Russell Toynes

If Austin, Texas had a contest for “Hometown Design Hero”, I think Russell Toynes would definitely win the grand prize! Russell is the founder and creative director of Studio Dzo, a multidisciplinary design-build studio that works with developers, architects, interior designers, and other business owners to elevate their work and help bring it to life. On top of that, he’s also an adjunct professor covering portfolio development at Austin Community College, and is a core team member of African American Graphic Designers, the largest collective of African-American and Black visual communicators. Talk about being active in your community!

Russell talked about rebounding and rebuilding during the pandemic, sharing how his team adjusted and how he changed his business focus to keep productivity high and focus on his employees’ mental health. He also spoke on growing up in Austin, working as an art director at Dell, and his love for giving back and helping the next generation of designers. Russell is living proof that you can find success and fulfillment right in your own backyard!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Russell Toynes:
My name is Russell Toynes, and I am the creative director and owner at Studio Dzo. I’m also a design educator. I teach portfolio design at Austin Community College. And I am a core member of AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. And I’m a mentor to a lot of either previous students or folks that wish they were a student of mine.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Russell Toynes:
I’m also a dad and a husband, but those things, those are all day, every day. And those are some of the best things that I do. We’ll see. We should ask them.

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

Russell Toynes:
2022 has been good. We’re actually really excited. 2021 was a banner year for us, and 2022 is exactly the same. Our books are full, and the work just keeps coming in, and we have a good team. We had a little bit of an upset in 2021 where we had some folks get, what’s that bug that they caught? The great resignation?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Russell Toynes:
Some of them got some of that, you know? And so that left us in a little bit of a bind. So we had two new team members start in January, and so we’re still training them. So it’s a little challenging with that, with some new team members, but 2022 is starting out great for us.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything in particular that you really want to try to accomplish this year?

Russell Toynes:
Really, we have a good processes, but I always want to get right and tight, right? So I really, really am looking at how do we streamline our business? My goal… Well, with the pandemic, we’re really… Before pandemic, we had a studio on East Sixth Street and it was great. We were there for three or four years, and we just moved into a new place. We did a $10,000 build out. We moved into a new place on South Lamar on February 17th on 2020. And then March 17th, 2020, we said everybody, “Hey, so this thing’s going on. We’re going to send you home. You’re going to work from home and we’ll check in every week or two, and we’ll figure out when we’re going to come back.” We were really naive, right? We just didn’t know. And I was scared. And we have a little blog on our website.

Russell Toynes:
And so, I just wrote a blog of just like a cathartic, being a small business owner during a pandemic is fucking scary. And so, I wrote this blog post just talking about like my biggest thing was just thinking about, not only do I have to keep food on my table, but I got to keep food on five other people’s tables also. And so, not knowing what that was going to look like was really scary.

Russell Toynes:
But what I realized was when we were in the studio, we were really locally focused. We did some state, some things outside of Austin. Lots of things outside of Austin, but lots of things in other states, Oregon, and Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and places like that. But we were really just thinking, “Oh, we’re Austin, we’re Texas.”

Russell Toynes:
When we went remote, all of a sudden opportunities just started just coming in different directions. And now, we really see ourselves as global. We have done work in Singapore, we have done work all over the United States. We have partners all over the world. So really, thinking about… we just wrapped up a project in Canada… just thinking about what we have done in the last year, it’s amazing that when we opened our minds up to thinking beyond our local borders, what we’ve accomplished.

Russell Toynes:
And so, really 2022 is just about, how do we keep this momentum? How do we move forward and continue to have a global presence?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good to hear. I mean, the pandemic, it’s changed business for so many people. I mean, I’ve talked to several studio owners, big and small, that have all had to really adjust because they weren’t able to come together physically in an office like they did before. I mean, for the team, was it a big shift to make that change?

Russell Toynes:
Yes. So, we have team members of various ages. So we have seven team members. Seven in total. So me and my wife, and then we have five other team members. And they’re all employees of ours, but we call them team members because I don’t like the idea of people being an employee.

Russell Toynes:
So they’re all in different places in life. Some have families, some are single, some have partners. And so obviously, the pandemic hit everybody. So if you’re a family person and you have a spouse at home and children, they’re all affected. And so, that changed a lot for our team member in particular who has kids. It’s just, how do you work when his escape was getting in the car, driving to the studio, spending six to eight hours there and driving back, and having that decompression time and that transitional period?

Russell Toynes:
And now it’s get up, feed, clothe, put them in front of whatever Zoom classes they have, then get in front of his work Zoom and do work. And then their kids, they’re various ages. And so, that was the biggest challenge. Our big thing was, we wanted to focus on their mental health. We wanted to make sure that they had the freedom to take whatever time they needed just to process what the hell was going on. Because for all of us, we just didn’t know. It was scary.

Russell Toynes:
Especially in the very beginning when we just didn’t know what it was, but people were getting sick and people were dying. As time went on, the adaptations change. It went from, “Okay, let me just figure out just how to keep people, my team healthy and somewhat productive,” to this, “Okay, we can’t talk about going back. We got to talk about moving forward.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, it was like, “What do you need to be effective? What do you need to be efficient?” So, the team came back to the studio, we gave them their desk, their sit-stand desk. Then we got everybody… Our designers have desktops. Actually, almost everybody had desktops. And so, we were like, “Look, we can’t say you work remote, but then basically chain you to a desk.” So we got everybody all new laptops, and we were like, “Look, we don’t know what this is going to look like, but you have the freedom to work from wherever you’re at. So if you want to travel somewhere, you can work from there. As long as you’re able to be productive, work however you want to.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, for us, we really just had to figure out what was going to work now that we were in the long haul for this. So really it was just changing our work model. So changing it from in the studio to being remote. But then also from a clock in, clock out like you had in the studio where people come in and they’re expected to be in at 9:00, expect to stay till 5:00, and you had a good culture there. Where now it’s like, “We have to go to dentists, we have to get our car inspected. We have to do all the things while being at home.”

Russell Toynes:
So we switched to this get it done model, where it’s like, you know what you need to do. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, first thing in the morning, we talk about what we need to do and then you just go do it, however you’re going to get it done. So if you want to take out in the middle of the day to hang out with the kids, cool. You know what needs to be done when it needs to be done. I don’t need to babysit you.

Russell Toynes:
And so that’s worked out really, really well, both for my wife and I, Elizabeth, because sometimes we’re just not feeling like sitting in front of a desk. And so, we can sit with our laptop. And plus, we can do a lot of our work via our phone if we’re just calling or setting up meetings or reviewing work. So for us, this whole get it done model has really helped us all tackle life’s responsibilities along with work responsibilities.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, it sounds like you and the team are really able to make a agile shift pretty quickly. Do you think that was just because of your tight-knit nature of the team? What do you really attribute to that?

Russell Toynes:
I was a creative… Oh sorry, I was art director at Dell for five and a half years, and I learned quite a bit of what to do and what not to do. And so, very, very quickly I knew that I wanted everything that we did to be cloud based. And so, I didn’t want the opportunity for someone to have anything on their local drive that we needed, or for a laptop to get stolen and work that I had paid for over months for them to do got lost.

Russell Toynes:
So we were already very equipped to work remotely, because everything was already backed up to the cloud constantly through Google File Stream. And we had been using all the Google suites. So everything from the calendars, to email, to everything. So we were already well-equipped to just work from devices, whether that be iPads, phones, or computers, or something like that.

Russell Toynes:
I think being that we’re a small team and it was seven of us, I think that allowed us to be nimble. And we’ve always prided ourselves on being nimble and being able to fail quickly. So we’ll try something. If it doesn’t work, let’s adapt. But honestly, I attribute it to having just a damn good team who really has a lot of faith in Elizabeth and I to just guide them. And they’ll follow us in whatever direction we ask them to.

Russell Toynes:
And we have an open-door policy. We ask people, there’s no hierarchy other than the fact that I’m responsible for making sure they get paid and everything. Everyone has the opportunity to make a suggestion. Everybody has the opportunity to talk to me or Elizabeth and say, “Hey, this isn’t working, or this could be better, or I ain’t dealing with something.”

Russell Toynes:
And unfortunately, during the pandemic, things happen. People die. Maybe it’s pandemic related, maybe it’s not. And we have to be adaptive to that. And so, we can’t just sit there and go, “Well, we’re running a business here, sorry.” It’s like, “No, we’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work.” And we just have a killer team that just everybody has everybody’s back. So it really has helped us move, and shift, and be nimble during this time of uncertainty.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you talked about going from being more locally focused with your client base to now having this global reach. What are the best types of clients for you to work with?

Russell Toynes:
So we work with architects, interior designers, and developers, and business owners. We work with everybody, but those are the best. Our ideal client… We don’t call our clients, clients. We call them partners, because this is a partnership. We have to work together. I don’t work for anybody. And so, we are working together to meet a goal and to create an experience. And so for us, we love working with interior designers because, A, they know the budget, and they’re realistic.

Russell Toynes:
They’re not developers who have a stake in how much money the project makes. And they’re not designers who are like, “Oh, I think I know how to design a sign or an installation,” and they have no idea. So when we work with… And architects are good, but architects always hire interior designers, and interior designers love us and we love them. So, they have a vision. We bring their visions either to life, or we just… They say, “This is an area that we don’t know what to do, but that’s where we call you.”

Russell Toynes:
And so, interior designers are great. So we work with lots of different agencies that have wonderful, talented interior designers who rely on us to do what we do well. And the crazy thing is, is maybe it’s the same in design, I don’t know, but there’s a lot of turnover. I don’t know if it’s just like, they go to a place, they’re there for a year. And then they want to just go to somewhere else or they move or whatever.

Russell Toynes:
So like pollinating, we make great relationships with one studio and then five of their interior designers over the course of a year or two go to five different other places. And then those five other places call us too. And next thing you know, we got 15, 20 interior design agencies all around the United States and whatnot that are calling us for project after project. So, I love them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I like that spread effect like that. I mean, I think you mentioned the great resignation a couple of times now. It’s interesting how because the pandemic has forced a lot of people to now work from home or work from remote locations, that a lot of companies before are just having to open themselves up to talent from a lot of other places.

Maurice Cherry:
And so, I think that can be both good and bad. Of course, for the company, I could see the downside of it because now that they’re working with employees from other states, they’ve got to think about, “Well, can we legally hire people in this state and what does that mean?”

Russell Toynes:
Exactly. That’s my wife. We had a team member in Atlanta, and she jumped through so many hoops with the comptroller there in Atlanta to just get this person to where we can offer them insurance and everything else. Yeah, it’s a huge undertaking when you bring on somebody outside of your state, and it’s a new state that you haven’t been in already.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then for the worker, it can be easy because now so many gigs that before were just landlocked to a certain city, now you can work from everywhere. I’ve been working, personally I’ve been working remotely since 2009. And like you, when I had… I had a studio for nine years, from 2009 to 2017. And we did some work locally. We did a lot of national work, some international work. But I’d say for the past two years now, on and off for the past two years, I’ve mostly been working internationally. It’s worked out that I can now take my skills and I can work in Amsterdam. I can work in Paris, which is where my current job is headquartered at.

Russell Toynes:
So how do you deal with the time difference?

Maurice Cherry:
Not well.

Russell Toynes:
I was going to say. I went to Hawaii. I went to Hawaii in January and I didn’t think that was going to mess me up. But boy, did it.

Maurice Cherry:
Not well. I mean, so when I worked for the company in Amsterdam, I think it was a six hour time difference, five to six hour time difference. Because you know, daylight savings time eventually creeps in. But it was rough because by the time I’d start in the morning, it would be in the afternoon there. There would be some times I would have to be up at 4:00 AM for a meeting. And thank God they were not anal about having the camera on with anything. So I could just be halfway in bed on Zoom, like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” For the current job, it’s not that bad because we’re split. Where my time zone is, eastern time zone is sort of split between where the company is. So we’re between San Francisco and Paris.

Maurice Cherry:
So in the morning I work with the Europeans. My boss is in London. And then in the afternoon I’m working with more of the creative team that’s here in the US that are in California. So my day is split in that way. We do a lot, a lot of async communication just to pass the baton back and forth. But it can be brutal sometimes. Sometimes I am working a 12-hour day from 5:00 to 5:00. Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes it happens, and it’s a lot.

Russell Toynes:
That’s our goal. That’s our goal is… My wife and I, I have a 20-year-old daughter, and so she’s very much into living her own life. That’s something I’ve been trying to adjust to. But we have aspirations to basically be digital nomads. And really set up our team to where we can… We have aspirations to make either a home or a temporary home in Portugal.

Russell Toynes:
And so, it’s the idea of, how do we do this? What would it look like? What time would we get up? What time would we be on? What time would we be off? And really just thinking about that. And we haven’t really put it to the test. The pandemic hasn’t really given us the comfort that we want to travel. Hawaii, like I mentioned, they had a really good COVID response.

Russell Toynes:
So, you have to have your vaccination, you have to have a 72-hour negative COVID test. You got to have everything right and tight or they won’t even let you on the island. And so we felt comfortable with… That was a trip we’ve been planning since 2019 for my daughter’s graduation. So, we did go to Florida during Delta. And so, we’re big Disney fans for the service and the attention to detail. And so we go to Disney World as much as possible. And we went in 2020… Or 2021, August. And that was not a vacation.

Russell Toynes:
That was like going to a neighborhood you know you don’t want to be in. It was like that. It was just, head was on a swivel. Everybody, I mean, Disney did a good job, but people do what people do. And so, people weren’t wearing their masks right. People were just being too close and all that. But it was really dead there. The crowds were nothing like they would normally be.

Russell Toynes:
So, we made the best of the trip, but now we’re trying to get back to the swing of things. And we want to travel more and see what it’s like to work in foreign places and make that adjustment. So I envy you. I might have to call you up and get some tips on how to adjust with jet lag.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I do a lot of… It’s a lot of async communication. It’s a lot of scheduled emails. It’s a lot of, at least for me, and I don’t know if this is probably just like a general tactic, but I do a lot of managing up. So, I have a manager, but then I also manage someone. So for my manager, I give regular, regular updates like, “I just did this. This is what I’m working on now.” Because we may only get… Our schedules only overlap for 30 minutes a day. So we don’t have a ton of time to really get together and talk.

Maurice Cherry:
So I’m always letting him know, “This is what I have to do. This is what I’m working on. This is where I have a blocker or something like that.” And so then he can work on those things when I’m not at work. And it’s kind of passing the baton. I would say also the benefit is that he and I have worked together at two other companies now, so we know how to work together well, as opposed to having to figure that out with someone new.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s exactly. That’s what you were asking, how did we make this adjustment? Our team consists of, like I said, five additional to me and my wife. And so, three of those five… So the two new ones are the newest. But three of those five have been with us for years. One of them was a previous student of mine, he’s been with us the longest. He’s been with us for five years now.

Russell Toynes:
And when you work with somebody that close, there’s a trust there, but also there’s just this ability to understand what needs to be done and there’s not a lot of conversation necessary. And so, that’s why it’s always hard for us when someone decides they want to leave and go to something else is just that, the onboarding time’s a headache. But there’s a lot of just energy and gaining of trust and all that that has to be built with somebody brand new that you can’t do in your typical onboarding window of 60 to 90 days or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And with this particular thing, and hopefully I’m not telling too of much my business by saying this, but he and I, we started working together in 2017 at one startup. And then he left, and then a couple, I think maybe a couple months later they eliminated our entire department at the first place we worked at.

Maurice Cherry:
But then he got a job at another startup and was like, “Do you want to work here?” And I didn’t have a job, so I was like, “Sure, let’s do it.” And then he left there to another startup, which is where he’s at now, and then was like, “Yeah, I need help and I want do these things. Do you want a job?” I’m like, “Sure.” So for him, I mean, it’s just like, “Come on with me and make these things happen.” But also has increased my salary tremendously.

Russell Toynes:
There you go. There you go.

Maurice Cherry:
So for that I am very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
It makes dollars and sense, huh?

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly. Yeah. So just to switch gears a little bit, we talked a lot about Studio Dzo. But let’s focus on you, because you’re the subject, of course, of this interview. Tell me a bit about where you grew up.

Russell Toynes:
So I grew up in Austin, Texas. I’m one of the few Austin Knights that are OOG. Not these people that came in from outside or from California. So I’ve seen Austin change tremendously over the last 38 years.

Russell Toynes:
I was born in Houston and we moved here as a kid. I remember the ride here. But yeah, I’ve grown up in Austin, and South Austin in particular, and still live in South Austin. And I have a love/hate with the city, because this is my city. And I say that because I’ve spent a long time more recently just trying to retrace my roots, and you know that can be challenging for us. And so, realizing my entire family is from Austin.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
My dad was born here in Austin. My great, great, great-

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, I was born here in Austin. My great, great, great grandfather was born in Austin and crazy thing was, just recently, a random phone call came to the studio, right? This woman’s like, “I’m cleaning up my property and there’s a headstone with Toynes on it, on my property.” And she was like, “I don’t think anybody’s buried here but there’s headstones here.” And it’s my great grandfather’s headstone. And so, he has a headstone in Evergreen Cemetery so I’m like, “What is this about?”

Russell Toynes:
And so, but we’ve always joked because the headstone in Evergreen cemetery’s incorrect, it makes him 150-years-old when he was dead. So whoever made that one, the numbers are wrong. But this one had the correct numbers with the wrong spelling of his first name. And so it was just all … I don’t know the story behind this but just to reiterate, my family has been here and everything about my family is Austin and East Austin, in particular. And so it’s hard for me to see East Austin different.

Russell Toynes:
It’s hard for me to see it where I don’t know what our black population is but it was 8%, I think, at its highest and it’s three maybe now. I don’t know, but it’s not what it used to be and the communities now are so transient. It’s starting to feel a little bit like New York where you just don’t know who’s going to be here for how long. So it’s been sad for me to accept what’s happening to Austin. And I think it’s also been hard for me to accept that maybe this isn’t my forever place. Even though my family has been here forever, this may not be my forever place.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think that’s something a lot of people are realizing particularly over the past two years. Not just because of the pandemic, but because of gentrification, inflation, everything is more expensive. Atlanta is very much a transient city like that, as well. I’m originally from Alabama but I’ve been in Atlanta now for 23 years. I think I came in ’99. So I’ve been here for about 23 years now and even seeing how much Atlanta has changed when I came as a teenager to now being a full grown-ass man and seeing how things have changed, even just different parts of the city.

Maurice Cherry:
I remember when I first got here, I’d say maybe I was a junior in college. My first apartment was like$600 a month in Buckhead. That’s impossible now. And then I stayed in another place in Buckhead, it was a two bedroom. One room was my office, one was my bedroom and it was right off of Peachtree Street in Buckhead proper for like $750 a month or something like that. Now those are like $2.5 million condos. It’s wild seeing how the city has changed over the years. So I totally get what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. It’s a hard pill to swallow and then also to see who gets pushed out and who comes in, right? And it’s not like everybody’s just winning, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
So it’s hard. It’s hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Especially here because Atlanta, of course, has a reputation of being a city that’s really … There’s a lot of prosperous black people here. A lot of affluent black people here, which is true. I totally don’t think I would’ve been able to accomplish what I was able to accomplish entrepreneurship wise in any other city but Atlanta because I had a lot of support from the black community here. But yeah, rents are getting more and more expensive. Everything is just more expensive. It’s tough to move here now and start out fresh than you could maybe even like 10 years ago because everything is just changing.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. I love Atlanta. Me and my wife, we have friends and … We don’t have any family but we would like to think of them as family. But we have a lot of people that we know in Atlanta and we love going there and it’s just a huge, huge city. People think Austin, they think, “Oh it’s such a cool city.” It’s a small … When you talk about footprint wise, the city is small. And Atlanta, you got like seven lane highways and I don’t even know why you have a speed limit. Let’s be honest, right?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true.

Russell Toynes:
Everybody, even the police, man, they’re out there 80 on the highway and it says 65, 55. You’re like, you can’t even legally go this limit. Yeah, and I love what y’all have done unlike Austin, right? What y’all have done with Ponce City Market, how you took an old building and instead of tearing it down like they would do in Austin, you utilized it and I know they’re not at all affordable in any way. But they used to utilize it for housing in a development instead of just tearing it down and creating something brand new, which is Austin’s mode of operations here.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, we have a couple of places like that in Atlanta. There’s Krog Street Market. There’s a couple other places probably further outside the perimeter but Atlanta is good for tearing shit down, too, and just starting anew. I tell people, because I used to work in the tourism industry here and I tell people Atlanta’s a city that every seven years tries to find a new identity. It tries to find like what’s the new thing that we can latch on to and really make our thing. Because I was working in the tourism industry from 2005 to 2007.

Maurice Cherry:
And so during that time Hurricane Katrina happened. But when I first started in 2005, Atlanta was really trying to distinguish itself from say, Orlando or Vegas or New York because people like to come to Atlanta. But the reasons that they like to come to Atlanta were not … How can I put this? Family friendly reasons for wanting to come. Like, they’ll go to Orlando because of Disney World, they’ll go to New York City because of the culture. But there was no distinguishing thing that people would come to Atlanta for. At least not ones that you would put on a tourism pamphlet.

Russell Toynes:
Other than the World of Coke and the aquarium.

Maurice Cherry:
Look, we didn’t even have the aquarium then. This was pre the aquarium, yeah. I was at the groundbreaking for the aquarium. But this was even before then, all we had was World of Coke. We had the zoo and Turner Fields. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of places, really. People came to Atlanta back then because, one, it carried over this reputation of being a party city from the 90s but you’ve got hip-hop, you’ve got all kinds of entertainment. You’ve got clubs. That’s why people came to Atlanta to have fun, to have a good time. But none of those things … They’re not going to put strippers on a pamphlet and have that at the airport. Is that a reason people would come? Sure. But that’s not one that the Atlanta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau would get behind because they’re trying to get-

Russell Toynes:
If Vegas can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well. But see, they’re trying to get multi-million dollar shows to come here. And we had a huge show pull out in 2005 called, Home Builders. Something happened with like, somebody said the wrong thing to somebody and this million dollar show pulled out of Atlanta. And then there was another big show, T.D. Jakes, the evangelist, the preacher. Yeah. He used to do this big thing called, MegaFest and he would bring it to Atlanta. And it was basically like a two week, I don’t know, MegaFest. I mean it had carnival rides, it had speakers and panels and all this sort of stuff and they pulled out, as well. And so Atlanta was like, “Well, we don’t have any reason for people to come here.” Because the other thing was these conventions would all be downtown and downtown is a ghost town after five o’clock.

Russell Toynes:
Yes, yes.

Maurice Cherry:
People commute downtown and then they leave and the only thing that’s really downtown at night are homeless folks. And so because of that, conventions didn’t feel like they wanted to have people down there because they were getting accosted by people on the street and they didn’t feel it was safe and everything. And so, one of the things that happened was the aquarium opened but then Hurricane Katrina happened and a lot of conventions had to relocate to Atlanta.

Maurice Cherry:
And so we had a big boom there for a while but then that died out as New Orleans tried to rebuild and conventions went back there. So then the Georgia Tourism Department basically worked with the state to get all these tax benefits for movies and television shows and studios and stuff to shoot here. So now that’s the big thing that Atlanta is for. Atlanta is like quote, unquote, “Black Hollywood.”

Russell Toynes:
I love it, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Because you have so many movies and shows and things that are here that people come and shoot for. I mean it’s rare now, well it used to be rare back then, but now it’s super common to watch a movie and be like, “Oh yeah, that’s in Atlanta.” Like I’ll watch Black Panther, that scene at the museum. I used to work at that museum selling tickets.

Russell Toynes:
That’s awesome. That’s awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
So, I’d look at stuff and be like, “Okay, that’s …” But even now that’s starting to die off because politics, now politicians here have certain views and then that goes against what the companies are here that are giving them … It’s a whole … Atlanta’s complicated, man. Really it’s Georgia, but Atlanta itself is a complicated blue dot in a very red state.

Russell Toynes:
That is, yeah, that is a whole message right there. Exactly. I mean, we’ve even talked about moving to Atlanta and they were like, “But it’s in Georgia,” you know? And I’m in Texas, so I can’t really say anything because both states are sitting in the same spot. But just like Atlanta, Austin is that blueberry in the tomato soup.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
But unfortunately, like you said, the politics of both states have gotten a bad reputation.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, if you’re in Atlanta, it’s so funny. I remember this from, oh, I know what the show is. It was, Sex and the City. And there’s this episode of, Sex and the City, where Carrie and Miranda are double dating these guys. And one of the guys says something about how he’s never left New York and Miranda’s like, “Oh, he’s a weirdo if he’s never left New York.” There’s people here that have moved to Atlanta and have never left Atlanta. They’ve stayed right in the perimeter or right in inside the metropolitan area because anything outside of here is deliverance. It’s a totally different thing, if you go an hour in any direction from the center of Atlanta, like good luck.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, it is strange also. But the thing is y’all can travel for three or four hours, maybe not safely, but you can travel for three or four hours and be in a whole other state. With us, it takes eight hours to get to El Paso.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That’s true.

Russell Toynes:
It’s like, you want to get to the coast, that’s a three hour trip. You want to get to Dallas, that’s a three and a half hour trip with no traffic. And so, Houston, same thing, three hours. And so everything just takes a long time and you’re still in the damn state.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So being from Austin and growing up there, were you exposed to a lot of design and everything growing up?

Russell Toynes:
Short answer, no. For me, designer was exclusive to jeans and fragrance. I didn’t know, no one ever told me. I think this just happens to being an 80’s kid. Having someone sit down and point to you in the library like, you see that crappy poster, somebody designed that. You see this book, someone designed it. No one ever did that, right? So you really only knew the jobs that you saw people do, you know? So my dad worked in restaurants and then basically did sales for Circuit City. That’s dating, right?

Russell Toynes:
My mom’s always been in insurance and then pretty much every single person I knew either worked for the post office or for some insurance company or had military history or just worked some random office job. So no one ever sat down with me, ever and said, you could be this. I was talking to my wife and I was like, “The first time I ever met somebody at a career fair or something,” and then that person was like, “This is what I do.” And then I said, “I want to do that.” The very first time that happened, I think I was in fourth grade and it was a lobbyist and I was like, “I want to do what they do.”

Russell Toynes:
I have no idea what was compelling about being a lobbyist. But I think it was the idea of convincing people, right? And so, no. No one ever told me. So design wasn’t ever presented to me. And it wasn’t until I realized when I went to school, that design is problem solving. And that’s all I have ever done as a kid, is I was that kid that woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a problem, right? With a problem that I manifested in my dreams and I had to find a solution. So I was constantly taking things apart, re-imagining things, putting things together, just making up shit for myself to do and I was always solving problems.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve always been a natural leader, too. I just managed to convince people to follow me in some direction. And thankfully I never started a cult but it probably wouldn’t been too hard for me. But I always had the knack of being a loner but having no problem getting followers, but never wanted to be a follower. So I was that kid that was cool with everybody, but really was kind of a loner in a way. Everyone knew me. I had lots of friends but I only let certain people in.

Russell Toynes:
So as a natural problem solver, I just found myself into lots of things, but no one ever gave me the design word to call it. And it wasn’t until my older brother graduated from school from ACC also with a design degree and a degree in politics, that I even understood that designers had software and they did things and it just wasn’t like … I don’t know, it wasn’t a word or it wasn’t painter, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you went to Austin Community College and you studied design and visual communications. How was that experience?

Russell Toynes:
Like a lot of black designers, I had a very unconventional journey into design. So as I mentioned, I didn’t know what design was. So my original entrepreneur efforts started when I was catching shoplifters for four years. And then my daughter was born and she needed round-the-clock care at home. So me and my wife had to decide who’s going to stay at home and take care of her and who’s going to go to work. And she had the better benefits so it was like, “Okay, I’ll stay at home and take care of her.”

Russell Toynes:
Well, money still needs to be had and so I always had aspirations to be a film director. So I started writing little films and things like that, but that doesn’t pay but I had the knowledge and understanding to cut video. And so I started out just cutting people’s home videos, taking people’s crappy home videos and removing all this stuff where mom left it on the table recording nothing and all that and just started doing that. And that led down to a very strange path to me working with lots of people, one being Vanilla Ice and-

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, random. So yeah, I did a really, really crappy music video for a friend. I did it for $6, too. That’s just how you helped your friends for back then. And so, and then a promoter for Vanilla Ice saw it … I’m embarrassed to say that. But saw it and then they called me up and they’re like, “We have a whole bunch of raw footage from a concert in ’99 or 2000.” They’re like, “Can you cut it and put it to DVD?” And I was like, “Yeah.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
And so that got things started. So that got me out of doing the home videos. And then that’s when people were like, “Oh, can you do a music video for me? Can you do that?” And I ended up working on a big project for Text Dots, a training video for them. And I saw the future of me being in this film video game but I had no education. I had no knowledge, I didn’t know anything about anything. I was just doing whatever, how it worked and it worked okay.

Russell Toynes:
But then in 2006, I guess it was 2005, I was working with a rapper and they were less than honest with the people who were giving them money. And then basically, I always tried to operate with contracts. And basically he was trying to get out of the contract and made it quite dramatic. I’ll spare you the details. But let’s just say that, I had to act less than professional because he was acting less than professional, you know [crosstalk 00:39:51]-

Maurice Cherry:
Got it, got it. No, no, I know what you mean.

Russell Toynes:
… when you get grown. And so, I was just like, “I’m done with this shit. I’m done with this shit” And I just woke up January 1st, 2006 and I was like, “I’m a designer. That’s it, that’s it.” I just put that shit out in the universe, right? And so, my older brother gave me a bootleg copy of CS2 and I just started working in Illustrator. I had already been designing DVD covers and things like that for the stuff that I had been doing, but I didn’t know anything about it. And so, but what was crazy was like I said, I have never had a problem getting people to follow me.

Russell Toynes:
I just told the world I was a designer and the world just said, “Okay,” and the world just like, “so can you do this for me? Can you do this for me?” And so I had a nice little nest of construction people and concrete people who were just like, they didn’t know anything about anything but they could just pay me and they’d get their carbonless forms and business cards and mailers and their trucks with vinyl on it and things like that.

Russell Toynes:
And I was doing the worst design on the planet and it was awful, but it was paying barely any of the bills I had. And I was just making it each day. But I thought I was balling, too, I got myself a little … This tells you the time, too. I got myself a little one room office on Burnett Road in central Austin for $250 a month. That’s all it cost.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Russell Toynes:
So I thought I was balling. I was like, I got an office and this and this. I didn’t need no office, I could have worked from home, but this was just my excuse to give myself the tools to feel like I have arrived. And then I started mentoring young people at LBJ and I had gone to LBJ Science Academy at the time. It was called Science Academy at the time. Now it’s called Liberal Arts and Science Academy. But I started mentoring young people there and they were learning Illustrator Photoshop in design all in one semester.

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, these damn kids are going to take my job. I got to get more education. So I went to ACC and I was 27-years-old. I had a five-year-old daughter at the time. I was divorced. And I just saw that I had a lot of passion, I had a lot of drive, but I had no education. And this just winging it was proving not … I wasn’t going to be able to sustain myself if I wanted to make a life for myself at all in design. So I went to school and that was the best damn decision I ever made in my life.

Maurice Cherry:
So after you went to school and you graduated, what was your early career like? You mentioned earlier, you had worked for Dell for quite a number of years.

Russell Toynes:
You know, I still freelanced while I was in school and I very much have always been a person to take advantage of every single opportunity. And I meet somebody and I’m like, if I want to work with them, I’m going to make them work with me. I just have the ability to just manifest a lot of what I want. And so for me, I stayed very involved in design and design community and everything. And I had a great, great portfolio professor who later became a mentor, Owen Hammonds and, yeah, still is a friend of mine. I mean, I call him my mentor. He says, we’re just friends.

Russell Toynes:
But I still see him as a huge, huge influence to me. I attribute almost all of my success to him and it was honored to have him in my wedding. It was an honor to have him in my life and call him a friend. And we’re both very, very busy, but whenever we get on the phone with each other or see each other, it’s just an honor. So, but yeah, he really took me under his wing. He was my portfolio professor at ACC and he just saw this hustler in me and he was like, “This dude’s going to do it.” And he just plugged me in and just stayed on me and never, never bullshitted me, never gassed me up, always pushed me to be better.

Russell Toynes:
And so right out of school … I’m sure you have them in Atlanta. I’m sure you’ve heard of them, like various talent head hunters, right? Like Aquent or Liaison Resources or the Creative Group and all of them. So Aquent had come to one of our classes and talked about, they’d find jobs for creatives and all this stuff like that. So I just graduated, I mean, literally the day we finished class. So I hadn’t even graduated yet, just the class was done. I just was on in the car driving. I just called them up and I was like, “Hey, heard you can get me a job.” And they were like, “Send me your portfolio.”

Russell Toynes:
And then the next day they called me in. They’re like, “Hey, let’s talk.” And they’re like, “We have these jobs.” And so I started interviewing for people and I interviewed at Dell and it took them a little bit of time to see my magic. But after four months, basically interviewing with them two or three times, I interviewed with them for lunches and all this stuff. And I was like, “You like me, I like you. Let’s do this,” right? Like dating. I got put on at Dell and I started out as a designer and worked my way up to senior designer, art director, senior art director.

Russell Toynes:
And really, I tell people I got my degree in Visual Communications at ACC, but I got my Masters in the Business of Design at Dell. I had an amazing creative director, Tommy Lynn, who really, really, really taught me a lot, gave me a lot of autonomy, really trusted me. And I still see him as a friend and a mentor, even now. And we’ve both been gone from Dell for many years, but I learned the business of design. I understood how to handle clients, how to give them the level of service that brings them back. And I know it sounds weird because I’m was on the brand team, so we only answered to the brand.

Russell Toynes:
We developed the brand, we evolved the brand, but we had internal clients who used our team to create resources that promoted Dell’s brand. So it would be a corporate responsibility team. It really wasn’t marketing, we didn’t do anything about selling product. It was about selling the brand as a whole. And so having both Owen Hammonds, having the education, helped me land Dell but Dell helped me really take this entrepreneurial energy that I’ve always possessed and really, really hone it into-

Russell Toynes:
… kind of possessed and really, really hone it into where my next step was, was, and I didn’t really realize that I wanted to go back to being an entrepreneur, but they set me up tremendously and gave me a fat paycheck to learn over the course of five and a half years. So I’m not going to complain about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, there you go. I mean, when you had your time there working at Dell and learning about the business of design, was that the impetus for you to start your own studio?

Russell Toynes:
No, honestly, no. I saw myself like everybody else. You go from one place, you do three to five years, then you go to another place. And honestly, I didn’t see myself going back into entrepreneurship, because I had never had a nine to five salary with benefits and all that. I had basically worked an hourly job until my daughter was born, and then basically just like hustled in the worst way possible to make crumbs doing video and design and whatnot. So when somebody was like, “Here, here’s a paycheck and here’s some benefits and here’s a lifestyle you’ve never had.” I just figured this is it. I’ve just landed the jackpot. But then over five and a half years, you start to realize there is a ceiling, and it depends on who your manager is. It depends on who your executive is, and you start realizing, people start leaving and you start wondering, am I the last ship… Sorry, am I the last rat on a sinking ship?

Russell Toynes:
And so all my team that I had been with over the five and a half years, only one other person was with me. And so we had watched like 20 people over the course of the time come in and out that it was just like, okay, the writing’s in the wall, you either going to be a lifer here or you got to find something else. It was really my wife who said… She’s always been my greatest supporter, and I had talked about owning a business and her father had sold his business and was kind of always envious of design and wanted to do something with me. And so I said, “Look, we’ll do something, but we’ll do it on my terms.” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” And so after basically I tried to bluff my executive at Dell to give me more money and to give me a promotion, basically I tried to bluff and be like, “Well, I’m going to have to go find something else.” And they were like, “Look…”

Russell Toynes:
So I was like, “Look, I just can’t blow smoke. I got to do this.” And so I left on September 7th. And I thought I was going to take the whole month of September off. And like two weeks later, started the laying the ground work for Studio Dzo. With my father-in-law and mine to be my partner, long story short, we realized quickly we cannot work together. My wife realized that before we realized that.

Russell Toynes:
And my wife was like, “Look, if… Because we were about to get married, she’s like, “If we’re going to get married. We can’t have this. I got to have a relationship with my father. I got to have a relationship with my husband. Y’all can’t be at each other’s throat.” We had very different mindsets of what this business was going to be. So we had a negotiation with him, had a conversation and we said, “It’s time for you to retire. Go and do your own thing.” And, and he’s a restless person anyway. So he had a software business. He’s now able to dedicate himself to that. And so he was with us for about the first seven months of Studio Dzo.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I mean, I guess you didn’t want it to be that much of a family business.

Russell Toynes:
He really wanted that. He only has girls. So he really wanted this family business with the son-in-law and all this stuff like that. And I think he had this idea, but in his head that he really wanted. But yeah, now it’s just me and my wife and it’s good. We have the same interests, both financially and the goal of the business. So we are in sync where if you have different people who have different lifestyles and different households, it gets complicated. It’s like, well, if you’re eating steak, I need to eat steak. Where it’s like now we got to afford two steaks, versus me and my wife having a steak kind of thing. And so, yeah, it’s really complicate when you have different households and the family business is obviously complicated, but me and my wife very much, we have professional backgrounds so we always operate very professionally, at least on camera.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those kind of early days like with the Studio?

Russell Toynes:
Oh man. So really it was… Like I said, I got the business of design from Dell, so I knew what I wanted, but it was scary. I’m not going to lie. But I knew that I had set myself up financially thanks to Dell that if I failed, I was going to fail quickly and I was just going to go and work some at some other place. So I knew what I wanted. And so thankfully I was aware that couldn’t do it all. So I had hired a friend of mine to help me develop the brand. I had hired a student of mine to just basically be like the hands of things. I had really just put people in the right places so that way I can focus on the development of the business. Thankfully, my wife had already been doing books for her father’s business and she’s an accountant, that’s her education in accounting.

Russell Toynes:
And so she does all things like money side. So she’s thankfully was able to do all of that. So all I had to do was basically sell and do the work and that’s kind of what I’m really, really good at. And so it was scary at first, but we also were a smaller team. I guess we were five at the time, but I just didn’t know what it was going to be. But honestly like people have just trusted us and I hate to kind of keep hitting it over the head with it, but I’ve never had a problem with getting people to follow us. So being able to sit down with somebody and tell them what we do and why we do it and why they should choose us wasn’t difficult.

Russell Toynes:
What was difficult was disrupting design business, design industry. So we’re designers who design signage, wayfinding, and physical experiences. But the problem with the sign industry is they’re like the bastard child of construction. So what typically happens is a developer gives their general contractor a budget for signage. And so the general contractor is just trying to find somebody to stick something’s up on the walls so that way they can get their certificate of occupancy. And so no one is ever talking about brand. No one’s ever talking about experience. No one’s talking about that. These sign shops, some of them, not all of them, are just trying to basically put a piece of acrylic with ADA beads on and in whatever default typeface they can in the cheapest way possible. It’s like a race to the bottom. It’s like everyone’s trying to be the Walmart of signs.

Russell Toynes:
And so I knew that I did not want to do that. And after listening to my father-in-law, who owned a sign company for like 20 years and he owned Sign Tech International, which at a time was like one of the biggest manufacturers in Texas. He was like, “No, no people, that’s not how it works. We design it. We sell it. We mark up the price and that’s how we get paid.” And I was like, “So what happens when you design it and then they go and take it to somebody else and they get a lower bid?” And he’s like, “Well, that just happens.” And I was like, “No, it doesn’t. Not here. It’s not going to happen here.” I was like, “We’re designers. We get paid to solve problems. We need to be paid or we’re not going to do this.” And he is like, “You’re not going to get people to pay for design before they see it.”

Russell Toynes:
And I was like, “Well, then we’re going to be out of business real quick.” That was the weird thing is going into people who are used to basically, “Well, show me something. And if I like it, I’ll buy it.” We’re going to walk through this together. We’re going to talk about your problems. We’re going to talk about opportunities. You’re going to pay me up front and then I’m going to show you what that is going to look like. And that’s like I said, me and my father-in-law butted heads quite a bit. It was over that, because he was like, “Oh, I’ve been working with this person for years. We don’t need to charge him for design.” I was like, “No, you’re setting a precedent with everybody if you do that.” So we would butt heads and that’s when he was like, “Maybe this isn’t good for us to be in business together.

Russell Toynes:
And that’s when I was like, “Let’s do it my way.” My wife was already on board and we now have, that’s all we do. That’s what we do. And people know us for that is that we solve our problems with design first. And then if you like what we design, and we’re all done with the design process, we’re going to give you a quote for fabrication, installation. But because you paid for that design process, you can take those files and share them with anybody else. You’ve already paid me for my work. This is now in your hands. So if you want to go out there and get a quote from somebody else, you can. No sweat off my back. I just keep it moving and go on to the next project. But if they do go with us, then we’ll fabricate and we have partners all around the world we fabricate with. And then we have partners both locally and all around to install.

Russell Toynes:
And 90% still go with us. I would say more than that. 95% stay with us to do the fabrication, installation process because we don’t cut corners. And so they know that if we spec this particular material, we spec this particular lighting temperature, whatever, that’s what’s going to be. It’s not going to get in the hands of somebody else that then chops it up to make more profit. And then gives them a subpar product. We don’t do that. And so we have no problem getting people to commit through the whole entire process, but we put those breaks, because some people have to get multiple bids. Some people think that they’re not getting the best deal. And we tell people, we will never be the cheapest, but we’re the best, is what I say.

Russell Toynes:
We do good work. That’s our motto. We do good work for good people with good people. And so first and foremost is that, like I said, I don’t work for anybody. I work with people. We call all of our clients partners because I pick and choose who I want to work with. If they’re not a good person, we don’t work with them. And there’s been times where I’ve had to dig in on somebody just for a second, like they call us up and want to work with us. I Google everybody, and if I find anything that doesn’t agree with our values, I just say, “Hey, I don’t think it’s a good fit.”

Russell Toynes:
Because we believe that everyone should be treated equitably, fairly, and that this world is unfair and we’re not going to contribute to that in any way possible. We want to support all those, especially those who are not supported. We want to support the weirdos, the people who are aren’t typically accepted. And we want to support obviously our black community, our underrepresented community. And so we do a lot to make sure that our good work extends beyond what actually earns us money, but also we do a lot of work with nonprofits and we donate a lot of hours and times to people in organizations.

Maurice Cherry:
And I have to say one of the best things about having your own business is running it exactly how you want it. Like if it’s a bad client experience, you don’t have to work with them. You can fire the client. Or if you have a certain intake process where you know exactly the kind of people you want to work with, that’s the best part. That was the best part back when I had my studio of really picking and choosing the clients that you want to have, knowing that just because any work comes across your desk, you don’t have to take it if it doesn’t feel good.

Russell Toynes:
That’s the freedom. And that’s what I tell people is that I left Dell to have that freedom. And a lot of people think freelance comes with freedom. I say, there’s nothing free about freelancing at all. You have to decide, do I want this money or do I not want this money? And for us we’re not dollar driven. As long as we’re able to pay all of our team members and pay ourselves a salary that we have dedicated, that’s it. Anything extra’s great, and we really typically roll it into the business one way or the other, but I don’t want to have to say yes to every project and know that it’s bad work, but it’s paying the bills.

Russell Toynes:
And so I’m a firm believer that just like free work leads to more free work, same thing with bad work. Crap work leads to more crap work. And so if it’s not a right fit for us, the project’s not a right fit. If the timeline… That’s the biggest thing is some people just don’t understand the process and the timeline. And if they don’t want to adhere to our process and respect our process, that’s a big red flag. So exactly, being able to pick and choose who you work with is really the reward for owning the business. The rest of it’s still work. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s work. It’s not called fun.

Maurice Cherry:
But the best thing you can do though, because you know it’s still work is at least shape your own ideal work conditions.

Russell Toynes:
Exactly, exactly. And that’s the thing too like I said about what I learned about Dell is, I had a great creative director who taught us the work life balance. And I will say that Dell actually has a really good work life balance throughout the entire company. So never did I feel like I had to be… I was on the edge of burnout or anything like that. When it was weekends, no one called you. When it was holidays, no one called you. You didn’t get woken up in the middle of the night having to do this or that. So there was a really good work life balance. So I knew I did not want to take that away from myself. And I didn’t want to create an environment where my team felt that way. We offer 27 plus paid holidays to all of our team members. Doesn’t matter if they’re part-time or not. We just went through the holidays today or yesterday, they get two weeks off at the end of the year. I’m like, “I’m paying them for two weeks?”

Russell Toynes:
But we want them, and that’s on top of their PTO too. They get two weeks PTO on top of the 27 holidays and for us, and then they still have the get it done model. So if they want to travel somewhere and work three days and then be off for two days, then they only use two days PTO. And so for us, we really just want them to have a reason to be with us. And that do good work motto is really what it’s all about is that we want them to do good work, but we have to do good work by them. And we have to treat them fairly. We have to give them a reasonable salary. I can’t compete with the Googles and the Apples and these people who are throwing stupid money at all these people.

Russell Toynes:
I can’t compete with that. We’re a small business. But what I can say is I can give you a work life balance that’s fair, treat you like a human being. You’re going to speak with another human being who’s also a father, who’s also a husband, who’s also an educator, who’s going to understand what you’re going through, and we’re going to make a compromise. If you got to take some days off, let’s figure out what it’s going to work. If something’s got to be moved around, let’s figure out how to make it work, so that way you can be efficient and we can be efficient.

Maurice Cherry:
With Studio Dzo, I mean, of course, clearly you’re doing a ton of great work, but you also do a lot of community work as well. And one organization that you work with is one that our listeners, I’m sure, know about. They’re probably members of it. And that’s AAGD, which is African American Graphic Designers. Tell me about that. How’d you get involved with them?

Russell Toynes:
So it’s funny. So [Owen Hammonds 01:00:55] had kind of twisted my arm. So I’m a designer, I’m not an artist. And I make that very, very clear. I don’t express myself through art or at least through design. I don’t. I doodle, I do some things to be creative, but I’m not an artist. But Owen kind of put me up to this challenge. They were doing a gallery thing at [St. Ed’s 01:01:16], and he kind of said, “Hey Russ, I want you to participate.” And like I said, he’s a mentor of mine, so anything he asked me to do, I’m going to say yes. So he was like, “This is a self-portrait gallery and you have to basically draw or create an image of yourself.” And it was like the worst project ever for me to have to do.

Russell Toynes:
So in there, we’re presenting our work at the end and it’s a gallery opening and everything. And [Terrance Moline 01:01:42] was also part of that gallery. And so I hear him talking and he’s from New Orleans and he tells a little bit about his story and all that. I, like I said, I’m kind of a person who just says, I’m going to make this happen. I immediately looked at him and I was like, We’re going to be friends.” I’m going to make this man my friend. And so I introduced myself and he told me a little bit about AAGD, I think we followed each other on LinkedIn or on Facebook or something like that. And then we just kind of bumped into each other a little bit off and on. And I was really, really interested. And I think I pinged him a couple times about it and asked him about it.

Russell Toynes:
He had had the Facebook group for a couple years. I think 2006 is when he started it, maybe. Katrina forced him to move to Austin. So he had had it for a while, but it was just like a social thing. It was just a community based thing that was more about sharing the work. But he had visions of it being kind of a business model, but didn’t really know where it was going to go. So I guess probably 2019, he really started doubling down on it being a business model and creating more benefits for its members in exchange for a membership fee. And so pandemic hit early 2020, and I don’t know how we kicked off, but we just like, we hit the ground running. He was just like, “Hey, you’ve been really involved in AAGD like with me, I’d love for you to look over some of this stuff and just tell me what would you do?”

Russell Toynes:
And I had been involved in AIGA, quite a bit. I was the vice president. Owen Hammonds being the president at the time, too, when I was vice president. I had kind of understood like basically AAGD is kind of like a black AIGA. So I understood what was working for AIGA, also what wasn’t working for AIGA, and what I saw could be an opportunity for AAGD. So we just kind of like together just worked on how do we build this out to be a membership model. So another core member is [Dave McClinton 01:03:40]. And me and Dave met at that gallery too. And I looked at Dave and I was like, “We’re going to be friends,” too. So Dave got really involved. So it was just one of those things, like these two gentlemen that I met one night, and I said, “I want to be friends with them,” fast forward a couple years here we are we meet every Tuesday. We joke around. We hang out, and it’s just it’s an absolute honor to call these very, very talented, passionate creatives friends of mine.

Russell Toynes:
But then meeting all the people through AAGD, that I’ve met, it’s just amazing. It started up with just the need to create community for himself because transplant from New Orleans to Austin, not finding the black community that he had New Orleans wanting to find those, he needed to find it online. Now to this international organization that the one thing that we have in common is that we’re all black in some varying degree and that we are all creatives. And the creativity spans from film, digital UX UI, all across the board. And just as a design educator and as a person with my experience, I am constantly sharing my knowledge about both the business of design and then also helping them empower them with the confidence to charge more or to get contracts or to understand this idea of freelancing sounds great, but you have to set goals or you’re just going to work yourself to death.

Russell Toynes:
You got to set a salary. You got to tell yourself this is how much money I want to make. And then divide that up by 12 and then divide that up by a day and figure out how much money you got to make every single day to make that salary. So a lot of people don’t understand that right off the bat when they’re like, “I want to be an entrepreneur.” And then unfortunately too, a lot of black creatives don’t see themselves in the work space. And so they think entrepreneurship is the only path for them, because they’ve never seen anybody like them at a major creative agency. And so, a lot of them have no understanding of the business of design, because they’ve never worked at a agency, they’ve only done it freelance, they’ve only done it their own way.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to meet them where they’re at and share with them both my experience from Dell, but so my experience as a owner of Studio Dzo, and just try to tell them, if you are finding these challenges, these are some of the solutions. So AAGD has been a great endeavor of Terrance’s and I’m just honored to be trusted with some of it.

Maurice Cherry:
And so kind of bring it back to education, we sort of alluded to this before we started of recording the interview, but you’ve talked about being a design educator. You also now teach at where you learned design, which was at Austin Community College, that you’ve kind of had this full circle moment. Talk to me about that.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah. So really, again, I’m no stranger to anything. My whole life has just been like this one long story of, surely you’re going to be a designer, but I have always taught in some capacity. So while I was freelancing back in like 2005, I needed additional income because freelancing wasn’t doing it. And so I started working with an organization called No Kidding, Straight Talk from Teen Parents, which was funded by the Attorney General’s Office, which was a nonprofit organization that basically utilized the stories of teen parents to use a teaching tool for middle school and high school students. And so I technically didn’t fall under the category of teen parent. I was 20 years old when my daughter was born, but we had a very unique story. My daughter needed lots of medical care. And so my story was unique in the sense of as much as you thought you had everything planned, plan for the unexpected.

Russell Toynes:
And so I go to middle schools and high schools and give presentations and talk and that ended up putting me on national stage at the National Child Support Conference. So I’ve always had presentation and teaching opportunities. And then while I was in school to supplement my income, I used to teach defensive driving. So I tell people, if you can take a room people and for six hours and make them enjoy it, you could do anything. Because they don’t even want to be there. They bought tickets to a show they don’t even want to be at. But everything I do, I do 113%. That’s my motto. And so no matter teaching defensive driving or talking to young people, I just pour my heart into it, because I’m just kind of one of those people that just, I can’t half-ass anything.

Russell Toynes:
And so it was just only natural for me to see myself as a design educator, but really what it was, and I attribute this 100%, was Owen Hammonds. To see another black man teach and to be passionate and understanding at the same time, but also pull no punches and really give it to you straight and push people to be the best designer they can be. He gave me that vision of like, “I could do this.” And so I made it my goal after starting at Dell, I said, “In five years, I want to teach,” like that’s my next rung. And it only took me three years later after saying that, that I started teaching. So I started teaching in 2015, I think, 2015. I’m like, man, we’re going up on seven years now. I can’t bel-

Russell Toynes:
Man, we’re coming up on seven years now, and just I can’t believe it’s, yeah, 2015, I started teaching, and I started teaching Portfolio. I have been teaching Portfolio for seven years.

Russell Toynes:
I started a new course because I was finding that my students had no knowledge, including myself. When I left school, when I graduated, I started at Dell, I never knew what a project manager did. I thought they were just like the pretty people who sold our designs. I didn’t know what they did.

Russell Toynes:
Then when you get an amazing project manager who has your back and is that buffer between you and the client and really helps elevate your design and keeps you on track, but keeps them focused and not, “Oh, I want to see this. I want to see that.” When you have a really good project manager, it just changes your life as a designer. So at Dell, I had the whole kit and caboodle. I had great project managers, and I had terrible project managers at various times.

Russell Toynes:
So I was finding that my students were getting into Portfolio, which is a capstone class. They graduate after my class with no knowledge that there were other roles other than designer and creative director. For some reason, they all know creative director, but they didn’t know like associate creative director, senior art director, art director, senior designer, junior designer, production designer. They didn’t know anything about those. Those roles didn’t even pop up in their heads.

Russell Toynes:
So I had basically harassed my department chair that I’m, like, these students have no idea the various areas of design that they could find themselves in, and a lot of the project managers, the best project managers I ever worked with, all had degrees in design. They just didn’t have either the passion or the skills to hack it, but they understood design, which makes a really great project manager.

Russell Toynes:
So along with Rachel Wyatt, colleague of mine, we wrote this course called Studio, Design Studio. Basically, it’s a simulation course where students come in, and they play the role of a project manager, or an art director, or senior designer or creative director, or something like that. They change roles throughout the course, but it gives them a real-life experience. Then they have three projects over the course of that semester, and all those clients are real clients so they have to deal with somebody not liking their work. It’s not about the grade. It’s about did you solve the problem? Did you meet your client’s expectations?

Russell Toynes:
I remember the first time I taught that class was 2020. We wrote this course during the pandemic, and we delivered it in the fall of 2020. I had two teams. I have eight students, and I had two teams of four. One had their presentation buckled up, and it was right and tight, and they knocked their socks off. Then the other team, they just couldn’t get their shit together. They presented, and it was just falling apart and everything, and it was all over.

Russell Toynes:
I meet with them, the teams, and I was like, “How are you feeling?” And they’re like, “Shit, this is an awful feeling.” I was like, “Remember that.” I was like, “Get your shit together, get it right and tight. When you’re presenting in front of a client, this is the opportunity for you to sell your design. This is everything. You’re building trust and all that.”

Russell Toynes:
So this course is really doing what it’s designed to do is to give them that experience. That way, when they go out and get their first job at an agency or at a studio, these roles, these requirements, these things that they’re going to be asked of aren’t foreign to them that they’ve like, “Oh, I presented my work.”

Russell Toynes:
Because a lot of designers aren’t forced to present and sell their work. They just hand it to a project manager or to a creative director. They don’t actually get to engage with the client and be able to talk of about and articulate their design thinking. Instead, they’re just like, “Do you like it or do you not?”

Russell Toynes:
So I explained to my students like, “You have to be able to sell your work,” and so by the time they get to Portfolio, they’re able to talk about their work in a much better way because of that Studio class. Now we have Studio One and Studio Two, which just is kind of a repeat, but just more responsibility and more expectations.

Maurice Cherry:
What do your students teach you?

Russell Toynes:
Man, patience. But, honestly, like I tell them, I get paid to learn from them. They teach me more than I could ever teach them.

Russell Toynes:
What I’ve realized more than anything is that we often only see life through our own lenses, and you asked me how did I get started in design? Did I know about designing? I didn’t. To this day, I meet people in 2022, who they’re the first person in their family to pursue a creative career or got college degree, and so I meet so many people from so different backgrounds.

Russell Toynes:
I’ve had students as young as 19 and as old as 65, and what I’ve realized more than anything is that age, experience, life experience makes you a better designer. You can be these 30 under 30s, or these kids that are just like designing the heck out of stuff and are just killing it, and these young guns, and I think there’s like a whole young guns thing or whatever. I can appreciate that.

Russell Toynes:
But if you just haven’t seen enough design solutions, if you just haven’t been around the world enough, no matter how talented you are with the software, you just can’t be a great design problem-solver without that time. You’ll get better every single day, but it’s the people who are older in that sweet spot of like their late 20s, early 30s, early 40s, new collars who are going back to school that I’m starting to find out they have just enough life experience, they’ve seen just enough shit to say, “I don’t want it to be like that.”

Russell Toynes:
But also I’ve learned quite a bit from them of just the resilience. I’ve had students who school was the only safe spot for them. When they went home, they had to deal with outside real-world problems, whether it be addiction, whether it be homelessness, whether it be a number of things and school was a place for them.

Russell Toynes:
So it really taught me to kind of understand that we are all coming from different places, but we all have the same goal, and that is to be financially independent, hopefully, but to pursue a career in a very scary, scary realm where I tell my students, “You have the greatest job in the world. We get to create something that never existed, and we get to solve problems.”

Russell Toynes:
But it’s scary to pick a career where it’s like, “I’m going to do something where every single day I’m going to be judged, judged by people who have no education in this, judged by the masses.” That’s scary as hell, especially if you’re an artist who’s trying to pursue design.

Russell Toynes:
I tell them what makes me feel comfortable as a designer and not an artist is that I can objectively defend all of my work and all of my design decisions. That’s kind of my security blanket is that as long as I know why we did this, as long as I know the problems that we’re solving, I can defend that all day long, but it’s the subjective. It’s the stuff that just because I like it, because it feels good, because it’s me, because of this stuff, that’s the stuff that’s hard because it’s just judgment, and you have to accept that somebody just doesn’t like it.

Russell Toynes:
So I try to help them kind of create a bigger gap between those things and I said, “If you don’t want people judging your art, don’t put your art into your design.” Leave that for the special people that you choose to share that with, but use your design as a tool and do your problem-solving objectively. Then if you want to add a bit of your spice on it, do that, but understand that they may not like it.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a word. That’s a word right there, that last part. I hope people caught that about if you don’t want to be judged for your… What’d you say? Say that again?

Russell Toynes:
Judged for your art, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I think that’s the thing. I mean, I don’t know about you, but a lot of people get into design because someone told them that you’ll never make a career out of being an artist, and so they hear the word design and they think that. So I got a lot of artists in front of me every semester, and I’m like, “Separate your art from your design.” So that way you can be a better designer, and you don’t have to worry about changing who you are as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
Something that I think I realized kind of early on with my studio was that a lot of designers design for other designers. Like, they’re not necessarily designing for the client. They’re designing because they want to be featured on Brand New, or Under Consideration, or something. Like, they’re designing for awards. They’re designing for accolades for their peers when the client may hate it.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, I’ve seen, oh, God, I remember, especially in like the late 2000s, there was so much design that was just the client hated it, but I did blank doing these kind of wild out-of-the-box stuff. And yeah, if it’s not in service of the client and that’s what the actual thing was for, like, yeah, it is arts that you’re kind of trying to put out there and then you’re putting this design sheen over it in that sort of way.

Maurice Cherry:
But that’s a word right there. When that clicked for me, that’s when like, honestly, the business and the work just became so much easier because it’s like just design for what the client is looking for. It may not look the best, but then that client is going to keep hiring you, and you’re going to keep getting paid, and your studio is going to stay in business so you kind of have to like… It’s a compromise in a way. I mean, I think once you get that relationship working, you can then sort of add a little something here and there, but it’s tricky. But that’s a real word right there about judging.

Russell Toynes:
I mean, you hit it on the head. Designers, especially in school, start designing for the approval of their peers, and they want to get these awards. They want to get recognized in design community, and at what cost? At the cost of, like you said, the clients or the vision?

Russell Toynes:
Sometimes if you’ve ever had to do something like wedding invitations, doing your own wedding invitations is the hardest damned thing. I went through like a whole existential mental breakdown designing my own wedding invitations because I started designing them, thinking about all my design friends that were going to be at the wedding, and what are they going to say when they get this in the mail, and you start really questioning yourself. I had to stop for a moment and just realize, “You’re designing it for you and your wife on this moment and this day. This is what you’re capturing. You’re not trying to get the approval of somebody else.”

Russell Toynes:
But you’re exactly right, and the problem with that is, is that if you forget who’s paying you. It’s not in that way of like, “I’m going to do bad work because this person’s writing me a check,” is “Are you solving their problems?” If you’re not going to bat for them and you’re only going to bat for yourself, then it’s art, and you’re doing it only for you. It’s selfish, and you’re asking them to pay you to do something that makes you feel good at a disservice to them.

Russell Toynes:
So, first and foremost, you have to serve. Like I tell people all the time, design is a service. Just like waiting tables, just like anything, we have a duty to serve them with the best solution possible, and sometimes it’s telling them that they shouldn’t have something.

Russell Toynes:
I give the analogy, forgive me for the crude analogy, but it just works, I tell people if you owned a restaurant and someone came to you and said, “I want a shit sandwich,” you wouldn’t serve them a shit sandwich. Not because you don’t make shit sandwiches. It’s because that if they ate a shit sandwich and you know it’s going to taste bad, they’re going to tell all their friends that you served them a shit sandwich and what people won’t know is that they asked for that.

Russell Toynes:
So the same thing goes with design is that if your client ask you for something that you know isn’t going to solve the problem, but you just give it to them, they’re going to blame you for when that problem still is there, and you just took their money. Where if you sit down with them and you say, “Hey, let’s go back real quick. Are you hungry?” And they go, “Yeah.” “Well, we serve a lot of other things. Have you tried this?”

Russell Toynes:
So I try to always reiterate to my students and my team and to anybody that we, as designers, have a duty to serve our clients, first and foremost, and to solve their problems. Sometimes that means pushing back on them and some of the design decisions that they want, and then sometimes it’s swallowing our own pride and realizing maybe this isn’t what we want it to be, but it still does solve the problem and in a different way.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look at where you’re at now in life with the studio and everything, is this how you imagine your life would look like when you were a kid?

Russell Toynes:
No, it’s way better. I am making 13, 14, 15-year-old Russell just, I mean, I’m just killing it. Like, 13-year-old Russell is like, “Dude, who are you? Who are you?” And I never would’ve saw this life for myself because I never saw it, to be honest. We grew up in a middle class-ish household, played with financial illiteracy and a lot of things that unfortunate that I never saw anybody doing the things that I do, living the life that I live so I couldn’t even have imagined it.

Russell Toynes:
So to look at where I’m at now… My nephew, today is his 13th birthday.I called him up and I said, “You remember what I told you when you were little, I said what happens when you turn 13?” And he goes, “I get to go to Disney World?” I said, “Yeah,” and he’s like, “You remember that?” I was like, “Yeah. You think I was just bullshitting?” I was like, “You know what I mean when you can talk about it, you can be about it.” I was like, “Yeah. It’s still pandemic right now so we got to figure out a date when we all feel comfortable.” I said, “But, yeah, you’re going to Disney World.”

Russell Toynes:
The fact that I can do that for my nephew and the fact that I can take my daughter and my wife and… We just went to Hawaii, and I took my whole family, 10 of us to Hawaii, and me and my wife, we were very appreciative of all the work that we have done and all the support of our family to be able to do this for them. The life that I live now and the team that I have and the work that I’ve done and the amazing people that I’ve met and the opportunity to teach and the opportunity to get up every day and create something new, I could have never imagined it, and I am so very thankful.

Russell Toynes:
I honestly attribute it all to design. Design, literally, saved my life and made my life. Like I said in the very beginning, going to school at ACC, literally, was the best decision I ever made. It set the trajectory of my life and set so many things in motion that, had I’d never gone to ACC, had I’ve not had the people in front of me and had the mentors and the educators in front of me, I would’ve never gotten to where I’m at now. So yes, in short, no, I would’ve never been able to imagine this life and, yes, design, I give all of it to.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing either through the studio, or personally, or anything like that?

Russell Toynes:
I mean, I don’t want to work, but I have plans and, hopefully… I love teaching. I really do. I think that I’m a natural educator and a sharer of information and experience, and so I hope to continue teaching on a wider scale.

Russell Toynes:
I mentor a few people now, and I’ve toyed around with the idea of professionally mentoring and offering those services on a regular basis. Right now, my mentees, I feel weird taking money from them so they just pay for my coffee. So I’m like, now it’s pandemic so they just send me… they’ve been owing me money for coffee.

Russell Toynes:
But I think that I have a lot to share with young professionals and budding entrepreneurs. I mean, designers, I think that through a longer relationship, a mentor relationship that I can help really guide people who might feel like they haven’t received the education and knowledge of the business of design and where to go and how to capitalize on opportunities.

Russell Toynes:
Then with the studio, as we were kind of talking about this kind of international work model, me and my wife have goals of finding a place that’s a little less tumultuous for people of color. Where that place is on earth, I’m not quite sure. I don’t think we found Wakanda yet, but we don’t know if the United States is necessarily our forever home. But our goal would be to really take our business global, honestly, so wherever we end up being, creating a team there, a local team there that would continue to do the work that we are doing and then have our current Studio Dzo team basically lead that team.

Russell Toynes:
So that would be less of a requirement of me and Elizabeth on our day-to-day, and then take this very seasoned team that has been with us for five years and turn them into leaders to guide maybe this international team to create the good work that we’ve been known to do. So that’s where I hope to see ourselves in five years is where I have five or six other people somewhere else in the world who Zoom in with my team here, and we’re just cranking out the same good work, both night and day. One team’s working while the other one’s sleeping.

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

Russell Toynes:
Well, you can always find us at studiodzo.com. That’s studio, D as in dog, Z as in zebra, O as in Oscar, the D is silent, and you can find us on Instagram, studiodzo.

Russell Toynes:
You can follow me on Instagram, Russell Toynes, that’s Russell, two SSs and two Ls, never trust a one L Russell, and you can follow me on LinkedIn.

Russell Toynes:
Please, please, please check out aagd.co and see all the good work that we’re doing for our community there.

Russell Toynes:
Check out Austin Community College also. I know community colleges get a bad rap, but I have personally hired more designers from ACC than any other school from UT, from Texas State, from St. Ed’s. ACC, hands down, has a better design program and the designers come out stronger. So if you’re curious about that, if you’re looking to change careers, ACC might be an opportunity for anybody who’s local to the Austin area.

Russell Toynes:
Yeah, Russell Toynes, T-O-Y-N-E-S. There’s only a few of us out there. So if you just Google that last name, you’ll be sure to find me.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Well, Russell Toynes, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, I’ve heard of you for years. I probably didn’t mention that before we started recording, but I’ve heard about you for years, just like you were saying, my name has been kind of bandied about in the design community. I’ve heard about you for years. I was really excited to do this interview and really just kind of hearing your story, hearing your passion for design, and really even just your passion for just giving back to the community that has given so much to you is just super inspiring.

Maurice Cherry:
So I hope people, when they listen to this, they really can kind of feel where your passion comes from with this, and also see how they can maybe pay it forward in their own communities as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Russell Toynes:
Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it, Maurice.

Omari Souza

February is our anniversary month, and we’re kicking things off with an interview with design educator and researcher Omari Souza. Longtime listeners of the show may remember Omari’s first appearance on Revision Path back in 2017, and let me tell you, a lot has changed in four years!

We start off talking about Omari’s latest venture, the State of Black Design conference, and he went into the ins and outs of organizing it, and even gave a sneak peek on what to expect from this year’s event. He also spoke about teaching at Texas State University, his latest research focus, and the state of design education and how he’s grown as a designer. Revision Path is proud to work with State of Black Design, so you can definitely expect to see more of Omari’s contributions in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Omari Souza:
Hey everybody. My name is Omari Souza. I am a professor of design and design research at Texas State University. And I also organized the State of Black Design conference.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve been on the show before the first time you came on the show was back in 2017. How’s the year been going for you so far? This is 2022.

Omari Souza:
Man. To be completely honest with you with being in the middle of COVID these past three years all feel like one extended year. So it doesn’t even feel like I’ve started a new year yet. It just feels like I’m still ending 2019.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I guess it all has blurred together. I was online earlier today and I saw where people were making these comparisons, like January 2020 to January 2022, like how people were first starting to talk about the coronavirus and all that sort of stuff. But it does feel that way. I know a lot of folks now that are just trying to get their bearings so far. At the beginning of the year.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. That’s exactly what it feels like. It’s just being up and down, well, being up and down in terms of figuring out how you’re maneuvering through COVID and educating and working. Whether you’re at home whether you’re allowed to wear a mask or not wear a mask based off of how the population is doing with COVID at the moment, it’s all pretty tough.

Omari Souza:
And granted, I say that living in Texas, I know in some other cities and states that have taken it far more serious in the state that I’m in, things have been a bit more constant in terms of mask wearing and some of those other things, but it’s been a lot to adapt to.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And I know you’ve got a lot on your plate now because you’re also organizing an event while you’re doing all of this. You’re organizing this year’s State of Black Design, which begins next month. Tell me about how this event started and where you got the idea for it from.

Omari Souza:
It started in a lot of places in all honesty. I normally tell people that it started as a response to the George Floyd murder. There was a lot of civil unrest at the time and a lot of people wanted to have these conversations about race and the intersectionality of race with practice, regardless of what that practice was.

Omari Souza:
But also at that same time period and before there were a lot of designers in the BIPOC community that felt that they weren’t being represented at the majority of design related conferences. Whether it be HOW, or HOW Conference or several others, you would look at entire like 20, 30 person lineups, and maybe not see any person of color in that lineup, or maybe one or two, when in reality there was so much talent out there doing so much amazing things.

Omari Souza:
So this moment after George Floyd’s murder ended up being this huge boiling pot of emotion, a lot of the designers feeling like they didn’t have a space to be heard or to be seen, or that their contributions to the industry and to the field weren’t being recognized or appreciated. And there being this overall desire to learn more about how race is impacting these different pockets of society. So initial, I took that as an opportunity to hold something on my campus.

Omari Souza:
So what I thought was going to be on my campus, I created an Eventbrite page, hired a student to do some of the marketing material for us and anticipated we may only get a 100, 200 students that attended our program. Low and behold, we ended up getting roughly 4,000 people who registered for the event. And we’ve just been continuing since after realizing that there was a demand and really a need to have some of these conversations that weren’t happening prior.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting about… Well, one, I guess the timing of all this came about in an interesting way, because one, it did, as you said happen, because you were hearing from so many people that there’s a lack of events around Black designers. And then of course the summer of 2020 was this big racial reckoning, so to speak, which I guess for a lot of people activated them into doing something and for you, this was one of those things.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. And it really felt nerve wracking but gratifying is actually put together. You were one of the folks that actually came out and spoke with the initial one. And wanted to make sure I take my time to thank you for that, because I know that you’re super busy and you sacrificed your time to speak at the events. But one thing that we all spoke about afterwards was the response that we got on Twitter from it.

Omari Souza:
There were studios that tuned in live and actually created visual graphics of what was being discussed. There were people that tweeted and sent personal messages about how they never felt so seen or heard in the field itself. There was just such heartwarming messages that were coming in response to this at a time period where there was so much anger and anguish. So it felt really good to put that together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I remember seeing, I know Webflow was one company that did these sketch notes right along with it. And for those that are interested the 2020 event, I think it’s on YouTube, right?

Omari Souza:
Yeah. It’s on YouTube.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And it was myself, it was Renee Reed, a couple other folks who had been on the Revision Path Podcast, but that was a really great event. It was just this one day thing that we all came together and spoke and it was a lot of fun. And I’m glad to see that you got that kind of feedback from it.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I needed that as well. Timothy Brad Levis who’s also been on the show, spoke with me before programming, before I began planning the second event and he said to me planning a conference you typically do it in four stages. The first stage is, oh my God, I’m so excited. I can’t wait to do this second stage. Oh man, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be.

Omari Souza:
The third stage is I can’t believe I agreed to do this. I’m never doing this again. What was I thinking? Then the fourth stage, once you start getting the response says, “You know what? It wasn’t that bad. I can do that again.” All the positive messages that I got at the time period, put the battery in my back to be able to do it again, the following year.

Maurice Cherry:
So given the popularity of the 2020 event, what can we expect from state of State of Black Design this year? Because you’re putting it on again.

Omari Souza:
So there are a couple of things that I am trying to do differently that I think people can be really excited about. The initial event was really my attempt to give people a space and a platform and not necessarily do so in a manner that felt control or contrived. I really wanted everyone to be able to speak their truth and talk in a way that other conferences haven’t allowed them to.

Omari Souza:
And I think that was a part of the success of the initial event. The sheer rawness of some of the discussions, the second event was really making an attempt to continue that on. But part of the response that I was getting was really from companies that were trying to figure out how do we then create this pipeline for designers of color, into industry that we are struggling to fund. So I used this event as a mechanism to create this pipeline.

Omari Souza:
I was going to use donations and sponsorships to keep the cost of the event free to students, but then leverage that money to pay our speakers as well as make attempts, to offer scholarships to students that are studying design as well. So for this event, the conversation that I had with a number of the sponsors and stakeholders was really along the lines of what are some of the areas that our participants can be best served going forward.

Omari Souza:
And one of the things we talked about is it’s great to have these avenues open up where they can interview then IBM, if they’d like to, or an Argodesign or materials or PayPal, Adobe, and everyone else that sponsored the event. However, especially considering that a lot of these participants are coming from programs that may not have the funding to give the same level of education within design and some other institutions or some folks are participating that are self-taught, it would be amazing to give some professional development opportunities.

Omari Souza:
So this year I’ve been speaking to a lot of folks about hosting workshops in order to teach the people that are tuning in some new skill sets that they can use to improve their portfolios or to add new weapons to their utility belt. When not to make a comic book fund to improve their skill sets on a day to day basis, something else that they can pull on to solve complex problems. Additionally, we’re speaking about hosting projects that can be worked on with particular employers to gain exposure to what particular assignments are like.

Omari Souza:
So not only can you interview, let’s say for example, with an NBC Universal, whom will also be a sponsor of the events, but they will also be giving competitions where you can design a movie poster for a film that doesn’t exist, but it then becomes an opportunity for you to engage with art directors in this particular industry and talk about potential internships or ways that you can improve that work. We’re also making steps to expand our target base.

Omari Souza:
And we’re beginning to invite and have additional programming for high school juniors and seniors. So if you are getting ready to go into a college and your visual creative in your high school, K through 12 education, which you don’t know what a career will look like as a designer. How to begin it, how to start searching for a community on campus or even the right campus or program to go to. We’re beginning this process of attempting to educate some of those students as well, to try to set folks up for the success that they’re looking for.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like this expanding almost into this career fair. I mean, of course there’s going to be the different talks and stuff, but you’re doing also a lot around making sure students are set up with interviews and other opportunities to network with companies.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I really want… I’m sorry. I’m backtracking. After the initial event, there were a lot of companies that, as I mentioned prior that were looking to find ways to diversify their workforce. And if that’s a discussion that they’re having, I want to be able to bring people to them, especially when a lot of the participants of these events are also saying that they would love to work for some of these fortune 500 companies.

Omari Souza:
However, I also want to make sure that I’m providing an avenue by which they can continue to improve the skillsets that they have in between this, the attending our conferences and in between their potential interviews for one position to the other. So, my hope is if a student who begins to attend from their junior year of high school takes advantage of some of the workshops that are there.

Omari Souza:
If they continues to attend these workshops and listen to these panels and interview with these companies that have been sponsoring their exposure and the connections that they would’ve made by the time they’ve graduated would put them further ahead than it would have if they’ve never attended and never worked on anything outside of what was in their classroom.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of the speakers for this year?

Omari Souza:
Man, we have a ton of great speakers this year. This year, we will be headlined by Nikki Giovanni, which I’m super excited about. We will also have Jelani Cobb who will be speaking. We will also have Anne Barry fellow Kent alum. That will be there. We will have Regina Gilbert, Lacey Jordan will be there.

Omari Souza:
Theresa Moses, Silus Monroe, Maryam Moma, Mike Nichols, Kalina Sales, Roberta Sampson, Raja Shaa, Trey Seals will be giving a workshop on type design. We will have Jennifer White Johnson. That’ll be hosting a panel on disability design. Kelly Waters will be there. Shelby Zinc from Microsoft will also be there as well, and this is just to name a few. The list is really extensive this year.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to say, that’s a lot already.

Omari Souza:
Yeah, it’s an amazing list of people. And I I’m really fortunate that they have all been willing to participate in this.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting, we talked about 2020 just earlier. One thing among many things that stuck out for me that year was just seeing how many Black designers found community online that year. I think because of events like State of Black Design and so many others that started that year. Black designers came around these events and really formed this sense of community. Have you felt that since the State of Black Design?

Omari Souza:
I feel like the year of the State of Black Design, there were so many things happening within the community and people attempting to build their own table. That I think that year in general, when the first State of Black Design happened, we also had Where Are The Black Designers hosted by Mitzi. Black Ignite, which was hosted just a couple months after that, by Heather Lee. Hughe also had their events as well as myself, which I believe was the last event of the year.

Omari Souza:
We were all in communication with one another, especially after our initial events happened. And we’ve all leveraged one another in order to keep everyone going. We each serve a different role, but have each come together as a family, just to keep things going. So for the second events, I know we had Jasmine Kent from HOW, Heather Lee from Black Ignite and Mitzi all sit on a panel together.

Omari Souza:
I’ve consulted with Mitzi and Heather Lee on a number of things that I was doing for Black Ignite Heather Lee brought me on to give a keynote. And I say all of this to say, there’s not only been a community in terms of the following, but the folks that have been attempting to lead these separate initiatives have also been coming together to assist one another. So it’s a fight and champion for the things that they view as important.

Omari Souza:
And I feel like that’s something that’s been extremely beautiful and powerful when considering three, four years ago, a lot of these spaces weren’t available. There was no State of Black Design or Black Ignite or Where Are The Black Designers and the followings for each have been extremely impressive.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. They really have. I mean, of course, for folks that have been following Revision Path around that time, I talked all about Where Are The Black Designers had Mitzi on the show and everything, but yeah, it is interesting seeing how all of that has… And I mean, I have to say it has come together very quickly. Even from my somewhat limited perspective of looking at the landscape of the design industry from 2013 to now and seeing how few events and things there were around black designers.

Maurice Cherry:
Even just media, like when I started Revision Path there was not any other podcast that were talking to Black designers about the work that they’ve done. And now of course, nine years later, there’s several others besides myself. But just to see how things have grown in such a very short period of time, I’m curious to know, why do you think these other events just don’t get it?

Maurice Cherry:
Because what I find interesting aside from the speed of all of this is how I don’t want to say how limited the resources have been, but y’all really pulled all this together from nothing. You put out a webpage or you put out a call on Instagram or something and you have thousands of people flocking to you registering, signing up for your event, spreading the word fostering community. And you see a larger slash other design competitions or events and things like that don’t even come close to that. Why do you think that’s the case?

Omari Souza:
I think it’s a number of reasons. Going back to my thesis research that I know we talked about in the initial interview, they’re a large percentage of Black college students that end up going to these. So they end up going to social serving programs because based off of the research I did in my graduate year of college, there are a lot of students that when choosing a major will choose majors that help them either contextualize things they’ve experienced or choose majors that help them advocate for others. And I think that advocacy piece for a lot of people comes off as being politic. I think with design, while it can be a tool that’s used for advocacy, it’s often communicated solely as a tool of luxury.

Omari Souza:
So even in terms of how conferences typically communicate themselves. So if you go to, not picking at any conference in particular, but if you visit Hughes site, it’s really all about how to learn the latest and greatest in designing for a fortune 500 company or a major firm that’s dealing with a fortune 500 company, but it’s never articulated.

Omari Souza:
It’s never really given any attention to areas that maybe of concern for people of color. And the reason being is that design always wants to come off as being apolitical. In my thesis research, I voted Melissa Harris Perry in her book Citizen.

Omari Souza:
She had the segment where she talks about whenever people think of politics. They’re often thinking about Democrats or Republicans when in reality, the art or of being political is really attempting to pull one person’s attention from one thing to something else. So if I’m trying to get you to look somewhere that you’re not currently looking, that happens to be political.

Omari Souza:
And then she then makes the argument that being Black in America is really a political act within itself because you’re consistently attempting to get people to recognize your humanity, so the discussions that we have at a lot of these events are not just about being a better designer or what you can do in the workspace, but it’s really these difficult discussions around the nuances of being marginalized.

Omari Souza:
How do you exist in a space being a Black person where you might be microagressed or the racism that you experience may not be as subtle all the time. It can be subtle, and sometimes it can be very direct, what can you do to protect yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically? What are the courses? How can other people be there for you to support you through these types of things? And in many cases, these are conversations that aren’t really had in your traditional conferences, but their topics of discussion.

Omari Souza:
And there there’re things that Black signers are speaking about whether or not these conferences are including them and not to mention traditional design programs typically tend to keep things very Eurocentric, and they don’t typically provide much room for cultural relativity or exploration into the cultures that a lot of people of they come from.

Omari Souza:
So if you now have workshops that are being done. So for example, Trace Seals will be giving his workshop. A lot of his work is predicated on designing typefaces of marginalized audiences. That’s not something that would traditionally be taught at a design school currently, but if it’s something that’s being provided at a workshop, it now becomes something that deals in that nuance and becomes interesting to people that have been marginalized.

Omari Souza:
That want to know more about that history but also how do I leverage that history and culture into my professional practice. Black Ignite, HOW Design, Where Are The Black Designers and the State of Black Design each give you an opportunity to have that conversation safely, and also learn to explore visually things that you may not see traditionally in the classroom.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I will say each of those events also are very different. Like State of Black Design is this conference slash career fair Hughe is like a family reunion kind of feel almost Ignite, at least from what I’ve seen from Ignite is just a bunch of straight up short talks, almost like a, I forget the name of it. What’s it called PechaKucha. I might be mispronouncing that I’m…

Maurice Cherry:
But it’s sort of a series of short talks and things like that. And then you may have a conference that’s got more longer, more didactic talks or something. But no, I like that each of these events also has their own flavor. They all feed on each other. They work in concert, at least from what I see with other Black design events that are out there.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, of course the four that you mentioned, which are fairly new, that doesn’t preclude also the existence of Black In Design, which takes place at Harvard University or Creative Control Fest, which takes place in Columbus or it doesn’t shy away from those events. Or try to pit one against the other, it’s all one community, or at least it’s all one shared community. I should say. If you’re a black designer now this is probably the best time in history for you to attend events that specifically speak to you as a Black designer, like it hasn’t ever been, I think this good in terms of variety.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. At least not that I can recall. And yeah, I feel that wholeheartedly. It’s really interesting, the entire idea of these separate organizations that really are in support of one another. And aren’t looking to pit anyone against anybody.

Omari Souza:
Like no, one’s asking attendees of one, not to go to the other. And in fact, we’re usually co-promoting whenever Where Are The Black Designers, HOW or Black Ignite has something if they send it to me, I’m always promoting and pushing people to attend. And they’ve done the same thing for me. And it’s really been appreciated.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re juggling State of Black Design, of course, with teaching. You’re a design educator. You’re an assistant professor at Texas State University in Austin. When you were back on the show, the first time you were teaching at Laroche College, which is in Pittsburgh, what is it like teaching at Texas State? Tell me about your classes, your students, how is it?

Omari Souza:
Texas state is a really interesting place. It’s about 30, 40 minutes South of Austin, and also about 30, 40 minutes in north of San Antonio. So it’s sandwiched between these two major cities and in terms of diversity, it’s probably the most diverse institution in terms of student base that I’ve ever taught at.

Omari Souza:
And it’s really beautiful to see in terms of things that I I’ve taught there. I typically teach a few design research classes, both at the graduate and undergraduate level, and I’ve also taught foundations and typography, but I consider myself more to be a design researcher. So I’m always happier teaching the former than the latter courses.
Maurice Cherry:
And now, do you have a specific focus of your design research while you’re at Texas State?

Omari Souza:
I would say yes and no. So at the graduate level, in the past, I’ve taught a class called communication seminar, which is an introduction to design research methods that students can use for their thesis. So I begin educating students on research methodologies, like quantitative research methods, literature reviews, so forth and so forth. How do you build your design direction, map out plans, constructing logic models, so forth and so forth. Identifying stakeholders, yada yada yada.

Omari Souza:
I teach a class called design for experience as well, where I typically tend to leverage some of my own graduate based research around using design not only to using design classroom, not only is a space to develop new skill sets, but also expand considerations on what things could be applicable for. So I’ll teach design research methods and some UX techniques, but rather than using them for digital artifact, I ask students to expand their thought process on what an interface is.

Omari Souza:
It doesn’t necessarily have to be strictly digital, but it’s anything that anybody interacts with. So if we’re designing for behavior purposes, how could we use these research methodologies in order to bring about a particular behavioral change versus doing it strictly for additional clicks or site visits or things of that nature? Sometimes we will work in collaboration with other organizations. One summer, I saw the course, we worked in collaboration with Kyahokas Municipality Housing Authority. They were applying for 50 million grant to improve the quality of life for residents in a lower income community.

Omari Souza:
And we asked to be a part of the project. So we jumped in while they were performing the research and began asking questions to identify certain things that were happening in the community that design could be used to leverage as a solution to improve quality of life. One of the problems that we ended up finding was given the conditions that folks are living in.

Omari Souza:
One thing that they definitely were missing was adequate opportunities to build community with one another and communicate with one another while also bottlenecks around communicating with the leasing office and people that managed the property.

Omari Souza:
So we proposed a number of solutions that had nothing to do with digital components, but were more so interfaces that we can build on the community grounds themselves to improve that person to person and person to business interaction on these grounds in order to change some of the cultural issues that were happening within that particular space.

Omari Souza:
This year, there were a few projects that we’re going to be working on as well, that are all about community engagement, interacting with a group of people, but then attempting to solve a problem for behavioral change while using design as the so, and for me, I find this a lot more interesting than working along the lines of an arbitrary design brief, because I feel like the strictly giving students a brief, doesn’t give them an opportunity to meet people and expand their thought processes.

Omari Souza:
And if, as designers we’re supposed to be this empathetic group, but we never get an opportunity to meet or engage with the people that we’re designing for. We’re strictly designing within our own locked in biases. And that can also be very dangerous for marginalized audiences.

Omari Souza:
So putting them in a position where they have to get out of the classroom and interact with an audience, puts them in a space where they’re challenging their own perceptions and what a problem is. And if they’re designing with this audience and as they’re working, as they’re meeting them, as they’re engaging them, it puts them in a, in a process of thinking, my best results or realizing that my best results can come at hand when I’m working directly with the person who the solution is for versus working behind a desk without ever having to engage with them.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, you’ve been there now for about three years. How would you say things have changed since when you first started there? Because it sounds like what you are doing right now is something you maybe have to work up to getting to.

Omari Souza:
I’m still at a point where I’m attempting to recommend changes and then get buy-in around those changes, which isn’t a slight against Texas State. I think the reality is I’m an extremely young professor. I’m only 35 years old. And many of the professors around me have been teaching for just as long as I’ve been living in some cases.

Omari Souza:
So for me to be this young and come and make attempts to challenge the way that certain things are being done, even if I’m citing that in new research or things of that nature for any program would be a lot to take in because that whether directly indirectly illuminates that for potential changes to come they’ll need structural pedagogical changes as well to make room for some of these changes. So I think, for myself there’s still this need to get buy in or to prove the benefit of particular things that other folks may not be too familiar with.

Maurice Cherry:
How would you say you’ve grown as an educator since you first started teaching?

Omari Souza:
I think there’s a number of different things. I think naivete is something that I’ve shed a lot. Have you ever seen the… There was a documentary on charter schools? It was called Waiting On Superman.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I saw that.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I’ve watched it again recently. There’s a section of the documentary. One of the educators who started a charter school in Harlem was talking about how he went to get his degree at Howard and he’d learnt so much and felt like as soon as he got out, he’d be able to change and improve the entire education system within two years, three years, if he was being lazy, but he had all the information necessary and he was going to get in there and make all those changes. I think that’s where I was when I first started teaching, I was really enthusiastic about the education that I got.

Omari Souza:
I felt super empowered about it, and I immediately felt like I’m going to jump in and make all of these changes. The longer I’ve been teaching, the more I’ve realized that it’s never an immediate change. You can never change the flow of the river that you’re in, but you can disrupt the water.

Omari Souza:
And if you make these minor disruptions over time, you can make an immediate impact. Well, not immediate, but you can make this impact for that immediate space, but you might not be able to change the flow of the water that you’re currently in. And I think that’s something that I’ve had to sit with and I guess be more strategic about what impact can I have and what impact will I be okay with having, if I can’t change the entire flow of the rigor itself?

Maurice Cherry:
What do you think about this state of design education now as it relates to diversity? Because I’d imagine with the years that you’ve put on this conference now and even changing to different schools that maybe you have gathered a bit of a reputation, a good reputation, I mean, but from your perspective, how do you see design education?

Omari Souza:
I think design education is at this really interesting spot. I think there are topics about decolonizing design practice and there are a lot of people that are doing a lot of work on plural versatile approaches professors such as Leslie and Noel that continue to do amazing things and encourage me in a lot of the stuff that I do.

Omari Souza:
I think there are a lot of folks like Cheryl Miller and her collaborations with designers off of the continent of America and working with Afro based designers and attempting to bring their aesthetic and their design language onto the forefront, I think is also something that’s really interesting from an institution standpoint and a university standpoint. I think a lot of the difficulty ends up being in people being threatened by that change or being uncertain, how to handle the new wave of demands that are coming for design institutions and programs, especially as the student populist becomes browner from one generation to the next.

Omari Souza:
I think in a lot of ways, it’s an exciting time to be a student. And it’s an exciting time to be a professor and see universities make room for these things to happen. I would imagine a difficult time for those that have no idea what steps to take next. Like if I’ve never had to consider anything other than Swiss design or anything other than the Bowhouse.

Omari Souza:
And now you’re saying that there are all of these other visual languages or aesthetical approaches or cultures that I should include in my curriculum and give equal amounts of respect to this one thing that I’ve made my bread and butter over the last 30 to 40 years. I can imagine that there’s a lot of anxiety, but still it’s necessary. And anxiety is never a reason to be paralyzed by anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you encountered any of that? Like from other educators?

Omari Souza:
Yeah. All the time. It’s usually not as direct as this makes me feel nervous or I don’t necessarily know how I can stack up to attempting to do this, but a lot of times it may come off in passive aggressive terms of we’ve done it this way for so long. And maybe you should just learn how to do it the way that we’ve been doing it before you make re for changes.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. I don’t think people ever come out and say that, “Hey, this makes me feel uncomfortable or insecure about approaching this particular subject matter. Can I work with you on this?” It’s usually this attempt to stopping the clock or slowing down change. And that’s not necessarily me saying a Texas State thing. I think that’s something that that’s happening in a lot of places within the industry.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’ve had a few other design educators on the show particularly last year that spoke to that as well. And also speaking to how, I guess students are looking for more from their design curriculum. They’re looking for more from their design educators in terms of how they see the world now and the work that they’re doing, they want to know how can they be more, I guess, involved in different causes and stuff like that. From your perspective, have you seen a similar kind of change over the years from your students?

Omari Souza:
Yeah, definitely. So my graduate research, when I was at Kent State University, there were a few interviews that I did where I asked students how they ended up choosing their majors. And there were a number of students that ended up choosing a major just because some of the course material was interesting to them. So there was one student in particular, the group in a predominantly white neighborhood, but that a student was Black.

Omari Souza:
So that student felt that there wasn’t enough access that he had to finding out more information about people that looked like him within the city and neighborhood he lived in. So he ended up taking a few African American history courses, and then that ended up becoming his major because he fell in love with the subject matter. I feel like there are a number of visual students that I’ve taught that have been a part of design programs, both at Texas State and Laroche.

Omari Souza:
And Tri-C when I taught there. And also at Kent State when I was a graduate assistant and there’s this interest in exploring visual languages that relate to them culturally, that they can see themselves in. And I think it’s really amazing for them when they find that, but it does create a space of pedagogical opportunities for professors. If we’re willing to bravely lean into it. One conversation I had with a few of my cohorts recently, especially considering that Texas and the university is within the Southwest of the nation.

Omari Souza:
I mentioned, I think it would be a really good idea to start doing research and creating coursework and materials around the influence of San Marcos has a huge Mexican population as is Texas in general, but trying to do this course on the influence of Mexican and Southern American aesthetics on the design language of the Southwest, I feel like you teach a course like that to some of our students that are looking for something different than Swiss and Bowhouse design or your ecentric perspectives on things.

Omari Souza:
I think that’s also another opportunity where you can then teach something that allows a student to have a greater appreciation for a culture outside of themselves. Or give a student an opportunity to further contextualize their own identity and have a greater appreciation for some of the things that they were exposed to without having full knowledge of what the richness of these things were

Maurice Cherry:
Now, along with those kinds of opportunities. You’ve also managed to network with and meet a lot of other Black design educators. Tell me how that’s been.

Omari Souza:
It’s been amazing to be completely honest with you. I’ve been able since the first State of Black Design to meet a number of people and try to find ways to collaborate and or talk about new pedagogical approaches or projects that are being offered in classrooms. I’ve met consistently with Kalina Sales, Dr. Perry sweeper and Dr. Oji in our biweekly DFA meetings and some of the stuff that they’re working on.

Omari Souza:
And some of the insights that they share with me are super invaluable in terms of my growth as a professor, I meet consistently with Teresa Moses, she and I are curating a State of Black Design book. And of course, during these meetings where we’re talking about the book assignments, they’re consistent topics or the discussion points around what’s being done in our classroom, Dr. Leslie Noel and I are working on a book called Restorative Design.

Omari Souza:
I’m learning a lot about her practice, not just through writing with her, but even some of the experiences she shares and what we’ve been writing, all of which enriches me in a lot of ways that I may not say to them consistently, but it’s been an amazing opportunity to see and hear other people that look like me that are dealing with students similar to who I’m dealing with, give me some of their master tips, or even seeing some of them just blow up and shine in their own career. Professors like Jennifer White Johnson, every time I look up, she’s doing something else amazing. And the community that she advocates for and the work that she’s been getting has been amazing to sit back and watch.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want to see this year? Is there anything you want to accomplish outside of course, of State of Black Design, but what do you want to see this year?

Omari Souza:
I think the thing that I want to see this year, that I’m hoping that I can pull off is really this professional development. Well, not really professional development. I’m hoping that these tables that we build, whether it be Where Are The Black Designers, Black Ignite, [HUE] and the State of Black Design, that we find a way to continue to pouring into our collective audiences, outside our annual conferences.

Omari Souza:
I know where the black designers has a really good community. They keep in touch via Slack, but trying to find a way to continue growing people in their own personal endeavors, not just through professional development methods, but also just through personal artistic explorations.

Omari Souza:
I think having a space where we allow other creatives to learn more about what it is that they want to do, but make it give room for people to explore new avenues and develop aesthetics and techniques in their own visual approaches would be something that I would love. And I think it’s something that we need currently as well.

Maurice Cherry:
And also you teased this book idea a little bit earlier. Tell me about that.

Omari Souza:
Yeah. So after the first State of Black Design, we did a CFP called proposal for essays, from anybody who was interested in contributing. We’ve gotten the number so far and a commitment to print from Intellect Publishing. So currently Theresa and I are reading through it and making attempts to decide what changes need to be made if there are essays that need to be lengthened and things of that nature, but we’re hoping that’ll be published by next year.
Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Congratulations on that.

Omari Souza:
Thank you kindly.

Maurice Cherry:
So overall, and this may be a tall order from where you’re at now, but aside from this year where do you see yourself in the future five years from now? What sort of work do you want to be doing?

Omari Souza:
Five years from now. I’m hoping I have tenure, but the work I’d like to do, I think it’s similar to what I was hoping to do in my initial interview. I would to begin a design for social good innovation practice that I do alongside my teaching. I’m hoping that the traditional classes that I’m allowed to teach that over time, I’m given room to change them slightly.

Omari Souza:
So it’s not just commercial focus, but we’re giving them techniques and tools that they can use for commercial entities if they choose to, but also allowing them to advocate or contextualize their own experiences through these methodologies as well. I’m hoping that I can continue to write these books. I’m hoping that yeah, five years down line, all of these books that I’m working on currently are published, that I can continue to evolve the State of Black Design to meet the needs of its audience.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, about State of Black Design, about everything you’re working on? Where can they find that information?

Omari Souza:
You guys can find me on LinkedIn. I’m pretty active there. I do have a site omarisouza.com, and finally, I’m, I’m pretty active on Instagram, which is just Omari.Souza.

Maurice Cherry:
And the event?

Omari Souza:
The event is stateofblackdesign.com.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. And by the time this comes out, tickets will be available so people can register to sign up, correct?

Omari Souza:
Yes, sir. Please register. We’d love to see you guys there.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Omari Souza, I want to thank you so much for coming back on show. We’ve kept in touch since we have done that interview back in 2017. So it’s been amazing to just see your growth as an educator, as a researcher, and really getting more involved in doing community work with what you’re doing with State of Black Design. So I’m excited to see what is going to come next for you in the future. And of course, I’ll definitely be tuned in for this year’s event. Hopefully, People that are listen will tune in as well. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Omari Souza:
No problem at all. I appreciate you as well for having me and all the advice that you’ve given me as well since 2017.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Sponsored by The State of Black Design Conference

The State of Black Design

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program is excited to announce The State of Black Design Conference, a three day virtual event March 4-6, 2022.

This year’s theme is “family reunion”, and there will be over 50 amazing speakers, including author and educator Jelani Cobb, and world-renowned poet, activist, and educator Nikki Giovanni.

This year debuts the State of Black Design’s Resume Book initiative, so if you’re a Black design student, or you’re a Black designer looking for your next role, then listen up!

You will be able to submit your resume and your portfolio to the Resume Book, along with your institution of study and major if you’re a student, and recruiters and employers will have access to it before the event. If you’re interested and you want to be included in the Resume Book, send your info to blackdesign@txstate.edu with the subject line “Resume Book”. You have until March 3, 2022 to submit.

The State of Black Design Conference is brought to you with the support of the University of Texas at Austin, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, Microsoft, General Motors, Design for America, Civilla, IDSA, AIGA, and Revision Path.

Visit The State of Black Design Conference website for tickets. Hope to see you there!

Dawn Okoro

I discover new guests for Revision Path in the most interesting ways. Take this week’s guest — artist Dawn Okoro, for example. I learned about her work from the back of a bottle of LIFEWTR! Talk about refreshing! (And I don’t mean the water.)

Dawn gave an update on how 2021 has been going, including becoming a full-time artist and working on a new set of drawings using a surprising material — Kool-Aid. We talked a bit about one of Dawn’s past exhibits, “Burden of Respectability”, how she’s been connecting with a new audience over social media, and spoke on some of her artistic inspirations. It’s amazing that artists like Dawn can share their work with the world in all kinds of ways!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Dawn Okoro:
My name is Dawn Okoro, and I’m an artist. Most of my art has been painting. I paint people, mostly Black women in bright vivid colors. And I also, really influence a lot by fashion. So I like to incorporate fashion into my art and just have fashion as art, and I also do some video work as well as art. So I like to experiment with different mediums of art.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the year been going for you so far? How’s 2021 been?

Dawn Okoro:
2021 was currently a year of transition for me. When it comes to art last year for me in 2020, things just got really busy, things were slow when the pandemic first hit, but then things got busier with some different projects coming up and then I’ve been able to reach more people in the past year and I’ve sold a lot more paintings than before. And so, I left my day job that I’ve been working for nine years and just focusing on art full time. And yeah, a lot of things are changing for me in 2021.

Maurice Cherry:
Congratulations on leaving the job and becoming a full-time artist.

Dawn Okoro:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything that you want to try to accomplish before the end of the year? I mean, it sounds like it’s been going pretty well so far.

Dawn Okoro:
Really the biggest thing that I’d like to accomplish is just finish a couple of projects that I have going on. One of the changes that happened for me this year is that I signed with… well, I started working with a couple of galleries where they represent my work, and one of the galleries that I signed with is based in London. They also have a gallery in LA.

Dawn Okoro:
Next year I’m going to have a solo show with them at their London location, but I need to get all those works finished as soon as possible, or, well, probably won’t be till the end of the year, but my goal is to get all those pieces finished and then I can breathe a sigh of relief.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. London is really nice, I need to get back to London when all this pandemic stuff is over with. But no, that’s great. I mean, so you just got the representation this year, you just became represented?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. This year, the gallery in London called Maddox Gallery, and then there’s also a gallery in Seattle called Koplin Del Rio, which I have a solo show with them right now of some small drawings that made with the Kool-Aid this summer.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah. I saw on Instagram, this new drawing you’re doing called Red 40 with Kool-Aid. That’s really cool.

Dawn Okoro:
Thanks. Yeah, it’s been fun to work with. I just figured… thinking about… just over the past year, how I’ve been reaching more towards things that are comforting and I was trying to think of a way to incorporate that into my art. And for me, Kool-Aid is something that we grew up having with, I don’t know, probably most meals growing up here in Lubbock, Texas.

Dawn Okoro:
Is something, I guess once I moved out of the house, it’s not something that I just sit and make, but I guess you could say just the smell of it just brings back a nostalgic feeling. And so I got several packets of different colors and decided, well, why don’t I try to use that as a watercolor. And so I experimented with that a few months ago and it’s interesting.

Dawn Okoro:
It doesn’t really act like watercolor, it’s definitely different, but it’s interesting and you can really play with the textures and the powder as well, so you end up doing a whole series of those drawings.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious. Does it smell?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Well, it smells, when you first open up the packet, of course, the powder gets under your nose and it’s strong, and then… but then when I paint with it… I do the drawings in color pencil, but then I painted the Kool-Aid on and around the drawing. And so when I paint with the Kool-Aid, I mix it with water and depending on how much water you mix it with it, that’ll determine how dark it is.

Dawn Okoro:
So I did a few of these with the Kool-Aid, and then I came into my studio the next day and you could really smell the Kool-Aid strong. I like the way Kool-Aid smells, if my mother is making it, before a meal and we’re having it with a meal, but to have the smell of the powder just in the studio was just like, “Ah, it’s too much.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
But what I do to protect the drawing is I spray it with an acrylic coating, and once I spray that, then you can’t smell it anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was just thinking, I was like, I wonder if that holds up over transport, will people try to get close to try to smell the Kool-Aid or something. But no, that’s really interesting.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. That’s unfortunately.

Maurice Cherry:
So what do your days look like now that you’re a full-time artist?

Dawn Okoro:
Well, first I’ll tell you what my days looked like before. So, I had my job that I would go to, it’s about at least nine hours a day to do that. So when it came to my art, I just had to find a way to just fit it around that no matter what I had going on. So, I would work and then ideally come home and then get right to work on my painting, which ideally maybe for a few hours, that didn’t always happen, of course.

Dawn Okoro:
And then, sometimes if I have a big project coming up, I would take a vacation from my day job to then go work on art. It was just really hard to balance it, especially if I had a really big project where it involved a lot of painting, and I just really wanted to just dedicate that time to making my art.

Dawn Okoro:
So now that I’m able to focus on my art, I will say that those hours that I’ve worked in my day job, those immediately got filled up with plenty to do, it still feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day. But my days look like… I get up, make some coffee, on the perfect day I would get up and maybe work out for 30 minutes, which for me might mean skateboarding or go for a walk or something. And then when I get home shower, freshen up and then get into the art studio.

Dawn Okoro:
So when I’m in the studio, I try to divide my days up so that I have at least a couple days a week where I deal with business related stuff, that is not making art. And then I try to have at least three days a week where I just focus on actually making stuff. It doesn’t always work out that way, but just spend my day in the studio, either by computer doing paperwork or doing stuff like that, or working on a canvas or a drawing, but definitely much happier now for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I can imagine trying to juggle a full-time job while also having these side responsibilities is always tough balance because… I mean, you would hope that you land at a job that understands that outside of work you’re a totally different person, you have your own other things that you have to do. Well, did you find that your job was sympathetic to that?

Dawn Okoro:
My bosses were sympathetic to that, but at the same time there’s really not much they could really do, not much they could really to help because the way I felt I wish that… I don’t know, I wish I could maybe… I don’t know, have a schedule like the 4/10s or just a schedule where you have more days off or something. I don’t know. But they weren’t able to do that at least in my department.

Dawn Okoro:
They were sympathetic and they, I guess supported me as an artist, but that’s about… but there’s really not much they could do because it’s just a big corporate job and you just have to work with whatever they provide. So

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And you were working at a news station, right?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I was a journalist. At that station I was a… well, I was a producer for several years there, but that was really stressful because you’re the producer that handles writing for the shows, when the anchor comes on and talks and then you also have to sit in the booth and booth the show too. And to me that’s nerve ranking when you have live shots and just so many moving parts and things can go wrong.

Dawn Okoro:
And I think that I probably wasn’t best suited for that position, in the first place is because I get so anxious, but I really hated that part of the job. There were some good things about being a TV news producer, but eventually there was an opportunity to join the web team, so I jumped on that and I was definitely a lot happier, at least that was more tolerable to work on the web team because the pace is different.

Dawn Okoro:
A story breaks, so you get all the information and you post it, and then you do updates and that’s pretty much all you can really do on that, and post on social media. So I definitely enjoyed that better, but still I wanted to have those hours for myself and my art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And again congratulations, I see you’re making that jump. I know, we’re recording this right now at a time where there’s this big thing going on, at least what the media is calling, the great resignation of people deciding they’re going to leave their jobs and pursue other things.

Maurice Cherry:
And not saying that what you’re doing is wrapped up in that, but I think it certainly speaks to this overall wave right now of people discovering there’s more out there than just a 9:00 to 5:00, you’d have the permission and the capacity to pursue your passions which is great for anyone that has an artistic soul like that.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. And I definitely agree with that and I think being able to work… a lot of people that weren’t allowed to work from home were suddenly allowed to work from home. And I think that made a difference as well. At my job we worked in an office, and me as their producer or web producer or digital, whatever you want to call it, I really didn’t have any need to physically be in the office.

Dawn Okoro:
And before the pandemic, some of us were like, “Hey, could we work from home?” Or at least have just some days a week where we could work from home, and the company is like, “No.” And then the pandemic happens and then they allowed, suddenly pretty much everyone was allowed to work from home unless if you’re the anchor in the studio, that’s hard to do from home.

Dawn Okoro:
So they had to have some people in the control room and all that, but this whole time I was able to work from home and that was nice just to… even if I had to focus on my day job from home, it was nice just to at least be near my art. So as soon as I was done working, then I could just… well, I’m already here, at least I don’t have to go through the commute and all that.

Dawn Okoro:
But then I heard… this isn’t why I quit, but shortly after I quit I learned that, I think starting soon everybody that was working from home, get ready to get back in the office. And I was like, “Oh God, I’m so glad that I’m not there anymore because I would not want to have to go back to the office every single day.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. To get back to your artwork again, you mentioned earlier, you’re working across a bunch of different medium in terms of inspiration. Some of it is fashion based, some of it is more fine arts based like you mentioned with this painting, how do you approach creating a new piece of art? Where does that start?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah, it starts off with just how do I feel from there? What work do I want to create? Or what is it for? And usually that’s going to be I want to do some paintings or I want to do a painting and then I paint people. So then from there it’s, who will I paint?

Dawn Okoro:
A lot during the past year and a half, I’ve been doing self portraits because that’s just been a lot easier during the pandemic, and I’ve just slowly started to get back into having people photograph for me so that I can use that image as a reference. So then it’s just deciding, who will I paint? What will this painting look like? How do I want people to feel?

Dawn Okoro:
And then I photograph the person and then I will later go look at the photographs, from there I decide. I look and see what touches me the most emotionally, and then I use that, that image is the reference image, so then I get painting. The colors are also very feeling based, based on this person, what are they wearing? Then I just go from there. And then when it’s finished, I hope that I create something that can move people in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I saw from looking at, like I said, some of the past work that you’ve done, and even looking at the process around it, it seems like it’s collaborative in that way. You are working with a model or working with someone to conjure up the emotion that you want to eventually put forth in the piece.

Dawn Okoro:
Yes. I like to be able to capture the essence of the person that’s modeling whenever I’m… well, at least lately the past few years, whenever I’m going to bring someone in to shoot reference photos with, I’ll tell them just wear whatever you want to wear, or you can bring a couple of outfits if you want. And then when they get here, then I’ll see what they’re wearing and so it’s a surprise for me.

Dawn Okoro:
And so, some people it might be t-shirt and jeans, others might have more of an elaborate type of get up. It’s fun for me to be surprised by what they’re wearing, and then just for me to just spin off from that.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw, I think it was your Punk Noir exhibit where you also had a band there. So it’s exhibiting your work, but then you also have this live media component too.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. So the Punk Noir show started here in Austin. I was thinking, okay, so when they said, “Okay, you can do a solo show here. What do you want to do?” And at that time I was just really just getting back into being an artist again. And through that process, I was starting to meet more artists around town, some of them who didn’t even live here maybe a few years ago, but I was just starting to get more involved and meet other creatives.

Dawn Okoro:
And I just wanted to just capture a snapshot of the way things felt here in Austin at that time for me and the Black creative community. So for the show I wanted to paint these life size portraits of people, the Black people that have a punk spirit, and then I envisioned at least for the opening, you have a Black fronted punk band there and just really making an immersive night.

Dawn Okoro:
And so it really was like I was saying, it was probably about 400 people at the opening and you’ve got lots of video and everyone moshed into the punk band, and the part where the paintings were, I guess that’s… I was a few steps away from where the band performed, but you could hear it coming into the gallery area. So that was such a good experience, I wanted to recreate that.

Dawn Okoro:
So I had some opportunities to show… and a few other locations around that time. So I was like, “Well, let me bring Punk Noir to these locations. So I was able to do the show in Dallas, and there I was able to have a band as well. In Dallas, I had Wanz Dover, and then in Austin Blaxploitation was the band.

Dawn Okoro:
But the thing is this all takes funding. So I had another version of Punk Noir show in San Antonio, Texas, and also in Seattle. But I wasn’t able to bring the bands to those, unfortunately, because the beach didn’t have the funding and resources there.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when you’re thinking about creating these exhibits, do you always want to have that, I guess, live component to it? Or was it just specific for that one?

Dawn Okoro:
I would say it’s specific to that one, but that was so fun that in the future, when I’m able to, again, I could definitely see myself doing that again, but it just all comes down to having the support to be able to do that. But I would definitely do something like that again.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I would think some London musicians in the show that would be dope.

Dawn Okoro:
That would be awesome. Yeah. I have to see about that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’re originally from Texas. You also are currently… I mean, you live in Texas now too. Tell me about what it was like growing up there.

Dawn Okoro:
So Texas it’s a very big state, very vast, different areas are different from each other. So I live in Austin now, which is the capital of Texas. Austin is a very… well Texas is a red state, very conservative. Austin is a very blue area. I guess the major cities are blue, but then the rest of Texas is rural and very red.

Dawn Okoro:
I grew up in Lubbock, Texas, which is about… it’s in what we call the Texas panhandle, but it’s up north, in the panhandle part that sticks out in Texas. And it’s about a six hour drive from Austin. Lubbock is a lot different from Austin and it’s very flat, very conservative, and now I guess it’s Trump country. Austin is very white, Lubbock it’s very white to.

Dawn Okoro:
I guess it just has such a conservative attitude overall. I think a lot of my upbringing was influenced by that and I just wanted to just get away as soon as I could, because I was already someone that… because of just how I am, very introverted, very shy, I think that didn’t help, but I just didn’t feel like I fit in really anywhere. So I just got out of Lubbock as soon as I could.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that feeling, I grew up in a small town in Alabama and two weeks after I graduated, I was out, I was like, “I’m done.”

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
“This was fun. Thanks. I’m out.” Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. But I hear you. I hear you. So I moved to Austin for college. I’m so really glad that I did, just to see something else, even if Austin was not a huge city or anything, it was just good to just experience something else.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Were you exposed to a lot of art and everything growing up in Lubbock? Was there an art scene there?

Dawn Okoro:
I don’t know if there was an art scene really. I mean, as far as art, the only museum that I went to was… we have Texas Tech in Lubbock. So I would go to the Texas Tech museum whenever we go for a field trip at school. But other than that, yeah, that’s pretty much. That’s pretty much it. I mean, Lubbock at that time may have had a few, maybe a few galleries, but I will say one memory I have is being in high school and I’m not sure how I met this artist, but I met an artist who was a… he was an older Hispanic artist who had a studio in downtown Lubbock, but not far from my high school.

Dawn Okoro:
And I remember I visited there one time and he had all his artwork up and he was working on stuff in his studio, and that was really inspiring for me, even though at that time I still didn’t feel like for sure I could be a successful artist, but now looking back, that’s a good memory, one of the rare times that I got to be around someone that had an art studio there in Lubbock.

Maurice Cherry:
And now once you left and went to University of Texas in Austin, I mean, was that a big culture shift?

Dawn Okoro:
Not really. Given the timing, being 18 and finally moving off on my own, I think it was just a shift in my life of just learning how to just be an adult, but I’m glad that I got to spend those years in Austin as opposed to Lubbock. But mainly pretty much I kept myself confined to campus, than here in Austin, we have the entertainment area, it’s called Sixth Street.

Dawn Okoro:
So I would go to Sixth Street with some of my classmates and all that, but it wasn’t too much of a culture change because Austin was at the time especially, it was more of a just a sleepy college town. So it was a good place to start off, I guess, although we didn’t love it.

Maurice Cherry:
What was your time like there at UT?

Dawn Okoro:
Looking back, I wish, I hate to say it should, could, or would, but I wish that I had taken advantage of the resources that they would have for someone that wants to be an artist. I knew when I initially started going to college, I knew that I wanted to be an artist or something creative, but I was like, “Nah, I’ll just put that off till later.” And expectations of myself and expectations from family, it was pretty much expected that I would be a doctor, or a lawyer, or engineer or something like that.

Dawn Okoro:
And so I was like, “Well, I couldn’t do that all. I’ll just pick another major that sounds legit.” And I picked psychology and then I minored in fashion design. I took a whole lot of fashion design classes, the most fun on the fashion design side of things.

Dawn Okoro:
So I don’t know, I just feel like, I wish… if I could go back and change things, I probably would’ve just maybe study art and fashion design instead, but I would just not as focused on what I would do as so much so as some other people I know that knew what they wanted to do, had everything lined up, had their internships and then a job or something right out of college. But that wasn’t me.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, I think we all have… there’s non-traditional path to get into the arts or into design or things like that. But I see what you mean about looking back at college and wishing or wondering if you pursued things in a different manner where you might be now.

Maurice Cherry:
For example, I’m a designer, I also work as a strategist, but in undergrad I majored in math. Now I love math, don’t get me wrong. I was a huge math nerd in high school, I was captain of the math, mathletes and everything. But I wanted to… I was also a writer, I wrote all through grade school or whatever. And I remember wanting to go off to college and major in English and my mom was like, “Nope, Mm-mm (negative) you need to major in something that’s going to make some money.”

Maurice Cherry:
And she knew that I was into computers and everything. And so initially I started off doing computer engineering, computer science, and then I didn’t like that for a semester, and then switched over to math. Now the school that I went to, didn’t have an arts program, really. It had an art class and you could take some of the… if you wanted to pursue art, I think you could take some of them at a nearby college.

Maurice Cherry:
So I went to Morehouse, but you could take art classes at Spelman, because Spelman had, or they still have, I should say, a museum, but they have a very rigorous art program. If you wanted to pursue that, you could just take all your classes at Spelman. And I didn’t even really think about that because I knew that if I did that, I would lose my scholarship because my scholarship was in STEM fields.

Maurice Cherry:
And so math was the compromise for me because I really liked math, and I mean, truth be told there actually is a good bit of design in math when you’re drawing and doing 3d curves and stuff, but I didn’t really get to that until much later in the major. But I do wonder sometimes if I would’ve just pursued art and went that way, what would be different? I don’t begrudge the path that I’ve taken now, but I do wonder, would that be different in that way?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Same here. Same here because I feel like as someone that’s mostly a painter… at some point I felt like, and I felt the vibe I was getting is that an MFA is so important and you’re expected to have an MFA, and by that time I’d already… I didn’t have money to get an MFA because I had already bounced on my loans on these other side.

Dawn Okoro:
And so that wasn’t going to happen. But over time, I’m seeing there are very few things that I want to do where not having an MFA is a barrier to that. So I’m glad that at least the experiences that I have, had in my career just help make me who I am and I’m able to still continue forward in doing what I want to do with art.

Maurice Cherry:
And I mean, continuing along the education path, later you ended up going to law school also. Was that part of your interest back then?

Dawn Okoro:
No, it was never my interest. It was more so, in college I majored in psychology, just buying my time, because I don’t know, I guess… well, at some point I was pre-med in my undergrad and then I started taking those chemistry classes and I was like, “Okay, this isn’t going to work.” So I got my psychology degree.

Dawn Okoro:
And then after that it was like, “Okay, so now I have my bachelor’s degree. I know I want to be self creative, but for now I need to have something going on in my life, or I don’t have a career or anything.” And so I was like, “Okay, well, I’ll just go to law school, you just take the LSAT and you can go to law school with any degree.” And so I was like, “Okay, I’ll just do that.”

Dawn Okoro:
So basically I applied, I was like, “Okay, I’ll just take the LSAT, apply to one school and leave it at that. I got that down, I’ll get in.” And then I applied, then got the acceptance letter, crap. So I got the acceptance letter and I was like, “just oh, crap. I just cannot do this. I wanted to be an artist.”

Dawn Okoro:
So I wrote the school and asked them if they could defer my acceptance. They said, “Okay, we can defer it for a year.” And so I was like, “Okay, I’ll take that year to just finally make myself successful as an artist and then I don’t need to go to law school.” So that year I really did work on my art and that’s when I really started pursuing it professionally.

Dawn Okoro:
That’s when I just put on my own art show and it did go well considering, but then the year went by and my expectations were not realistic either, but I still wasn’t able to make a living from arts, so I was like, “Okay, I’ll just go ahead and go to law school.” And that’s what I did, I was like, “Well, let me just do that so I can just become a lawyer and then I’ll just be an artist on the side.”

Dawn Okoro:
So in law school, I mean, law school is very demanding, especially if it’s not your passion to be a lawyer, I think that makes it harder and less fun to do. I mean, it is interesting and you’ll learn somethings, and that was a cool experience, and I met some good people that I’m still in touch with, but law school itself, I mean, it was just not the most fun experience, but there is something about going to law school that was a positive impact on my art.

Dawn Okoro:
Going to law school, I went to Texas Southern in Houston, and Houston at the time, I felt like Houston had a really vibrant art scene, more than Austin, I guess. The Houston art scene was, I don’t know, it’s more culturally rich and there were just stronger representation of Black artists and artists of color being seen and shown. And so there, I was able to get involved in the art scene and I was showing my work there and I met a couple artists who are still mentors for me today.

Dawn Okoro:
So the best part about law school was just, I guess it made me move to Houston temporarily, but I graduated from law school and at that time I was just like, “Okay, I know want to do this time, I have nothing to lose.” And so I just decided at that time, I’m not going to pursue law, I’m just going to now be an artist.

Dawn Okoro:
So right after I graduated from law school, me along with my boyfriend, we just moved to New York. We didn’t really have anything to lose. That was an interesting experience too, but we did end up back in Texas and that’s when I ended up becoming a journalist for many years. So it’s a rollercoaster doing art and then stopping art, doing art, stopping art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I’m curious, and this feeds into my next question, but do you feel like once you went through this, went through law school and being in Houston, do you feel like this gave you permission now to be an artist?

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah, I do. Especially at that time, because I mean, after just going through law school, I figure, okay, at least I did it, I finished, hopefully my family will be proud of that. But now it’s like, okay, at this point I’m 29 years old. I was just like, okay, now I’m just going to do my own thing, which is art. But then I just felt like, well, I’m just still not getting to where I want to be fast, that’s how I felt at that time.

Dawn Okoro:
Now looking back, I should have had more patience. But I just decided, okay, well, I just want to get my life together and just harsh some stability. So that’s when I got a job as a journalist and then just… and that was after moving back from New York. And so I was feeling discouraged being back in Texas.

Dawn Okoro:
And let me tell you when I lived in New York, we ended up having to come back to Texas. It was just a bad time to really move to New York, economic recession and all that. But coming back to Texas it meant I move right back to Lubbock, at least for a while. So that was a huge culture shift going from New York to Lubbock, where my life just felt like it came to a screeching halt.

Dawn Okoro:
And so we were just really upset about it and we’re depressed at the time, and I was just like, “I’m just going to give up on art, and I just focus on my journalism career.” And I started doing more in that. And there was some good times working as a journalist and somethings I enjoyed, and yeah, and so I was just focusing on my 9:00 tO 5:00. And then when I would get off of work, instead of making art, then it’s like, “Okay, I have the free time to just chill and decompress or whatever.”

Dawn Okoro:
But over time I just realized I was just going through the motions and just watching my life pass me by and I wasn’t really happy. And that’s when I decided, okay, I need to get back into art and just continue to do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And like you’re saying, it sounds like this also took place right around the time you were leaving your 20s, entering your 30s, wondering is this right? Is this the path that I’m supposed to be taking?

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly. It was just like, “Okay, damn, I’m 30, what do I…” And it’s easier for me to look at it differently now, yeah I was just feeling frantic and I just didn’t have, I guess a career really and all that. And so I was just trying to just get some, at least some financial stability, which we were at that time just working and just building up.

Dawn Okoro:
I can’t really say that, that was not the right way to go about things, I could have gone about it differently, but it’s nice just to have at least your basic needs taken care of and then it’s you easier for me to be creative?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The reason that I was saying that this might feed into my next question is because I wanted to ask you about this solo exhibition that you did last year called Burden of Respectabilit, because as you’ve described all of this, the word respectability or the concept of respectability politics popped into my head. And I’m wondering as you did the solo exhibition, did that conjure up these past feelings of feeling like you had to go along this certain path in your life and in your career, instead of becoming an artist earlier on?

Dawn Okoro:
When I was putting together that show, I don’t remember thinking specifically about my situation with my path to being an artist. But now that you say that, deep down, that probably had some impact on that. I mean, I was thinking about myself and just Black people in America in general, how you’re just in some segments, I guess, of society you’re expected to act or behave a certain way so that you can show that you’re good, you’re one of the good ones.

Dawn Okoro:
So when I did this show, and this was this fall of 2020, so we had the pandemic, I had an opportunity to do a show in a window, so it would just be a window display. So I thought, okay, that’s a great idea with the pandemic, anyone could just come by and see the work without having to be close to anybody or even go indoors. And I always love seeing the window displays in New York, like on fifth avenue and all that.

Dawn Okoro:
And just watching how that as an art in itself doing a merchandising display, so I figured I wanted to do something like that with my art. And so I’d been wearing these head pieces because I just like them for fashion, and so I decided to make some head pieces that would sit on top of mannequin heads for the display and then they would also be lighting where there’d be a purple light that shines on the mannequins and then splashes onto the background.

Dawn Okoro:
So I made these head chains, well out of copper chains, and then I used different gemstones and they were heavy. So when I finished each head piece and then each head piece was heavy, and so it weighs down on the mannequins head, but that’s to show that the weight of that Burden of Respectability. And so just trying to show the weight, but also trying to praise something that’s aesthetically appealing to who ever might be walking by and viewing that window.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a strong metaphor. I mean, I think historically when people think about… to give you a sense, we’ll put a link to it in the show notes, so people can see the window and see what I’m talking about. But it’s these heads on pikes, essentially, which historically have meant a warning in a way.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So when I was looking at the images, I’m thinking, oh, this is an Oman, the Burden of Respectability is you end up like this.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I had to think, okay, how will I display these head pieces? And so I got these styrofoam heads and they’re really light weight and I painted them black. And then on some of the faces of the heads I put bits of copper leaf over the eyes and things like that. Yeah. The thing I had to display on was this metal pole or steak and then, the styrofoam is so lightweight that you can just smash the styrofoam on there.

Dawn Okoro:
And I noticed when I did that it looked like a chopped off head that’s just dangling there. So yeah, I could definitely see where you’re coming from on that.

Maurice Cherry:
And now those head pieces that you were creating, are those similar to the one that you wear now? The one that I’ve seen in recent photos?

Dawn Okoro:
The one that I’ve been wearing in most photos is one that I bought a while back, and I liked it so much, I decided I wanted to start making my own, which I still have some more ideas that I want to work on. But I use this headpiece as a pattern, just how the crown is made, and so I make something similar and then I looped the metal on in a similar way. But then from there I could play with how much chain or how long, or if you want to attach any other materials and things like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. The ones that you’re wearing, I love those. It gives a very rockstar feel to your image. I don’t know, I was describing it to a friend of mine earlier. I was like, “It’s like a medieval circlet, but then it’s also giving me Rick James.” I love it. It’s great.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I put on, I was like, “I like this.” And it end up becoming… it’s like my wig. I had it on today. I didn’t know if this… I thought this was going to be on video, so I had it ready for you.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, we’ll have your image for the cover art, so people can see that.

Dawn Okoro:
Okay, cool.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Speaking to what we were talking about before, and I’ve mentioned this before we started recording. I love that you really use social media to give a glimpse into just your artistic world. You’re on Twitter, you’re on Instagram, you’re on TikTok, which I’ve recently been getting into TikTok. That’s a very interesting place, TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
And then of course, YouTube, you have a series that you have called Life in Art, where you have all these videos, there’s a video of your first museum solo show, there’s a recent video you did around anxiety and being an artist. How does social media really help out with what you do?

Dawn Okoro:
Well, for me, social media has been a huge help, even going way back to before I went to law school. Back then my space was the thing, and so I would get out of my space, post my artwork. And even with that… I guess maybe my space wasn’t as bad at that time with algorithms and all that. I’m thinking the reach was probably more organic because it was just easier to… I don’t know, it seemed like it was easier to meet other people through that platform, especially meeting other artists.

Dawn Okoro:
And even back then on my space, I was meeting collectors, other artists who became mentors, curators, and then looking at present day, I do post on Instagram a lot. That’s really my main one because it’s the more visual one I guess, good for posting photos, I guess.

Dawn Okoro:
But when I did my Punk Noir show, the first version of it in Austin, I started just documenting the process, about six months before, not every day, but several days a week, just post, here’s what I’m working on today, here’s what’s going on now, or here’s this challenge that I’m going through.

Dawn Okoro:
But then six months later, then when the show opened up, a lot of people had been following that whole process and they felt… I guess they felt like, okay, they felt that they were with me in a way. And I’ve heard some collectors say that they really enjoyed just seeing the process of me making a specific painting.

Dawn Okoro:
And also just when I show what I have going on, other artists can see what I’m doing and what I’m dealing with, and they can relate and helps them feel less alone as well. But really even still today, Instagram is where I still meet collectors, curators, people that run museums or that run galleries. The initial connection might be Instagram, they have an account too, and they’re following and they’re like, “I like this person.”

Dawn Okoro:
And so maybe they may reach out through a DM or through email, but it’s still been a great way to just meet people in the world that are interested in my art.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know that there are certainly listeners that have written us and have asked like, “We want to see from more people that are using, I think, more social platforms.” And that’s not to say that Instagram is not a social platform, it totally is. But I’m really intrigued by how you use TikTok.

Maurice Cherry:
Because like I alluded to, it is a very interesting platform. I just started really exploring it. I don’t know, maybe about a month or so ago. There’s a spirit about TikTok that reminds me very much of the early, early, early web, late 90s, early 2000s, where it’s unfettered in terms of what you can talk about and everything, but in the same vein, it’s also weirdly regulated.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, of course heavily so in terms of certain things you would mention in terms of topics. But I’ll hear about people getting banned if their account reaches a certain amount of followers and they have to start a second account or a third account, and I don’t really understand the… it seems very volatile as a platform.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I mean, the account I have now is my second account, because the first account I started, I guess maybe a year and a half ago when you initially registered, you can use your Instagram account as your registration, so I’m like, “That’s easy, I’ll do that.” And then I joined and I didn’t really use it that much, and then more recently I started wanting to use it again, but they said, “Oh, sorry, we don’t work with Instagram anymore, so if you registered through that, then you’re just screwed and you lost your username and everything.” And so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Dawn Okoro:
Okay. And then I’ve been having trouble trying to get that fixed. So yeah, I just started another account. And so I’ve just been posting from that. So, with TikTok, I gave it a try because it seems like it’s… not that I want to go viral or anything, but it seems like it’s easier to go viral on TikTok or just… it’s easier to just randomly get a lot of views for a post, whereas opposed to others like Instagram or Twitter, is just so buried in the algorithm that’s so hard just for anyone to even see the post, with TikTok, it’s just more random like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. TikTok is a lot buzzier in that respect. Even your For You page, to me it’s very much akin to… as I’m scrolling on my phone, it feels like I’m channel surfing with a remote. You just go from video to video, here’s the next one, here’s the next one, here’s the next one. And of course the algorithm changes up, so you may be watching cleaning videos and then all of a sudden now it’s on thirst traps, and then now of a sudden it’s doing poor extractions.

Maurice Cherry:
I don’t know, my For You page is all over the place, because you will like a video and then I guess the algorithm thinks, oh, well you must want to see more of this. I’m like, “Not really.”

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
But I liked that video, not all of these other videos.

Dawn Okoro:
I have a hard time… I’ve been using TikTok because I feel like, well, let me at least be on there and see what happens. But yeah, I have a hard time consuming on TikTok because yeah, it’s just too much for me because I mean, you need to have the sound on and then… it’s a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
It feel just like, “Okay, just shut up.”

Maurice Cherry:
And then talking about their regulation, sometimes you’ll make a video and then the sound, TikTok will decide to just mute the sound. So okay, so now your video’s up, but it doesn’t have sound, and what it seems to be like, I don’t know, I mean, I’ve been on the web for 20 plus years, so I’ve seen bad comments.

Maurice Cherry:
TikTok has the worst comment section I have ever seen anywhere across any platform, probably similar to 4chan in terms of how much people try to get a rise out of you. Because what I see from TikTok is certainly you have people that are creating videos, but then you have an equal amount of people creating reactions to bad comment videos.

Dawn Okoro:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
Someone will leave some really shitty comment, and then now the response to that has gone viral, and it seems like going viral on TikTok is a nightmare because of course, that video will get shared out on other platforms and stuff like that and just invites all kind of stuff. But TikTok is a very interesting place. I’m strictly a consumer, I don’t know if I want to put anything on TikTok. I’ll just watch it.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. We’ll see. I’ll post occasionally, I’ll post some of my art process videos. But one day, a few months ago I was like, “Let me…” I’ve got a new pair of Jordan 6, I was like, “Let me post it on TikTok.” And that did better than any of my art videos. So I don’t know.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s weird about the stuff that will go viral. It’s hard to predict that. On that concept around exposure, I think we’re starting to see a lot more Black fine artists and their work being exhibited to the mainstream, I’d say probably over the past decade or so.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ve got Kehinde Wiley who did Barack Obama’s official portrait that’s in the national portrait gallery, Amy Sherald also did Michelle Obama’s portrait that’s in the national portrait gallery. You’ve got of course, a lot more Black run television shows and movies and things like that, that are also utilizing the work of Black artists.

Maurice Cherry:
The one that sticks out to me, just off the top of my head is Lina. I think her name is Lina Viktor Iris, who did all this intricate gold work stuff that Kendrick Lamar used in his video with SZA. This was years and years ago.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
But we’re also seeing television shows like Empire did a lot with showcasing Black artists. Your art has even been shown on a television show on the First Wives Club on BET. What do you think about that kind of exposure? Does it really help you out as an artist?

Dawn Okoro:
I don’t know. I did have some of my work in a scene on the First Wife’s Club initially. I mean, that was just cool to just have that happen. It’s cool to see your work on a show. As far as exposure from that, I don’t know, I definitely… because honestly I didn’t get credit for it as far as… I don’t get a credit at the end of the show or anything, so there’s really no… my art was not mentioned in the script or anything, so really for a viewer, they wouldn’t have no idea whose art it was if I hadn’t posted about it on my social media.

Dawn Okoro:
So, I don’t know if in my situation, if it helped with exposure. I don’t know if it had been something different, if it would’ve helped. I have something coming up for another project in the future where my art will be on something again. But this will be with an… this will be a movie through Sony. I don’t know, with that we’ll know again, if it provide any exposure for me or if this was just decoration for the background.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I don’t know. I definitely don’t. I don’t think I’ve gotten any direct exposure or opportunities from that. So I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s different for other artists, but I can just say hopefully in those situations, the artists is always treated fairly. Because you mentioned the Black Panther situation. I don’t have all the facts in front of me, but I remember reading a while back, the artist was asked to, like, “Hey, could we use your visuals for this?”

Dawn Okoro:
And I think she was open to them, but I’m not sure that the negotiations was it wasn’t… I guess the terms weren’t what she wanted so she said no. And then, so they decided just to go ahead and have another artist make work just as similar to hers and just use it anyway. And I think she filed a lawsuit, but I don’t think she came out on top of the lawsuit. I think they said, well, it’s not the same so they can do this. So that sucked. So hopefully that doesn’t ever happened to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, I’m looking at it up now and I misspoke her name earlier it’s Lina Iris Viktor, and yeah, it was Kendrick Lamar and SZA had the video that was, I think it was All the Stars, I think that was the song that was on the Black Panther soundtrack. But to point out what you said earlier around attribution, I mean, I think that’s the most important part, because you see these visuals and they’re in the background, and unless there’s something in the script or in the credits that’s like, “Artwork done by Blank.” You don’t really know unless you know the artist.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You could look at… because different artists have their own unique styles, we’ve had fine artists on the show before like Dr. Fahamu Pecou, et cetera. And so, if you know the art, then you know the style, but does the average person watching the show know that? And it’s clear that it doesn’t feel like the show has a responsibility, or maybe the movie or whatever, doesn’t have a responsibility to even illuminate that, which is pretty sad, especially from Black works.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. A while back and that was… Beverly Hills Cop came on and there was a scene where they’re in a gallery. And then I noticed in the credits of the movie they listed all the artists whose work was shown in that gallery scene. So I was like, “See that, that’s what I would rather have happened.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Dawn Okoro:
But I guess it’s just really up to the artists if they’re comfortable with the terms that are presented there.

Maurice Cherry:
Because I mean certainly if a television show or something ran and the actors didn’t get any attribution, people will be raising hell. So.

Dawn Okoro:
Exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe it’s a thing where more artists need to speak up. I don’t know. I mean, I’m pointing this out as a problem that artists need to solve because clearly if the production companies and such are seeking out and using the art, then it should be up to them to then go the extra step of making sure that, that artist gets credited.

Maurice Cherry:
But I hope that more, especially from Black creatives, I hope to see more of that… I don’t even want to say reaching back, that feels weird to even say, but when I look at say Issa Rae what she’s doing with Insecure, or what other show runners are doing with other shows like that, it’s clear that representation matters, having these images matters. And that’s whether it’s the image of a person or the image of artwork.

Maurice Cherry:
It should be at least attributed so people know that it’s not just Black folks behind the scenes and Black folks that are acting, but this is Black art on the walls and these are the artists that you should know who they are and support them and stuff like that.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. I definitely agree with that. That’s something that I hadn’t really thought about much. I don’t think I’ve really gotten anything directly from that. So.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you want people to see when they look at your work?

Dawn Okoro:
I want people to feel inspired, I want them to see strength, I want them to see power. The other day I did… you mentioned the YouTube video I did about anxiety. Someone had made a comment that they were surprised to hear that I felt that way, because when they saw my work, they felt they saw someone that was empowered. And so I was thinking, yeah, I guess that is the case, but I mean, I always feel empowered myself, but I would like that to come through in my art.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s an article that I saw that was about… it was the same one that we’re going to link in the show notes that was regarding your Burden of Respectability exhibit. But in that article, your work is described as a pursuit to the expansion of herself. How has your work changed as you’ve grown just as a woman?

Dawn Okoro:
For me, when I initially started doing portraits when I was younger, for me and I wanted to be at least somewhat realistic, so I needed a reference image to look at. So initially I started just drawing from images and magazines, changing it to my own… changing this photo to other drawing or painting that’s in my own vision.

Dawn Okoro:
And at one point, just for example, I would go through a fashion magazine because I love looking at fashion, and I would take this painting of a photo of a White model and then make it into a whole new painting of a Black woman. And then over time I started being able to get my own reference photos and just learn how to shoot and be able to create from that.

Dawn Okoro:
So then I started just painting these portraits of different people in different colors that felt were right for the image. But then over time, giving myself permission to be an artist and this, and I think I’ve also started to give myself permission to experiment more and try new materials. As I grow, I’m going to be just trying new things and just filling out what works and what doesn’t, and just continue to evolve, for example, even using the Kool-Aid as a medium, in the past, I never would’ve thought about using a food related item as an art medium.

Dawn Okoro:
So, ultimately I just want to be able to just be somewhat playful with some of what I do, because it makes it more fun and experimentation is a very big part of growing for me.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you get your creativity back if you’re feeling uninspired?

Dawn Okoro:
So, yeah, when I’m uninspired if just sink into that and do nothing, then it just leads to more of doing nothing and then just feeling worse. So really the best thing for me to do is when I’m feeling uninspired, is to just work on something, just even if it’s small, just something low pressure, because I may not feel inspired, but then once I get into whatever I’m working on, it feels like it activates a part of my brain where I start to get a little bit more inspired, and even with what I’m working on, I may think of a new idea and try something new.

Dawn Okoro:
And then at the end of the day, I’ve worked on something, I’ve worked through this creative slump, even if I didn’t come out with a whole great brand new idea, at least I was working towards it, and so I feel better about myself overall. But sometimes it’s been easier said than done, but I’ve been better about that lately, just trying to work through those moments of low inspiration.

Maurice Cherry:
Are there any artists out there that you really like that help inspire you? And they don’t have to be visual artists? It could be any artist.

Dawn Okoro:
One of my first artists inspirations was Andy Warhol. And that’s because he’s one of the first artists I learned about when I was in high school and I was drawn to how he was, I guess, eccentric and I like the way he used color and the way that he did the solid background. So that’s initially what got me started on doing my work the way that I do.

Dawn Okoro:
Another artist that I find inspiration on or from is Wangechi Mutu, her work is so earthy. A couple of years ago she had a solo show here in Austin at a museum and she had these high heels that were covered in mud, but it was just so beautiful and so organic at the same time. So for my own art, ideally it would be cool to combine bright, unnatural colors but with also an organic look or feel as well. So yeah, those are two of my inspirations.

Maurice Cherry:
Who have been some of the mentors that have helped you out along your artistic career?

Dawn Okoro:
One of the mentors, William Cordova, he’s a visual artist. He’s really the first person from the art world that really, I guess validated me in saying, just letting me know that I don’t have to have that MFA, and then what I’m doing is good enough, as an artist I could actually do this and be taken seriously.

Dawn Okoro:
And then he introduced me to Robert Pruitt who is from Houston. Robert has been a mentor, he encouraged me early on. And then I think he moved to New York, but I think every now and then if he’ll see something good, he’ll apply for you, send it my way. And then last year he curated a show at the gallery that he works with in Seattle, Koplin Del Rio, and he brought some of my work into that show.

Dawn Okoro:
And that went really well, the work sold and the gallery was like, “You got me more.” And like, “Sure.” A sense of more. And then finally it got to where I’m working with that gallery and that’s why I have the solo show with them now. And so that’s thanks to the help of fellow artists, Robert Pruitt.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Dawn Okoro:
What am I obsessed with right now? I would say, right now I’m obsessed with this Kool-Aid, because I’m really having fun with playing with the textures, and there’s so much you can do with that to where you can make it when it dries, it still has a bumpy texture to it and a little bit of a glimmer from the chemical crystals that they put in there. And so, I still want to explore that some more and just see what else can be done with that as a medium.

Maurice Cherry:
With the red Kool-Aid that you’re using, is it cherry or tropical punch?

Dawn Okoro:
The red has been… I’ve actually used both the red… I’ve used tropical punch and cherry. And then the watermelon is more of a pinkish red.

Maurice Cherry:
I didn’t even think about watermelon. Okay. That makes sense. Do you have a dream project that you love to do one day?

Dawn Okoro:
One that I’ve always wanted to do and is be able to, just travel to different parts of the world and just meet and work amongst the artists there, for example, Lagos, I would love to be able to go there and spend some time and work with the artists there and also, maybe even meet people who are part of the punk community there and maybe create images, create paintings of those people.

Dawn Okoro:
And [inaudible 00:58:55] it’s always envision going to different parts of the world and painting porches of some of the people I meet there.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you see this next chapter of your career going? Say it’s the next five years from now? What work do you want to be doing?

Dawn Okoro:
That’s something that I’m currently trying to figure out, because I love having paintings out there in the world and having shows with that work. And I definitely want to continue having the shows, but I think I could see myself maybe having a show of paintings maybe once a year, and then the rest of the year just working on just different projects that I might be interested in.

Dawn Okoro:
I’m not sure what that would be or what that would look like, but it would definitely be less… just getting ready for the next show which is how things are for me right now.

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

Dawn Okoro:
Yes. I’m most active on Instagram, and there I’m at dawn okoro, on Twitter I’m also at Dawn Okoro, and then TikTok I’m dawnokoro_official. And I also have a blog on YouTube called Life in Art, and that’s where I share just some of the stuff I have going on, just working as an artist.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Dawn Okoro, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I mean, of course, one for sharing your story and talking about the themes of things behind the work that you do, but also showing that it’s possible to be a successful working artist. I think, as I alluded to earlier in the conversation around this great resignation period that’s going on right now, I think people need to see more success stories of folks getting out there and making it on their own, and certainly with the powerful work that you’re creating.

Maurice Cherry:
And now that you’re going to have the capacity to do this full time, I’m just really excited to see what you’ll have coming up next. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Dawn Okoro:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. And yeah, I’m looking forward to the future.

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of this year’s HBCU Month on Revision Path (as well as this year’s World Interaction Design Day) than with a conversation with Marcus Mosby. Marcus is a senior interaction designer at Fjord in Austin, TX, and his passion lies in designing and creating experiences that help improve the lives of users everywhere.

We started off with an introduction to interaction design, and Marcus talked about the processes and tools he uses, and gave tips for other designers looking to get into the field. From there, we talked about his time at Clark Atlanta University, and he shared what it’s like to design for different cultural considerations, and even gave us a peek at his photography work! There are a lot of paths you can take to get into design, and Marcus wants you to know that the sky’s the limit!


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Revision Path is sponsored by Facebook Design. No one designs at scale quite like Facebook does, and that scale is only matched by their commitment to giving back to the design community.
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Revision Path is also sponsored by Glitch. Glitch is the friendly community where you can build the app of your dreams. Stuck on something? Get help! You got this!
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Revision Path is also brought to you by Google Design! Google Design is committed to sharing the best design thinking from Google and beyond. Sign up for their newsletter!
Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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Oen Michael Hammonds, a designer, mentor and lead facilitator at IBM Design, has designed across the gamut — advertising, graphic, interactive and environmental. At IBM Design, Oen works with internal teams to develop design thinking among executives, software development teams, and sales.

First, we talked about design thinking — what it is, how it’s used, and why it’s important. From there, our conversation focused on Oen’s journey as a designer, the importance of AIGA to his career, and what excites him about design. What a great way to end out the year!


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Revision Path is also sponsored by Hover. Visit hover.com/revisionpath and save 10% off your first purchase! Big thanks to Hover!
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Revision Path is brought to you by MailChimp. Huge thanks to them for their support of the show! Visit them today and say thanks!
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