Jordan Taylor

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

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

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s the day.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Taylor:
Sounds like Limited edition.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, Mitzi.

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Right. They just missed out.

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

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

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

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

Jordan Taylor:
Right.

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

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah. A very casual Blackness.

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
There’s no division.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, there’s no division.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yep, I’m familiar.

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

Maurice Cherry:
I know about Fort Valley.

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

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

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, I know Joe.

Jordan Taylor:
You know Joe?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maurice Cherry:
That’s really good advice.

Jordan Taylor:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keith Henry Brown

I really enjoyed my conversation with this week’s guest — the one and only Keith Henry Brown. This prolific artist has a catalog that few can touch, with work appearing in The New York Times, Carnegie Hall, Blue Note Records, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, just to name a few. But Keith is so much more than just an artist, as you’ll come to find out!

We started off talking about his current and upcoming book projects, and he shared how he balances his day job with his other career passions while giving a peek into his creative process. From there, he spoke about growing up in Staten Island, getting a shot to draw for Marvel Comics, and getting handpicked by Wynton Marsalis to be creative director at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We even spent some time geeking out about jazz, and he shared one of his dream projects that he’d love to accomplish one day. Keith’s journey as a creative is all about not being afraid to do what you want to do — very inspiring!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Keith Henry Brown:
Hi, I’m Keith Henry Brown. And I am an illustrator, graphic designer and a writer.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going so far?

Keith Henry Brown:
It’s hot. I could tell you that. Other than that, I stay busy. In a lot of ways, I’m juggling two different careers, a career where I am a, I guess, full-time illustrator, but then I’m also a full-time art director, graphic designer for an advertising firm. I try to find some way to do both of those. I’m also a dad. Both my kids though are men now, but you got to deal with the craziness. Just juggling. But I like being busy. That’s what it’s all about. The minute I slow down, then I start feeling complacent.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. You mentioned being an author. I wanted to congratulate you on your book that just came out a couple of months ago, Because of You, John Lewis. Is that right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I didn’t write that one. It’s Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote this beautiful script about a story about this young man named Tybre Faw, who was I think 11 or 12 at the time, who was obsessed with civil rights leaders, which I think is pretty extraordinary in itself, from Tennessee. And he asked his two grandmothers to drive him to meet John Lewis. He met John Lewis, came in the back door, All these reporters came up to him and said, “What are you doing here?”
“I want to say hello to my hero.” They opened the back door. Mr. Lewis came out. Never saw the kid before in his life. The kid started crying. He held up a sign telling him about what he thought about him, which was basically saying, “You’re a hero of mine.” Lewis gave him a big hug. He later invited him to march with him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and then they became friends. When Mr. Lewis died, he did his eulogy at his funeral. They became friends for a short time while John Lewis was alive.
So the book is about their relationship, but the book is really about how leaders inspire each other, like Martin Luther King was John Lewis’ mentor; not at first, but his person that he fancied and that he was interested in and wanted to be like. And then he finally got to meet him and work with King, Mr. King, which you probably know. And then the same thing happened again with Tybre and John Lewis. So it’s sort of a succession of future and past civil rights leaders.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Sounds like a great book. I’ll definitely put a link to it in the show notes so people can check it out.

Keith Henry Brown:
I give most of the credit to Andrea. They found me. Scholastic Books is the publisher. And I hadn’t done anything like it yet in my career. And it was just a huge honor that they thought that I could do it. And I was intimidated because of all these amazing people that were involved. And it was a learning experience. But the book is out, and people seem to like it. We’ve gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and Library Journal. And people seem to like it. I’m excited that people know the story now.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there anything you want to try and accomplish before the end of the year?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I have a lot of projects coming up. So I’m a job-oriented person. So in my mind, my whole life is a series of tasks that I have to achieve. And I break it down from year, and I break it down to week, and I break it down to month. And I know what I got to do the rest of this year. And there’s a lot of stuff I got to do.
So it just was just announced that I’m doing a book about … there’s a story of Raymond Santana, who is one of the Central Park five, the exonerated Central Park Five, if I may add. You may know the story about these five African American young men who were wrongly accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in the ’80s. They all went to jail for this crime that they did not do. They were all eventually exonerated, but they all suffered horribly. In the early 2000s, they were awarded an apology and some money from it, but the story itself is scarring. Ava DuVernay did a really beautiful film about it that I think is still on TV, on-

Maurice Cherry:
On Netflix, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, on Netflix. And also, there’s a beautiful documentary by Ken Burns and his daughter about it. It’s an extraordinary and heartbreaking story about not just these specific young men’s lives, but also how Black men are treated. Matter of fact, I love the title of DuVernay’s film, which is When They See Us. If you’re a Black man living in America, you know exactly what that means. Anyway, I’m doing a graphic novel based on his memoirs. That is something I have to start working on this year.
I have a book that I’ve already written and finished, and it’s coming out next May, that I wrote. This is the first book that I’ve written, so that’s why … I’ve written a lot of articles about music and things like that, but this is my first book that I’ve ever written. And that one is about … it’s called My Dad’s a DJ. It’s about my relationship with my kids. And after I divorced my ex-wife … Well, she divorced me [inaudible 00:08:55] put it, we went on and had this relationship through music. And you know how the music that I like, old school, ’70s, Prince and Stevie Wonder and all that, and they liked the hip-hop cats … And then we used to have these sorts of agreements and disagreements about music. And then we finally connected. So the book is really about staying together with your kids after a divorce. And that book is coming out in May next year.
So all these things are going on. I also have another book that I’m working on. I could keep going on about it. So I guess to answer your question more succinctly, I have a lot of assignments. I’m going to try to get as much of them done as I can. And I’m going to try to get some rest too, because I don’t want to lose my mind.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. I mean, it sounds like you’re working on a lot of stuff. And I want to dig more into your illustration work, but let’s talk a little bit about your day job. We don’t have to spend a whole lot of time on it, but you mentioned working at an ad agency. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’m pharmaceutical advertising designer. That means that I’m designing ads and product packaging for different brands. One of the last ones that I did that had a pretty big campaign that went on to get well known was called Taltz, which is a type of drug that helps with people who have eczema. And I first came to the agency to work on testosterone trucks, which was interesting, but then it was changed to work on this. So it’s been something I’ve been doing now for a number of years because, as I said, I have children. I was married at the time. And I was trying to make a living doing that, even though my main goal all my life was to be an illustrator and to be an artist and to draw. But then you have to do what you have to do to take care of your family.
So I had a friend who was into advertising and said, “You should try this. This would be something you should do.” And I had dabbled in advertising because I had worked on some small magazines, so I taught myself things like Quark and Photoshop and a lot of Adobe Creative Suite. So I knew how to do those things. And I just figured it just takes a little creativity to lay out an advertising. And then I started out small, working for a small African American agency, when I was living in Louisville, Kentucky for a few years. And when I was there, I got a job working at Churchill Downs. And then after Churchill Downs, I decided that I was an art director and I was a graphic designer. And I decided to put aside illustration for a while, although I was still doing it on the side for myself and for small publications.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you balance your illustration projects with your day job projects? I mean, doing work for big pharma, I mean, given the current climate that we’re in, pretty stable. I mean people are always going to get sick. But how do you balance that with your outside illustration work?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think I’m in a fairly unique situation in that I’ve been doing it so long that I’ve reached sort of a senior position where I don’t do as much of the nuts and bolts designing as much as I do in leading teams. And so that means that I don’t have to necessarily be there in the office, be part of the day-to-day, because I’ve just been doing it, when you have a certain amount of knowledge of the business and understanding what is expected of you. I work with younger designers, so I don’t put as many man hours as maybe somebody who’s just getting into the business. And so then I just schedule and balance my hours with book projects, magazine projects, album cover projects.
And also, I’m pretty fast with my illustration. I work very quickly. So if I get an assignment, I can turn it around relatively quickly so that I have time to stay with my day job, which I’ll probably stick with for a little while longer. But eventually I want to, and I’ve told my employer this, so I’m not saying anything I don’t want anyone to know, phase it out so that I can focus entirely on the illustration work.

Maurice Cherry:
It sounds like you’ve, I guess, found a pretty happy medium, then?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, because you want to have that security. You’ve got to be able to take care of your mortgage, and all that stuff. But at the same time you have to have that happiness. One of the things I’ve learned from being around a lot of jazz musicians is they’re the happiest people I know, and they never die. They live forever. And I think it’s because they’re doing exactly what they want to do. I know jazz musicians that are pretty well-known and really talented, who struggle financially, especially when the pandemic was going on. They didn’t have anywhere to play. And there are some that are so well established, they’re okay. I don’t know, Ron Carter, the great bass player, I don’t think he worries about that. But there was a lot of young musicians who are quite brilliant, who weren’t working.
I see it the same way. It’s like I have to eventually take that chance that working in the corporate world and stepping away from it so that I can do the thing that I really love, because I want to be happy. And not saying that doing design just makes me unhappy. And I’m happy this skill gave me and it got my kids through school and it bought me a house and all that stuff. But it just doesn’t fulfill me in a way that illustration does.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think that’s fair. As a creative, I mean, the things that sort give you that inspiration may not necessarily be the job I think that you work at. But I would also say, and this is for anyone, I think, that just does other projects on the side, sometimes you have to do the thing you don’t want to do in order to do the thing that you want to do. I feel like that’s sometimes career advice that people don’t really get told a whole lot. But no, I mean it sounds like you found that balance, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
I totally agree with what you just said. I sometimes teach classes at schools, about art design, or I come in or do workshops or stuff like that occasionally. And a lot of kids, they go to where I went, like Parsons, or SVA, School Visual Design, or FIT. And they come out and they think, “Okay, now I’m going to be this amazing designer, and I’m going to do fashion magazines, and I’m going to do all this super slick stuff. And I’m going to design for Beyonce and I’m going to design for” … whatever it is they think they’re going to do. And they think it’s all going to be glamorous.
But sometimes you got to do stuff that’s not so exciting, because there’s all kinds of design out there. There’s everything from … I started off, at one point, I was doing catalogs, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. And not to criticize anyone who’s doing it, but I found it very difficult. And certain types of design is not as glamorous, or even you find out it’s not as glamorous as you thought, which is what my experience was with doing comic books.
All my young life, I always thought, “Oh my God, I want to draw Marvel comics.” I mean, that’s all I wanted to do. And I drew comics by myself in my room when I was eight years old or seven years old. And I drew comics with my friends. And I went to the school I went to, thinking I’d get to do it, and I got to do it. And when I was actually there doing it, I realized, “Wow, this is a job. This is work. I have to be adult, because I have to meet deadlines, and they have to put out a certain amount of pages, and they have to be a certain level of quality. And I have people looking over my shoulder telling me what’s good and what’s not good.” So a lot of things are like that, right? It’s like you got to put the work in, you got to put the time in. And you have to figure out, “Do I want to break through to do this thing?” I think I heard an interview you did with Ray Billingsley?

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
The great cartoonist. And he was saying something similar where he was saying that he’s one of those guys who really learned his craft. I mean, we know him from his cartoon strip, his comic strip, but actually, he could draw all kinds of things. And he tried everything, and he worked on it, and then he honed it down to this project that he has now been doing for a lot of years. But it was a lot of work and thought behind it. It wasn’t something he decided one day, “I could draw pretty good. I think I’ll draw a comic strip.”
I do think we all have to pay our dues, in a certain form. And my paying my dues for a long time was doing graphic design. Now having said that, I know a lot of people, that’s all they do, and they do it way better than me, and they’re beautiful. And they’re excited about it every day and they love doing design. And I still love graphic design, to a certain amount, but it doesn’t give me the same high that drawing does, because I think I started off wanting to draw, more than anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. For folks who haven’t heard that Ray Billingsley interview, it’s episode 370. Go check it out. It’s a really good interview. When you have a new illustration project that comes in, whether that’s a book or whatever else you might be working on, what does your creative process look like? Take me into that process.

Keith Henry Brown:
I could talk about a book or I could talk about an album cover or I could talk about a magazine, because some of them are different lengths of time that you immerse yourself in it. But I’ll just mention the one I just did for a magazine called Rethinking Schools, which is a wonderful magazine that is for teaching teachers how to teach children. Teachers write articles in the magazine, and they explain the techniques they used that were effective, so other teachers could use it. It’s a great magazine. And they used a lot of illustration. I did a full-page illustration a couple of months ago for them. And the process was the art director came to me and said, “This is an article. I’m sending it to you. See if you want to do this, see if this is something you think you would be interested in. This is how much we pay.” And basically, the article was about how this one teacher wanted to teach children about Black Lives Matter through dance. She was a dancing teacher, and she wanted to teach choreography to these kids in a private school.
And so, I came up with these drawings of the kids dancing to this sort of music that they sort of describe in the BLM article. And I just came up with sketches first. They approve them, and then you start to paint them in. And then they’ll say, “Well, this figure, we like better than that figure.” And you take them out and you put them in. So my thing is I do a mixture between digital and traditional, with the accent on the traditional. I draw everything out by hand, on paper usually. And then I scan it in and either I paint on it or I use digital colors, like out of Photoshop, or something like that, or sometimes it’s a combination of both things.
As we go to the final art, I do watercolor because I like the spontaneity of it and I like the fact that I can’t really control it 100%, and that it can just some suddenly do something that I didn’t expect it to do. And that could be scary because it might not be something I wanted to do, but it also means that something exciting can happen. And whenever I do something and it feels static to me or it doesn’t look interesting or it’s not moving, I always miss the watercolor element, which is the thing that makes it to me feel spontaneous and alive, which is also connected to why I like jazz so much.

Maurice Cherry:
See, I was just about to ask, because I noticed that theme of a lot of your work being done in watercolors. But it sounds like you like to have a little bit of that unknown element in the work?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I mean, I appreciate a lot of illustrators’ work where they spend a lot of time planning every single illustration out to an nth degree, and the colors, and they have palettes, and they do hundreds of preliminary drawings and sketches, and things like that. And I do do some of that. But I like the idea of, I don’t know, just kind of going with the feeling. I mean, I’ve even had times where I’ve done a book, where I didn’t even finish reading the book, the whole script or the manuscript of the book, and was doing the illustrations without even having read it all. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud, so if anyone who wants to hire me. But if I like the basic idea, I’m like, “Okay” … Like the first book I got published was in 2019. It was called Birth of the Cool: How Miles Davis Found His Sound, which could not have been a more perfect first book for me, because I love Miles.
And I just thought the idea of doing a children’s book about Miles was kind of brilliant, even though I couldn’t figure exactly how they were going to do it, because Miles was not always kid-friendly. But I read two or three pages of the script and I said, “Ah, I see what she’s doing.” So I just started doing it. And I actually read the book as I was doing the illustrations, which anyone would tell you is insane, because you should plan the whole thing out. I just read the descriptions of what the action was, and not the actual dialogue, or even all the text. But I wanted it to feel like jazz and I wanted it to feel as spontaneous as he is, and how he takes a moment. I mean, that’s why jazz is so important to see live, or live recordings are the best, in my opinion, because everybody is not actually sure of what they’re going to be doing that day in that performance. And it could be brilliant and it could be not the best thing they ever did.
I’m lucky enough to be in a position where it’s just the way I do things. I don’t really know any other way of doing it. And I think that if I drew the whole thing out and knew exactly what I was going to do, it would feel too much like work. So this way, it feels like I’m just doing art. It just happens to be following a specific storyline, because I also like storytelling, which is why I wanted to get into comics in the first place. But in comics, it’s way more structured.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the most challenging part about what you do?

Keith Henry Brown:
I think just finishing, for me. It always seems incredibly like, “How can I ever finish this? This is huge. There’s so much to do.” And there’s that famous quote someone said, where, “I don’t like writing, but I like having written.” I do feel that way. It’s like I could see the book in my head completed, but I don’t particularly like the process, in the sense that I can’t wait for it to be done. I want to see the book in my hands. I want to see it all drawn, but I know that that means many hours of work.
I just got a project recently that I’m very excited about. It hasn’t been announced officially yet, but we’ve already kind of signed everything. So it’s a book about this relationship between Malcolm X and this Japanese woman who was also an activist, and their friendship. And it’s very unusual, it’s a true story, in the fact that most people don’t know about this. Also, the fact that the famous picture of when he was shot in the ballroom, there’s a woman holding, cradling his head. It was this Japanese woman. And so the writer saw this picture and decided to find out who this woman was. And she ended up writing this kid’s book about their relationship. Some of her activism comes out of the horrible story of the internment camps during World War II, they put Japanese in after Pearl Harbor. And she started off with that kind of activism, and then she folded into other kinds of activism. And they became friends, mostly correspondence, with Malcolm X.
Anyway, I’m working on this book now. We were having a story conference with the publishers the other day, with my agent. And we were talking about what the book was going to look like and what it was going to sound like, and what kind of tone. And I could see the whole book in my head in five minutes. And I was like, “I just wish I could just snap my fingers and it was done,” because I want to see the book more than I want to make it, because it really comes down to work.
I think Alfred Hitchcock said once that when he came with a story like, I don’t know, Psycho, or something, or The Birds, once he had the storyboards and he had the script done, to him, that thing was done. He said all the work of having to get the actors and go on set and shoot everything was the least interesting part to him. And I really relate to that because that’s the mechanics of it. It’s the conception of it that I think is the most exciting. But I do have a lot of fun in the midst of painting, when I’m actually doing it, too. So I always say that I don’t want to do the work, but when I’m really in it, I kind of forget I’m working. So it works both ways. But I do want to see the thing done, but usually before I can finish it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I’m interested to see that too. Yuri Kochiyama is the activist that you’re talking about?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I’d be excited to see that book when it’s done.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh yeah, I’m going to put 1,000% in that one. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful story. And I think it’s a story that should be told. I love the idea of people of different cultures, races coming together in a cause. I mean, I don’t want to exaggerate their relationship, it was a short one, but it was significant to Malcolm. It was significant to her, and their families. And then I think we don’t do enough of that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like that, or any story about an Asian person and a Black person together on a common cause, in a huge sort of undertaking like human rights or activism. So I want people to see this book so bad. I want it out there. I want it in stores now. I just got to get it there. I felt the same way about Miles. I felt the same way about John Lewis. I felt the same way, My Dad’s a DJ. I want people to see it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, let’s switch gears here a little bit and learn more about you, about your origin story. You live in Brooklyn right now, but you’re originally from Staten Island, is that correct?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, it was an interesting place to grow up in.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you remember growing up there?

Keith Henry Brown:
Actually, I lived in a pretty diverse neighborhood. My best friend who lived next door to me was Jewish, and we had Filipinos living a couple of doors away, and we had Irish and Polish, and we had Latinos, Puerto Rican and Dominicans, all in the neighborhood. So the attitude, I think a lot of people think of Staten Island now, especially from recent events, that it’s like this totally red part of New York, full of Joe Plumbers, and stuff like that. But it wasn’t like that when I grew up, although there was also a really strong Sicilian community of Italians that we didn’t really connect with as much. But we had this one little thing, it was called Stapleton, Staten Island. Also, this is the same area where Wutang started their thing.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, that’s right.

Keith Henry Brown:
Their projects was probably about a quarter mile from the little neighborhood I grew up in. I grew up in a house, and my dad was a physician, my mom was a bank teller. So I guess you’d call it near middle class, because I had my own room, and I had a house, and I had everything I needed. But we weren’t rich or anything, because my dad was still a student when I was growing up, and my mom worked full time at a bank.
But it was a pretty nice upbringing in terms of how I saw the world. It until I get older that I realized that there was things like severe racism and things like that. So I was able to fantasize and not worry about my place in the world as much, and dealing with things like that. So I plunged into the world of Marvel comics and fantasy books and science fiction, like Isaac Asimov, and people like that. So that was the thing that I was into when I was a kid, and also music, The Beatles. And I liked The Beatles the same way that I liked Stevie Wonder. I didn’t have any boundaries in how I saw music and art.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like you grew up around a lot of music, but you also kind of grew up around a lot of art, too?

Keith Henry Brown:
No, that’s the interesting thing. My mom was a singer, but she sang in the choir, and she had a beautiful voice. She even got accepted to Juilliard at one point and couldn’t go, because my grandfather couldn’t afford to send her there. So we always had a lot of records in the house, so I was always listening to music. I would read every word in the liner notes and read everything on the back 15,000 times. And I was a fanatic about LPs and music.
Art really wasn’t there. I think I came by art almost completely through comic books and wanting to draw comic books of my own. And I didn’t really know anything about art history or anything like that until I got to high school. I went to a high school of art design, which was in Manhattan. And it still exists, obviously. It was a great school. I started to learn about painting and drawing. Then I got interested in things beyond comics at that point. But before that, I don’t know if anybody else in my family even drew.

Maurice Cherry:
I think comics was probably a good gateway for a lot of people. I mean, especially if I’m thinking about the time that you grew up, and especially with starting to see more Black people in comics too, I would imagine that probably was really inspiring to see back then.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. It was huge, huge, huge. Trevor Von Eeden, who created Black Lightning, who’s a little bit about the same age as me, there’s a legendary story about how he sent his drawings to DC Comics on loose leaf paper, because he didn’t have any other kind of paper.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
And they sat down with him, and started giving him gigs. But the big one for me was a guy named Billy Graham. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He did a lot of the early Black Panther comics. He basically was the writer that created Killmonger, the characters in the movies. He did these magnificent stories, one particular one called Panther’s Rage. The same story that’s basically in the movie is in that story, which is that Killmonger, the character [inaudible 00:29:45] played by Michael Jordan in the film, kind of takes him down as being prince, and challenges his leadership of Wakanda.
That was a Billy Graham thing. He was one of the very few Blacks that were in the business. Brilliant guy. He was also a playwright, a painter. He was just this amazing guy. I only met him once for a few minutes, but I was in awe of him. But most of the people that I liked, if I’m being completely honest, were like Jack Kirby and Neil Adams and Stan Lee, and those guys. I mean, they were all like gods me. I mean, if I had a choice between meeting Paul Newman or Tom Cruise or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I probably would’ve done the latter. I mean, those were the guys who were the big heroes to me when I was a kid, that were the comic book artists.

Maurice Cherry:
So you were inspired by comic books. You went to this art high school. And then after you graduated, you attended Parsons. What was your time like there?

Keith Henry Brown:
It was good, but it was less about comics. By then, I had done a little time working in comics, and decided it wasn’t for me. So I wanted to learn to paint in a different way or draw in a different way, and not be just in comics. I mean, the comic influence is there. It will be there till the day I die. And I still draw comics sometimes, or cartoons, but I don’t draw superheroes or things anymore; not that I have anything against them. But my thing when I was at Marvel and also in general about superhero stuff is that a lot of times these things are … even then, before the movies came out and became this massive thing, a billion dollar company, is that they’re all copyrighted characters owned by somebody else. So there’s not much you can do with them. You have to stay with the continuity that you’re given. You have to be explained what you can do, what you can’t do. Even you and a writer have to follow a larger storyline that maybe is being planned throughout the company.
And I always had this itching feeling to want to have my own characters and have my own thing. So I wanted to learn illustration because I wanted to express myself more as an individual and less as just a sort of a cog in this massive machine. I mean, every month, on the dot, you had to have a new Marvel comic. And I think only the very, very best guys got recognition for what they did. But I don’t think I was the best at that. I was okay.
So I really wanted to express myself in a different way. I still love comics, especially independent comics. I’m more interested now in people like the Hernandez Brothers, Love and Rockets. I love it. It’s probably my favorite cartoon, is Jaime Hernandez … than now, than superhero stuff, because these guys are independent. And they own their own characters and they create their own worlds that are basically coming from them. And they’re not in it for the money. They’re in it because they just had to do it. And I admire that more than being just another person drawing Spider-Man, out of the thousands that have done it over the years.

Maurice Cherry:
So Parsons, it sounds like, opened your eyes a little bit to the reality of what the industry was like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Precisely. Exactly. I started getting interested in modern artists. I started getting interested in abstract artists. I love Rothko. The Expressionists is my favorite type of painting, so de Gaulle’s my favorite painter. I began to appreciate art for what it is and the endless limitations that art can provide, and not these sort of commercial concerns of just trying to sell something or sell a character.
Now, I don’t have anything against people who do that. There are some brilliant kids and artists doing this stuff now. I love them. I love looking at the drawings. I love looking at Greg Capullo or Jim Lee or Frank Miller, when he was doing it, and David Mazzucchelli. These were all comic book artists. These guys are freaking awesome. I just don’t think that I’m built to do this stuff, myself. But I love to look at their work.
There’s a guy named Bill Sienkiewicz who does comics, but he also is a great, great illustrator. And guy like him, he’s like a god to me. So all these guys are great. I just know that I can’t do comics, because it’s just not, unless I do a personal comic, like doing this graphic novel about the Central Park Five. I’m working on now one about a jazz musician. So if I can find my way in, then it’s absolutely the greatest, but if I have to just … I don’t know. I couldn’t be one of those people who’s doing, I don’t know, SpongeBob comics, or something. I got to do something that I got some kind of skin in the game.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah, I mean, it sounds like you’re in it for the storytelling medium. It’s not just so much like a way of telling a story in terms of, “Oh, here’s SpongeBob. And we’re going to do it via animation.” It’s more like, “What’s the story we can tell that animation can provide sort of,” I don’t know, “that bit of oomph to it,” I guess. You know what I mean?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, exactly. Somebody was telling me the other day that they had a gig at some Pixar. And they said, “Dude, they’re looking for artists, illustrators to maybe come in and work with Pixar movies.”
And I’m like, “I mean, that sounds great in terms of financially and also prestige and stuff, but I don’t really want to get bogged down working on some massive project where a hundred other artists are working on it.” Even if it’s good, like I thought … What was that one about the jazz position that came out?

Maurice Cherry:
Soul.

Keith Henry Brown:
I thought it was real good, but I don’t know that I’d want to have worked on it, because it requires years of work, hundreds of people. And I’d rather work on my little book, where it’s just me alone in a room and a writer writing a script, and then five, six months later, it’s in a bookstore, and it’s got our names on it.
To me, it’s like I’d rather do that, even if it means I’m making less money or not part of a huge, famous organization, that I could tell everybody, “I work at Pixar, or I work at so-and-so.” Even when I worked at Marvel, I mean, people would be impressed when I said I worked at Marvel. But I didn’t care about that part because I knew that I was doing stuff I wasn’t even really that inspired by. So it doesn’t matter that people were enamored by it. It was more about the fact that I had to still sit down by myself at some point and try to meet a deadline for something that I didn’t love. But having said that, there are people I know who do love it. And God bless them, because they do some beautiful work.

Maurice Cherry:
So you did eventually, I don’t know, I guess maybe fulfill that childhood dream. You did do some work for Marvel.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And then I saw what it was. Everybody finds out what the reality of things is and what things really are; like a lot of people think they want to be movie stars. A lot of people think they want to be pop stars. And then they find out what it’s really like. And sometimes the stress is so much they can’t handle it at all.
My son is an independent musician. He has a band, and he has albums out, and he goes on tour. And one of the things we often talk about is if it ever happens that he blows up, get ready, because it might not be what you want. And even in the little bit of brushes of stuff that he’s seen, by just opening for bigger acts and things like that and seeing how these guys live, they say a lot of it is really difficult, because once you’re famous and people know who you are, or even if you’re just known by people to be successful, it gets to be more about that than about the music, which is what you came in there to do in the first place.

Maurice Cherry:
I relate to that so hard, I mean, for two reasons. I mean, I think, one, from the musician standpoint. So I might have said this on the show before, but before I got into anything, design, whatever, I was a musician. I grew up playing trombone. I played it all through middle school, through high school. I played it in college. I played it a few years after college as a session musician. But I loved it. I still love music. I was a jazz trombonist. But it’s not making any money. You’re not making any real money. And the hours are wild and crazy. You have to do it because you love it. You’re certainly not doing it to get rich or to get any sort of financial stability, unless you really get a deal with a label, and then you record an EP or an LP or something, and you blow up that way.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And I’m going to be honest, I mean in jazz, I don’t see anybody getting rich. I actually [inaudible 00:37:46]-

Maurice Cherry:
Not in this country. Absolutely not.

Keith Henry Brown:
I work for one of the most successful jazz musicians there is. And he does well. I don’t think he’s hurting, but he ain’t rich.

Maurice Cherry:
He ain’t rich, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
He ain’t no multimillionaire. I do all of his covers, and he and I are friends. But I know he’s very well known in the jazz world, but outside of the jazz world, the guy’s won like six Grammys. I mean, he’s a genius. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s a limited audience for that type of music, unless you’re somebody like Herbie Hancock who’s become a legendary figure. And not only is he legendary figure, but he’s also even done pop hits, like Rocket, and everything. So he’s a guy who’s transcended jazz in order to have the success that he has. But also, he’s a legendary iconic figure, so he’s almost beyond human. I mean, he’s like this person who’s been doing it so long and has become so famous that people just give him money just for existing.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re talking about Wynton Marsalis, right?

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, I was actually just talking about Herbie Hancock.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay. But I mean, when you mentioned this artist that you’ve done covers for, though.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh no, that’s Christian McBride. Christian McBride. Do you know Christian McBride, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I do. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I’ve done his last eight covers. He’s a friend of mine. One of my best friends was his manager. Some years ago, he started a new band called Inside Straight. And instead of getting a photo shoot done, my friend, knowing that I was an illustrator, asked me to do the cover. And then he and I began a creative sort of partnership [inaudible 00:39:19] the visualization of his music.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Keith Henry Brown:
So a lot of his album that I’ve done covers for, also LPs, vinyl LPs, he has won Grammys for. And I never know if I’m going to get to do it next year, because that’s one of those things that I wait for him and I hear Christian’s voice say, “Hey, Brother Brown, I got another cover for you.” But I never know if he’s going to call me. But I’ve done eight so far.
So people who don’t know Christian is he, he’s a bass player, composer, band leader. When Sting started his first band, Sting the pop singer from The Police, he was his bass player. Sting’s a bass player, so that tells you something about the greatness of him. But he’s also played with everybody who means anything. He’s played with every single musician there is. He’s a genius player. So I consider that to be one of the proudest things that I’ve ever done as an illustrator, is do his artwork. He also heads the Newport Jazz Festival. He has a radio show on NPR, called Jazz Tonight. He’s just an incredible human being, and one most talented people I’ve ever met.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think it sort of speaks to sort what you said earlier about jazz not being super popular. You kind of end up having to do a lot of different things just within your musicianship in order to make that happen; like with Christian, you said he’s heading up this jazz festival and he does a radio show. You almost have to have your hand in a bunch of different pots, instead of just focusing on maybe performing or touring or something.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, if you want to make money.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Look. Yeah. Hey, that is the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 00:40:48] And as you know, the only way to make money nowadays is no longer in recording. It’s in …

Maurice Cherry:
Merch.

Keith Henry Brown:
… merch and touring. And so, going back to what I was saying earlier, when the pandemic went down, I mean, a lot of these guys weren’t making any money. If you’re in jazz, it’s particularly painful because that’s the only way you make money, going on jazz tours to other countries, because jazz obviously is appreciated in Asia and Europe. So, that’s where they make their money. If you can’t go anywhere, then you can’t depend on the recordings. Even in the best days of jazz, they never sell anything like the way pop music does. So I mean, a flop record by Ed Sheeran still sells 100 times more than [inaudible 00:41:32]-

Maurice Cherry:
Than a jazz record. No, that’s the truth.

Keith Henry Brown:
… and that’s just the way it is. But I like being connected with someone with so much integrity. And he also gives me an incredible amount of freedom in what I get to do on his covers. That’s why it works for me, because even though I’m illustrating, in the true sense of the word, which is that I’m doing a drawing based on a previous idea and telling a story, he’s not looking over my shoulder and saying, “Do it like this.” I mean, sometimes he’ll have notes or something, but he trusts me to know what I’m doing.
That’s a lot different than doing other kinds of commercial illustration, where you have to do everything precisely the way you’re being told, and if you don’t do it that way … And also, for me, in children’s books, I’ve had the same experience. I mean, I interpret the words that are in the script of the books that I do. And I may get feedback and editors talking to me about it, but we can usually discuss it. It’s not something where somebody says, “You have to do it this way, or you’re fired.” It doesn’t work that way. And that’s a little different than the real world is, including in advertising.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you just touched on so many points that just hit me just personally in terms of-

Keith Henry Brown:
Go for it, brother.

Maurice Cherry:
… musicians and design, and all that sort of stuff. I mean, yeah, yeah, wow. Wow. I want to talk about your work with Churchill Downs, your work with Jazz at Lincoln Center. I know I mentioned Marsalis earlier, but you got to work at some pretty prestigious institutions, early in your career.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. The reason I was in Louisville, Kentucky was because my former wife was a professor at the University of Louisville. So I showed up there with no real skills, and didn’t know what I was going to do. And I had to get a job. I got a job at a small African American-owned advertising agency. And I was still learning my craft at that point. And an African American woman named Cindy Cook, who was a supervisor at Churchill Downs, asked me if I’d be interested, because she said, “We want to start a graphics department in Churchill Downs. And there’s no Black people working there at all, doing anything, except me. I wanted to bring somebody else Black in there. And we don’t even know how to use computers or know how to do anything. So you’re going to have to order the computers and find the programs.”
Basically, it was to do the marketing for the park, and the programs and the posters, and everything like that. It was challenging because I was just new to it myself. And this goes so far back, I don’t even think there was InDesign yet. I think it was Quark or something, if anybody’s old enough to remember that, listening to this. I did it. And then while I was doing it, I made friends with a gentleman named Andre Guess, who was a really good friend of mine when I was living in Louisville. And he got a job at Jazz at Lincoln Center, because Wynton would come to Louisville and do concerts. And we were such big jazz fans, after the show, Wynton Marsalis is the type of a guy, he would sit around after every concert … I don’t care if it was a four-hour concert, he would stand around and meet everybody and sign every autograph.
So we’d go talk to him. And after a few years of doing that, he got to know who we were. And he would have dinner at Andre’s house, at one point. We became friends with him. He said, “Well, listen. I’m building this thing. It’s never been done before. It’s a whole venue just for jazz. It’s going to be called Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I’m going to run it.” And so he hired my friend to be an administrator. I think it was a financial officer, or something like that. And then my friend told me, “Okay, I’m going to go up there. And I’m not going to leave you behind, though. In a year, I’m going to bring you there.” Almost a year to the day, he calls me and says, “Come to New York. You’ve got to come back to New York now.” And he [inaudible 00:45:12] he wasn’t from New York. My friend was from Kentucky.
So I came to New York, they interviewed me. It was a very intimidating interview because it was at a table full of the board of directors. A lot of famous people were on the board of directors, including the boxer, George Foreman, and Judith Jamison, the great dancer, Al Roker, the newsman. They’re people who contributed money and were part of the board of directors. And they interviewed me. And I was leaving out of the office, the place. And the receptionist, Mel, who’s still a friend of mine, she said, “Wynton’s on the phone.”
And I was like, “Oh, shit. He’s going to tell me not to come back, because I didn’t get the job.”
And handed me the phone. And he came on and he goes, “You’re a bad motherfucker.”
It was like, “Really?” And I was like, “Wynton?”
He goes, “Yeah, get your ass back here in two weeks.” So I got the job. And I worked for them for about five years. And from there is when I started doing advertising, because after a while, I felt like I did as much as I could do there. But through there, I got to meet so many incredible musicians, jazz and otherwise, because they used to have amazing musicians come there to do benefits. So people like Stevie Wonder came and Ray Charles came and Paul Simon came, and it was just an incredible, incredible experience.
And they’re nonprofit. So the whole point of view of Jazz at Lincoln Center is to teach people about jazz and [inaudible 00:46:34] jazz still lives, and that it’s in existence, and you should go see it. You should appreciate it. It’s not what you think it is, and all that. So it was great. And I got to design for them, and I got to meet a lot of incredible other designers, and be part of the community of graphic designers in New York, the whole time thinking in my mind, “I really want to be an illustrator. But this is great.”

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, to me, that sounds like a dream job. You’re doing design, you’re surrounded by jazz. That sounds like, for me, that would be perfect.

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, it was, for a while. All good things come to an end; like any organization, there’s changes, and things happen, and it’s not what it was when you first started. And new people come in and they have their own ideas. I have nothing bad to say about it. It was a decision I made, as well as something that I loved. But you can’t stay any one place forever.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Keith Henry Brown:
And ironically, after working in advertising for a few years, I ended up going back into the music and being the art director for Blue Note Jazz Clubs.

Maurice Cherry:
What?

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. I was there for about four years. So Blue Note Jazz, people think of the one club in New York, but they actually have clubs all over the world, in Madrid, Milan, Japan, Hawaii. I was their art director for several years. So again, I was in this club. I was back in my jazz world. I was in heaven, because I love jazz musicians. Jazz musicians are some of the most even-keeled people, artists there are, because they don’t make any money. They don’t get rich. They’re just doing it because they love it, and they’re happy to be doing it.
If you can make a living doing something you like doing it, then you’re a happy person. So they tend to be not arrogant, tend to be happy, tend to be hardworking, tend to be very committed and focused, because to be a good musician, as you know, it takes an incredible amount of concentration, rehearsal, practice and focus. And they’re always thinking of what they’re going to do next. So being around those people makes you better at what you do. So it makes you better at your art, because you see the commitment they have. I said, “Damn, I need to get serious about what I’m doing, because these motherfuckers are kicking ass, what they’re doing.” You see somebody play, you see Herbie or Chick Corea come up there, sweat their ass off and play, and they get off and they’re like, “What you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go get some chicken wings.”
I’m like, “Damn, man. This guy just killed himself. But now he’s done, and now he’s going to go do something else.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God, these guys, I want to be like them. I want to be like them.” So that’s why they’re the constant inspiration to me. It’s like total commitment and highest level of achievement, mixed with this sort of chill, like, “Yeah. Well, we’re here doing it,” type attitude. It’s beautiful, man.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to people out there? They’re hearing your story, they’re hearing all this about you. What advice would you give to people that want to follow in your footsteps?

Keith Henry Brown:
I just think you have to be honest with what you really want to do. I mean, listen, I understand practicality. I totally know that that is. I mean, I spent a lot of my life doing jobs. I’ve had all kinds of jobs. And I’ve done whatever it took to take care of myself or my family. But there also has to be this part of you that doesn’t lose the eyes on the prize. What is it you really want to do? What is it that makes you the happiest? And it doesn’t matter what it is. If it’s riding a unicycle backwards or being the world’s best juggler, whatever, you have to focus on that eventually, because you don’t want to spend the rest of your life just doing something that you just feel like you need to do in order to make a living. And I know that’s not always everybody’s path, but you have to work towards it, I think.
I would say I spent a good half of my life doing things that I had to do. And now I’m having a half of my life where I’m doing things I want to do. And I think it’s worth doing that, whatever it is, whether it’s being a doctor or being a hedge fund manager or being a fireman. It’s the passion behind it that I think is important. And you shouldn’t deny yourself of that.
Both my sons and musicians. Now, any parent will tell you, you don’t want your son to be a musician, for all the reasons I’ve already stated earlier. It’s hard to make a living, and you’re never probably going to be rich. But I can’t imagine them doing anything else, because they’re so deeply committed to it. And that’s all they want to talk about. I did a book about it because it’s such a focused commitment. Even more so than me, they knew what they wanted do before I did, in terms of their lives. So I guess my advice is always do what you have to do. No one’s going to fault you for that, but don’t forget what you want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project that you’d love to do one day? It sounds like you’ve already touched on so many of your passions with your work.

Keith Henry Brown:
There’s specific things. Right now, I’m trying to get out a coffee book on jazz portraits I’ve done over the years, which is tougher than you would think to get printed and published. And the other thing is, some years ago I wanted to put out a book about Eric Dolphy. And I did a lot of preliminary work. I even did a Kickstarter. I could not get the book published, I could not get it finished. And I wrote a script, and I illustrated over half of it.
And Eric Dolphy is a saxophone player, composer, who I actually am totally enamored with, in terms of his life trajectory. He was just a really nice guy who was committed to his art. And he died very young, in a very sad way, actually on a gurney in Germany from a diabetic shock. And the people that were there did not realize that he had that problem. And they thought he was just a Black musician who was on drugs, and didn’t take care of them the way they should have. But his life before that, he brushed against all the great musicians, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, he played with for a lot of years, who loved him. And I wanted to do a graphic novel about him. And I did a lot of work on it, and I did a lot of things. But it’s one of those projects that keeps getting away. It fell through a couple of times. And I am just starting to resurrect it now. And if I can get that book done, I’ll die happy.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your career, is there a particular moment or an experience that really stands out to you the most, in your mind?

Keith Henry Brown:
Can I break it down into two?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure.

Keith Henry Brown:
Okay. The first one is the one I just told you about, which is Wynton Marsalis telling me I was a bad motherfucker. The second one is, and it’s almost the opposite of that, but it gave me a motivation. I went to a comic book company early on, soon out of high school. I was starting to get small jobs to do things, but I didn’t really get anything major yet. And I won’t tell you which comic book company it is, but it’s a major one. It’s one of the big two. I showed them my portfolio, and the editor, the white editor looked at it and he said, “Yeah, this is pretty good, but we already got a colored artist. We already got one, so thanks for coming in.”

Maurice Cherry:
Damn.

Keith Henry Brown:
And I just said … Can I? I won’t say the word … “F this guy.” And he ain’t stopping me. And I can say, even in this world, and I’m 60 years old, and I’ve seen racism of all kinds, but I’ve never really been held back when I really wanted to do something. I’ve had all kinds of opportunities, despite my race. I just don’t accept that as a reason for not achieving anything. My father was a doctor. My mother was the first Black woman to work in this bank that she worked in. I feel like if you really want something, you cannot use that. So I guess to answer your question, it was important to me that that that guy told me what he said, because I said, “F this guy. He’s not stopping me because I’m Black.”

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Before we wrap this up, and I meant to get to this earlier in the interview, you love jazz, I love jazz. Who are some contemporary jazz artists that you like?

Keith Henry Brown:
Oh, that’s an interesting question. I like a lot of cats, man. One of them just passed away, but I still consider him contemporary. That’s Roy Hargrove. He’s an awesome cat. I think Christian’s pretty contemporary. There’s a young cat that’s out now called, named Joel Ross. He’s fantastic. Kamasi Washington is pretty awesome. I mean, I’m trying to think when. You’re 60 years old, you’re thinking, “Well, who’s contemporary,” because [inaudible 00:54:50] say Brad Mehldau, but Brad Mehldau been around for a minute, so maybe he’s not so contemporary. But you know what I’m saying. It’s like I hear cats all the time, man. I want to hear it. I want to hear the young guys. Joey Alexander is kind of a phenomenal young guy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh yeah, young kid.

Keith Henry Brown:
Really young. I mean, he could play his ass off, though. There’s a lot of them, man. I mean, there’s so many. I occasionally write for a website called allaboutjazz.com, and I do do reviews. And I just did an interview with a cat named Croker, Theo Croker.

Maurice Cherry:
Theo. Theo Croker, yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah. And we did a nice interview. I painted him many times, too. He’s real good. Oh, my favorite young singer is Cécile McLorin. She’s a brilliant jazz singer.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, she’s great.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s modern. At the same time, she got the old school thing going on too. There’s a drummer I really like named Makaya McCraven. He’s pretty hot. Man, there’s so many cats out there, man.

Maurice Cherry:
No, there is. There is.

Keith Henry Brown:
Vijay Iyer. He’s a little bit on the older side, but Vijay could play, could play, could play. Tyshawn Sorey. Yeah, I feel like I’m having a conversation with my son. We’re always talking about music. He’s a little more on the edge than me. He always knows what’s going on more than I do. He’s like, “Dad, you never heard of this guy? Man, you old.”
And I was like, I said, “Buddy.”
He said, “He been out about two, three years.”
I said, “Son, I don’t [inaudible 00:56:13] two, three years. Two, three years is still new to me.” But yeah, there’s a ton of them. Anybody you like, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned Cécile. I like her. There’s actually a jazz singer I first found on TikTok, who’s really great, Samara Joy. She’s a jazz vocalist.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah [inaudible 00:56:35].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh my God, her voice is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
She’s incredible, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And then I like-

Keith Henry Brown:
I’ve seen her live.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, oh. I want to see her live. I hope she comes to Atlanta one day. I know she’s playing at Blue Note next month in New York. I’m trying to think who else. I like a lot of bands, like Incognito. There was a time in, I would say, I don’t know, maybe mid to late ’90s to early 2000s where you started to see this mix of jazz with other genres. So you would have jazz and hip hop, or jazz and R&B, “neo soul.”
So that’s how I started to find out about … well, that’s not necessarily how I started to find out about jazz artists, because I’ve been playing jazz through … I was in a jazz band in high school, and everything. So I had always kind of known about it, but it’s just interesting diving more into learning about other artists and just sort of the … I don’t know. I feel like for a while in the ’70s there was just sort of a fine line between jazz and I guess what could be considered R&B, where someone like a Roy Hargrove or a Roy Ayers or someone would tow that line a little bit.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, totally. I mean, my son’s favorite musician is D’Angelo. And if you have D’Angelo, you can take your finger and bring that to Erykah Badu, and you bring that [inaudible 00:57:47] and then to Robert Glasper [inaudible 00:57:49]-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, he’s so good. Robert Glasper is so good.

Keith Henry Brown:
And Robert Glasper, by the way, we were talking earlier about popular success, he’s probably the most successful jazz musician, if you call him a jazz musician. I don’t even know if I’d call him that anymore, because he works with so much pop. But he’s the epitome of the kid that grew up listening to hip-hop, but loved jazz, but also has jazz chops. So there’s always that element of hip-hop with jazz. So you got Robert. He played at Blue Note a lot recently. And he’s up there on a stage with Mos Def, Yasiin Bey, rather, and cats like that. So he’s doing that. He’s bridging the gap. So I do think you’re absolutely right that there’s a bridging the gap between old school jazz, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis, and more contemporary music, hip-hop, funk, R&B, mixed in with what could be called jazz, like Kendrick Scott, Nubi Garcia, who’s an English saxophone player.
There’s just so many people who, for whatever reason, they got exposed to jazz, and they appreciate the musicianship of it. But then they also connect to where they’re coming from, which is their music. My music is R&B from the 1970s. Their music is that. But they like the elements of both things, and they kind of put them together into this other thing. There’s a label called Jazz Is Dead, which is run by a guy named Adrian Younge, and a guy named … I forget his name, but he was one of the original members of A Tribe Called Quest. I can’t remember [inaudible 00:59:22].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, Ali Shahid Muhammad.

Keith Henry Brown:
Exactly. And Jazz Is Dead is a project that basically takes … they’re constantly playing with either old established jazz musicians, jazz musicians that exist now, or up-and-coming people, mixed in with their R&B funk, hip-hop sensibilities. It’s a perfect mixture of all this. And to me, they represent what jazz is right now, because they look back and forward at the same time.
I think the most common thing that they probably want to see is just great musicianship, being able to play. So you’re not going to hear just somebody playing off a computer or synthesizers and loops, although that might be an element. But there’s people playing live bass, there’s people playing live drums, there’s people playing a horn, a saxophone, or a trump, so that you have all these things in it. You got raw singing and you have other things. And to me, that’s where the music is right now. And I’m really excited about it, because I love all that.

Maurice Cherry:
I had a designer on the show, I don’t know, this had to have been a couple of years ago, Aricka Lewis. She was a designer in Arkansas, and now she’s in New York. And I had her on the show and we were just talking about her work as a designer. She’s like, “Yeah, I’m a UX designer,” et cetera, et cetera. And then I ran across this group, I think it was on YouTube, and she was the lead singers. It’s this group called Calle Soul, C-A-L-L-E. And they’re, I don’t know, I guess sort of a jazz samba sort of … not samba, because samba’s fast, I would say.

Keith Henry Brown:
Like bossa nova?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, like a jazz bossa nova sort of band. And she was the lead singer. And I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
She’s like, “Ain’t nobody want to hear about that.” She’s like, “It’s just a thing that I do with some friends.”
I was like, “That is amazing. That is amazing.” I would say … Oh God, I’m trying to … I mean, we’re going off on a tangent. We’ll wrap the interview up. But I’d say probably my favorite jazz artist now is one that I sort of found by accident. I had just come to Atlanta in ’99, and I had went to … There’s a neighborhood here called Little Five Points. There’s a music shop there called Moods Music, which is still open to this day. And I remember hearing this single called Ghosts from this band out of … I think they were out of Norway, called Beady Belle, B-E-A-D-Y B-E-L-L-E. And I was like, “Oh wow, this is really good.”
And Darryl, who runs the shop, was like, “Yeah, I got their CD right here if you want it.” And that started, to me, a 20-plus year love affair with this band. I have all their albums. They’ve only performed in the States once. They performed in Rochester, New York, in 2007, I think.
And when I heard about it, I was like, “Oh, I’m going, I’m going.”
My friends were like, “What’s in Rochester, New York?”
I was like, “Beady Belle is coming to the United States for the first time, and they’re playing at the Rochester Jazz Festival.”
And they’re looking at me like, “Okay, go for it.” And I went and I heard them perform. I was sitting in the front row. There weren’t a lot of people there, because I guess people didn’t know the band. But I was just giddy. I got to talk to them afterwards. They signed all my albums that they had up to that date. The band has since broken up, but still the lead singer, still goes by the name Beady Belle. And she still performs and puts out work, and stuff. But that’s probably my favorite artist, my favorite jazz artist.
And then that opened me up to … I’d say contemporary jazz artist, probably my favorite contemporary jazz artist. But her and that band opened me up to Norwegian jazz and Finnish jazz. And I mean, they’re all pulling from Black American roots. But it’s just so interesting how jazz in other countries is just received, as opposed to here.

Keith Henry Brown:
[inaudible 01:03:05] a lot of DJ elements and hip-hop elements too, and electronics, in a lot of the Norwegian jazz world. So they do a lot of interesting things there. Do you have any other bands that you really like from Norway? I just want to know if I know any.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that she had a background singer on her fourth album named Jarle Bernhoft, who went on to become a solo artist. And sort of to that thing you’re talking about with the sort of mixing with electronic, he would do this live mixing on stage where he’d do some beat boxing or some other vocal sounds, and then mix it all together on stage while also performing, singing and playing guitar. I like a lot of his work.
There’s a lot of UK jazz, like Quantic Soul Orchestra, Alice Russell. Oh God, there’s one in particular who I’ve mentioned on the show before. Zara McFarlane. Yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a lot. Now I’m getting overwhelmed, trying to think of all of them. But yeah, wow. Wow. Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Keith Henry Brown:
As I said earlier, I think I’m going to try to make a situation for myself where I am focused mostly on illustration. I want to do more writing, I want to write more books. I like getting assignments because you get brought great stories, like the one I was talking about with Malcolm X, or John Lewis. But I also want to create more stuff on my own. I do like doing magazine stuff. I like doing newspaper stuff. I just think if I just get assignments to create art based on subjects that I’m interested in, I’d be really happy, and if I’m able to do that.
And I always fantasize about not staying in one place, like traveling around the world, because when you do what I do, you can be anywhere. So you can be in Berlin, you can be in Paris, you can be in London, you can be in Mexico. And I want to start doing that. I want to do these assignments, but be in different countries, set up a studio, and just illustrate books from different parts of the world. Live somewhere for six months, live somewhere for a year, and get to see the world, which is something I’ve never really been able to do much of for most of my life. So, that’s my goal I hope to do someday.

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

Keith Henry Brown:
Well, my website is keithhbrown.com. My Instagram handle is @iamtheleopard, which I’m actually on hiatus with it right now, but I’ll be getting back on in a couple of weeks. I decided to take a break from social media, just because I was doing it every single day. And I just think I got addicted, so I wanted to see if I could unaddict myself, if there’s such a word. Yeah, those two places. Instagram. And I’m also on Facebook, at Keith Henry Brown. But the easiest way is probably just go through my website.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Keith Henry Brown, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. I was so excited, putting together what I was going to talk to you about, because I was like you’ve done illustration, and it’s jazz. I’m like, “This is going to be a great conversation.” And you did not disappoint with that. I think if there’s anything people can certainly take from this conversation, it’s that you can do what you want to do, if you set your mind to it. Don’t be afraid to go out and do it. And you found a way to meld your passions together in a way that lets you live the life that you want to live, which I think is what all creatives strive for, at the end of the day. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Yeah, and if I may, I just wanted to say one more thing really quickly. Can I, Maurice?

Maurice Cherry:
Sure. Yeah.

Keith Henry Brown:
It ain’t about awards, it’s about doing what satisfies you. A lot of times in design and even in illustration, people are always saying, “You should put yourself up for this and get that. And you should tell everybody you won that award and this award.” It ain’t about that. It’s about what makes you happy. And you can win 10 awards and Golden whatever, but you got to satisfy you, or it’s not really going to mean anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Wise words. Again, Keith Henry Brown, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Keith Henry Brown:
Cheers, brother.

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Alexandria Batchelor

The thrilling part about entrepreneurship is following your dreams while pursuing your passions. That’s definitely the case for illustrator and creative director Alexandria Batchelor. As the head of her own company, Foxee Design, Alexandria uses her skills in graphic design, branding and illustration to not only provide killer work for her clients, but to also redefine standards in the industry within art and design that represents minorities (primarily Black women). Now that’s change worth supporting!

We kicked off our conversation talking about plans for the summer, and Alexandria talked about how she named her company, some of her notable clientele and collaborators, and the best kinds of clients for her to work with on projects. She also spoke about an upcoming book she worked on with noted authors Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes, and shared some secrets and advice on creativity and self-motivation.

If you’re looking to get a dose of inspiration, then this episode is the one for you. Enjoy!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
Hi, everyone. My name is Alexandria Batchelor, AKA Foxee Design. I am currently the CEO and creative director of Foxee Design. Completely self employed right now, and I am a designer, but I specialize in branding illustration and comic production specifically. That’s me in a nutshell.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going really well actually. Lots of good projects are coming in. I’ve actually started subcontracting. That’s where I’ve started leveling up where I have acknowledged that I can’t do it all by myself. One of my mentors taught me that he kind of taught or ingrained this mentality of looking out for your community and your network and taking on all the talented people that you know and spreading the wealth, because I am tired. This year I am focusing on self care and that’s why I bring it in like, oh, you have some time? All right, I’ve got two projects for you here, and I’ve got this much money and I’ve got this for you and this for you. That’s kind of how I started managing my business this year. It’s already working quite well, so good start so far.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a great start so far. I’m telling you, and for people that are out there listening that might be running one person shops, the minute that you get into subcontracting, you will feel like you have unlocked the cheat code. Wait a minute. I can do this self employment thing. Once you build that network or that collective, you’re like, oh, I got this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I know. That’s not sustainable. Not if you want to be happy and be a real person, because I like reality. Let’s stay rooted in it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, and also with subcontracting, it can also help you to even just expand your services. If there’s something that a client may want that you know someone in your network has the capacity to handle, it just kind of makes you appear more well rounded, so good for you. That’s good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Thank you. I can’t wait to continue to build. I just actually recruited one of my old design confidants from college as well as one of my old interns who are both my friends still to be my right and my left hand for my company, so that was a big move where I’m like, I told one of them, I’m like, you’re my successor. The other one is just stepping up to the plate, so it’s just really nice to have people I really trust my business with and I could only be thrilled to imagine how they would run my company one day when I have to go expand to new horizons. Still come back to Foxee because that’s where my heart is.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s amazing. I guess with that, do you have any plans for the summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. I’m going on vacation. I don’t vacation often, so yes. Actually summer, well starting off with my birthday, my birthday’s next month. May babies, Tauruses. Any Tauruses in the house? I’m going to Alabama because you were talking about the south, but my family’s from Alabama and I’m visiting my grandma for my birthday. We’re going to hang out in Atlanta for a bit, so that’s going to be really fun. Then in June, I’m spending the month in California because I’m also going to be speaking at VidCon, which is exciting, but most of it I’m going to be relaxing, but yes. I’ll have my first major speaking engagement in person. I don’t think I’ve nervous yet, but as we get closer, I’m going to be a ball of nerves.

Maurice Cherry:
You’ll be fine. VidCon is one of those conferences that everyone’s going to have a camera, of course. It’s a video conference, VidCon, but you’ll be fine. I think there’s enough energy at that kind of event where everyone wants to see you do well.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s true. It’ll be good vibes. As long as there are good vibes, I’ll thrive.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’m curious, where in Alabama will you be visiting?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nobody knows where this is, so I’ll be surprised if you know. It’s called Elba. Elba, Alabama in Coffee County.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I too am from Alabama.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m from Selma in Dallas County. I’ve heard of Elba though.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh, really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my gosh. You’re the first person who’s ever heard of where my family’s from. That’s amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
People will come to me and name random cities in Alabama, like Utah or Boaz or something. I was like, yeah. I’ve heard of that. Really? I’m like, yeah. I grew up in Selma, from Alabama, south central Alabama. Yeah. Nice. Alabama in the summer is hot.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It’s going to be brutal, yeah. Well, May, so that’s not too bad.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s not too bad. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. My grandma wants us back later in the summer in August, so I think I might die. I don’t know if I could do that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. August is Alabama is brutal, but the thing about visiting small towns in Alabama like that is it just strips everything away, like technology, wifi, cable. Selma is not a big city. Even when I go back home to visit my mom, she’s got cable and she has internet, but like it’s not the cable and internet I have at home. In terms of the entire environment, it just kind of strips everything away and forces you to be still for a while.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m looking for to unplug, kind of reconvene with nature. My grandma’s got this cute little vegetable garden that I want to see and just kind of learn about the land, because we own land too. It’s low key our inheritance eventually, so I just want to get back to my roots and what better time to do it than for my birthday? I’m really excited.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Let’s talk about Foxee Design. I know you’ve been freelancing for a long time now, but tell the people more about Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Foxee Design, I wanted to figure out a nice alias that really represented me, and we started branding ourselves in college, but everybody was kind of doing… no shade to people who just use their name. That’s a very legitimate brand because your name actually holds a lot of meaning. I’m big into name etymology, so I love learning the meaning behind everything, but I just wanted something more than just like A and B.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just realized my hair became a really big signifier and symbol in my life because I used to have chemically straightened hair up until I was like 18. Right when I was in college, I did a big chop and I went natural and that was the first time I had had natural hair in my life. That’s why the hair kind of became a big thing. I have a beauty mark, like the Marilyn Monroe beauty mark and the lips and I’m like, you know what? Maybe this is the visual I want to represent my brand.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then Foxee, the name, kind of came about because… actually, it’s from Foxy Brown, the Pam Grier movie from the 70s, but I learned about that from Quentin Tarantino’s iteration of it, Jackie Brown and Pam Grier again. I was like, oh, I’m in love with this movie. It was my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. It just really resonated with me, so I was like, well, this character is so cool because she’s re-contextualizing black female sexuality and she’s kind of making the black woman a very powerful force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. I’m like, I want to do that in the design industry. This was before where are the black designers, which we were just talking about too, where I’m just like, I just want to be myself and be this very strong black woman without any consequence and have it resonate with my work. It doesn’t always need to be about my work, but it’s always rooted in it because it’s a part of me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s why it kind of was a little sexy. At times I would ask my friends like, should I have done something a little more palatable, but I just kind of leaned into it and I really want to embody this persona where… if you see me, I’m very naturalista, like Tom boy, but I can have those moments where I step out. It feels like an alter ego to an extent as well, but I like stepping into this alter ego because I’m this authority in the brand space and the design space and the illustration space and I get to know what I’m talking about and feel really empowered behind the knowledge that I’ve accrued over time. That’s kind of how Foxee came about and the meaning behind my whole business.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. I love that there’s so much intention behind it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. Always have intention behind the work I do.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you specialize in, you mentioned, graphic design, you mentioned illustration or comics and branding. What specifically drew you to branding? I’ve been finding, I’d say probably on the show within the past year or so, a lot more designers getting into branding, but what draws you to it?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I look at branding as storytelling. I realize illustration, comics and branding are all storytelling mediums for me that are my favorite mediums. I also write a little bit and my mom is a writer, so I have that in my blood. There’s something about branding that I feel like can be missed where you just think it’s a logo, but it’s much more than that. You’re telling someone’s story. I think it’s more of the owner. You go back to the owner, you find out even more about the business, and that actually influences a lot of decisions, like what colors. Is this based on your favorite colors? Is this just tied to how that color represents the specialty that we’re trying to brand? What is this interest, this hobby? Did you like skiing? Is that why you wanted to make something related to skiing?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think brands always go back to the first person who came with that idea, and I love learning about people and understanding the attention behind all of the things that we are drawn to. That’s why I really like branding, because it’s kind of like decoding and getting to know someone. It’s kind of personal, because I know recent years people are trying to separate the personal brand and the business brand. I actually think it can be both. It’s one logo. One brand can, I believe, represent both personal and business. That’s how I do it. I don’t have a separate page. It’s all at one.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am a person, I am my business, but I can also be just the person that can just be the business. I can be like, okay, I’m taking a mental health day and I go to the spa. I feel like when you try to split, it’s hard to navigate, so I love creating this space where you can feel like your work isn’t necessarily your life, but it is an important part of your life and it can still be a representation of you, your will, your passion. That’s why I love branding.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that. That’s a great way to put it. I see now branding and storytelling and it’s something I’ve definitely seen with a lot of small companies are trying to get into it, or I think they’re trying to get into branding because they’re starting to see it now as more than just a logo. They’ll come to a designer, I need a logo, but the logo should hopefully tell the story of your business or why you’re doing your business or something. It’s not just something generic that you just slap together and say, this is what my business is. It’s this logo.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. It’s Papyrus type. No, I’m just kidding. I’m literally always walking around like, I don’t like that, I love that. My dad’s like, stop working. I’m like, I can’t help it, dad. The whole world is design. Oh, man.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project that comes into Foxee Design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’m a big process person, like process junkie over here. I love how you got from point A to point B. I learned that a lot of clients and even designers are only about the final product. When I was getting introduced to this culture of design, I would notice that designers would hoard their designs until they were ready to share it and it would be more finalized and clients would just be like, I don’t get what this concept is. Just give me the final product. This was in college I reached this theory. I was like, I think there’s a gap in understanding, because actually my college major, it’s not graphic design. It’s communication design, so I quite literally can design communication, and I realized there was a gap in communication between the designer and the client.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I made my process very transparent. I start with a sketch. I’ll give a couple rounds of sketches and I’ll share it with the client. I’m like, what do you think? This isn’t obviously what it’s going to look like in the final stage, but these are just some ideas to get from point A to point B. Do you like this? What do you like about that? What do you like about this? We can combine those ideas and see if they work. I can tell you why they might not work. Let’s try this instead. When you bring the client in and involve them, you just get a much more successful design.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve definitely had projects that have fallen through, obviously. No one’s perfect, but when the projects really go to the finish line, I’ve always had very high success rates. People are like, I didn’t even know this is what I wanted. I’m like, exactly, because the client always wants to be like, hey, I trust you. Just do whatever you want. I’m like, no. This is your business. You have to do work too, so I give them homework. I’m like, fill out this brand brief, answer all these questions. Some people are like, I never thought to answer all these questions about my business. I’m like, well, you’ve got to think about some extra stuff before maybe we even start your logo, because I always start with the logo if we’re doing a big brand project, because it’s an easy starting point but there’s way more to that. Especially if you want to be a musician or if you want to be on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There’s a lot of other deliverables that go around the logo. I’ll give you colors and type bases to work with, even if that’s what you lead me with, but there’s always more than just a logo. Yes. I make my clients work just as hard as me, and that’s why I think I work really well with people and now they appreciate the process. They’ll always walk away like, I learned something about design today, and I’m like, that’s amazing. I’ve got teaching in my blood.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that’s a good way to approach it. Back when I started my studio, which was… what year is this? 2022. Back when I started in my studio in the olden days of the inter… no, I’m kidding, but back in the late 2000s or so, there was this really big push and maybe it’s still this way now, I don’t know, but there was almost this dichotomy that was set up between designer/entrepreneurs and clients where the designer is always right and the client is always wrong and there was this whole thing about clients from hell. Clients from hell.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I remember that blog.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Not to say that they don’t exist. They do exist. But also I think it’s up to the designer to vet the people that are coming in.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely.

Maurice Cherry:
I think if you’re doing a good job of that and they know that you’re educating them along with doing the work that you don’t run into many clients from hell after a while. They know to kind of stay away, but that education portion is super important. I think clients want to know sort of what they’re paying for, of course. They’re not just paying for hopefully a set of hands. They want someone that can illustrate, especially if it’s for their business and its brand. I would hope that they would want to be involved in it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me too. Yeah. Someone, I can’t remember who, but there was four types of clients. You have the smart involved client, you have the smart, lazy client, you have the… sorry to say dumb, but the dumb involved client and the dumb and lazy client. I think the worst one they said was the dumb involved one because they want to be all up in your business but aren’t listening or anything. It’s interesting that there are types of clients out there, but you have to know how to deal with them. If someone is more the uneducated one who wants to be involved, that’s great. You shouldn’t see that as a loss. You should be like, no, this is a learning moment. You want to be involved, but you’re not listening to me and I’m the authority. You paid for this.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Also, sometimes that’s where I take an L. If you don’t want to listen to me, then we’ll go with what you want. It might not be the right decision, but because you don’t want to listen to the specialists that you hired, then we’ll just go and do what you want to do. I think as I got older I started to be less precious with my work because yes, I’m here to guide you. I’m here to be like a salesperson. I’m here to persuade you, but sometimes if they just don’t want to listen, then that’s fine. I paid you to do what you want me to do and that’s that. I think a lot of younger designers get really hellbent on like, well, they’re not doing this. They’re not do it. I’m like yeah, I know that stinks, but put all that energy in your own work then.

Maurice Cherry:
Design, at the end of the day, for what it’s worth, especially as an entrepreneur, it’s a service industry, so you are serving the client in that way. Honestly, just because you did the work doesn’t mean you have to put it on your portfolio. There is a lot of work that I’ve done for horrible clients that will never see the light of day for me.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. I get you there, or I’ll put the one that they should have picked in my portfolio. I’m like, this is the nice version that we just left from ground zero, and it’s a dream, but this is the reality it should have been, so I get that.

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier about subcontracting and having people as you’re left and right hand. What does a typical day look like for you?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Oh my goodness. I’m in a decompression mode right now, so it’s a little different. Sometimes I’ll be gaming all day while also working, so I balance it out, which is kind of hilarious, but other days… I’m a Switch girl, so I’m playing the new Kirby game. Nobody’s paying me to promote this, but it’s really good. It’s beautiful. That’s been nice to feel restorative, especially if I have a stacked day, but I go through my emails. Also, email anxiety is so real. Some days I just put them off, but I try to have admin days where I can focus and respond as I go so they don’t build up, because if I’m away from my email for at least a week, I will have at least 200 emails and that is not fun to go through. Yes. That’s real. Email, admin stuff, I’ll go through any contracts that I have and get them signed and sent over, because I always collect deposits or I have regular income where I’ll have to give bills and stuff. So I’ll send in my invoices then. That’s the business side of things.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Then some days I like to blog in the mornings, especially if I worked too much the past day. I’ll just be writing my memoir, which is a little passion project I have going on, so I’ll spend time either doing that. This morning I spent embroidering, so I’ve been trying to get back to traditional art because I want to spend less time on my computer. Yes. I’ve been wanting to paint more, so in the coming days I’ll get back to painting. I like to play as much as I work with even my art because it’s my passion and my job, but traditional is where I’m steering, so I like being able to balance that throughout the day. Then I’ll work on a project here or there. I’ve usually got several going on.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Some days I’m like, I’m not working on this project or I’ll have to prioritize which one, like they need this one urgently or this deadline or this sub-task deadline is due this day, so that’s how I organize my tasks. Then I try to not work into the evening. Then I unwind with some anime and food. That’s what a day looks like for me.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that you said I like to play as much as I work and that you kind of weave that into your work day. That’s pretty cool. I like that. I think it’s a good way, one, to just get through the day, but then as an entrepreneur, I think it can be so easy to fall into that trap of just work, work, work, work, work, because everything has to depend on you. Incorporating those moments of play like that into the work is a good strategy.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. This is very new too, because I was work, work, work, work, work, and then I crash, crash, crash, crash, crash. Now I’m like, okay. I have to make sure I am relaxing. I want to bring back yoga and meditation into my routine, because I also was doing that because self-care is just so important. That’s what I’m trying to stress as much as I’m trying to make money. I’m good. I think that’s also important to have financial literacy when you’re in these spaces and to be able to save and not worry about going check to check. That’s where I’m like, you know what? I’ve worked hard enough to be like, I can relax. It’s going to be okay.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good place to be.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It takes time. I think everyone can get there, but even if you are living check to check, still put a few bucks aside to get a facial from Walgreens. One of those things to just do the mini. I love doing like those really home care days. I’ll put my feet in like some Epsom salt or whatever and soak, so you can do it in a very affordable way too. I suggest that as well.

Maurice Cherry:
I like that. I first heard about you about a year or so ago from YouTube. I think I told you this before we started recording. I was randomly watching videos. I was letting the YouTube algorithm guide what I watch next and I ended up on this… I guess the best way to describe it would be maybe an anime discussion channel. Not necessarily review, but more like discussion. This anime discussion channel called Beyond The Bot. Can you talk about how you became a part of that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Actually it goes back to my history at Frederator. We actually got laid off during the pandemic too. It happened to a bunch of different companies. I have no disclaimer. There’s no shade. I wouldn’t be the designer I am today without that company. I have much respect for Frederator, but we just couldn’t afford to keep all of us on after the pandemic hit. If it didn’t hit, we probably would still be there, to be honest with you. That crew wanted to keep a channel that we started at Frederator called, Get in the Robot. That had to pause production because we had lost our jobs, so we evolved it.

Maurice Cherry:
I watched Get in the Robot. I didn’t know that was the succession. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Right. Here we go. Full circle.

Maurice Cherry:
Full circle.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I knew we’d get there. Yes. We just evolved it to the next stage with Beyond the Bot. We did it completely independent. We were crowd funded. We had a lot of really great opportunities to us. Then they were like, all right. Come on board, because we literally took the whole old team from Frederator and just started this because we just needed extra work and the fans were helping us pay and keep it alive. We got a couple hundred bucks a month working on it and we just kept the joy alive because that channel meant a lot to us, like Get in the Robot, and then Beyond the Bot was a new baby that helped us be able to do even more than we wanted to do without corporate constraints.

Maurice Cherry:
For people that want to check it out, you should really go to YouTube, search for it. If you’re into anime, I wouldn’t even say just modern anime, like My Hero Academia or whatever because you all have talked about stuff with Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z and stuff. If you’re an anime fan of any stripe, definitely check it out.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes. We do deep cuts. I think we did a Neon Evangelion Genesis video. We’ve done a Cardcaptor Sakura video, so even the ones you’ve never heard of, we were talking about that stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What are the best types of clients for you to work with? I know you’ve worked with, you mentioned Frederator is a place that you’ve worked at before, and we’ll go through the rest of your work history, but you’ve worked for some publications and other publishing studios. What are the best types of clients for Foxee Design though?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I love working with YouTubers. YouTubers are where it’s at because everybody is getting on that. I’m even trying to get on YouTube. I would love to be able to be like, come follow me at Foxee. Content will come this year, I promise, but yes. I love the YouTube space. That’s kind of what Frederator did too. We were kind of cornering the mark. They were kind of the first people really doing what they’re doing on YouTube. A lot of these clients that have reached out to me are like, I’m inspired by Get in the Robot. I’m inspired by this. We’ve kind of set a domino effect of these new big YouTubers who focus on anime or cartoon industries or video games. Well, there were other people like [inaudible 00:30:17].

Alexandria Batchelor:
All those different names, but YouTube is the place to be. There’s kind of a lot of not so great branding on there, so I would like to save YouTubers. That’s also why VidCon is a great space for me to speak at. I can’t wait to connect with a lot of people who might need a new brand. Either a brand refresh, a whole rebrand, or just a brand in general, but I think YouTube is a great spot because there’s a lot of authentic personalities that… the algorithm serves up authenticities. They love when you are just yourself and you have a good niche and you have a good hook. If people have those good ideas and just need a good brand, then they’re a great fit for me because I can help visualize that and help build their brand on YouTube.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Those are my ideal clients, but I’ve worked with musicians. Back when I was living in Buffalo, my first set of clients were local rappers who would charge $50 album covers. I’m like, the come up is real. I’ve worked with musicians, but I don’t charge $50 for album covers anymore. I’m all about indie. I listen to indie music. I love like indie films, so anything independent and not discovered by the world, it just feels more special. You were one of the first few fans to get access. When you see someone blow up, you’re like, I was following them when Spotify didn’t even exist. It just feels like an achievement to be able to be in those spaces. I think it’s high honor, especially if you’re a designer in those spaces to work with those kind of artists who are doing their thing, because it’s solely based on passion. Of course they want to be famous and they want money, but they are 100% driven by passion, and passionate clients. Ideal clients are just anybody with a dream and a lot of passion, and money too.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s a guy I design… not design. Sorry. I had him on the show… was it last year? I’ve been doing this for so long I really have to think, like when did I interview this person? It was last year. This guy, Chris Burnett, he started out doing some designs for Odd Future. He loved the music and lucked into becoming their creative director for a while, did work with Tyler and with Frank and them. I’m like, wow. To be able to come in at that level, whether it’s a musician or even with what you’re talking about with a YouTube channel or something like that, to get in on the ground floor of working with another passionate creative is amazing. That’s the best. It’s the best. It’s so good, because that energy is there. They’re doing their thing. You’re doing your thing. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Alexandria Batchelor:
So good. Glad you agree.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here a little bit. I know we’ve talked a lot about your work, but let’s talk more about you. Where did you grow up?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Me, I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York. A little town. I don’t know if you all know Fishkill. More like the Poughkeepsie area. I’m just throwing out general terms because this is so specific. It’s like the greater New York City area. I know some people are going to be like, what? Then other people are like, what the heck is that? It’s near Beacon. Beacon’s also really nice. I don’t know. Good. It’s the upstate New York area kind of, but not really. It’s very white, which is fine. That experience made me very comfortable being in predominantly white spaces, which actually helped me out in corporate and college, although my college program, our class, there was a lot of diversity there, which was surprising because it was Buffalo, but anyway. Yeah. I grew up in a predominantly white area in the suburbs and I lived there my… that’s not true. I was a baby in Mount Kisco, so I barely re remember that, but remembering the growing up experience, I grew up in that other area that I ranted about that half of the people listening will probably not know.

Maurice Cherry:
When did you know that creating art was something you wanted to do for a living?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Probably when I was five. I was always drawing, especially when we hung out with the family. I was always curled up on the couch just doodling. I still have my doodles. I have a great archive. I’m excited to go through it, like through recent revelations and deeper understanding of my work, but I have stuff from when I was really young still in my possession, but I always knew. Yeah. I’m an archivist, which is a fancy term for hoarder, but it’s still worth it. I think having your old work is really important because it says a lot about the interest that shaped you as an artist. I always knew, and I actually wanted to get into architecture briefly because I do love architecture, but I’m not good at math, or maybe I am but I just didn’t have good teachers. The pressure it is to be an architect, uh-uh (negative). I was like, I’m not going to build a house that could fall down and me get sued. I don’t think so. Then I found graphic design and that was a wrap.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you mentioned studying communication design. You started out at Dutchess Community College and then you attended University of Buffalo. What were those experiences like? Did they really prepare you once you got out there in the world as a working designer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would say yes and no. Dutchess, the community college, it was a great school for saving money. I just wanted to save. Maybe I was a little not like ready to run, like jump the nest. That’s my mom’s theory, even though I’m like, no mom. It’s probably not that, but she’s usually right with her suspicions, so maybe. I went for free because I graduated in like the top 3% of my high school, but it felt like the 13th grade and me and one of my friends were really bored and we were just like, we have to get out of here. We got to do really fun programs. I got to learn fencing while I was there and did a dance program. I want to get back into fencing. Fencing was super fun and you look really cool. I love swords, and video games, I am always the person with a sword. That’s my ideal weapon choice.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just in case you guys were wondering, but I didn’t get to take really graphic design classes there. I took a 2D and 3D design class and a photography class, which is indirectly graphic design, but I had to wait the next year to take a graphic design course, but I was already onto the University at Buffalo. Those courses, they were okay. I thought the teacher I had was kind of pretentious. He was kind of a jerk and told me I couldn’t get into other schools, even though out of high school, I got into like RIT and I’m like, okay, well I’m here just to save money for my family so you’re wrong, but thanks.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That was a crappy experience with that guy where I’m like, maybe you’re just mad you’re teaching and you want to be out in the field. I don’t know. It was not really about me, but it was a crappy experience to still have. University of Buffalo was way better. I actually met two of my mentors that I’m still friends with today, John Jennings and Stacy Robinson. They together work as Black Kirby and they are leading the Afro-futurist… they’re just big names in the Afro-futurist space, especially in the comic book industry. They just kind of took me under their wing immediately when I met them, and that was the best thing I got out of UB especially. Then also all my friends. I still keep in contact with a lot of my classmates. We just kind of all stuck together. I had a friend reach out to me recently like, hey, we’ve always been fans of your work and we always thought your stuff was next level. I’m like, me? Fans from school? Oh my gosh. Thanks guys. That was so sweet.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I had John on the show a couple years ago. I want to say 2017, 2018. Yeah. John is great. John, you mentioned his name.nd I think any Afro-futurist circle people are going to be like, oh yeah, Kindred. We know John. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yep. I’ve worked on most of those projects he’s worked on, so I actually helped color Kindred too.

Maurice Cherry:
Work. Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I just think those things [inaudible 00:39:39]… because I’m a very humble person. I don’t go out reciting my resume, but I’m like yeah, I worked on that too.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. He’s dope. He’s very cool to work with. He was the one I mentioned earlier who taught me, don’t leave your network behind and bring them up with you. He is trying to master the subcontract and that’s who I got that from.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. I like that a lot. I like that. What was your early career like once you graduated? Is that when you started freelancing right alongside working?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, because my first job out of college was at The Cheesecake Factory. I was a server. I couldn’t get a job for the life of me because I was in Buffalo and the industry there is very small. It’s a very blue collar town. No shade to Buffalo, but design was not flourishing there. I’m not really sure how it is. I don’t think it’s flourishing now. You’d have to work at like a doctor’s office or some kind of establishment to really be a designer there. I wanted to work at an agency or some kind of innovative company, but I just couldn’t get in. I was behind on internships because I didn’t take internships in school because I was kind of a lazy student. I’m going to be honest with you. I slept during class all the time, since high school. I was a sleeper. I don’t know. That was my bad.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Instead, I decided to go into the restaurant industry and I made really great tips. Then that also encouraged me to freelance. If I never served, then I would’ve never really focused on freelance work and Foxee Design may not be what it is today, because I didn’t want a gap in my resume. I was like, well, I’m going to have to really operate as a freelancer so I have this experience for when I’m ready to get into design. I did end up getting in two offers at internships. One at like a car dealership place, which I’m like, I’m not a big car person, so I’m like, it’s not a great fit. Then the other was at a newspaper, which is really cool. It was called the Buffalo News. It’s one of the biggest newspapers in the Western New York area. They had a medley of different clients that they would work with, so I thought that was a better fit than a car dealership. No shade.

Alexandria Batchelor:
It was a great offer that she… it was the first time someone took me out and wined and dined me to be like, are you going to choose our internship? I’m like, for an internship for real? No, but thank you. I mean, not wine. She took me out to coffee and got me a snack or whatever, but either way it was [inaudible 00:42:21] that she really wanted me to work there, but I chose the newspaper instead. I worked in their digital ad department because they were still focusing on penny savers, but my department was the smallest and newest and youngest. We worked on Facebook ads, like back in the day when you were only in the backend, working on Facebook. This was back when it was so new that you could actually discriminate through it because you could choose to serve your ads to specific races. It was very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. I remember when Facebook had that. I think it was some sort of housing. I forget what it was, how someone found out. I think it was because they were making ads that would discriminate against people for housing or something like that, but I remember when could do that with the ad manager.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, and I witnessed that happen. The sales rep didn’t allow it, but the woman was on speaker phone asking and I was just like, oh my goodness. I can’t believe she just asked if she could only serve this housing ad to white people. It was just the most baffling experience. I was like, wow, people really be doing that nowadays. Still to this day. That was a very interesting experience because it was very old school. I had to dress up for work. I had a retirement fund. I was like, what in the world? I had a retirement fund. That’s how old school this place was. That was my early career. It was very interesting. Very interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what was it like at Frederator? What did you learn from there? I know you said it kind of helped you now in terms of, I guess, process and such, but what was that experience like, because Frederator, and we talked about this a bit before recording, but it feels like it serves a very specific type of demographic that I don’t know if it encompasses black women, black people in general, but probably specifically not black women. What was your experience there like? What did you learn from there?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Well, it’s funny enough. I was one of the first three black people employed there. It was two black guys and me and one of them, he’s still there and just got promoted to president, so now he running the place, which is amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Look at that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
The first day he started, he said, I’m going to run this place. I said, okay. That was me meeting him. I was like, sure. Then he did. I’m like, of course he did. Of course he did. It’s being run by a black person now, but it was a wild ride because it was definitely predominantly white for decades, which, it makes sense. The higher ups were all white. That’s usually what happens, but that’s why I was really grateful to my boss who gave me a chance because I needed to get out of Buffalo. Through friend or something, I was able to connect and she’s like, I love your work. Then I got the job and I got to New York City lickity-split because I was ready to go. It was just amazing to have an opportunity to be in that space, because it’s so hard for us to get into design spaces for whatever reason. Well, the reason is because it’s systematically designed like that, but that’s a whole other conversation. We’re partially going to talk about it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yes, it was kind of hard being there, as any predominantly white space, but for whatever reason, there was more and more minorities that kept flooding in. At one point, there was half minorities and half white people and then there were less white people. I’m like, oh, they’re getting scared. They’re getting scared. I’m just kidding. It was so funny though. We would joke about it, but I think I was able to navigate the space where I let people feel comfortable talking about feeling uncomfortable. I would be able to talk to the one half Hispanic, half indigenous guy and the one Asian guy about in high school when they used to give us really racist names.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This was water cooler talk, and I don’t think anybody would ever have been able to have a safe water cooler space talk like that if it was only white people around. I didn’t really have an influence on company culture because I was the only designer there too, so I was so tired and busy, but the moments I had were really nice where I could just bond with people and we could talk straight with each other. I even talked to some of the white people about it because I’ve always had white friends who just let me talk. I’m like, if you just listen, I’m cool with you. You cool. You know what I mean?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Just let hear my voice. I’ve had really real talks with some white folk and those are the ones to stick with; the ones who aren’t going to tell you how you are supposed to feel or about your experience. I had a lot of those moments with some people there, which was nice, but design wise, it was YouTube. I got to figure out how to brand YouTube. I made extensive style guides. I’ll make you a 50 page brand guide that you will use and share with the video editors, because we had a huge freelance network too, some of whom I still keep in contact and using my own network now. Yeah. The people I met there were worth it. The skills I gained there working on YouTube was worth it. Yeah.

Alexandria Batchelor:
As a black woman, it wasn’t always great. I didn’t always feel like my voice was heard. I feel like I had a lot of good ideas and they would always be overshadowed, and then every time the white guy said exactly what I said two weeks ago, I’m like, of course. Of course now it’s a brilliant idea. I don’t want to think it’s always intentional, but you always feel a type of way where it’s like, is anybody listening to me, but still a good experience. Still a good experience. Again, it made me strong. I had interns be like, because we went through a lot, I was able to handle a really crazy work situation being only in a small team, and I’m like, I’m glad, because it hardens you when you are responsible for a lot. It was too much. I definitely needed like another designer, but I run my own business now.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s interesting. It hardens you. That’s an interesting way to look at it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Yeah. It’s not 100% great terminology, but that’s the strong black woman though. Unfortunately, that’s the trope that we do have to play often.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, this kind of leads into my next question, which is kind of about representation. I mentioned to you before and I’ve talked about this on the show too when I have black illustrators or fine artists, do you feel a need to quote unquote represent with the work that you do?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Not necessarily. Obviously I’m going to go for the black female representation or even just a lot of women I’ve always drawn, because I’m always going to go to the self first. It’s an easy subject. It’s like Frida Kahlo. She says, I know myself the best. That’s why my best subject. She’s one of my favorite artists. That’s why I quote her. That was not a direct quote, but anyway, and then also, because I’m bisexual, I also love how women look and it’s so easy to draw women. I always have to be like, oh crap. I haven’t drawn a man in months. I should probably do that. Men are cool too, but dang, I don’t know. [foreign language 00:50:26].

Alexandria Batchelor:
Anyway, I think it’s important specifically to represent the black women in my work because I pull a lot from my feelings, so I make a lot of sense of what I’m feeling and what I’m going through through my illustration work, and because black women have to be hardened by society, I think being vulnerable in that way helps be like hey, I’m still a person and I’m really sad or I’m really frustrated, or I feel like I’m falling apart, which is why I do a lot of disembodied, disconnected body parts. That’s kind of a style I’ve developed. I’ve always been doing that for I think maybe for 10 years.

Alexandria Batchelor:
That’s kind of been the art style where it’s like just the head or the bust or a hand or an arm. It just shows this disconnect and just feeling really outside of your body, because there’s so much going on, you don’t really know the feelings that are kind of taking over you and you feel like you’re just kind of fractured. I’m constantly breaking apart and putting myself back together to make sense of myself, to reassemble myself, like a stained glass mirror or a stained glass window. Sorry. That’s why I think when I try to represent the black woman it means more because we aren’t allowed to feel feelings like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, you do a lot of work with like Afro-futuristic [inaudible 00:52:02]. You mentioned John Jennings and you mentioned Kindred. You’ve got a new project that’s coming out in September with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. We’re now allowed to talk about it. I was doing hold up because I was the colorist on the project, so I colored that whole bad boy. I had some help with my assistants. They were great, but yes. It’s funny because I’ve been coloring with John since I was in college and I’ve been getting promotions with him. This was the first time I was the lead colorist. Oftentimes I’m an assistant colorist, like on Kindred I was an assistant, but this time I got to be the senior level colorist and I got to see the inks that Marco Finnegan did. He’s incredible. He loves film noir. That’s why the shadows are really heavy. I always forget this name, the really intense contrast. It’s the [inaudible 00:53:01].

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, chiaroscuro. Something like that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
There you go, chiaroscuro. Yes. I never get that right, but one day I will, so thank you for the assist, but it has that really beautiful effect. It made my job easier because I was like, great. I got to do less shadows because he made this so exaggerated, but it was beautiful. His inks were just so strong on their own. Then I got to just take a look at them, understand the scene. I had to plot out the script to see how many days this story went over. It took a place over seven days. It’s about this little girl, she’s eight, which, fun fact, was based on Marco’s daughter, which is really cute. I love when, again, you’re using your reality as your subject and that’s what makes it realer, because the expressions, I’m just like, this feels heartfelt. I’m like, well, if it’s based on your daughter, I get it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
This little girl, she goes through a lot of death and she is kind of on her own after a while because her caretaker dies and then a monster is summoned to take care of her, called the keeper, but there has to be a sacrifice to keep it alive because it needs life to keep it alive. It’s a beautiful, horrific story. It was funny because I was listening to a talk with Tananarive Due and she was talking a lot of black history or black stories. They are horror. They’re horrific, so it’s technically a horror graphic novel. I think the demo is like around… it’s supposed to be young adult, but I think it can skew higher because it reads really well. I highly recommend, not just because I worked on it. It’s good. We nailed it.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes so people can pre-order it, because this will be out before this comes out. Side note, and only because I’m a nerd, you talked about [inaudible 00:55:06], and as soon as you said that, I was like, there’s a song by a British jazz singer named ZR McFarland called chiaroscuro, so if anybody’s listening and they want to check that out, it’s a pretty good song. She’s a good singer, but that’s a pretty good song.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Nice. I’m going to be jamming to that after this podcast.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How do you get back your creativity when you’re feeling uninspired? Do you have any methods that you go through or anything like that?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I wish my brain could shut off that I could really be uninspired, but I understand it’s not necessarily not being inspired, but the creative blocks, I guess, where it’s like I know I want to do this, but sometimes I don’t know how. Sometimes I guess going back to traditional media, just doodling mindlessly helps, me going back to nature. I was just going on a walk with my mom and she was so annoyed because I literally was stopping and picking the flowers because I mentioned wild flowers in a blog post, so just taking root of my surroundings, even if it’s a fire hydrant and the colors on that because I’m a comic book. I work in comic books, so the background art, you think the things that you just pass by every day, we love. We put that in the background so we’re always studying the environment.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I think that’s been a really good way to, I guess, push through creative blocks where I’m just like, let me just go outside and collect some research and also get in the fresh air and I just want to hike more. I want to get back to nature because I think as we get back to nature and respect it more and I want to raise more plants, I want that to help revitalize me when I’m feeling like down with my creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s funny. As you said that about creativity and even as you mentioned this about horror before. Have you been to Elba before? Is this going to be your first time visiting this summer?

Alexandria Batchelor:
No, I used to go when I was a kid, but it’s been a while. It’s maybe been over five years, so it’s been a while.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. One thing I remember about Elba is that it’s flooded a few times. At least in my lifetime, it’s with the river there, the town is flooded. I don’t know. As you started talking about that I was thinking, what if there’s some interesting southern gothic horror story of this town that’s been repeatedly flooded with people that can breathe underwater or something. I don’t know. My mind is wandering a little bit.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I would love that. No, please, because it’s funny. We have another piece of property and on it there’s this little mini house and they call it the doll house, and it’s near a lake, so I’m like, oh, you might be onto something. Okay. We might have to talk. Okay. We’ve got to talk about this little story over here. That sounds awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project or anything that you would love to do that you haven’t done yet?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I am literally working on a dream graphic novel, so yes. It’s pretty much I have very vivid dreams because I’m very stressed out a lot, I guess. Yeah. People would call them stress dreams, but I’ve started getting them again. They’ve been hilarious. One dream someone said that… like I was an X-man and someone was like, your sister’s a normie, and I pimp slapped them because I was like, she’s amazing. Don’t you ever talk about my sister like that. These are the kind of weird dreams I have. I’ve recorded at least 70 plus of these. I’ve started organizing into a story because there has been a lot of through lines between all of these dreams where it’s like, there’s this underlying plot or there’s this love interest, so it’s been very interesting mapping out all these symbols because I also love dream symbolism and dream interpretation.

Alexandria Batchelor:
I’ve used that as a resource for this story because it’s literally writing itself. I literally just have to go to bed and dream and that’s part of the writing and now it’s tightening it up, but then I’m paralleling it with my actual life to be like, what is going on to instigate these dreams? It’s biographical as well as a dream memoir, so I’m pulling from my journal entries at the same point in time and I’m creating this beautiful story that weaves in and out from reality and dream world and creating a narrative. This is going to be a hybrid piece where it’s graphic novel, but there’s going to be written pros and there’s going to be dream dictionary-esque aspects of it. This is a passion project. I’ve already finished the beginning and figured out the beginning and end. I’ve just been working on it diligently and hopefully I am going to get this published maybe next year or the following year, given how much time I’m able to work on it with everything else going on.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds amazing. I’d love to read that once you have it. Once it’s out there and ready, I’d love to read that.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Absolutely. I will send you a link personally.

Maurice Cherry:
What is the best advice that you’ve ever been given regarding your craft?

Alexandria Batchelor:
I guess reserving my passion for my own projects, but I don’t think that’s actually the best advice because I’m so passionate about everything. I think just focusing more on myself though is important because I’ve always been worried about everyone else. Not that I’m going to drop the execution that I spend on projects, but I just need to be a little selfish nowadays and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a balance between selflessness and selfishness, but with my work, I want that dream to come true. I also want to have an exhibit. If I want all these dreams to come true, I’ve got to think about me, so I think that’s probably the best advice. Balance, letting myself get a little bored, re-centering myself and just letting go a little bit. That’s, I think, what I need to continue to grow and not stagnate or burn myself out or give up on this because I feel like I’m onto something.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
I want to do more environmental design. I want to figure out how to help the environment more. I’m not really sure. I’m still very new about sustainability. I do it in different ways. I don’t have a car, so I don’t add to the carbon footprint. I take the public transportation. I recycle plastic bags and use them as garbage bags. There are little ways I do it, but I want to know how to build that into my business more. I also want to build interactive spaces for people to be able to enjoy separate… hopefully including sustainability. I want to get more into the museum exhibition space and just create a new world that you walk into whenever you go to a show or some kind of piece. I want to get out of the 2D space because I’m ready to graduate to 3D.

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

Alexandria Batchelor:
Sure. Well, I’m actually not as active as I need to be, but I will be more active on Instagram. That’s where I prefer to post work. I’m also on Twitter. It’s all Foxee Design, F-O-X-E-E Design. Then I’ll be on YouTube this year too, so those are my main platforms, and then you can find other links through there, but that’s all I’ll share for now.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alexandria Batchelor, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I was familiar with your work, like I said, through YouTube and watching the videos and being like, this is so really well done. Who is behind this? Then of course now being able to talk to you and really get the passion and the fun and the energy and the vitality that you have behind your work. I’m excited to see what comes next, because it sounds like you are working across a lot of different spaces, doing a lot of just really cool stuff. I’m excited to see what your design future is going to hold, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alexandria Batchelor:
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I had a blast.

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Alanna Flowers

2021 has been quite a year for us all, including this week’s guest Alanna Flowers. This year, she became a full-time creative and launched her own business, AGF Design Studio, and I had the chance to talk to her in the midst of her very busy holiday schedule.

Alanna gave me the rundown behind why she started her studio, how she plans to expand her services next year, and also gave some insight into her creative process. She also talked about growing up in NYC, the pros of art licensing, and how she builds her brand through social media.

Thank you all for listening to Revision Path this year — onward to 2022!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Alanna Flowers:
Hi, my name’s Alanna Flowers. I’m a lettering artist and illustrator, based in Brooklyn, New York.

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

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. This year has been unlike any other that I’ve had. Professionally and creatively it’s been really refreshing and really a big learning experience, I would say.

Maurice Cherry:
In what ways?

Alanna Flowers:
Well, I’m a new freelancer. I started freelancing January 1st of this year, so-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Alanna Flowers:
I just jumped in feet first and, yeah. I’ve had so many rewarding experiences and I think, because I’m still so new, I’ve learned a lot along the way.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, congratulations on striking out on your own like that.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much.

Maurice Cherry:
If you don’t mind me asking, what was the catalyst behind you deciding to do that?

Alanna Flowers:
I mean, everyone knows how things have been for the state of the world. So, the pandemic hits last year, and at that time I was a full-time in-house graphic designer/graphic design manager. I was reporting to work every day, working in downtown Manhattan. New York City’s a hotbed, but I reported to work. So, that was a challenge for me definitely. Then I guess as the whole year went on, I was really evaluating. I’m like, how can I start doing what I’m actually really passionate about? Because at that point I had already thought about maybe I want to strike out, even do something different, even if it wasn’t necessarily freelancing on my own. I knew that I just wanted something different. So, the pandemic was a humongous catalyst for reevaluating on all levels. So, yeah. I decided, I think midway through 2020, I’m just like, all right. I’m going to start saving this money that I’m making, and try to figure out something on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
And you did, and you struck out on your own.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Since this is coming up at the end of the year, do you have any early plans or resolutions for 2022?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Geez. I’ve been thinking really hard about next year actually, because now I have something to base things on, because everything was very, well, we’ll see how this goes. So, now I actually have quantifiable metrics to base things off of. So, I have big goals for next year. I want to expand my services definitely, and just continue working with great brands and clients.

Maurice Cherry:
So, let’s talk more about your studio, which is called AGF Design Studio. You started at the beginning of this year, how has business been, just establishing yourself?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s been really great. I’ve been very fortunate honestly, to have worked with all of the brands and people that I’ve gotten to work with this year. I’ve gotten to work with Adobe. My first client was American Greetings.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
It’s like, how does that happen? I’ve had a very fortunate year and experience going out on my own. I think if we can keep that momentum, and it seems that we are so far, going into next year, I think that would be great.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Those are two big names just right off the bat for your first year.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So, what is the process like when you’re… Say you have a new project come in, or there’s a new design that you’re working on or something like, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting something new?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a really great question. It really definitely depends on what the client’s needs are, and they give you a creative brief and you review it, and I start thinking about what exactly is it that they’re asking me to letter? Because as a lettering artist, I’m usually illustrating some sort of quote or phrase, so I start thinking about stylistic treatments. Sometimes the origin of the quote is historical, so maybe it’s from an actual figure, so I do a little bit of research on that person. From there, I just follow the steps of my process, which are basically establishing some kind of hierarchy for the piece, so that it communicates in the best way possible to the intended audience.

Maurice Cherry:
It seems pretty straightforward then.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s not too complicated. I think where things start getting complicated is maybe how long the phrase is, and the composition, creating for social media. I’m usually given some sort of dimensions and constraints, so my compositional approach for something that’s supposed to be a square will be completely different than something that’s supposed to be a poster, for example. So, it just depends from project to project, I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you currently working on any projects that you can talk about right now?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a good question. I can vaguely describe it, I guess. Yeah. I actually just started a project that I’m really excited about, and it’s actually going to allow me to incorporate lettering and a little bit of animation actually. It’s a marriage of my interest in filming and video and editing, with lettering and animation. I’m pretty excited about this one.

Maurice Cherry:
That sounds pretty cool. Wow. So, you mentioned Adobe, you mentioned American Greetings. These are both very visually strong companies. American greetings with greeting cards, Adobe of course, with everything they do with the Adobe Suite and stuff. Are there specific types of clients that you’ve found that you work best with?

Alanna Flowers:
I’ve been fortunate to work with Adobe for a few projects this year, each one was so different. I think what I’ve seen from the clients that I’ve gotten to work with is, it’s always best when the vision is as clear as possible, I guess. And when we can just establish that we’re on the same page as much as possible. Things pretty much sail smoothly from there, as long as you can have a nice, clear line of communication with the client, I find that those project go over the smoothest and the best, from beginning to end.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with those types of clients, I’ve got to imagine you’ve probably had a bunch of different people just try to hit you up. And with it being your first year, I’m probably guessing there’s been some clients that you’re like, “You know what? I don’t know if this is the best one,” because sometimes in your first year of business, you want to take on everything, or you try to take on as much as you can because it’s your first year and you want to try to do all the things. But have you found the flip side to that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I’ve definitely had some interesting things come my way, and it would just meet me right in the middle of me working on something. And I’m just like, I could say yes and rush through this and it not be that great. Or I could just politely decline at the moment. It’s great they found me, they have my contact information and I have that contact from them, so those doors could more easily be reopened. Just like, “Hey. I was busy then, but my schedule’s open now.” But, yes. There’s definitely been a lot of temptation to say yes to everything, but thankfully, so far so good, and timing seems to have been on my side for most of the time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was going to say, it sounds like it’s more of a timing thing than the actual work itself. I guess that’s pretty good. It’s good to know.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s switch gears here because I really want to learn more about you and how you really came into all of this. Tell me about where you grew up.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I grew up in White Plains, New York, suburban kid all the way. Even though I’ve been Brooklyn now and I’ve been here for a few years, I definitely was not a city dweller all my life. So, yeah. I grew up in White Plains and that’s the only place I’ve known.

Maurice Cherry:
Were you exposed to a lot of design and art and stuff like that growing up?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would definitely say, that as a kid, I was always very enthusiastic about the opportunities during class to color and do arts and crafts, and art class and stuff like that. And then, just from, I guess, a personal side, I always enjoyed musical theater, and my family would be able to go to Broadway shows every now and again for the holidays or something. So, just being exposed to even different forms of art, even if it’s not visual or digital art, just being exposed to all different kinds of artistic expressions was definitely a thread throughout my upbringing.

Maurice Cherry:
And now you went to the New York Institute of Technology, in Old Westbury. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. My time there was so great. It was so interesting because I went there and I applied there even, on the recommendation of my old high school art teacher, Dr. A. So, he was an alumni of there, so he’s like, “Oh, apply there,” because that’s where he went. The art program there was very small because NYIT is actually more of an engineering school. So, the art program felt very intimate. Everyone who had some sort of art major, whether you were graphic design or motion design, or what have you, everyone knew each other. So, it felt like a very close knit little family and community, and I really enjoyed my time there.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like they really helped prepare you to go out there in the world and work as a designer?

Alanna Flowers:
In some respects, yes. Where you’re thinking about working for a company, or an agency, or working in-house. Yes, thinking about, okay. I could have a job after this in a creative field, but not necessarily in the thread of a, this is how it looks if you want to work for yourself idea. So, definitely preparation was there, but definitely in the traditional sense.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I haven’t found that there have been a lot of schools, maybe some of the art institutes, only because I know that they do take a lot of input in from people in the community, basically just about what they should be teaching. But, yeah. There’s not a lot of design focused schools I’ve seen that give you the tools for entrepreneurship. It is about pushing you into that… I don’t want to say pipeline, but pushing you into that realm of, are you going work for an agency? Or you could work for a design focused tech company, or something like that. It’s not really about, how can I take these tools and strike out on my own because a lot of that is… I mean, yes. It’s your technical skill, but there’s also just so much business stuff that you need to know to run your own business and deal with contracts, and all that sort of stuff.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Absolutely. Any kind of inkling of what it was like to be a freelancer came from the one off, maybe you have a semester with an adjunct professor who happens to also be a freelancer on the side, or something like that. I mean, they might show us some of their client work as examples and stuff like that. But definitely not completely focused, like you said, where it’s dedicated to teaching you the ins and outs of the business aspect that goes into freelancing.

Maurice Cherry:
Why do you think that is?

Alanna Flowers:
That’s a great question. I feel like there’s more attention on the creator economy, and maybe it’s because now I’m in it directly, but I don’t recall it being talked about as much, even amongst me and my peers. The power that social media could have in transforming someone’s creative career in that trajectory, and being able to go off on your own. So, there might have just been an unknowing of the potential of these platforms. When I was going to school, Instagram was king, but now there’s so many competitors and so many different avenues that you can take. I don’t know. I think, as more people do it, the more shine it’ll get, and more people will talk about it.

Maurice Cherry:
What were those early years like after you graduated?

Alanna Flowers:
It’s pretty interesting actually. When I first graduated, I was very bright-eyed and was super excited to just jump into my field, but I actually had an opportunity fall through, that I wanted to take to be a designer. I was down on my luck a little bit, and I told my friend, I was like, “I just need income please,” anything. I ended up actually taking a job as a receptionist for a year right out of college, before I was able to secure my first graphic design job.

Maurice Cherry:
A receptionist, huh?

Alanna Flowers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative) I gave myself one year because I was just like… And I was a great receptionist.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Alanna Flowers:
I was very efficient and they’re just like, “Yeah. You’re great.” And I’m just like, and with all this stuff comes complacency and comfort, and you know this was just a very temporary thing so you need to move on. So, I had my exit strategy, and after that experience, I was able to get an associate design job in-house.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s something good to know, that you had a plan to get out of it, because sometimes you fall into those gigs where you’re doing the work as you have to do it, it keeps a roof over your head, it keeps food on the table, but it’s not fulfilling. It’s not what you really want to do. So, at least you had a plan to get out of that, and eventually start somewhere and really work on your design career.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. It’s very interesting thinking about it now, but it’s just like, well, it’s part of my story. It is what it is. It’s not always red roses, but I’m grateful for the way things happened anyhow.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I noticed that you’ve been doing a lot with social media. You can go to your website and really tell that you’re very active on these other platforms like YouTube and Instagram and Pinterest. How has, I guess, exhibiting your work through those channels helped you out as an artist and an entrepreneur?

Alanna Flowers:
I think it has really challenged me to think about one, I guess how much one person is capable of. So, you’ll see a lot of people who do content creation full time, and you’re just scratching your head and just like, how are they doing all of this content? And just like, well, there’s a strategy behind everything, and a lot of content is actually strategically recycled and scheduled and all this stuff. So, once I was able to break that formula down in my head, I was able to be like, okay. I’m just going to put my work in multiple places, because you never know how someone will find you or come across you, and shooting as many shots as you can is always, I think, good. Especially if you’re entrepreneurial like me, or just trying to increase your chances of someone coming across your work. I think it’s always best to be in as many places as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
And also, by doing that work and showing off what it is that you’re doing, you’re attracting other people, which for your first year in business, I mean, that’s the best marketing that you can do, is to really show the work that you’re doing so other people can find out about it.

Alanna Flowers:
No, definitely. It’s definitely a whole process of show and tell. Your social media quickly becomes your portfolio, or your YouTube becomes a reel of the things that you can do. I’ve had so many people tell me, it’s like, “Oh, I watched some of your YouTube videos,” and that exhibited that you can speak about this topic, and you know about video editing. It’s interesting also the way that people will break down, “Oh, I’ve seen your content in this place, this place and this place,” and from that I can deduce relatively the kind of skills that you have, and the interests that you have. I think it’s just a great way to showcase everything that you can do.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you find that different social networks are better, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I would say so. I think it depends, because a lot of people have been saying, especially this year, that video content has really taken over platforms that were previously photo based, like Instagram. Where TikTok and Snapchat have… Well, mostly TikTok, but I guess Snapchat really did it first, where people are creating video content, and using that as a way of exhibiting a tutorial. It could be for anything. I use a lot of my platforms to use as tutorial based posting, so I think that’s a great way to engage with my community. It’s not always about, oh, this is the finished piece that I did. I like to share educational content, so I’ve found that anything that really has videos on it, which is everything, can really be used in that way, which I’ve tried to leverage a lot this year and has been pretty successful.

Alanna Flowers:
And then, other platforms like Twitter, I found are just great for building community and just getting out there, and just talking with people who are really like-minded, and in your same creative sphere. Maybe they don’t do lettering, but maybe they do type design and other kinds of illustrations. So, it’s really interesting to hit that follow button on someone and see them follow back, and be surprised maybe the people who are just willing to talk to you about the stuff that you guys already know that you’re interested in from your bio or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
So, even with all that, you’re on these different social networks, you’re doing these things. I see that you have a section on your site about art licensing. Talk to me about that, because that’s something that I haven’t really seen on a lot of really designers or illustrator sites, is about licensing.

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. That’s definitely one of the areas that I knew that even if, quote unquote, I was maybe slow out the gate to get some clients, I could definitely build a licensing portfolio. I’m personally, I think I’ve collected probably almost every greeting card or holiday card, birthday card I’ve gotten since I was, I don’t know, 10 or something. I’ve just always loved the illustrations, and just the look of greeting cards. I’m just like, that’s art licensing. I could totally do that. I was able to actually get an art licensing course that I purchased at the top of the year, and it was really helpful for me getting some licensing clients. That’s just a little bit of recurring income that I get, which is nice, and it’s completely passive. Once I’ve done the designs, they just generate that little bit of income for me every month. So, it’s really nice.

Maurice Cherry:
So, have companies already reached out to you to license some of your work?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. I actually did a little bit of… I think I’ve actually done probably all of the outreach maybe, I think, for all of the companies that I’m licensing with right now. The first one I did was a mobile app called Felt, and they actually do digital greeting cards. So, you have the app on your phone, you can design the greeting card, you can write it on your phone and they’ll mail the card out to whoever is in your address book. So, they have a hybrid approach, where it’s like you do the process digitally, but they’ll still mail the card. So, that was interesting. I don’t… Honestly, I think I just Google searched like crazy, just art licensing, seeing other companies that fellow lettering artists have licensing deals through, and just collecting contacts and doing the research, and just sending out cold email. Got a few good responses this year.

Maurice Cherry:
And is that… I mean, I would imagine that’s probably pretty steady income too, with licensing, because you’re doing along certain time terms, maybe monthly or annual or something like that?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Exactly. It just depends on whatever your contract agreement is, the terms of your royalty payments. But it’s cool because I can expand my portfolio, if I want to add 10 new cards to a collection, I can, and just have those go in circulation and see how they perform. And then you just get your little monthly commission reports, so you can see how your designs are performing, and maybe where you want to make some improvements, maybe add to different categories or something like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your inspirations, either as an artist or as a business person? Who inspires you?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. Well, I definitely was inspired from the very beginning by Jessica Hische, because she was probably the first name that I heard attached to lettering. I think that happened when I was in a typography class that I took in college. My professor had shown her daily drop cap project as an example of lettering, and I was just like, “Lettering?” And then, from there I just fell down the rabbit hole, so to speak. I was pretty much hooked from there. Other than her, Martina Flor definitely, has all also been a huge inspiration. I actually took her freelancing course when I was first getting started this year, learning the ropes of freelance from one, a seasoned lettering artist, but also someone who’s been running their own lettering business for 10 plus years. It was a huge inspiration for me.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to someone out there that’s listening to this, and they want to follow in your footsteps? They want to maybe learn lettering design, or they’re looking to strike out on their own as an entrepreneur. I know those are two separate things, but what advice would you give to someone that’s listening, and they want to go in either or both of those routes?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. Well, when I was first thinking about it, I think I was first listing all of the talents that I had, I guess, like these are all the ways that I could monetize the skills that I already have. I’m a trained graphic designer, I can do that. I taught workshops before, I can do that. Just listing out those skills and talents was, I think, the first thing, because I’m just like, okay. These could be my services hypothetically for freelancing. And then, I think it just from there went to following this passion that I’ve had for a long time. I think that first exposure to Jessica Hische’s work was probably 2013, 2014 or something like that. So, from there I just had lettering as a hobby and a creative outlet while I was sitting at my receptionist desk. I think being a graphic designer full-time made it harder for me to nurture that creative hunger, I think, for lettering.

Alanna Flowers:
I knew that what I wanted to buy myself was more time. So, from there I saved money. I’m just like, I’m completely new to freelancing. I never truly envisioned myself freelancing in my career. So, I was just like, I know one thing that I need is a little bit of a cushion financially. I definitely took a risk quitting my job, but I didn’t just do it without any logistical understanding of my expenses and stuff. And then, I think from there, it’s just really go with your gut. I did have the financial cushion, but I did not have a client history. I didn’t have referrals from other people that I could take with me in my little email address book or something.

Alanna Flowers:
I took a risk definitely in that aspect. But because I’ve been nurturing this skill and this hobby for so long, with the hopes of somehow making this my profession, I think a lot of the things that I’ve encountered were that whole luck, where it’s opportunity meets the preparation. So, yeah. If you want to do something, make sure that you’re already doing it in some capacity, even if it’s just on the side to begin with. As long as you’re feeding into that, whatever that thing is that you really want to be doing, that’s definitely positive as well.

Maurice Cherry:
What does success look like for you at this point in your career?

Alanna Flowers:
Wow. Right now, success looks like being able to sustain and continue from places of passion and genuine excitement and interest, and not from the place of, I’ve got to take this client on because I need to pay my rent this month. I think just continuing with that feeling of excitement and passion, I think, because even when you’re doing things that you’re really interested in, after a while you might get a little burned out. I’m hoping to not, to not reach that burnout point, and be able to be responsible with my time and with my emotional wellbeing. I just want to keep doing this and maintaining,

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project you’d love to do one day?

Alanna Flowers:
Oh, geez. I have many, and it’s great because some of them even happened this year. But I am definitely setting my sites out for large scale projects, like murals. I am definitely looking to get my lettering painted outside somewhere in New York City. I think that would be the coolest thing, and have people take pictures with my work outdoors. I think that’d be really awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Alanna Flowers:
I appreciate the privilege that comes with being able to take a risk, like the one that I took, and in some ways I’m still taking. I really appreciate that. And I appreciate the luxury of time. I’ve bought myself a little bit of time with a little bit of the planning that I did before, I ended going freelance, but I’m abundantly grateful for those things.

Maurice Cherry:
So, given where you are now, where do you see yourself in the next five years? Is there certain work that you’d want to be doing at that point or anything like that?

Alanna Flowers:
This year has been a lot of seed planting. It’s like I have to start working from somewhere. So, I started my YouTube channel this year, started with zero subscribers just like everyone who starts anything. In five years it would just be nice to see these communities that I’ve started, investing and grow. I really love lettering and I love working with clients. It’s such a rewarding feeling, being able to help them. But it’s also really rewarding to help other people who are interested in lettering. So, that’s why I definitely knew that as a part of my freelancing that I wanted there to be some sort of educational aspect, with workshops or tutorials and stuff like that, like I do on YouTube. So, yeah. Just expanding my reach and having that allow me to reach back as well to others.

Maurice Cherry:
Reaching forward and reaching back, I like that. So, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you? Where can they see your work and everything online?

Alanna Flowers:
Yeah. You can find my work at agfdesignstudio.com, but you can find me on YouTube at AGF Design Studio. That’s my channel name, that’s also my name on Instagram. And then, also on Instagram and Twitter. I’m Alanna_ Flowers.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Alanna Flowers, I definitely want to thank you so much for coming on the show and really one, I think telling your story, but then two also, giving us a little bit of a peak behind the curtain of what it’s like to a new freelancer. There’s been all this talk this year specifically about the great resignation, and people leaving jobs and striking out on their own. It seems like you’ve really… I mean, well, one, you have struck out a lot on your own. But two, it seems like you’ve really hit a stride and you’re making great work. You’re promoting yourself out there on social media. I wish, when I started my studio, that I was half as prepared and put together as you are with how you’re doing everything. I think you’re doing a great job, and I’d love to see where your work goes in the future. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alanna Flowers:
Thank you so much, Maurice, for having me.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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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.

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Tiffany Middleton

What a difference a few years makes! This is definitely the case with this week’s guest, Tiffany Middleton. When I first talked to her on Revision Path, she was just starting out as a junior designer from Childersburg, Alabama working for a Texas-based sports company. Now she’s a senior art director for FanDuel and has continued honing and flexing her design skills, only this time in the Big Apple!

We started off with a quick check-in, and Tiffany spoke on her interest in mentoring and helping other Black sports designers through a community she created called Trenches. She also talked about some of her favorite projects over the past few years, the experience of working for ESPN, and spoke on the confidence she’s found from fully stepping into her identity and claiming it proudly. Tiffany is all about showcasing the power of the Black creative voice, and you know that’s definitely something we support around here!

Transcript

Full Transcript

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

Tiffany Middleton:
Hi. So I’m Tiffany Middleton and I am currently a senior art director at FanDuel in New York City. I’ve been here for about six months and before FanDuel, I spent about four to five years at ESPN on the digital team and then on the social media team.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. How’s the year kind of been going so far aside from, I guess, starting this new job?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. I guess I would go back to, I guess, 2020 of how it started and then where I’m at now. So like I said, before FanDuel, I was at ESPN and I think life for me there was like kind of getting to do your dream job and then coming to a point of wanting a change a little bit. I grew up on ESPN, it was everything for me, I’m a big sports fan. And when coronavirus happened, to bring it up, I feel like it kind of changed my perspective on not just my life, but also my career in a way where it just made me kind of take a pause and think about what I was doing and if that was the right direction for me. It’s kind of at a point in my career where I felt like I had achieved everything that I wanted to achieve at ESPN.

Tiffany Middleton:
I feel like I learned so much there. I feel like it was one of those. I compare it to [The Warriors 00:04:11] of it’s a well-oiled machine, it’s so many talented designers there. There’s always great work, but I guess I kind of like to put it in a sports perspective of taking a chance on myself and kind of [KD 00:04:25], leaving The Warriors and coming to Brooklyn. So that’s what I feel like I did. [crosstalk 00:04:29] And I feel like a lot of that happened off of coronavirus because it paused everything, it changed it. So it’s been going pretty great. It was definitely an adjustment, a different system. So it’s been relearning everything I thought I knew but from [inaudible 00:04:47] perspective.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, did you take a break between leaving ESPN and starting at FanDuel, or did you just kind of go right into it?

Tiffany Middleton:
I pretty much had two days off and I was back into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Damn, you got to get yourself a break. Wow, two days and you just went right back into it.

Tiffany Middleton:
That’s the thing. Ever since I’ve been a kid, my goal has been to be a successful designer. So it was like, I didn’t know what a break was. Since the last time we talked in six years, I probably have only taken one vacation that’s been more than four days. I usually go on vacation [inaudible 00:05:24] my computer. It’s like I didn’t know how to take a break. So it’s like coronavirus made me kind of realize I needed to take a break in life. And then it also changed my perspective of design and how I can use that more for a spiritual, more people impact thing versus a success thing.

Tiffany Middleton:
I try to use my design in a way of helping other black people get into design and find different careers to kind of outside the box versus doing design to kind of build my own career in a way. I feel like I’m settled in my career and I feel like now I’m at a spot where I really interested in mentorship and helping other people out and then collaborating with other designers and also just spreading more awareness about design in general for black people.

Maurice Cherry:
I want to go back just a little bit to ESPN because, of course, during the pandemic last year, sports were kind of… Everything sort of took a pause, especially major sporting events. How did that really affect your day-to-day work at ESPN when everything is revolving around regular sporting events?

Tiffany Middleton:
So what I did at ESPN right before I left, I worked on the digital content team. So a lot of our work wasn’t your day-to-day sports on TV. It was more of a very secluded market and we did a lot of stories based off of sports where they were these long form digital visual storytelling pieces. So we told a lot of stories that were kind of about sports and evolved into sport has been none of our day-to-day work revolved around the sports games. So for us, I think one of the departments that probably had a biggest impact of… We were working even more because we were doing a lot of evergreen stuff before a sport stopped. So once it stopped, it’s like we started to do more work and more traffic on the site because there wasn’t these live games. So I honestly started working more when the coronavirus happened, but I was at home, but I was working more. So it was a different pace, but you start to burn out a little bit quicker than you would in an office.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, interesting. I can imagine because you’re now having to work from home and I think it’s something… Certainly when I had guests on the show last year, that was just a big thing for a lot of people to get over because your home is sort of your refuge away from work and now the two locations have merged and you have to kind of find a way to compartmentalize that.

Tiffany Middleton:
It’s no break. And then I got a puppy, so it was just like, I never had a break. I had no space and [inaudible 00:08:15]… While I was there, they started to have layoffs during coronavirus. So it’s like, I started to see the impact of it for coworkers and friends. So it started to kind of… Mentally, it became a tough situation because it’s like, “There’s no sports, are sports going to come back?” Eventually the coronavirus did affect our team. So right before I left, I had a couple of coworkers that did get laid off. So I think it was just a lot happening at once. And then you see it so close up of the effects of people. Luckily I personally wasn’t laid off, but just having people that I’ve worked with for four and five years lose their jobs, it takes a mental toll on you.

Maurice Cherry:
I know exactly what that’s like. I mean, I was working at a startup last year going into the pandemic and I think it was maybe about two months… Actually, it was right around this time that we’re recording, right around this time. Right around Memorial Day that they laid off my entire department, just gone and it does take a toll on you because you say that part about having to learn how to take a break. I had to learn how to take a break really quickly because I went from this kind of go, go, go, rush, rush, rush all the time, traveling with work, to now just you’re at home. And granted, I’m in Atlanta and there wasn’t really that much of a lockdown period, but still, it takes a toll on you. It really does.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. And see, I was in Connecticut, so it was already feeling like a lockdown place. [crosstalk 00:09:50] coronavirus [inaudible 00:09:50], it was a complete lockdown.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Let’s fast forward to kind of what you’re doing now. You mentioned you’re a senior art director at FanDuel. What does a typical day look like for you?

Tiffany Middleton:
So my role at ESPN was more so hands-on, building websites and working with developers and kind of taking about a month or two per project, whereas at FanDuel, not only am I managing a team, so I’m responsible for everything FanDuel Fantasy and [TVG 00:10:23] products and FanDuel Racing. And then just overseeing the designers on my team, approving work and then also creating work myself and then figuring out different systems and trying to rearrange systems that they have in place currently and just figure out new processes. So I went from kind of 90% designed to 50% design and then 50% emails, people managing, processing, strategy. I’m definitely enjoying it, it’s definitely a different role. So it’s just making me see things in a different light and understanding the intricacies of having a great system.

Maurice Cherry:
Is it different going from a media company to… Well, FanDuel is what? Entertainment slash gambling sort of, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Maybe gambling is not the right word to use there.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t know if that’s the word we want to use, but essentially, I would say more of… Because I’ve been playing fantasies, I’ll say it’s kind of like a getaway for sports of people still watch sports but I think, especially with social media and Instagram and things like that, something that I did notice at ESPN was people were less likely watching TV. [inaudible 00:11:41] I think they started to do with a lot of cord cutting where I feel like at a company like FanDuel, adding an incentive of betting or a fantasy or just being able to play with your friends and kind of watch a game with a little bit more invested into it, makes it more longevity with [inaudible 00:12:00] sports.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tiffany Middleton:
But you’re competing with everything else on social media these days. So making that switch from essentially storytelling and it’s very Print style Magazine type of foundational design to more we do a lot of marketing assets on this end. It’s a faster pace, a different type of strategy, a different audience that you’re looking at. Also at ESPN, I was kind of working on user experience and UX and UI. So going from a UX and UI back to kind of marketing design, it definitely took some adjusting to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. Going from that sort of product based work to more, I guess kind of print and web sort of almost, it’s a big shift.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I was using Figma and Sketch at ESPN for my last three years and [inaudible 00:12:53] Photoshop. So it’s like I’m having to almost go back to college. The product world is very much different than marketing, like I said, it’s a whole different thought process.

Maurice Cherry:
What does the design team at FanDuel look like?

Tiffany Middleton:
So we have a ACD above me, so he manages our whole department and so it’s him and then it’s me and my counterpart. And so I oversee half the house and my counterpart oversees the other half of the house. Like I said, I do fantasy and racing. So racing includes TVG, which is a horse racing product. And then FanDuel Racing, which is our in-house horse racing product. And then my counterpart, he does FanDuel SportsBook and then FanDuel Casino. And then under us, it’s senior and junior and regular designers. And then we have a copywriting team that we work counter with. And then we have a project managing team that we work with. So it’s a bigger team than… Well, not bigger, but a little bit more diverse as far as the copywriters, editors and designers on our team as a whole. When we’re on meetings, we’re all together versus at ESPN, a lot of our meetings were more just in the design department. I did work with a lot of writers, but not as closely as we work with our copywriters and project managers at FanDuel.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you all started to kind of go back into the office yet? Or is it still remote?

Tiffany Middleton:
We’re still remote, so I haven’t met any of my coworkers in person. I’ve only seen them on Zoom.

Maurice Cherry:
And you’ve been there now, like you said, for just a couple of months now.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. All right. Well, hopefully soon once these mandates lift, I feel like there’s already this rush to get back to normal. I’m using the air quotes over here. So that’ll probably happen sooner rather than later. When it comes to working on new projects, what does the creative process look like? Because like you said, the team is pretty varied in the structure and even the type of designers that you have.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I think the biggest difference, especially from ESPN to this job is that at ESPN, a lot of the projects, it was a free range of the imagery you can use as far as the athletes. Whereas at FanDuel, we have to use a lot of stock imagery or more your foundational design stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So when we’re concepting, it’s like, you really have to rely on your design skills versus at ESPN, I felt like if you have a nice photo of LeBron and great typography, it’s a pretty solid design. Whereas here you have to really work to kind of use what you have.

Maurice Cherry:
And that’s because you’re not necessarily working directly with the teams or with the photographers [crosstalk 00:15:43], you have to kind of sell the concept of sports without the actual athletes in that way.

Tiffany Middleton:
Exactly. So it is a different task.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at some of the work that you’ve done over the past five to six years, it could be stuff at FanDuel, it can be stuff at ESPN or whatever, what have been some of your favorite projects?

Tiffany Middleton:
Ooh, that is a very hard one. I think my favorite project is going to be a project I did right before LeBron’s time with the Lakers. So we hired an artist from every state where every NBA team is and did these LeBron billboards, which is a pretty cool project. It took a lot of time just finding the right artist in the right states and then collecting their work. And then we did kind of a website part to it. But just seeing the different artists come up with these different concepts that are very true to their states and very true to the teams that they were trying to get LeBron to come to, was probably my hands down favorite project. I mean, it became a big deal of in Louisiana, I think they actually put up some of the billboard.

Tiffany Middleton:
Somebody purchased the art and they put a billboard in Louisiana and then the LA one was pretty great, which the artist who did that ended up putting those on a t-shirt and I had one. So it was just one of those projects that you don’t really get a lot of chances to work on. So I was very grateful to have been assigned that project, but it also took a whole lot of work because I was excited for it to be done with, but still when I look back, I think that’s probably one of the funnest projects that I worked on throughout my career.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, when I had you back on the show, back in 2016, you were in Dallas, you were just starting out at Panini America, I remember it’s a company. I think they make trading cards, right?

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s sports trading cards. How did you end up getting connected with ESPN and eventually making it to New York?

Tiffany Middleton:
So super funny, but Twitter. Twitter is the funniest thing. So right when we probably were chatting maybe two months before that, I actually had applied for a job at ESPN. They flew me out. I met one of the creative directors there via Twitter and he connected me with a potential job. I went to Connecticut and I end up not getting the job and I was devastated, super sad, but then a month or two later, I end up getting a job in Panini America. And probably two months after we talked, if not sooner, I got an email from the same creative director, and he reached out about a potential part-time job with ESPN, working on Snapchat, at the time Snapchat Discover was not a thing, but that’s kind of how I started. So I was working at Panini America full-time and then I started working with ESPN part-time and within a year, they offered me a part-time position in Connecticut, but I was hesitant to kind of move for a part-time position, but they made things work to where it worked out logistically for me.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I end up leaving the job in Dallas after a year, moving to Connecticut, working part-time for a couple of months. And then I end up getting an opportunity to work full-time, which I switched from the social media team to the digital content team. So it was kind of this blessing in disguise that I didn’t even know. Like I said before we talked, I had gotten denied from ESPN and I was devastated. And then within a year, I was in Connecticut, working there and it was a full circle moment.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). How was it adjusting to the city and everything?

Tiffany Middleton:
I moved from Dallas to Connecticut. So I’ve been in Connecticut pretty much the last five years or so. And [crosstalk 00:19:36] I met friends in Connecticut and we would spend a lot of time in New York City. And so eventually I was like, I need to move to New York because I’m going [inaudible 00:19:45] Connecticut, but it’s not a lot to do there. Especially [inaudible 00:19:49] Dallas or New York, it’s nothing to do there except for work. So I always moved to Connecticut envisioning that I will live in New York City. I just didn’t think I would be in Connecticut that long. So coming to New York has been a big adjustment, but I don’t think I’ve really experienced New York because coronavirus.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah. That makes sense.

Tiffany Middleton:
[crosstalk 00:20:10] living here, I’ve been here on the weekends, but I haven’t lived here when it wasn’t coronavirus, but it’s starting to pick back up. But just being here for five or six months, the amount of black creatives that I’ve been able to meet compared to living in Connecticut or even Dallas is 10 times twofold.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh really? Okay.

Tiffany Middleton:
So many more black creatives, just different people that I would not have crossed paths with in life if I hadn’t lived in New York and especially within Brooklyn itself.

Maurice Cherry:
Now are these other black designers in the sports and entertainment industry or just black designers in general?

Tiffany Middleton:
So some, a handful are probably in sports entertainment and then some are just within the industry of just creative and fashion. But actually at ESPN, I did meet a lot of black creatives, some weren’t designers, but photographers, videographers, producers, just a wide range. So it’s like, ESPN was very much majority white, but I did meet a lot of black people that were creative, just within smaller groups.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. That’s good to know. I mean, I would imagine, like you said, with the pandemic, that does make it difficult now to really meet folks. I can’t wait to go back to New York. When I used to work for a company in New York, I didn’t like it because I would go to New York and I’d think, “Oh, work.” But before then, I loved going to New York. So I’m looking forward to going back up there when I don’t have to work. And just kind of experiencing the city, New York is fun. It’s fun. I don’t know if I could ever live there, so props to you for that, but it’s a great city, especially for, like you said, meeting other black creatives and stuff. That’s pretty cool.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it take a lot to kind of adjust to the city?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think because the last two years I’ve been back and forth… I kind [inaudible 00:22:04] neighborhood, I have friends that lives pretty close, so it’s like I got here, everything kind of just centered around me. I already kind of had people that I knew, I already had spots that I knew, but I think it’s definitely different than Connecticut because it moves very fast. There’s a lot going on. And me growing up in the South, every time my family comes up to New York, they absolutely hate it after [inaudible 00:22:29]. [inaudible 00:22:33] overload of people, overload of things, it’s just a overload. So [crosstalk 00:22:39] sometimes it can be tiring, but I also live in Brooklyn. I feel like Brooklyn is more like a neighborhood versus if you go to Manhattan, it’s more of that New York City vibe, whereas Brooklyn just… It’s chill, but you never really know what you’re going to get when you walk outside.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, certainly, I mean there’s parts of Brooklyn that are like that. Most places that I’ve been to in Manhattan… Unless you’re going further up like near Harlem or Washington Heights or something, or at least to me, it hasn’t felt as claustrophobic as if you’re down in say the Financial District or something like that. But no, Brooklyn is fun. Brooklyn’s a fun time.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s very fun. It’s very quiet. It’s also very small once you get used to it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Nice. That’s really nice. So let’s talk about Trenches. Now I remember when I had you back on the show you were talking about In The Trenches, which was this site that you had created to kind of talk about black designers and the sports and entertainment industry. Has Trenches kind of evolved from that concept?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s evolved as I’ve evolved, right? Like I said, early on in my career, very focused on just design, design, design. And I think the older I got, the more I really started to look at the spaces that I was in work wise and realizing that, “Why am I the only black designer?” And then looking into sports in general and like, “Why is there only 10 of us?” Feeling like you’re in a box that you can’t quite get out of. And so for me, Trenches kind of started to evolve around just black creatives in general. So I’m kind of still in this in-between of it’s sports, but I’m also trying to break it out more into culture and music. Because I feel like sports is very black on the field, but within the front offices, it’s usually very non-black. I’ve tried really hard to focus on black designers in the sports industry, but you just start to kind of run into the same people because it’s hard to let us in.

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’ve been working with a mentee and she got a job in the sports industry and working at NFL. And I was really proud of that, but it’s like, we’re still just fighting just to get in. Last year, I ended up teaming up with some of my friends who some worked at ESPN, some worked at the NBA, they’re all black women and we did a Zoom conference where it was just black women in the sports industry. And it was just designers, editors, social media managers. And that for me kind of changed the wheel again because it was something near and dear to me. Being a black woman, seeing that many black people that were kind of experiencing the same thing I was experiencing, it made it feel more true to me. So that’s kind of where Trenches have evolved, is going from sports and design to more just our experiences as black women or black creatives in this industry.

Tiffany Middleton:
We sometimes don’t seem to exist or even when we get there, we’re dealing with issues that a lot of our counterparts aren’t dealing with, or even when I think sports is on a general, it’s so hard to get into. And a lot of times people break into it by doing these free internships. But the reality is there’s not a lot of people of color, especially black people that can kind of afford to take this free job and have their parents take care of them for a year or so without getting an income. And I think sometimes that pushes us behind and then sometimes I’ve seen where people, essentially hire people that are the same as them.

Tiffany Middleton:
So it just started to seem like a lot of different obstacles that were coming up for black people to be in the sports industry. So it’s something I’m still fighting for, but it’s evolving more into a culture thing because I feel like black people have more space to kind of own their own thing in culture and music versus in sports. It just seems like until the gatekeepers really focus on bringing in black creatives in the sports industry, it’s always going to be a tooth and nails fight.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I didn’t even think of how maybe these specific kind of niches of design would still unfortunately really have this big diversity problem. And the reason I’m saying this is because over the past few years, as I’ve done the show, I mean, there has been an influx of black designers in product and UX like crazy. And I don’t know if it’s because of bootcamps or because of other programs or stuff, but you can go in a major city and swing your bag around and hit a dozen black UX folks. It’s kind of astonishing in a way. I didn’t even think about how in something like sports and entertainment that there’s not that many black designers that are kind of making the graphics and stuff like that. Why do you think that’s the case? Is it because of the kind of old boys’ network?

Tiffany Middleton:
I think it’s a old boys’ network and I’ll be honest, I think for me, I started to notice it with Trenches because once I started Tweeting out stuff about Black Lives Matter and black designers… The more I started Tweeting about black people, the less interaction I started to get because I have ran Trenches as if it was this well-oiled company. And I had kept it very corporate and not really personal. And last year when the George Floyd thing happened, it became more personal to me. That’s when I really, really started to realize, “Oh, they’re not interacting that much.” And I think that kind of made me switch it up because I just felt like for years there are a lot of followers that I could kind of name off the top of my head.

Tiffany Middleton:
People were very into Trenches, but when it became about humans, it was less support. It was less interaction. It was losing followers. So me being a black queer woman, I couldn’t fake the funk anymore. It wasn’t as important to me as livelihood was, I wanted to more so create a platform and a space for people like me that weren’t really included in those rooms versus people that had always kind of been entitled to that room. So I felt like Trenches was becoming something where even I wasn’t being accepted in it as I was.

Maurice Cherry:
You said something really interesting there, I want to kind of draw out a little bit where you said once you started talking about humans, humans play sports too. And I’m not saying that in a bad way as how you say it, but I know there seems to be… And this is probably gone back we’re talking decades, probably OJ and even past them. But there’s something about America and seeing black athletes, they just don’t want politics in their sports. They want sports to be this idyllic… I don’t necessarily want to say lily-white, but they want it to be this idyllic problem free environments that’s just about the game. And that’s not the case, especially when you have black people that are the majority of the players.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. I mean, we could talk about this all day, but [inaudible 00:30:08] it’s a system, right? Because the real thing for me is, like I said, I grew up on ESPN, I loved it to death. I grew up on Slam Magazine, but something I didn’t realize up until recently was it was not those companies that I was in love with or that I loved, it was that the guys on the field, the women on the field, they reminded me of the people I grew up with. I was able to see people that looked like us on the big screen and that’s what I was attracted to. So I think once I got to those companies, I started to realize that the people on TV aren’t the people I’m working with. So it’s like they controlled our narrative. And I started to really realize that they control our narrative.

Tiffany Middleton:
And I think what I like about LeBron so much is that he was one of the first players that I feel like truly started to own his own narrative. I love Michael Jordan to death. I think he’s the greatest athlete ever. But if you really think about Michael Jordan, the executives at Nike owned the narrative of who he was supposed to be and who they wanted him to be and who they [inaudible 00:31:13] be. And so I think when designers are designing these graphics, they’re just essentially using these basketball players and football players that are essentially characters with the tattoos and the dreadlocks and the braids, and they’re looking cool on these graphics. But if they walked into a store at their homes and they didn’t have those big names, they might call the cops on them. And that’s why I said humans of… Once I started talking about real heart to heart stuff of things that we have to deal with as black people, nobody wanted to entertain it.

Tiffany Middleton:
I don’t want to be like an athlete that’s just like, “Shut up and dribble.” When I’m shutting up and Tweeting what you want to see, you’re cool with it. But when I Tweet something that’s serious, nobody wants to talk about it. Or when I Tweet about, “You guys should hire more black designers.” “Well, they’re not qualified.” Well, why aren’t they qualified? Is it that they can’t afford to be in these schools? Or is it that they have the talent, but it’s not what you’re looking for? Because for me, I’ve always thought art is [inaudible 00:32:11]. So I think there is good design and there’s bad design, but there is a lot in between, as I’ve seen a lot of black designers get passed up on roles just because their work wasn’t the way a white designers’ is. So I also realized that a lot of people were getting hired from roles where people whose work I would be Tweeting out. So I just started to feel like I was supporting more non-black designers than I was black designers.

Tiffany Middleton:
And that just sit right for me, because I feel like it took me a while to just get my foot into the industry. And I think the people that did let me into those doors, they were all people of color. They were either people of color or white men who weren’t from America. So my boss at ESPN, he is from London. So it just was something that, it just was so apparent that I couldn’t not notice it. So that’s kind of why I kind of stepped away from the sports design thing and just started to focus more on black creators.

Tiffany Middleton:
Because I would find a lot of beautiful art in Brooklyn or beautiful photographers or things like that. But their work wouldn’t be sports center, but I just felt like it still needed to be shown and talked about, especially because once I did start speaking about black lives, or I put out the Protect Black Women shirts, 90% of my sales, 90% of the interactions was all black people. It just changed the perspective of I don’t want to be a sellout and it just felt like I was at that moment without realizing it.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I have to say, even coming to that realization shows, I think, your growth as a person and as a designer to be able to really survey the field and see that, that sort of what’s happening and how you can help to counteract that. One of the things that I present when I talk about Revision Path, I tell people to not just be an observer of the problem, but to work to try to be the solution because it can be real easy to just look at the landscape and see that things are messed up. And that’s all you talk about is how messed up it is. But you’re not doing anything to counteract that or to be actively against that. So no, I think that what you’re doing with taking Trenches in that direction is a great thing. And I can tell you, even just from doing this show for however… 400 plus episodes, the tide is turning in some ways, but it’s interesting to see how even in industries like sports and entertainment, particularly in sports, that that’s not the case.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. It is definitely not the case.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. So aside from Trenches, you mentioned this Protect Black Women shirt. Are there any other projects that you’re working on?

Tiffany Middleton:
That was the last one out, I do you want to relaunch it because I feel like it has more legs and I have some stuff planned for the upcoming year, but I’m trying to figure out all the logistics, so just stay tuned for it.

Maurice Cherry:
The way that the year is going now, it’s of course so different from last year. It’s like, you’re kind of trying to get your rhythm back in a way after a year of not really being able to do what you do, you kind of have to sort of ease back into it a bit. I’m trying to think of what other stuff I would want to do creatively this year. And I don’t know, I need time to think about that. So that makes sense. Now back when I had you on the show, I keep mentioning our old interview, but you told me then that your dream project would be working with Nike. Is that something that’s still on your design bucket list?

Tiffany Middleton:
That has changed completely. So I think for me, the difference between me six years ago and me now is going back to what I just said about just fully stepping into my blackness and understanding that every room I walk into, people are going to see my color first. And I don’t ever want to take a job where I feel like I might have to lose a part of my culture in the surroundings of where I’ll be. So for me, A is I visited Portland, I’d never visited before, but I went there last year, right before coronavirus and my time at ESPN was great. It changed my life, it was a great experience, but I would probably not want to live in a place where the population is less than 20% black and very not diverse. And so A, I would just not want to live in Portland.

Tiffany Middleton:
And then B, I think again, kind of going back to growing up on ESPN, especially growing up on Nike, I mean, every shoe I own is pretty much a Nike shoe except for Adidas. But realizing that all of these companies, the one thing they have in common that I gravitate a lot towards to, is black culture. And I think for me now, it’s like, I’m realizing that I have what I was looking for and I can kind of do my own thing with it. And I also feel like, not to take anything at Nike or any other company, but sometimes it just feels like it’s capitalizing on black culture, especially when it’s such a big brand. And that’s kind of changed my thoughts about it because like I said, six years ago, I’m just thinking logistical design stuff, not thinking about any culture perspective or from a person to person perspective.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now it’s like the older I get, I’m like, I would love to work at Nike. I think they do great design, but I also wouldn’t want to take a job where I feel like my mental health or my ability to be around my culture might be limited in a way or capitalizing on black culture and not really giving back to it. I think I’ve turned into this humanitarian type of person. So I would love to work with Nike. I would love to collaborate with Nike, but working at Nike, as an in-house designer, those thoughts are a little bit less now.

Maurice Cherry:
I have what I was looking for. That is such a powerful statement to say. And you’re right about how these companies… Particularly Nike, I mean leans on blackness a lot. I mean, look at their marketing. I mean, look at Kaepernick.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah, exactly. And I mean, I think they do great work, but if we’re being in real and you look in the front office, they may not have a lot of black executives. And I’m one of those people, it might be contradictory or people might disagree with this, but I want to see black people in roles that aren’t diversity and inclusion or HR roles. I want to see a black design manager. I want to see black people in those roles at Nike where they’re doing the same jobs as white counterparts, but they just happen to be black. Not that they’re roles where it’s a role made for a black person. I just feel like they can add more diversity to the office side

Maurice Cherry:
In one of your recent Tweets, you said, “The older I get, the more I simplify.” How have you simplified your life over the past few years?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh gosh. Let’s see. I think decluttered is the number one word. Not just decluttered my home, decluttered my mind, decluttered my thoughts, but I’ve decluttered my design process a lot. I think younger me is more into, “What’s the coolest design I can come up with?” Versus now it’s, “What is the most practical design I can come up with? What design can I create that isn’t going to cause any issues with legibility, any confusion?” Very being into simple. I love fashion, so I have to use Kanye as an example. Kanye from Graduation was wearing backpacks and polo outfits and lots of colors and stuff like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
And now [inaudible 00:40:19] Kanye seems like he wears the same thing every day, but he’s reserving his energy more so he can be more creative. And I start to realize that if I’m trying to do the best design every single design I do, I’m exhausting my energy and it’s causing me to be less creative. So now I’m being more intentional on textures, backgrounds, fonts, the foundational thing is that I can kind of switch up. So it’s kind of making this toolkit of accessories or design tools that I use and I kind of switch up and change around. So I still am able to be creative, but I’m also boxing myself in to where I’m not exhausting my creative energy.

Maurice Cherry:
Kanye also got four kids. So I would imagine that cuts down a lot on his own style. Just like, “Look, give me something simple.”

Tiffany Middleton:
I was going to say, he’s also a [inaudible 00:41:15] billionaire, so kids is… I’m sure he has people to take care of them to-

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true.

Tiffany Middleton:
[inaudible 00:41:20] creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
What keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh, let’s see. I think black culture does. I’m big into music. So I think back in my day… I’m not even that old, but I feel like back in the day, Lil Wayne, Missy Elliott, their music videos, they used to get me so excited. The conceptual stories behind it, the creativity, still feeling like true to nature, but seeing it on the big screen, those type of things get me excited. So music is continually being my inspiration for just motivated with design and then motivated on side projects or just motivated to do things that can potentially make a small change in this big world.

Maurice Cherry:
At this point in your career, how do you define success?

Tiffany Middleton:
I would say success for me is a peace of mind. Obviously a peace of mind, which seems very simple, but you know how sometimes you get the job that you love, but you never get any sleep, you’re always tired, you’re always stressed out, you are just running raggedy? So I think for me it’s like success has nothing to do with money, has nothing to do with awards and things like that. I think it’s what gives me gratification, what gives me peace, what makes me feel like I’ve done what I need to do, but it just doesn’t cause me regret or cause me a lot of problems. I just feel peace, especially with everything going on, that is what I define as success. Being able to do what I want to do when I want to do, how I can do it without having somebody control that in a way.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the thing that I really love about kind of always having some sort of a side project or something. No matter where I work or what I do, I know I’m always going to have something on the side that’s just mine that I can do 100%, no outside input or anything like that. So I feel you on that. I actually asked this question in the last interview, I said, “What advice would you give your teenage self?” But what advice would you give 2015 Tiffany to help prep her for the future?

Tiffany Middleton:
Oh man. Patience. Just be patient because things are going to come and they’re going to come when they’re supposed to come, not when you want them to come. And that every day may seem like a long day, but when you look back, they’re short days, but to do something every day that will impact the next day.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, what would you like the next chapter of your story to be like, when you look at, let’s say the next five years, what kind of work do you want to be doing? Where do you want to be? All that sort of stuff.

Tiffany Middleton:
I think New York is my home for the next five years, at least. So I would definitely like to still be in New York, I would like to do more community events like art shows, maybe do some school programs. Just do more awareness for black designers within sports and just black designers in general. And then I’ll also probably like to hop my foot back into the product world because I really loved the thought process about that. So just more community events, probably bring Trenches outside the computer and have a outside event and maybe dabble back into product eventually.

Maurice Cherry:
I think that would be a great idea to do, like a little summer meetup or something like that.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It’d would be great. When I started doing live shows for Revision Path… What’s funny, when we had our interview, I wasn’t even thinking about taking this offline. I was like, “This is just going to stay a podcast.” But I started doing live shows in 2017. And the great thing about doing a live in-person event for black designers is the actual space and community that it creates. It’s not so much that you’re like, “Oh, where people in a place listen to someone,” or something like that. What it’s doing is it’s bringing folks together around a common theme that they may never have found a way to interact with each other in any other sort of way. So the fact that they’ve managed to come together in this one space that you’ve made of a meetup or something like that. We’ve done live shows where people will be hanging around an hour after we’re done, two hours after we’re done.

Maurice Cherry:
They’ve closed down the venue, people are still standing outside talking and it makes me wonder what connections have been made from those kinds of events. And if those connections would have even happened, if the event never happened. So I definitely love the idea of doing some live in-person stuff. I mean, I was starting to do a tour in 2020 before the pandemic. We did a live show out in Los Angeles, that was great. Actually we did our 300th episode in New York. That was 2019. I don’t want to get into that story, but that was a whole other thing. But if you think about doing live events, even just a small 20 person thing or something like that, socially distance, do it, it is such a good time. Not just for you as the host of it, but just for the community that you’ll be able to bring together around a common cause.

Tiffany Middleton:
Yeah. No, it’s actually something I’m kind of working on right now. So we may have to connect later, but yes, it’s something I was talking about with the team that I worked on, the Zoom conference with. And then coronavirus happened and it was just not working, but now that people are being outside again, it’s definitely something that’s in the works for me.

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

Tiffany Middleton:
So I’m big on Twitter. I love to Tweet, so you can follow my personal page, it’s Tiggatip. So T-I-G-G-A tip on Twitter and then also Trenches, just Trenches_ on Twitter and I’m also on Instagram and not Facebook, but Instagram and Twitter. So @Tiggatip, personal, and then Trenches for Instagram and Twitter.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Tiffany Middleton, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show, coming back on the show, really. It’s been so great to hear your story of how you have leveled up since I first had you on the show. Back when I had you on back then, I remember saying how fun it was, how much of a treat it was to just talk with you and get a sense of what you’re doing. And I can hear the maturity and how much you’ve grown over the past six years just from this conversation. So I’m excited to see what comes next for you. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Tiffany Middleton:
Thanks for having me.

Sponsored by Poster House

Poster House

If you are in NYC, head to Poster House in the Flatiron District to check out Julius Klinger: Posters for a Modern Age, an exhibition Steven Heller from PRINT Magazine calls “a trove of modern design innovation,” and Freak Power, an exhibition about Hunter S. Thompson’s run for sheriff described as “visually striking” by The New York Times.

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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.