Maxwell VanHook

“If you have a vision for yourself, go for it.” When Maxwell VanHook told me that before our interview, I knew that he was about to drop some serious knowledge. And he did not disappoint!

We started off in an interesting place — the home — and he talked about how newlywed life and how he’s been re-evaluating the concept of work and code switching in this current age. He also shared a bit about his work as an associate creative director for Amazon Devices, and his role as co-host of the weekly IG Live show Designing While Black. For Maxwell, trusting your voice and values has been key to his success…and I definitely agree with that!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I am Maxwell VanHook. I am from Baltimore, Maryland, currently. In my professional life, I am an associate creative director on the Amazon devices team. That basically entails anything that has Alexa in it, but it also involves the devices that Amazon makes. You can think about your Echo Dots, Echo Shows, Kindles, emerging platforms like Amazon Luna, which is cloud gaming. Outside of my professional life, I am a music lover. I’m also the co-host of Designing While Black along with Bekah Marcum. That comprises who I am. First and foremost, I would say with all of those things, I like to show up as a friend. I’m just a friend, support system and a champion of other people’s dreams. I like to see people succeed. I’d like to see people win.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
The year’s been good. I’m not going to lie to you. When COVID hit, I think that I had some psychological and emotional barriers. No, just in terms of shifting my schedule. I had a routine. I would get up every day, probably around 6:37 o’clock, do whatever I need to do for the morning, get dressed, go to work, probably get coffee when I went to work. And so it gets monotonous. All of that broke down once COVID hit. And so now, I’m at home. Now, I’m with my wife and I’m with my cat. Nobody’s really going outside. And so I had to create new routines for myself. I had to learn how to work out within at home, I had to learn how to run within my home, I had to learn how to make sure that I was keeping my mind active outside of my day-to-day work. I also need to figure out how to keep myself emotionally and mentally stable.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so it’s been good because I learned a lot about myself. I really had to scrutinize what I wanted from life and it allowed me to be still. I know that there were a lot of things that came along with the pandemic. But now that we’re somewhat out of it, I actually appreciate it because it allowed me to sit with myself and really be introspective about how I wanted to move forward in this next phase of life. I just turned 31 not too long ago. And so I feel like I’m at a crossroads in terms of who I want to be. This has been good for me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think a lot of people now, especially peer in the states who have hopefully gotten their vaccines or they’re seeing now that just restrictions are being lifted like nationwide and in many places, I think a lot of people are at that point of reexamining and reevaluating where they’re at now that they’ve come out of this and trying to figure out what moving forward looks like, because I think there’s been this big push to get back to normal. You got to get back to normal. But it’s almost impossible in many ways because the world is just a different place. We’re different people now that we have all collectively went through this extended trauma. It’s hard to just snap back into what you used to do before all of this.

Maxwell VanHook:
Now, it was important for me… I realized, especially like on a work-front, there are certain conditioning that you go through in terms of how you show up that especially in physical spaces, like when you walk into a corporate office and you’re not the dominant culture. And so things like code switching, dialect altering, I was with… not too long ago, we had someone that we interviewed and they used the phrase telephone voice. These are things that I feel black and brown people use every day to survive in these spaces. I just had to do a deep conditioning because when I was at home, I was way more relaxed. And then I realized that I’m not in the physical space with you and I’m not going to become someone different when I’m outside of my home.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I had a conflict with myself, like internal conflict. This is the space where I am authentically myself, this is the space where I can be free and open and now I’m bringing work into that space. And so I like, “No, I flipped that on its head. Anywhere that I show up, that’s how I’m going to be.” And so working at home actually allowed me to do that, getting on the phone and not really caring how I’m phrasing things, not really caring on what type of vernacular I’ll use because I was just embracing fully who I am. Especially when you put it in the context of the pandemic, you realize, “Hey, life can be snatched at any moment. It’s up to us to live use the agency to own your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting. You’re like reevaluating… it’s funny… well, not funny, but I like that you said that you’re looking at home and how you bring work into it, because certainly for a lot of folks, having to work from home, it’s been tough, I think, for many people to really make that delineation between like, “This is work, this is home.” Even if you’ve got a dedicated space, you’re still bringing a totally foreign thing into your sanctuary. Home is where you… That’s where you sleep, that’s where you let your hair down, that’s where you let your defenses down. But now, it’s also your workplace and your gym and your daycare and all these other things now. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, all those things converged. When they converged in that manner, I just started to look at how I was showing up and then also how I was relating to people. I think you discover things about yourself throughout life because I believe that we’re fluid beings in that way. And just being able to sit at home, knowing that this is my space and I own it, I couldn’t even access any form of code switching or altering, if I wanted to, because it just wouldn’t sit right with me. And that just ultimately led me to say like, “Why was I doing it in the first place? Also, who told me to do this?” And that was another thing like, “Who told me to do this?” I was like, “No one told me to do this? This is a decision you made and you have to break and work to get out of this.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so if there is a danger and not code switching, that’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with, but I would rather live my truth. I feel like most people should live their truth in that sense. There’s so many people who stay away from their unique sensibilities or their unique form of expression because of how other people will perceive it and that stops you from that expansion. That’s the goal. I’m trying to expand, I’m trying to try as many things as I possibly can. With curiosity comes failures sometimes. I don’t even look at failure as failure. I look at that as a lesson, a learning lesson. I want to fall as many times as I can. I want to show up in any form that I want to show up in. Yeah, I just want to own my space. I’m trying to walk away from conditioning that may have happened beforehand.

Maurice Cherry:
Does Amazon foster that kind of exploration for you as an employee?

Maxwell VanHook:
I don’t necessarily know if Amazon fosters it. But I will say that when I came to Amazon, I was met with some very real confrontational energy in terms of the people that I was interacting with. I know there are horror stories about Amazon. I do not believe that the majority of them are true, just not in my case. But there was this presence of trying to be A type, trying to be the best, trying to always be on. And for me, there was the double whammy of walking into a social environment inside the building where nobody looked like me, and then also outside of the building, nobody looked like me. And so I don’t necessarily know if there was a support system there. I’d argue that there wasn’t and they’re trying to build it now to foster that individuality and that freedom of expression, but it forced me to build my own.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so in that way, I would appreciate the experience of coming to Amazon, being able to live in Seattle, because it put me directly in line and maybe come face-to-face with who I am as a person, as a designer, especially as a man. And so it was like a forcing function. If I was half stepping in in who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up, I couldn’t really do that there. And so there were a lot of things that I just started to think about differently life-wise once I started working at Amazon. More specifically, like my wellness, like self-care. I didn’t even get a therapist until I came to Amazon, which is odd, it’s super odd. That shouldn’t have been the case. I probably should have always had a sense of reflection or someone to help me process, but that stuff did not happen until I came to Seattle.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. We’ll talk about what brought you to Seattle and everything later, but I want to focus now on the work that you’re doing at Amazon. You said you’re an associate creative director when you’re working on Amazon products, devices I should say, Amazon devices. Amazon has been in the device game for a minute. I think everyone knows about the Kindle, but now there’s Echo, like you mentioned, there’s the Fire TV, there’s the Fire tablet. Amazon has also acquired other electronics companies. And so there’s wearables, there’s the ring security system, all this sort of stuff. There’s a lot that goes into devices at Amazon. Just like as broad as you can, and if you want to go into specifics, that’s fine, what are some creative considerations that you have to think about when it comes to Amazon devices because you’re really working with an entire ecosystem of tech here?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I would say at the center, there’s a leadership principle called customer obsession. Really without getting into too much jargon, essentially at the epicenter of any Amazon product or any Amazon device is this human focused, this human lens. Always creating product and always creating innovation with your audience in mind. And so anytime that I am getting ready to create a campaign or I’m getting ready to market a product, I always think about the audience that I’m trying to serve, because if I’m not thinking about that, then I’m probably being a terrible designer.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I would say that one is that audience, but then also balancing that as you go through and you’re innovating from device to device, realizing how these technologies may create tension points. You want to look at like Echo Dot, for instance, the way that it functions is it very much so has to record. And so it’s constantly listening. It’s pinging to see if it’s being called every so often. And that’s why when you say the key phrase, Alexa, it’ll activate. And so how do I humanize technology like that? How do I humanize emerging technology to show people like, “Hey, this is new, this is novel, but it can fit within your day-to-day lifestyle and it can be a benefit to you”? And so that’s how I think about marketing any product with Amazon. What is the human entry point? What is the human lens? How does this product help serve the customer base and how does it help enhance their lifestyle?

Maxwell VanHook:
I worked on a product, a service within the Alexa app not too long ago, which is probably one of my proudest projects. It’s called Alexa Care. Essentially, it’s for the more senior, elder loved ones in your life. It allows people to stay in touch with those loved ones without infringing on their day-to-day lifestyle. Imagine you have a grandmother who’s 75, 80 years old. She lives by herself at home and you live maybe in another country or another state. How do you stay in touch with her? And so those are the types of products and that’s essentially how we would want any of the Amazon devices to show up. It needs to be a benefit, it needs to enhance, it needs to be brought into the life of our everyday customer and improve. If it’s not doing that, then we probably won’t make it.

Maurice Cherry:
Now that you mentioned, I’m thinking of other kind of Amazon devices. I think these might’ve been some that were discontinued. I remember at one point there was a… I think one was like a camera or a camera wand or something that went with Amazon wardrobe that would analyze your outfit. It reminded me of Clueless, like the opening scene in Clueless, where Cher is picking out her outfit on the computer and the closets got the dual conveyor belt curtains, or whatever, or the rods, or whatever, but thinking about like, “Is that really a benefit? Do I need to do all of that if I’m getting ready in the morning?” Probably not. I think Amazon discontinued it fairly shortly. But when you put it in that way of like the devices need to be a benefit, then I see why Amazon has made such a, I think, deep strides into the home with their devices.

Maurice Cherry:
The Echo is something that easily can blend in with your decor. The Fire TV it sits behind your TV, it’s out of sight. The ring it’s literally outside the house. You don’t really even see it. But the benefits that it adds, whether that’s security or extensibility or smart home functionality, stuff like that, it’s interesting how all of that still works together under the Amazon brand because now it, of course, ties into the services, it ties into Alexa, it ties into purchasing, or whatever that you want to do on the website.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. It’s really important to look at the ecosystem of devices that we have. I don’t even think there’s a lot of things that Amazon tries. I would say a year-over-year, we’ve increased our device output like 10 fold. I expect it to continue to grow and grow. Really, I think the goal is to provide through Alexa a service that can be personalized to the end user and can function in a way that benefits them specifically. I imagine a world… And these are not conversations that I’ve had with anyone in terms of how Alexa functions. But I imagine a world where there are no devices and potentially Alexa is integrated into the home itself.

Maxwell VanHook:
I could imagine like seeing a tiny home, it could start off there and it could just have Alexa integrated into. You don’t need to have these one-off devices in order to have it function. Imagine it already being built into the smart appliances, imagine it already being able to interface with your computer. You don’t need to have a suite of devices that ties into the Internet of things in order to function efficiently. That’s what I think is going on with most AIs. I think the overall goal is to arrive there and the device is just to open up new spaces and open up how customers relate to the voice assistance.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, because I imagine you get a ton of data with just seeing how people talk to Alexa, how they interact with the different devices, and then you can use that, of course, to upgrade the experience. But then as you said, you can venture off into greater implementations. Like I know there’s the Amazon Go store, which I think started in Seattle. I’m not sure if it’s started to spread nationwide yet, but it’s almost like a person list convenience store. You can go in, pick up what you need and walk out. As you’re doing this, you’re automatically being rung up, like the things that you’re buying are being tabulated, you’re charged when you walk out the door, and you don’t have to interact with a person. You just go in, do what you have to do, walk out.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think, if I’m not mistaken, not too long ago, and you probably find this online, they just opened up a full fledged grocery store here in Washington.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I’m going to have to go check that out. Even like that concept, it’s interesting because it’s not like we haven’t tried that in history before. I look at the, on a smaller scale, like a lot of the grocery stores already have some form of self-checkout. But even the human psychology behind self-checkout, you look at it, realistically, if you were to assess how long it takes you to go into a store, get what you need and then go through the checkout line by yourself, it probably on average takes you a lot longer rather than having else. But it’s the thought that you are going to be a lot faster than that person who may be checking you out in line, which is interesting. But also even seeing Amazon try something like this and be relatively successful has a lot to do with studying the human behavior. But yeah, that’s not the first time in human history that we’ve we tried that before. [crosstalk 00:21:10].

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, no, no, I’m thinking specifically of the automat, which has been around since like the late 1800s. When Amazon is doing at least in… if you look at from the automat to the Amazon Go store is essentially taking that same concept and almost treating the store like a vending machine and just having this layer of technology that handles interactions throughout the entire process.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, it’s crazy to see. I remember the first time that I actually went into… because I work in Day 1, and for anyone who doesn’t know what Day 1, it’s one of the buildings. I believe it’s actually the building that Jeff Bezos is. And so within the verticals and the business orders that he cares about, they all exist in that building, with the exception of AWS, Amazon Web Services. I remember when I first went into that store and it was such a weird thing. It was like coming from where I come from, just be able to use an app, walk in and walk out, and I stopped myself and I was like, “Am I like really…” It’s almost like you feel like you’re about to steal something like, “Am I really allowed to walk out with this?” Yeah, but it’s interesting in that I think as they become more successful with the rollout of the stores, yeah, you’re going to see a lot more of it.

Maurice Cherry:
I can see Amazon coming out with like the Amazon house of tomorrow. You know what I mean? It’s almost like those old Tex Avery cartoons where you got all the machines and robots doing stuff. It’s so interesting because these are concepts… Just this whole thing about home automation, for example, we’ve been fed that for like 50 years now. The Flintstones and all those little animals and shit doing stuff for them in the cave, we’ve been fed this whole thing about having the house work for us instead of us working in the house for such a long time. And so now you’ve got a company like Amazon that’s able to really do that through their devices. Other companies have gotten on this too, but I feel like Amazon was really one of the first to really do deep penetration into the home largely because I think it was tied to commerce.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, no, I also think it’s so interesting to see the exponential growth of technology and the rate of change and the rate of innovation and technology. I’m sure that you’ve watched Black Mirror.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. And so I remember the first season and I was like, “Oh, some of the things that are happening in this series, like the grain, the grain where you can run back all your memories, that’s super far away.” And then season-by-season, I think I realized by the third season, I’m like, “No, these are things that can happen now.” And so I’m looking back because I always feel as though like art imitates life. I think we seed ideas within the consciousness of society and then some person out there will have the goal or have the genius to make it. And now, I think we’re at a crossroads where it’s like, “All right, you put that into the world, I can make that tomorrow.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so yeah, I think you’re 100% right. We’re going to look probably within the next few years, there will probably be some sort of smart home that will have all this integrated tech. I think we’re at a stage where that next technological revolution, if it’s not already here, it’s getting ready to come underway. It’s pushing up against our beliefs about identity in how we think about ourselves. Going back to Black Mirror, that episode about VR and video games, I forget the actors that were in it, but…

Maurice Cherry:
Is this from the latest season, the Striking Vipers?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yes, Striking Vipers.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
That was so interesting to me because it introduced a new topic, because that technology is not far away. It’s right around the corner. I want to say not to get too graphic, but there are streaming websites that people probably sit or shouldn’t be going to that get a lot of data and they have invested and have given seed money to companies who are creating bodysuits that can sense like AR/VR touchpoints and mimic haptic feelings throughout the body if you’re wearing these suits. And so, yeah, like seeing an episode like that and knowing… because I pay attention to angel investors, I’ll pay attention to what people are doing in the market, knowing that there are websites who want that technology and are spending money in order to make it happen means that that conversation may not be that far down the line. And that to me, it’s somewhat terrifying, but it’s also really interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
No, no, I totally get what you’re saying. I didn’t even think you were going to go that way with it. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I can see that. I was thinking more so about like now how… A couple of weeks ago I had this guy on the show, Brandon Groce, and we were talking about the metaverse and about how there are online personalities, YouTubers, podcasters, et cetera, that have a virtual realish avatar, like a VTuber or something like that. We’re starting to see it on YouTube, for example, people that have these online-ish identities that are getting some level of fame. There’s Dream, there’s Corpse Husband, there’s probably a few other folks. It’s like these are real people. No one knows who they are, what they look like, but they’ve presented this digital 3D avatar of themselves. They’re able to use that to, I guess, be themselves online in some sort of way. But to go back to what you said with the Black Mirror portion, I do see how that’s not too far away at all. Between augmented reality and things of that nature, it’s pretty close.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Even what you just said, I love to unpack that even more, because in a sense, it’s the most ideal version of yourself. That’s what I think in a real way because I’m conflicted about social media and how it’s used, but you curated. A lot of people do not give this holistic presentation. It’s not like a direct one-to-one to your everyday life experiences. Yeah, you just amplify that and then now I can actually physically choose what I look like. If I want to be part animal, part human, or if I want to be a cyborg, I can do that. And now, we’re all in ready player one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, absolutely.

Maxwell VanHook:
I can imagine that that’ll happen. Yeah, not too long from now. I feel like I’m watching kids now and at least my… I have a godson and he constantly in his video games. If he’s not in his video games, he’s watching streamers. I hear you on that one.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve been talking about your work at Amazon. One of the other things that you do is that you are a co-host of a show on Instagram called Designing While Black. Tell me about that.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I think Bekah and I met in my first year at Amazon. And so Bekah is my co-host. What we realized is that internally there were no spaces for designers to come together, meet politic, learn from one another, and generally just have a social bond that feels like support. We wanted to change that. And so we got together. I want to say one day, we went to a mini golf session and we sent out a blast. We expected like five people to show up. I think like over 30 people showed up. So now, we realize like, “Oh, there’s a community within Seattle that we really, really need to access.” That’s where black designers of Seattle came from, just trying to create a space where black designers who may feel other, who may feel like there’s no one who shares the same interest or even walks in the same spaces that they do. There is a social circle out there that they can access.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so a lot of the times like when we were starting to have these gatherings, we weren’t talking about design at all. We were just having fun. We would go, pick a place, we would eat, and we would just fellowship. And then we slowly started to shift that and it became a little bit more educational. We started to bring people in like Tim Allen, I believe you had Tim Allen on your show.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), from Airbnb, yup.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). We brought in Jessica Rochelle, Timothy Bardlavens. And so we were bringing in these different people who were really able to share knowledge, share their experience, and uplift the designers within our community. And then we were getting reached out to from agencies or other bigger tech companies because they wanted to host us in the space and then the pandemic hit and then things started to take a bit of a low. We try to figure out how to navigate the new world and the new situation that COVID presented to us.

Maxwell VanHook:
One of the things that we thought about was having a Zoom. But then outside of that Zoom, because we were specifically talking to designers within Seattle, we were really, really interested in being able to reach a larger audience. And within that larger audience, really speak to emerging designers. People who are either in middle school, high school, college, and wanting to walk in the same spaces that we’re currently walking. And it’s like, “How can we reach out to them? How can we give them content that can encourage them and allow them to know that there are people out here who look like them and are doing this work?” Because I firmly believe like if you don’t see yourself, then you may not believe it’s possible.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so that’s where Designing While Black came from. We spent a lot of time thinking about it, scrutinizing it, trying to design out the materials in the brand and a bunch of different ways. One day, Bekah and I just sat down and like, “We’re just going to do it, do it. We’re going to get out within a week, we’re going to bring on…” I think our first guest was Alyssa Johnson, “and we’re just going to keep going every week, short form content, bringing the people that we know and make sure that this gets in the hands of the right people.” And so uplifting those stories and disseminating them to the people that can access those younger folk who want to be creative and want to do design professionally, that’s our main goal.

Maxwell VanHook:
As COVID restrictions start to lessen and we get back to peopling again, our goal is to get right back into those physical spaces and those physical venues, and then maybe we can start to do those shows in a more brand way. But that’s where it started. I think her and I really, really believe in education and we both stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us. Like I specifically, one of my design mentors was in my church. I know that that’s not like a common story to have a professional graphic designer who can talk to you at the age of 14, 15 and guide you. But I want to give back to other people what he gave to me. That was the overall goal of just doing the IG Live show.

Maurice Cherry:
What have you learned since starting the series?

Maxwell VanHook:
One, I’ve learned that there are some magical black folk out there, real like, “You start to like.” You’ll sit down with some people and you think that you have a full understanding of everything that they’ve done. And when you sit down and you have a conversation with them and you really have to assess and dive deep into their life and their work, you start to realize like, “Yo, there are black people who are innovators in every single type of design that you could think of.” And that’s really encouraging to me, especially in the spaces that I travel. But I think the biggest thing is that like, “Yo, we’re killing it out here. We’re killing it out here, and not just when it comes to being like a director or a VP or an executive.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I met a young woman the other day, her name was Kiwi. She’s currently in school. But she was a producer on MasterClass. Yeah, and she has spent time producing for films. She just completely shifted and decided that she wanted to become an instructional, or she wanted to become not only like an instructional designer, but industrial designer more so. That’s probably like the most amazing thing like being able to meet people who have had just so many different types of experiences in life and aren’t afraid to try new things. That probably is the biggest thing that I’ve learned. I do want to ask you, as you were building out your platform, what probably is the biggest roadblock that you faced just in terms of making sure that, one, it was reaching the people that you wanted it to reach?

Maurice Cherry:
It’s a good question. I think it was two things. One was really me trying to get out of my own way. I think I certainly was trying to do, especially early on, a lot of partnering up with other entities to try to reach an audience that I just didn’t have yet. I should have been spending that time really cultivating the audience that I did have, like the ones that I knew were listening and were leaving reviews and stuff. Instead, I would try to talk to another design podcast or another design organization and see if there’s ways that we could work together and do some stuff. Oftentimes the answer to that would be no answer. It just wouldn’t go anywhere, even though I’m reaching out.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s probably been a big roadblock. To be fair, I’d say money is a continual roadblock. But in those early days, there wasn’t really a whole lot that I really needed that money for in terms of I think I wanted to have it as a status symbol to myself that I’ve created something that companies will pay me for. And of course, I would use it for operational resources and stuff like that. But I spent way too much time trying to chase sponsors and chasing audience I didn’t have and I should have been really focusing inward on cultivating the audience I do have and making them really rabid fans of what I’m trying to do that can see the vision that I see. I would have done that. Because yeah, in those early days, there was… I’ll say this, it was certainly not as progressive as it is now, not by a long shot.

Maurice Cherry:
When I was reaching out to people in 2013 and 2014 there was a lot of, “Oh, we’re post-racial, we don’t do this sort of stuff anymore, et cetera, blah, blah, blah,” which then just made it difficult when people ideologically feel that the work that you’re doing for some reason is racist and it’s not. It’s like, “Oh, well, I don’t see why you would think that.” The tenor of the design community was not as open and accepting and as, I’d love to say the word woke, but it was not as woke now as it was back. Back then, people were really closed off to like, “No.” Now, it’s a lot more open. I think there’s a greater consideration and a greater perspective for what black designers are doing and what they can bring to the table and their voices and such.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I want to think back to when I first discovered your podcasts. I think, for me, especially I was young. I was fresh in the design game. And so you don’t see a lot of examples of people have had robust careers. I probably didn’t meet too many people outside of my actual mentor who had decades worth of experience in design. And so being able to access your podcast reassured me that like, “Not only can I have a long career in this, but I can aspire to do great things.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And so, yeah, I just wanted to I appreciate the platform that you built in that sense because it does not only spread knowledge, but it also reinforces some things identity-wise within a young designer to know like, “Hey, there are people who are out there and there are people who are great and they’re killing it.” And so, yeah, I was really, really, really excited when I found the show. I don’t even remember how I found it. I can’t even remember how I found it. I may have been searching online. It probably was like Facebook back then. Yeah, I would just check in, listen and use it to build not only my knowledge of self and what was happening in these different spaces, but also to explore new territories.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I’m certainly glad that you found it. It’s interesting because like I said, I’ve been doing this for such a long time. And oftentimes, it’s probably different with what you’re doing with Instagram because you have a live audience. But with podcasting, a lot of this is pretty solitary. I don’t really know how it’s being received unless someone leaves a review, or they write me an email, or they send a tweet, or send a DM on Instagram. Other than that, I’m just pushing episodes out into the void. I can see that they’re getting listened to and downloaded, but I don’t get that direct feedback. And that could just be honestly because of the medium. But yeah, no, I’m glad that you found Revision Path and that it was able to serve as an inspiration for you.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I feel like we should give people flowers again maybe on the internet. We don’t do the best job of that, especially when you look good like the vacuum that is Instagram in the light system. But as I live and breathe, I just wanted to let you know that… And I definitely share your podcast with young designers and people that I mentor because I don’t want people to think it’s just me out here. I’m tired of that narrative. I’m tired of the narrative of being like, “Oh, I was the only one. I’m the only black designer that I know, I’m the only black designer for 100 miles.” Is exhausting. I don’t subscribe to it. I don’t want to hear it anymore.

Maxwell VanHook:
I also want to change the narrative in terms of how people of color relate to design because I tend to think that the way that you think about something has to be vastly different than the way that another person thinks about something. And the way that you will build something is going to be vastly different than the way that someone else will build it. I think inherently, black people are designers. Even thinking about systems that were placed on us and how we’ve navigated around them, we’ve organized. We have created structures, we have created innovation and process to be able to by step roadblocks that have been placed in front of us.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I think that that’s a part of your heritage, that’s a part of your legacy. I think if you want to be a designer, you can do that. It’s just a matter of sending your mind to it. And so I tell people that all the time, especially younger folks like, “This is a part of your ancestry, bro, you’ve been creating long before you were in existence. It’s in your blood. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s not.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Speaking of ancestry and going back, I want to go back to where you grew up. You’re originally from Baltimore, born and raised. Tell me about what it was like growing up there. Did you feel like you got a lot of exposure to art and design as a kid?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. Both my parents are like… We’re really supportive of the arts. My dad, he forced me to take drama classes oddly enough. He came to me one day after school and was like, “You’re signing up for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. You have an audition two days from now.” And then my mom would make sure that during the summers and after school, I was doing some sort of arts and crafts. Baltimore has this program called TWIGS. It’s attached to this high school called Baltimore School of the Arts. And so when I would leave my middle school, I would just take a bus there. And so I’m learning foundational principles of traditional art. And also from year-to-year, I’m switching off. Maybe one year I’m doing more traditional art practices and then the next year I’m learning how to act.

Maxwell VanHook:
And then that evolved. As I started getting a little bit more focused, my mom would take me to MICA. Even in middle school, I was able to get a lot of exposure to institutions that existed within Baltimore that solely focused on art. And then when I went to city, city is… I’ll say it’s the best high school that exists within Baltimore, but they have a program called International Baccalaureate. That allowed me to get a little bit more focused when it came to how I was telling my stories through art.

Maxwell VanHook:
I had some teachers who were just really, really helpful and set the foundation for how I wanted to express myself. And one day, one of those teachers came up to me and was like, “You know that you could do this as a career.” I was like, “Huh, I didn’t really think about that.” This was just something I would do when I was just chilling or late at night or when I have free time. And so once he expressed that to me… because I was going to go to school for communications, which would have been really, really bad. But I had made the connection that what you’re probably passionate about, you should follow that. You should figure out how to do that as much as you can.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so what they saw in me, they really, really poured into me. And then I talked to my mentor and he opened up that lens a little bit more and he was like, “Hey, you could go to school for graphic design. But I see something different happening in the space. And so you’re going to need more than one skill when you graduate from school. He’s like, “Don’t do graphic design.” He’s like, “There are programs out there now that will teach you those principles, but you need to be more in the digital space.” That’s how I ended up majoring in multimedia and I got crazy amount of exposure to different things.

Maxwell VanHook:
I want to say we were doing physical computing. I was messing with Arduino boards, trying to figure out how I could trigger light within a physical space, doing sound production, messing with middies, a bunch of stuff like video production, pretty much all the different types of design and art forms that you could think of. I just had so much freedom, I think. Out of all the majors in that school, we had the most electives. It was wonky. I want to say like three to four years after I left, they shut it down. Yeah, they just rolled it into graphic design.

Maxwell VanHook:
But even that was indicative of the fact that graphic design as a major or as an industry had changed, and we were using new terms and I had no idea what a user experience designer was, but also those lines hadn’t been defined yet. But to go back to Baltimore, that’s my heart and soul. Even though I’m in Seattle right now, the goal is to always return back to it. It’s taught me a lot, is where I get my grip from, is where I get my perseverance from. It’s the place where I learned to be me. And so me and my wife, we’re here in Seattle now, but the goal is always to go back home.

Maurice Cherry:
Now growing up in Baltimore and everything and with what you’ve just described, when did you know that this was something you really wanted to do for a living? Did it click at any point growing up?

Maxwell VanHook:
When did I know that this was something I wanted to do for a living? It’s really odd, but it was probably my senior year of college because I wasn’t really sure how viable a design career was. I was going back and forth and as I was starting to get closer to graduation, I was having some apprehension. It was like, “Do I just go get a master’s degree?” Both of my parents have master’s degrees and they’re both educators. I just thought that that was the path. And then my senior year, I had a teacher… It’s interesting. He led our whole program. I had him like freshman year and he leaned on me. He’s like, “You don’t understand any of these programs.” He’s like, “You have great vision, but you can’t execute on any of your visions because you don’t have the technical knowledge.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then I had him again in my senior year and he did the exact same thing, except it was a different message. He was like, “You could be so great.” He was like, “You could be so, so great.” He was just yelling at me. I could see this passion in his eyes. I’m seeing all my other classmates and they’re walking in with projects that are half thought out, or they did the night before. He’s just letting them come in and out, come in and out. What you said to me is like, “You’re not the same as them.”

Maurice Cherry:
In a good way or a bad way?

Maxwell VanHook:
In a good way, in a good way. He’s like, “That’s why I’m yelling at you.” He’s like, “I can see you doing this for the rest of your life.”

Maurice Cherry:
And so that really set you on that path. Yeah.

Maxwell VanHook:
It set me on that path because I woke up and was like, “Oh, do I need to get a master’s? Why am I going to get a master’s degree?” I lit fire within me because I didn’t have that confidence yet. There was nothing saying that I was meant to do design full-time, there was nothing saying that I was going to work at Under Armour, there was nothing saying I was going to be where I am now. And that teacher, yeah, it came full circle. Like first year, lit a fires like, “Oh, you got to learn these programs.”

Maxwell VanHook:
And then it was like my last year. I still remember this man. His name’s Chris Garvin. Yeah, just leaned on like… just yelled at me and would not do it to anyone else at all. But I think I saw him maybe like five or six years after that because my brother ended up going to that school and I thanked him, because there’s a level of care. You need a support system of people who are going to hold you accountable, but also people who see you as greater than what you see yourself as. That was important for me. But yeah, that’s when the switch turned. That’s when it turned and I was like, “Oh, I can do this, I can do this. I can see myself as a designer professionally.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And speaking of which right after you graduated, you ended up working at Under Armour and you stayed there for what? Six years pretty much?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. That’s an interesting story. I want to say I was up late at night once Saturday evening, probably like Sunday morning, around twelve o’clock in the morning. I’m on Craigslist. I’m just applying for anything. I have my busboy job. I’m like, “I got to pay off these loans quick as possible. I’m working as many shifts as I can. I’m not trying to live in my parents’ house forever.” And so I’m like come across this ad that says, “Oh, we have a contract position for a designer working with a sports organization within Baltimore.” I’m like, “Hmm, what could that be?” I was like, “Could it be the Orioles? Probably not. Could it be Baltimore Blasts? I don’t know.” I was like, “It’s not going to be Under Armour. They would just have it posted on their site.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Got a call probably… I’m in church. I got call around nine o’clock. Someone leaves a voicemail. It’s like, “Hey, we want you to come in tomorrow, take a test.” Still don’t know what it is. Go in, fail the test. Yeah, failed the test. There’s an old version of Photoshop that I’ve never used before. Completely different set up. I think around that time it was like CS3. There might be like CS1 or something like that and they still send me in. They send me in. I’m at the door. At this point in time, my parents are telling me like, “No, the only way you get the job, dress up suit and tie, blah, blah, blah.”

Maxwell VanHook:
I have a suitcase on, I have a suitcase, Maurice. I have a suitcase. I pull my portfolio out of a suitcase. This a woman, she comes and she gets me. The first thing that she says to me, she was like, “Don’t worry, you got this.” The person interviewing me, comes like, “You got this.” I don’t know what she saw in me. She was like, “You got this. This is yours.” This is as someone else’s walking out. I know that they’re interviewing other people. But yeah, I ended up getting the job. I walk away from that interview, by the time I catch the boat back across the harbor in order to go home, I get a call and saying, “Hey, they want to bring you in.”

Maxwell VanHook:
What started as a contract position evolved into a six-year career with Under Armour. They were a fledgling team. I worked on the e-commerce team there, really supportive people. It was a blessing because I got a lot of experience that typically contractors don’t get. I was able to work in their custom CMS. I got to see how you grow a business, how you grow a platform. We essentially went from just supporting ua.com to looking at the whole digital consumer journey. It was like ua.com and then now all of a sudden it’s emails, it’s social paid and organic, it’s apps. I’m looking even at designing for touchscreens within retail stores.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was only like 23 years old. And then we go from there and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, we got all these different channels that we need to marketing now. The brand team can’t support all of these. You all need to figure out how to extend these stories.” That’s when the art direction experience comes in. And so now I’m in studio and I’m internalizing these products and figuring out how to craft stories and narratives around them that are compelling, and not only tell the technology story, but then also give that emotional and aspirational lens to the product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m started off in studio and that was a really good experience, and then now all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey, can you go on location? Can you scout places? Can you work with athletes? Can you put them through training regiments?” I got a lot of crazy experiences from that. I got to meet Steph Curry while I was working at Under Armour. I got to work with him on set. That was key for me. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because that’s where I learned how to really fly in, like really be a leader. They allow me to pitch ideas. No, they didn’t accept all my ideas, but they allowed me to take chances there. I really appreciated that.

Maxwell VanHook:
No matter how many times things may have not gone perfectly, they always gave me another chance to push my ideas. And that also gave me a lot of confidence. I probably wouldn’t do what I do now if I hadn’t worked there and worked around the people that I worked around. There was a lot of black leadership. When I was there, there was a lot of black leadership at Under Armour. Like Adrienne Lofton, she’s a black CMO, Julian Duncan, he now works with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a CMO, but he was a director, Thomas Harden, Ernie Talbert, he works here at Amazon with me, Tai Foster. These were the people giving me the opportunities. These are all black people. Like that, that matters. Looking back on it, that was a blessing for me. That was really, really key because I would say the majority of designers who enter into professional workplace don’t get that level of support.

Maurice Cherry:
No, absolutely not. I’ve had a number of folks here on the show and like… There are some that will go into agencies and agencies may have some kind of apprenticeship type setup or something like that. But it’s rare to go into a real corporate design space, like I’m sure Under Armour was, and still feel not just that supportive, but then also to have that many black creatives around you supporting you as well.

Maxwell VanHook:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), and opening up the budget for you to fully realize your idea. It wasn’t until I left Under Armour that I realized how special that environment was, kind of like when we were talking about like, “Yeah, I hold that near and dear to my heart,” because I realized that that’s not the case for everyone. I cherish that moment. I still have relationships with those people now.

Maurice Cherry:
I was going to ask what prompted you to move out to the West Coast because you went to school at the university of arts in Philly and it sounds like this opportunity was it, like this was the reason you moved out there?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. I had always wanted to live on the West Coast. Nothing’s like Baltimore. Baltimore is always… will be my home. I love it like I said earlier. But I feel like when you put yourself in new spaces, that’s when you learn new things about yourself. And so I like being uncomfortable because I firmly believe that it leads to expansion. And so a part of going to the West Coast was about not falling into this sense of like comfort and familiarity with my environment. I just knew I got to a point probably when I was like around 26 where I was like, “This feels amazing. I feel like I know everything. I’m starting to feel like at work. I don’t have to try as hard. I don’t have to exert myself as much.” And that’s when I knew I had to go.

Maxwell VanHook:
I was like, “I made a plan.” I was like, “I have to go. Because if I stay here, there’s the potential that I plateau.” And so I set up a plan for myself. West Coast was the ultimate goal, but I teared it out. It was like, “Getting to California, number one. Number two, we stay at Under Armour and then we go to Amsterdam.” I lined that up. Number three was going to be like even moving to Virginia. Yeah, because I was just like, “I need to have some new experiences.” That’s really what drove it, having new experiences, being in new environments. Living in Philly gave me a little bit of a taste, but also both of my parents are from Pennsylvania. My dad is from North Philly. Then Philly was like a second home to me.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so even though I was away, I wasn’t ever really away. I wanted that experience, I wanted that moment. That’s ultimately like it landed me in the bay with Athleta, which is a part of Gap. But yeah, I didn’t even stay… I loved Athleta. They had a wonderful environment, completely different than Under Armour. They were way more focused on empowering women. And then also it was more so from like a wellness lens, but then I got that opportunity you with Amazon. Once again, it was someone who believed in me so much so that a position that I did not even apply for, they wanted me to come and work with them.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I got a call from… He’s not my hiring manager anymore, but I got a call from a man named Kay Tran, a Vietnamese man. He’s like, “I know that you exist as a designer right now, but I think that you could be way bigger than that.” It was like a costume theme within the experiences and the interactions that I’m having. He was like, “I think you can be an art director.” He was like, “I think you can lead these projects. I know that you have no experience in tech, but I’ll support you and I’ll work with you.”

Maxwell VanHook:
He held true to that. He held true to that. I owe a lot of my success here to the support that he provided me initially at Amazon. And that also set the foundation for me wanting to create the spaces with Bekah that we’ve created so far. But yeah, and he reached out to me, called me, told me to come up here, gave me the lowdown on how it would be. I remember that one of the first calls that we had, he was like, “I used to live in the Bay.” He’s like, “Seattle is not the Bay at all. So be prepared for that.” I think it’s worked out for me, it’s worked out for me, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
It certainly sounds like it has. I can tell. When you look back at your career and you’ve dropped a few names throughout this interview, but who are some of the people that have inspired you? Any mentors or colleagues?

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. First and foremost, one of the people that inspires me the most, I’ll go to my first mentor, that Sean Cunningham, the man that I met at my church, a professional graphic designer over 20 years. He worked in agency life and he really, really took me aside. He would spend time with me on Sundays, on the weekends showing me how you craft a portfolio. Because I think a lot of times, kids can think that they’re putting their work together and they have a bunch of pretty pictures, but they don’t have any story behind it. There may not be any depth. And me having access to him, he started to mold me and shape me and pull back the curtain. He was one of the people that really blocked down field for me, because if he wouldn’t have spent that time with me, who knows if I’m in the same space that I’m in? Sean Cunningham would definitely be a really, really big one for me.

Maxwell VanHook:
In terms of other mentors, definitely I have to give… My parents are really, really keen and influential in my life. And so a lot of the principles that I have… I do think that this relates to the design as well. My parents are extremely empathetic. I don’t believe that you can be a good designer if you do not have empathy. If you’re just out here making decisions and building products and doing work solely because you think it looks good or solely because you think you’re making the right decision and you’re not considering the people that you are doing it for, then it’s all for nothing.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so one of the sayings that exists within my church is, “It’s all about relationship or ain’t about nothing.” My parents are the embodiment of that. And so they pass that empathy along to me and that’s how I like to show up. And not just in how I think about my work, but also how I relate to people. Those would probably be my key mentors. Of course, like all the people that I currently fellowship with now, even though back in [inaudible 01:04:11] like relatively like the same age, I think being in contact with her has been a form of mentorship for me. John as well. John has been huge for me, especially in these past couple of months, just in like owning your agency and owning how you want to show up for people and making sure that you do it with a spirit of service. Those would be my mentors, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
What are you obsessed with right now?

Maxwell VanHook:
Okay, this is a side thing. I’m absolutely obsessed with how the market is changing currently, like how it’s peered into the social conscious of millennials specifically. I’m seeing this stuff that’s going on with AMC and hedge funds and Citadel. And for whatever reason, that really interests me. It’s like this story of fighting against the man and government agencies and little people banding together. Outside of that, I’m really, really, really into vinyls. I’m copying a different vinyl every other week. I’m searching, going in different spaces. That probably consumes a lot of my time. I’m trying to look to see if I can get a new credenza soon. We were just talking about getting rid of furniture. That’s going to be a big purchase for me. I don’t even know if it’s like 350 anymore. We’re probably approaching over 400.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, I got more [crosstalk 01:06:01].

Maurice Cherry:
You got storage for it and everything?

Maxwell VanHook:
No, man, I don’t even know. Yeah, I had a credenza and I thought it’d be big enough and then I filled it up. So there’s probably about 150 of the vinyls that are either in the crate or they’re on a shelf. I need to create a storage space specifically for it. But even past that, I have to go home and probably grab like another 500 or 600. My dad called me because I think it was a little bit of a test. They allowed me to go into the storage and grab my uncle’s records because that’s really why it’s important to me. It’s kind of twofold. It serves as this design inspiration. You look at these covers and the sleeves and how they put everything together, is like a master’s class in design.

Maxwell VanHook:
You look at some of the type, the color palettes, the photography, and the composition, it boggles my brain. You don’t know all the people who have done these things. Some of these people are hard to find, they’re dead. You can have someone in present day who can say like, “Oh, that was my great grandfather who did this cover for The Spinners.” That’s really interesting to me because you’re actively discovering things with a sense of duality. Not only from this perspective of looking at it as a creative, but then also musically. Not just like discovering new sounds, but like, “I am learning things about my family and my uncle Candy, specifically, in terms of his tastes.” I’ve never met the man, almost like him and I are having a conversation through the music and I can take that to my dad.

Maxwell VanHook:
For me, it’s been really good, especially in contrast to what you get with streaming services because this is way more passive with streaming services. They serve it up to you, they give it to you and you just consume it. I know that you have to be active. You got to look through it, you have to touch it, you got to look at those songs, you got to look at their artists and then you have to put it on the turntable. And then once that side A is done, you got to flip it over to that side B. There’ve been fascinating things that have shown up in that vinyl collection. I’m like, “I got an original test pressing of a snake fundraiser concert.”

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah, it’s wild. I got to figure out how to… Yeah, I got to figure out how to get that into the right hands because I feel like I personally shouldn’t own it. I feel like it should be in a museum somewhere. But yeah, it’s a part of my family history and I want to keep it intact and establish a library around it where I can give it to my kids, God willing.

Maurice Cherry:
Something like that ends up being really like a family heirloom, but it’s something that you keep continually adding to and diversifying and curating and everything. That sounds amazing.

Maxwell VanHook:
It’s been a good discussion starter, or just catalyst for how I talk to different family members because a lot of them have at some point in time come across this collection or have contributed to it in some way, shape or form, like even the snake record that I have, which has a speech from Jesse Lewis on it, and that original test pressing came by way of my aunt’s old boyfriend because he used to help him disseminate those vinyls and sell them for the fundraiser. I can talk to her and then get the background and the story behind that and then also get her other stories. She used to work for the Schomburg Center. She used to be a part of Freedom Rides citizens. And so that’s what these vinyls have done for me, where it was like, “All right, this is a really, really interesting piece. Where did this come from?” And then all of a sudden I’m getting a story around like how it was made and then all the experiences that are connected to it. And now, I’m learning more about my aunt, Roberta.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
I think in the short-term, I’ve leaned more into the visual side of design. There’s a people focused in that, especially working for Amazon. Data is super key. But I want to get more into the product side. Especially with what I’m seeing in a lot of the technology that’s being created, there are inherent biases that exists. And so when you’re designing, you have to design with those problems in mind. If the room of designers that you have are largely white, the same issues that exist within society and exists within the world, probably going to exist within that product.

Maxwell VanHook:
And so I’m like, “Hey, maybe we need to take a step back from visual design and get more into product and user experience. And with that, get a better understanding of how people are interacting with the products and how these systems are set up, how we can decolonize those, in a sense.” I have a lot of different thoughts about how we think about accessibility. All right. Traditionally, accessibility is like people who may be hard of hearing, people who may not be able body. But I also think that race may be a component of accessibility as well. And so I don’t fully understand why we divorce those things. And so I just want to do more of a foray into that space so I can figure out how to set up structures that will be more encompassing of people who look like me.

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

Maxwell VanHook:
Yeah. You can find me on Instagram @maxwellvanhook, and you can also find me on Instagram as well @designingwhileblack. Either of those, feel free to follow me, feel free to reach out to me also. If you are looking to get into design, if you want to politic, or if you just want to share your passion about design and your experience, I’d love to connect with people.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Maxwell VanHook, I want to thank you so much, one, for coming on the show, but two, I think it’s obvious from anyone that’s listening up to this point that you bring such a deep level of passion and introspection to your work. You’re a very thoughtful designer that really takes a lot of considerations into account when it’s not just about the work that you’re doing, but also the impact that it’s going to have on people and on communities and such. I think this was just such a great interview, such a great introduction of you to the Revision Path audience. Thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Maxwell VanHook:
No, thank you for having me. It was great actually being able to talk with you and, yeah, meeting you. I feel like I’ve listened to you so much over the years. Finally getting down to talking with you has been somewhat surreal. Thank you. Thank you for allowing me to share this space with you.

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.

Joseph Carter-Brown

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my gosh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

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

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

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

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

While the internet has helped loads of people get into design, it’s design educators like Jennifer White-Johnson who really help teach the next generation of our industry. As a multidisciplinary artist, designer, photographer, activist, and advocate, Jennifer brings all this to her work as an assistant professor of visual communications and digital media arts at Bowie State University.

Our conversation began with talking about HBCUs and the responsibility they bear, and we discussed Jennifer’s background in art and photography and how a small stint at MICA prepared her for her current teaching career. We also talked about KnoxRoks, an advocacy photo zine dedicated to her son which helps give visibility to children of color in the autism community. As we move into 2020, I’m glad for this conversation and I hope it helps you think about how you can use your design talent in the world!


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

This episode is brought to you by Abstract: design workflow management for modern design teams.

Spend less time searching for design files and tracking down feedback, and spend more time focusing on innovation and collaboration.

Like Glitch, but for designers, Abstract is your team’s version-controlled source of truth for design work. With Abstract, you can version design files, present work, request reviews, collect feedback, and give developers direct access to all specs—all from one place.

Sign your team up for a free, 30-day trial today by heading over to www.abstract.com.


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


Y’all, we are starting off November with a really inspiring interview with DevOps engineer and tech education enthusiast Aaron Brooks. By day, he uses his skills at Baltimore-based software development company Fearless, and by night, he’s helping educate the next generation of techies through MASTERMND Academy, a free 12-week bootcamp that he livestreams on Twitch. (And I thought I was busy!)

We started off with a look at Aaron’s day-to-day work, and he shared how his first exposure to tech turned him from being a consumer to a creator. Aaron also reflected back on his career, sharing some of the experiences which shaped him into the developer he is today. And of course, we talked about MASTERMND, and Aaron gave some advice on skills software developers need to succeed in today’s market. Aaron is a shining example of someone who has achieved great things thanks to technology, so I hope his story can motivate you as well!


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

This episode is brought to you by Abstract: design workflow management for modern design teams.

Spend less time searching for design files and tracking down feedback, and spend more time focusing on innovation and collaboration.

Like Glitch, but for designers, Abstract is your team’s version-controlled source of truth for design work. With Abstract, you can version design files, present work, request reviews, collect feedback, and give developers direct access to all specs—all from one place.

Sign your team up for a free, 30-day trial today by heading over to www.abstract.com.


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


I couldn’t think of a better person to start 2018 with here on Revision Path than Jermaine Bell. The Baltimore-based visual designer, photographer, and social designer embodies what it means to work within a supportive creative community.

Jermaine started off by talking about his childhood growing up in Baltimore, and we followed his design journey through high school and college. He also gave us the lowdown on the ups and downs of fellowships, his first foray into retail, and discussed what it means to him to “make it” as a designer. Keep an eye out for Jermaine — he’s doing big things!


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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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