where you started to see this morphing of companies into this patchwork of different types of digital entities that were all trying to figure out what’s the right way to come at digital at that time. It was a really, really dynamic time to be watching it all emerge and unfold.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Because things just changed so quickly. And to your point, like you said, there were a lot of people really just trying to figure it out. This is something completely new in a very nascent field. Nobody is “an expert” on it yet. Everyone’s just trying to figure it out.

Chip Gross:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
So you’ve had such a storied career here in Atlanta. I’m not going to go through all of the experiences, but I will list them out so people can get a sense of … I’m going to unfurl the scroll so people can see what your pedigree is.

Chip Gross:
Show how old I am.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, no, no. You’ve mentioned IBM. We talked about iXL. But you were at Interland, you were at UPS, Razorfish, SapientNitro, Hearst Autos, and then of course earlier we mentioned a AKQA and BrightHouse. When you look back at all of those past experiences, what would you say are the most valuable things that you learned about yourself?

Chip Gross:
All of them had their learnings and takeaways. I think if you go back to iXL, which in some ways you could argue is one of the first digital agencies that really just kind of staked its claim around digital. I think in some ways it became a little bit indicative of just all of the excitement around what digital could be, but also the crashing reality of going at digital and not understanding the underlying business realities of what it means to run an agency as well as what it means to understand what the marketplace was able to bear. I mean, I think iXL in particular was an interesting experience because there was so much potential and it grew so quickly into so many different areas of focus that it almost just collapsed under the weight of trying to do too many things at once.

Chip Gross:
And it was humbling for me because it was one of the first times I actually went through a layoff. That was right around the 2000 with the Y2K and the implosion of dotcoms. And I just never forget the time where I’d gone through the layoff and I had to go home and tell my wife who was pregnant at the time that I had just been laid off. And I think that experience for me, one, you always remember a situation like that, but also having gotten through it helped me realize the importance of resiliency and that nothing’s promised and that you’re going to take risks in this world and in some cases the risks aren’t going to necessarily work out the way you expect, but you learn from them. And it wasn’t the last layoff I went through. As a result, I think it made me stronger having gone through it. But it also didn’t dim my passion and desire to be part of the digital landscape.

Chip Gross:
So like you mentioned, from there, I went to Interland, which actually went through its own acquisition and ups and downs and dealt with my second layoff there. But then I got to UPS and it was a really great time for UPS where they were trying to take digital and embed it in all the different processes that they use in delivering packages. So I got to work on integrating UPS technology and Yahoo and eBay. Got a chance to work on what they called their enterprise release process where you’re doing digital implementations and new feature and product improvements across the entire UPS enterprise. So that also gave me an understanding of the importance of having everybody across the enterprise involved in digital transformation. You were making decisions that could literally lead to billions of dollars in revenue if things didn’t come together the right way.

Chip Gross:
So I think that was maybe another example of where I learned a lot from going through that experience. And then AKQA I think was another really formative one just because I got a chance to start up a studio from the ground up. I was the first employee in Atlanta for AKQA and at the time that I left, we were 33 or 34 people. We had some really great products to look back and point to. And it was a really great way, again, for me to have this confidence of being able to build a team, build a studio, create an environment where we could really do some phenomenal digital product work and also feel like you really were able to show what you could do when there was just, again, that high level of uncertainty of what the future might bring. So I really look back and cherish that experience. And I think that’s what also gave me that much more confidence now coming to Work & Co of being able to know how to create something and build it and also do it in a way that really builds a great environment for creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
So your career has really grown and blossomed in the same kind of trajectory as I think Atlanta has grown, not just as a tech hub and a well known startup city, but also as a design city. And you’re bringing that here with this new Work & Co office and then building off of all the work that you’ve done. If there’s somebody that’s out there listening that wants to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?

Chip Gross:
I think what I would say is one, obviously the earlier points around resilience and once you find that there’s something that you’re passionate about, not letting short term setbacks change your desire to be able to pursue them. And I think one of the other things that I think has been really valuable for me is to also have great examples that I can look to of people that have been down that road before and have in some ways inspired me to continue on doing the work that I’m doing. I think for someone that wants to break into the digital product space, I think there’s also a good point to be made in terms of all the different ways that you can be part of this company without necessarily being a designer. For Work & Co in particular, in many ways it proverbially takes a village to build really great products and to be able to ship them.

Chip Gross:
So that includes having great strategists, great product managers, great technologists. You had Reese on earlier. You have great writers. And then you also need all that infrastructure, whether it be HR or recruiters, marketers, PR. So even though we’re very much focused on digital product design and development, we have to have all those different skills and capabilities in order to be successful. So one of the things I think that’s really important is for people to have exposure and visibility to this area and this type of work. And I think one of the most unfortunate things for a lot of African Americans is they don’t even know that this exists as a career. That you can be a managing director or you can be a great designer or you can be a great technologist and work in this environment. I think it’s just kind of a shame that there aren’t more venues like this podcast and like some of the other things that are out there to just give high schoolers and middle schoolers who are coming up an understanding and appreciation for what digital product design is all about.

Chip Gross:
So that may be a little bit of a tangential answer to your question, but I think more than anything else, you’ve got to work your network. Usually there’s a friend of a friend who knows somebody at a company that you want to get involved in. And I think you’ve got to be able to have the confidence and courage to be able to work your network, as well as recognize that you may have to take a somewhat … You’ve got to come in sometimes through the side door versus the front door and find a way that … If you’ve been working in customer service, there might be a way that you could use that to get into the operations side of an agency. And then by doing that, get exposed to other areas that you might want to actually grow into and be able to take courses and develop skills from that standpoint. I’ve worked with some great designers that actually started off being developers and that they really saw that integration and the intersection between technology and creativity and were able to grow into more senior roles over time. So I’d say those are some of the points of advice that I would probably give to someone thinking about this particular industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I feel like I know what the answer to this is going to be, but I’ll ask it. But what are you the most excited about at the moment?

Chip Gross:
There’s a couple things that I’m really excited about. I mean one … And yeah, maybe it’s the silver lining of the pandemic, but now that we’ve been through two years of basically self isolation, the level of digitization of every different aspect of our lives. Something that we couldn’t have even imagined a couple years ago. The fact that we can do almost every aspect of whether it’s healthcare or managing finances or running a business or engaging with colleagues via Zoom and things like that. We’ve basically gone through arguably five to 10 years of digital evolution in the span of two. So one of the things that excites me, and one of the reasons why I think it’s such a great time for Work & Co is the fact that if you really look at all the different developments that have come to play in the last two years, there’s a digital product designer and a digital product technologist and a product manager behind almost everything that you can think of that’s emerged over the last two years.

Chip Gross:
So it’s a really great time to be able to work in this industry and to help create what the next wave of digital innovations and advancements are going to be. So that’s one of the really, I think, important things that really gets me excited about where we are right now. And I mean, literally society is remaking itself before our eyes and it’s remaking itself with this veneer and this kind of core of digital from every different aspect of it. And I think so many of the folks that are coming into the space now, their wildest dreams are probably underestimating exactly what’s going to play out in the next 10 years.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the folks that have influenced you over the years? I mean, going from Philly to Atlanta, and again, the long career that you’ve had here, who are some of the people that have really helped you out as mentors or as peers?

Chip Gross:
How I would answer that is a few different positions. I mean, one, I think from an inspiration standpoint, I mean my mother and father are at the core of it. I mean, my dad, he was raised kind of the later years of his elementary and high school life by an aunt. He grew up in Delaware. And if you know anything about Delaware in the ’50s and the ’60s, I mean, it was a pretty segregated place. My mom actually used to get up in the morning and look across the street at a school that she couldn’t go to because of the color of her skin. So for them to be able to create the opportunity for me to be where I am, I think is something that I always just take as a point of inspiration that no matter where you are currently, with the right support and the right inspiration, you can really go anywhere.

Chip Gross:
So start with that in terms of those who inspired me. And I think we maybe didn’t talk about it too much, but we really underestimate the importance of representation. Just how important it can be to see somebody in a role that you never envisioned yourself in. And the example I’ll give you is when I was at IBM, I was in the media and technology group within IBM at the time. And we were at this conference in IBM. They generally had these big sales conferences where they get together people from all over the country. And I think we were at Disney at the time. We were in this big conference room. They were having different presentations, but then they had this one section of the conference where they had an executive come out and the executive was actually John Thompson, who is currently … I think he’s lead director at Microsoft.

Chip Gross:
And I remember being in the audience and seeing John Thompson walk out on stage. And if you know anything about John Thompson, I mean, really inspirational. He’s almost the same demeanor as like a Barack Obama in terms of how he talks and just how engaging he can be. And I remember just being transfixed by him walking out on stage, being who he was and being just so moved by the fact that there was this guy who looked like me, in some cases kind of talked a little bit like how I talk, and he was running a major part of IBM’s business. And then he went on to become CEO of Symantec. And I think people don’t always realize just how important a incident like that can be. I mean, I never got a chance to really talk to John Thompson. I only saw him for a very short period of time, but that experience for me was something that told me that, yeah, I can be a managing director. I can start a studio.

Chip Gross:
I can do all the things that I see everybody else doing because he’s already done it. He’s been there and he’s been able to achieve in an environment that probably wasn’t very favorable to him being successful. So that’s how I would probably answer the question about mentors. And then wherever I’ve been, whether it’s at BCG, I had Jim Lowry and Justin Dean who were great role models for me as a managing director. When I was at UPS, I had Joycelyn Pearson, who was my boss, a dynamic and phenomenal leader. Those are the things that I think helped me get through those tough times and it helped show me the importance of seeing and knowing from seeing that you can be that person and be successful in any type of environment.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, where do you think your life would’ve gone if you hadn’t started working in the creative field?

Chip Gross:
For me, it goes back to that point around exposure. Because I’ve always had an interest in creativity and design. Had I been exposed earlier to architecture as a field, I think candidly, I might have actually gone into that as a career. But growing up, you just didn’t have that level of exposure to the wide range of fields that are available that tap on the creative side of the brain. I remember when I was at Razorfish and we started to look at some of the other parts of the business and the media side of the business. And you walk into these media agencies and you would see kind of a sea of white faces and in many cases a sea of white female faces. And some of it was a result of people being exposed to things and recognizing that these are places that actually existed that you could have careers. And I think for a lot of African Americans and people of color, they don’t necessarily have exposure to some of these different fields and areas of possible careers. And as a result, we don’t necessarily get a chance to develop as big of a body of leaders and representatives in those companies and in those industries.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want your legacy to be

Chip Gross:
For me, I think it actually goes back to this question of purpose. And when I was at BCG, I was in a part of BCG called BrightHouse and we spent a lot of time with organizations talking about purpose. And I think when you first come out of school, a lot of your focus is on what do I need to do to show that I can be successful and how can I achieve and show my achievements? And I think now where I am in my life, it’s actually less about let me do things to prove what I can do versus actually what can I do to actually help drive and leave a legacy behind. So when I was at BrightHouse, we talked a lot about personal purpose. We went through some exercises and I ended up with my personal purpose being to live into lead with optimism. When it comes to legacy, I think if I can be an example that other people look to and see that it’s possible to be a managing director or to be successful in being kind of a quasi entrepreneur and to bring new things into being, that I think gets to my answer around legacy. Being able to help empower others to understand and be optimistic about what they can become and not feel like they’re limited by where they may be at a certain point in time.

Maurice Cherry:
Just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work, about Work & Co? Where can they find that online?

Chip Gross:
Well, they can definitely find out more about Work & Co at work.co, which is our website. And I think it’s a great way to see the wide range of work that we do, the different types of careers that we have, as well as the capabilities that we have in house. And if people want to learn more about me, obviously there’s LinkedIn, which is a great way to connect and get a better understanding of some of the different things that I’ve been involved in, both on the professional side as well as I’ve been involved in some non-for-profit organizations too. Like there’s one that I’m involved with now called Redefine Ed. And it’s actually a non-for-profit focused on improving educational outcomes for Atlanta public school students. So that’s another passion of mine and a place that you can learn more about me and how I’m involved in the community.

Maurice Cherry:
Nothing about the cars?

Chip Gross:
Well, I am a car enthusiast, so you’ve done your research. And I do like to tinker with automobiles. I haven’t had as much time most recently, but I’ve spent some time working on everything from a Pontiac Fiero to a Porsche 944. I mean, right now I’m playing around with a BMW. So yes, I do like to get my hands dirty and kind of take my mind off the day to day by just figuring out how things work and making them work better.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Sounds good. Chip Gross, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. One, just for sharing the passion that you have behind building this new studio, this new branch of Work & Co here in Atlanta, but also to show just how much perseverance you’ve had throughout your entire career, how much you’ve brought to the Atlanta creative community. I’m really excited to see where a Work & Co really comes from here. But then of course, I’m really just … As you talked before about visibility and representation, it’s good for someone like me to see someone like you doing what you’re doing. And I hope for people that are listening that they are proud to see that as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Chip Gross:
Oh, it’s been my pleasure and I really enjoyed it and hopefully gave some people some inspiration to come and be part of this whole world of digital product design and development.

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get your own domain name? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.